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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Fans of the extreme physical action—violent, visceral, and wrenching—of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy now have something in common with fans of Philip K. Dick’s philosophical, alt-future ruminations about the nature of humanity. 

It’s a strange mix, but the way Paolo Bacigalupi does it, it feels natural. The child protagonists of Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities leave hooks deep in the willing reader. The world falls apart, and yet the kids are still kids underneath their adaptation to their environment.

The natural environment is only the first of the changes affecting the characters. In the wake of extreme climate change, the political unity and economic base of the United States have vanished. Scavengers and soldiers prey on the dead and the living, respectively. Bacigalupi writes child protagonists entirely native to this post-apocalyptic world. They adapt or die, and many die despite adapting. For the survivors, characteristics we think of as childlike are a luxury that could get them killed.

Bacigalupi also introduces adults also shaped in varied ways by the environment. Some are hard, cruel, and outwardly strong. Others are kind, generous, and outwardly weak. There is a fairly strong valuation of adult behaviors in Bacigalupi’s two books, but nothing so uninteresting as judgement. The cruel, hard adults are neither excused flatly for their circumstances, or blamed flatly for their actions. When doing right gets people killed, how are we to judge those who do wrong to survive? There are distinctions—cruelty for entertainment versus extreme violence for survival—that teenagers and adults will be better able to parse than kids. These books are definitely for those readers.

There’s an interesting structure to these books. Whereas Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has one protagonist and a fixed set of support characters, Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities trilogy (only 2/3 published with the title book of the series coming second) has different protagonists in each of the first two books. 

At times, reading the second book, I felt that Nailer, the protagonist of Ship Breaker, would show up in a few pages. In a sense, he is the ideal companion of Malia, the second book’s protagonist. Bacigalupi kept me anticipating his reappearance for most of the book. However, Ship Breaker shares only one character with the sequel, and the discovery was so unexpected, I’ll leave it to readers to discover.

All of these characters—the culled and calloused children, the scarred and scary adults, and the human-animal hybrids Bacigalupi invents—explore some of the same ground where Philip K. Dick left tracks. What counts as human? It’s not easy to answer. Like Dick, Bacigalupi leaves the argument (for now) inconclusive. The answers aren’t simple, and having opened the can of worms, the humans of Philip Dick’s worlds with their un-welf-aware androids and diembodied intelligences, those of Bacigalupi’s with their hybrids and “nasty, brutish, and short” lives imposed by constant war argue it out inconclusively, through words and deeds.

One difference to note: as much as I like Philip K. Dick’s books, Bacigalupi is the more polished writer of dialogue and character. The standards of science fiction writing have changed. Challenged by Dick’s generation and their successors to come up with better ideas and smoother prose, Bacigalupi’s antecedents and peers created stronger and more literary works. For some reason or reasons, the science fiction I’m reading this decade or so features more young people, whereas the sci-fi  I grew up with featured mainly adults.

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