Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

Author Spotlight: Paolo Bacigalupi

Author Spotlight: Paolo Bacigalupi

Winter 2018


There are a few authors, not many, who excel in every aspect of storytelling. These are your Faulkners, your Fitzgeralds, your George R.R. Martins, your David Mitchells. Most, however, excel in one specific area, and that’s enough to patch over their weaknesses: Rowling’s strength is in structure, Tolkien’s is in worldbuilding, and Rothfuss’ is in prose, while others such as King and Flynn excel in tactility. For Paolo Bacigalupi, one of the most striking speculative fiction writers to rise to prominence in the early 21st century, setting supersedes everything. Reading a Bacigalupi book brings you into a world that feels not only entirely plausible, but is as vivid and fully-realized as our own.

This isn’t to say his work is lacking in any other respect—Bacigalupi’s prose, dialogue, and characters are all better than average. But in providing a sense of place, he is unrivaled in modern fiction. Bacigalupi creates settings which are probably best described as “eco-dystopic” (dystopic and post-apocalyptic are not equivalent, despite what pop culture would lead you to believe, but this is one case where eco-apocalyptic could also be a serviceable description); almost everything he writes takes place in some variation of a near-future Earth devastated by environmental disaster, where mega-corporations control the flow of resources, genetically-modified slaves and soldiers are commonplace, and the rich and poor inhabit entirely different worlds.

There’s virtually no bad place to jump into Bacigalupi’s bibliography. With the exception of Tool of War, the third novel in his Ship Breaker sequence, everything he’s published thus far in his career functions as a stand-alone story (although some characters and settings appear in multiple works: a few of the short pieces in Pump Six and Other Stories share universes with The Windup Girl or The Water Knife). You generally won’t miss out on crucial information if you read some of his books and not others, but you’ll get the most out of Bacigalupi’s work if you read everything—which you’ll probably want to do anyway, given how good it is. Fans of Stephen King, David Mitchell, and Brandon Sanderson are well-acquainted with this increasingly-popular type of cross-pollinated storytelling and its unique pleasures.

Pump Six and Other Stories, Bacigalupi’s debut collection of short fiction, is a thrilling set of tales. Some of the pieces could benefit from slight trimming, but they showcase his talent for worldbuilding while exploring the tangled ethics that come with genetic engineering and resource management. The outlier is “Closer,” a brief story about a man who murders his wife which meshes neither tonally nor thematically with the rest of the collection. The other nine pieces range from good to great. Highlighting the collection are two early back-to-back entries, “The Fluted Girl” and “The People of Sand and Slag” (“Pop Squad” is a near-miss, an uncompromising story that makes a miscalculated compromise in its climatic scene).

“The Fluted Girl” is a piece that flirts with horror, not in the sense of ghosts and monsters so much as the deep human horror of something like “The Lottery”; the moment in which Bacigalupi pulls back the veil and reveals the meaning of the title is bone-chilling not only in implication, but in the insidious low-key viscosity with which it becomes clear. Bacigalupi leans just a bit too hard into cheap shocks in “The People of Sand and Slag,” an otherwise exceptional story about the disturbing correlation between commonality and empathy, how we lose our ability to comprehend the suffering of others when we cannot tap into that suffering ourselves—not out of malice, but out of mere disconnection.

When it comes to Bacigalupi’s books, I’ve often struggled to mitigate my love for Ship Breaker. It’s the kind of novel I want to hand to everyone I see, insisting that you’ve got to read this, in much the same way that I’d want to sit someone down to watch Aliens or Die Hard for the first time; there may not be a great deal of thematic meat to chew on, but the story and the world are so exquisitely crafted that it’s hard not to have a good time (well, insofar as you can have a good time reading a book about children who live in extreme poverty and risk their lives to strip beached oil tankers of valuable metals). I love Ship Breaker, and I hesitate to recommend it only because it doesn’t have quite as much to say as some of Bacigalupi’s other works.

That, perhaps, is why I’m even more fond of The Drowned Cities. Although commonly marketed as the sequel to Ship Breaker, it’s more of a companion piece—it takes place in the same world and features a major overlapping character, but the narratives are unconnected and can be read in whichever order you so choose. The Drowned Cities, though, is unquestionably the better novel: whereas Ship Breaker is largely concerned with the divisions created by socio-economic status, The Drowned Cities takes a hard look not only at poverty, but at race, rape (inflicted upon males, females, and the environment), politics (it’s not by chance that the novel takes place in the waterlogged ruins of Washington, D.C.), disability, warfare, and genetic engineering.

If Ship Breaker is Die Hard, The Drowned Cities resembles something more akin to the 1985 Russian war classic Come and See. It’s a page-turner for sure, but it’s also an incisive commentary on the modern world and the directions we’re taking it. Even more impressive is that Bacigalupi does all this within the boundaries of a book typically marketed as YA. I don’t see much argument against Ship Breaker as a young adult novel—it has the pacing and rhythm and kinetic energy of a book for that demographic, although the starkness and grit of the content is certainly boundary-pushing. But The Drowned Cities could pass in either adult or young adult fiction; its themes are not compromised or sanitized by an expected audience, and Bacigalupi funambulates beautifully between realism and gratuity. The Drowned Cities is his best novel.

Tool of War, the third book in the Ship Breaker sequence, is the only one that cannot be read as a stand-alone. It’s also the weakest. It falls prey to the classic mistake of putting an interesting supporting character center-stage, and the genetically-engineered animal supersoldier (or, as he is known in the Ship Breaker universe, “augment”) Tool doesn’t quite have the complexity needed to propel an entire novel. However, Tool of War does feature some of Bacigalupi’s best character work: the one-note villains (ye olde tough-as-nails military commander with a grudge and one of his eager-to-please subordinates) who inflict lethargy on the early chapters organically transform over the course of the book into rich, developed characters who I found myself more interested in than the protagonist.

Bacigalupi has thus far written two novels for adults, his 2008 breakout The Windup Girl and 2015’s The Water Knife. The Windup Girl was my introduction to his work and still one of his best books, a refreshingly non-American (the setting here is Thailand) exploration of the major motifs which have continued to surface throughout Bacigalupi’s career—environmental disaster, genetic engineering, enslavement, and poverty, all brought to life by some of his most evocative prose. The Water Knife simply doesn’t compare. It’s probably his most American novel next to The Drowned Cities, but I found Bacigalupi’s portrayal of near-future Arizona, Colorado, and California and their bitter battles over an ever-dwindling supply of fresh water and its distribution to be less convincing and less interesting than his work set in the East. The Water Knife also strays into gratuitous violence, borderline torture-porn, a trap which Bacigalupi typically manages to avoid. Although not without merit, it’s the only Bacigalupi book I wouldn’t recommend.

I sometimes find it hard to believe that Bacigalupi has only been publishing for ten years; his career is already populated with a number of excellent, if similar, works (the best being Pump Six and Other Stories, The Windup Girl, and The Drowned Cities)—hopefully, there will be many more to come. There’s no one in modern fiction who can bring you into a future ravaged by climate change quite like Bacigalupi, and his stories serve as sobering cautionary tales without sacrificing the complex characters and adrenaline-pumping action that make them such a delight to read. I would like to see him branch out in terms of genre and apply his worldbuilding skills to fantasy or perhaps far-future science-fiction, but I’d also be more than happy if he simply keeps doing what he’s doing. There are only a few authors whose works I will buy without question the day they are released, and Bacigalupi, with good reason, is one of them.


Major & Notable Works (through 2017):


Pump Six and Other Stories – 2008

The Windup Girl – 2009

Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker #1) – 2010

The Drowned Cities (Ship Breaker #2) – 2012

The Water Knife – 2015

Tool of War (Ship Breaker #3) – 2017


Essay by Aaron Larson