Paolo Bacigalupi – The Drowned Cities (2012) | Book Review

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl was the best debut novel of just about anyone, maybe ever. It was fresh and brilliant with wonderful characters (despite almost all of them being unlikable) and a world unlike anything seen in science fiction. It won the Hugo Award, and Bacigalupi managed to follow that up with a National Book Award nominee and Michael L. Printz Award winner in Ship Breaker, which told the story of a young boy forced to scavenge from derelict ships in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by global warming. The Drowned Cities is that novel’s successor, in that it shares the world and one major character. It is the best work Bacigalupi has ever done.

The Drowned Cities centers around Mahlia, a part-Chinese war orphan living in the D.C. area who had one hand removed by soldiers. Despite her handicap, she works as the assistant for the doctor of her small town, in a region that is constantly ravaged by always changing regimes of violence. The current occupiers are the UPF, but it is hard to believe that one could tell the difference between them and the Army of God or any of the other potential military dictatorships. Life is miserable, and soldiers come through from time to time just to rape and murder for the hell of it. Mahlia is a remarkably strong and wonderful character, who believes that she can escape the horrors of her world despite everything around her being so miserable and so dire that hope is in short supply.

The plot really begins when Mahlia and her best friend Mouse discover an unconscious half-wolf man called Tool. Thinking him to be dead, they try to cut into him to salvage what they can for meat or otherwise, but he awakes and takes Mouse hostage. Mahlia pleads for Tool not to kill her friend, and in exchange promises to go steal antibiotics and other medication from the doctor to help the half-man recover from injuries sustained in a prison break. To go any further would be to spoil, but it is an absolutely amazing story that is sometimes hard to read because of gore and the pure sorrow in every aspect of Mahlia’s situation.

Bacigalupi’s quality of writing is astounding. Both his prose and dialogue are just about perfect, and there are so many moments through the novel that beg the reader to stop and re-read. There’s just so much here and so much power in every part that it gives one the strong urge to run around telling every single person about it. The book may not be for everyone; it is often so depressing that it can be hard to return to. But this novel is so good, so perfect, that it would be a crime if it were not to win just about every award for the genre. Paolo Bacigalupi is absolutely the best writer working today.

Rating: 5 stars (of 5)


Review: The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell (2011)

The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell
Subterranean Press, 2011

Rating: B-

A woman whose father worked as the city executioner is on his death bed, and his daughter is forced to take up his axe to execute a criminal to continue putting food on the table so her children don’t starve. Things get more interesting when her family are captured by raiders, and Tana is forced to leave the city, axe in hand, to track down her lost children.

Set in the same world as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist, Buckell’s novella was released at the same time and is complimentary to the other work. Despite the strength of development of this world remaining, The Executioness doesn’t end up having the same strength of narrative or general impact of its companion. Buckell writes good prose and dialogue, but the plot is a bit paint by numbers by comparison. Although there is nothing necessarily wrong with a pissed off mother going after her kidnapped children, I can’t help but think it’s a gender-reversed fantasy adaptation of a certain Liam Neeson film.

This novella still has redeeming qualities; Tana is a strong protagonist that it is not only likable, but very well developed considering the rather small word count involved in a novella. Buckell does an extraordinary job of giving the reader a good sense of who Tana is, including some real change over the course of the story. It is a real feather in one’s cap as a writer when you can develop a character more over the course of about one hundred pages than many science fiction and fantasy writers manage to do over the course of a novel three or four times as long.

Despite not being able to live up to the quality of Bacigalupi’s work, the strength of its character development and the fact that it still shares that perfect fantasy world make The Executioness a worthwhile read. Buckell has, at the very least, established himself here as a writer that is worth taking notice of in his future endeavors. This world deserves revisiting by either of its writers, and it would be a welcome read to see further adventures of Tana.

Review: The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011)

The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi
Subterranean Press, 2011

Rating: A-

In a fantasy world where poisonous bramble grows wild by feeding off the energy residue left behind by casting illegal magic, a destitute alchemist named Jeoz invents a device can be used to destroy the bramble once and for all. His young daughter is terminally ill and he is forced to use illegal magic to keep her alive, and it is his hope that by offering up his invention to the local government, they will use their more advanced magical aptitude to cure his daughter of her illness once and for all.

Paolo Bacigalupi made a name for himself immediately with The Windup Girl, and is yet to disappoint since. There is no style that can be directly pinpointed as being Bacigalupi’s; everything he writes seems so fresh and inventive and nothing at all like anything that has come before it. The Windup Girl was near-future dystopian biopunk with a large cast of characters that, despite generally being unlikable, felt so developed and thoroughly real in a perfectly designed sci-fi dystopia. Ship Breaker, a novel for young adults, follows a young man who makes a living by harvesting copper from crashed ships, as the metal has become precious in a world ravaged by climate change.

Environmentalism is the one theme that is consistent between all of his works. In The Alchemist, the bramble that grows from the use of magic is a metaphor for climate change coming as a result of reckless use of technology that leaves behind environmental destruction in the form of carbon emissions. Although fantasy has the tendency to borrow too heavily from what has come before it, the world of The Alchemist (and it’s companion novella, The Executioness) is wholly original and brilliant. With immaculate prose and flawless dialogue, Bacigalupi is the best science fiction writer working today, with barely any competition at all. Writers like Mieville and Stephenson have contributed important novels to the speculative fiction canon, but neither of them can boast the consistency of Bacigalupi’s contributions to the medium.

Review: Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962)

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
Avon, 1962

Rating: B

It is only natural that, after having so enthusiastically enjoyed the recent John Scalzi reboot Fuzzy Nation, we would immediately seek out the original source material and compare it to the newer versions. H. Beam Piper isn’t a very widely known name in science fiction, but Litte Fuzzy is essentially his biggest legacy; it received a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1962, but lost out to Philip K. Dick’s absolutely outstanding The Man in the High Castle. Little Fuzzy may not be The Man in the High Castle, but it is a fun story with lots of warmth and heart that make it worthwhile.

The basic plot is the same as the later Scalzi version: a surveyor named Jack Holloway on a remote planet discovers a sentient species of fuzzy cat-like creatures that threaten Zarathustra Corporation’s right to mine the planets resources and essentially entirely destroy its environment. Holloway takes some convincing in Fuzzy Nation, but in Little Fuzzy he is the first person to get behind supporting the Fuzzies and their rights. While the modern Holloway is a thirty-something scruffy smartass, the original Jack Holloway here is a midde-aged man with gray hair that exudes pure gentleness; the only things they really have in common are the name and career choice.

Although the major plot points are the same, the journey between major points is entirely different. Little Fuzzy doesn’t have quite the same level of drama that Fuzzy Nation does, nor does it quite manage to be as horribly soul-wrenching. That being said, it is absolutely notable for its originality and the general feel of the novel. Piper is a very good writer who knows how to write adorable little fuzzy things without making it ever verge on cheese.

One might be tempted to listen to the audio book of Little Fuzzy if you received it for free with Fuzzy Nation, but we would recommend skipping it and reading it in print. The reading packaged with Fuzzy Nation (brilliantly read by Wil Wheaton) is read by someone else entirely and is frankly painful to listen to at times. It is possible that a better reading is out there, but we would suggest seeking it in print instead. Fuzzy Nation is a superior novel but Little Fuzzy is the original and is so full of heart that it is difficult not to recommend.

Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (2011)

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2011

Rating: A

In the not-too-distant future, an independent contractor named Jack Holloway working for megacorporation ZaraCorp finds a vein of rare sunstone that is worth billions. Shortly thereafter, he finds an adorable race of bipedal cat-like creatures that may be sentient, which would void ZaraCorp’s contract to strip the planet of resources and thus cause a lot of very wealthy people to miss out on becoming exponentially moreso. Although Holloway has no problem with manipulating people around him to fuel his own selfish needs, the little creatures he calls fuzzies start to warm this very Han Solo-like character’s heart.

Fuzzy Nation is basically an environmentalist novel. It is a “reboot” of a science fiction novel from the sixties by H. Beam Piper entitled Little Fuzzy, and takes the spirit and basic idea of discovering of a borderline sentient group of adorable little creatures and makes a basically entirely new story from it. Most of the characters are different, and only Holloway’s name is the same, but the important part is in tact. Enormous corporations like ZaraCorp have one obligation: make a lot of money. When a race like the fuzzies are discovered, their only course of action is to try to disprove their sentience so that it doesn’t affect their bottom line. It isn’t all that far off from the spin given to the general population on reasoning why oil companies should be allowed to drill in nature reserves.

Jack Holloway is a likable character from the start. Although he is definitely a jerk, he’s a pretty funny jerk and it is clear early on that, despite his flaws, he actually isn’t that bad of a guy. He is an accomplished lawyer who was unfortuantely disbarred because of an incident that had nothing to do with his knowledge of the law, and he generally seems like the sort of guy who is a good man, but who definitely believes that the ends justify the means. The supporting cast are all strong, but Holloway is a pretty much perfectly developed character. Scalzi’s sense of humor is reflected clearly in Holloway’s demanor, and it suits the character perfectly.

It is hard to find any individual aspects of this novel to criticize. The writing is strong; the dialogue is perfect and hilarious. The novel has moments that have the tendency to evoke strong emotional response (I cried FOUR times reading this novel) and the general issue of corporate tendency to have completely inhumane business practices is an important issue that is addressed perfectly and succintly in Fuzzy Nation. While this novel has moments that are so hard to read because they are so sad, it is generally a hopeful novel and a really hard to write about other than to say that it is just beautiful and perfect and is worth reading and reading again.