EXCLUSIVE: A.S. King Interviews Paolo Bacigalupi About His Latest Book ‘The Drowned Cities’

Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel The Drowned Cities (a companion to Ship Breaker) comes out next week. Here is the book description:

Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die.

In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn lands of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man–a bioengineered war beast named Tool–who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.

This thrilling companion to Paolo Bacigalupi’s highly acclaimed Ship Breaker is a haunting and powerful story of loyalty, survival, and heart-pounding adventure.

Author A.S. King had the chance to talk with Paolo about The Drowned Cities


A Q&A between A.S. King and Paolo Bacigalupi

A.S. King: You hooked me by starting The Drowned Cities with Tool, my favorite character from Ship Breaker. Then you hooked me again when the story introduces the one-handed girl Mahlia-a half local, half Chinese peacekeeper “castoff”-who’s a real survivor and the heroine of this story. Nothing about her life is easy, not even her genetic makeup. The way she looks makes her an instant target. Where did the character of Mahlia come from? Do you feel she has a link to any particular demographic in today’s world? What do you hope readers will take away from their time spent with her?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I knew I wanted to write about a girl for The Drowned Cities, and I knew I wanted her to be a badass-not in the wish-fulfillment sense of being a superwarrior, but in the sense of someone who’s relentlessly smart and adaptable to her circumstances. Mahlia has already lost a hand to the Army of God, and yet she’s undaunted and continues to survive in a place that despises her. And she’s always learning, whether it’s learning how to apply the strategic lessons that her military father taught her or the medical skills of Doctor Mahfouz. Most of all, though, Mahlia is a realist. She knows her safety is precarious. She might dream of something better, but she never deludes herself into thinking that anyone is going to just drop in and rescue her from her circumstances. She knows that she has to be self-reliant, and she never flinches from that. I’m not sure what readers will take away from spending time with Mahlia, but for me, she’s a character who I love for her fortitude, adaptability, and humanity.

King: In both Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, loyalty is a big factor. Mahlia’s loyalty to Mouse, the boy she’s traveled with for many years, serves as the fuel for this entire story and is also the basis of Tool and Mahlia’s relationship. Why is loyalty such an important theme in these books? Is it because the world you’ve drawn is so bleak that loyalty equals safety? Do those of us who are happy enough watching our DVRs and eating Doritos on the couch really understand the importance of loyalty?

Bacigalupi: I think there are a number of character traits that we admire in the abstract but seldom appreciate their deeper meaning because they aren’t fundamentally tested: Loyalty, friendship, integrity, leadership, empathy…the list goes on. Mahlia knows what loyalty is because she’s seen it tested. Her father has abandoned her, her mother has failed her. But Mouse, a stranger, risked his life to save her when he didn’t have to, and so her sense of debt and responsibility to him is huge. I think we all like to imagine that we’re people of integrity, that we would never abandon our friends or family in a moment of need, but that’s easy to imagine when there’s no cost for loyalty.

The Drowned Cities are a place where the consequences of idealism are real and immediate. Mahlia knows she can survive, but if she does, she’ll have to abandon the values that we all extol, along with the people who have risked themselves for her. Again and again, she’s forced to choose between the practical choice and the ethical choice, and I think it’s a mistake to say that any of us know what we would do in similar circumstances.

King: Many of your story points seem to be connected to real post-oil/”Accelerated Age” possibilities, like “war maggots,” the Army of God, and the Chinese peacekeeping force that has gone home. Do you feel this future you write about could really happen? Do all these groups have present-day equivalents in your mind?

Bacigalupi: I feel like the future I write is just a harvesting of our present. Occasionally, I make up something new, like hydrofoil clipper ships, but so much of what I write is simply based on looking around at the world and asking questions about what it has to tell us. William Gibson once said that “the future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” The trick is in deciding which aspects of our present are going to be most important-to figure out what our present is telling us about the future.

When I was writing The Drowned Cities, I was watching things like Wisconsin union workers protesting at their statehouse as their governor tried to strip them of bargaining rights, and listening to talk radio that seems so willing to vilify anyone who is remotely different than they are. I was also thinking about the fact that China is building and subsidizing renewable energy at a furious pace while we all stand around scratching our heads and complaining about gas prices and trying to figure out how to burn tar sands. And I started thinking that this is the beginning of real political failure-the moment when we stop talking to each other, stop engaging with the fundamental realities of our future, and instead beat each other up over petty differences. There are plenty of real-world examples of what happens when political dialogue fails. I just cherry-picked some of the worst bits and mixed them into our own American dysfunction.

King: The idea of peacekeeping is a big one in this book, which I think represents a realistic view of war and peace. Mahlia often thinks about her peacekeeper father, whom she loved and admired. But at the same time, peacekeepers are mocked by those who were left behind, and the warring factions will not stop fighting. Do you think war is an inevitable constant in our world? Why do you think some people scoff at peace? Will peace ever reach the Drowned Cities?

Bacigalupi: I’m always interested in the balance between war and peace, and the tools of each. Wars are never inevitable-someone needs to decide to go out and kill someone else. It’s an active choice. And yet it often feels inevitable because one side has decided that it’s the only choice. And then the other side can only choose between defending itself or annihilation. And then you’ve got that accelerating feedback loop of violence, which is so hard to stop.

I’m always wary of one-size-fits-all answers to questions of war and peace. There are whole books that are written about the complexities of why we turn to violence to solve problems and how we pull ourselves back from the brink. Sometimes war is really the only legitimate solution. But if there’s one thing I come back to again and again, it’s that I think it’s worth it to be wary of people who lapse easily into violent rhetoric when they describe their political enemies. I think there’s a slippery slope there, and when I see people eager to fan the flames of hatred and difference, that’s when I start to pay attention, because they’re the scary ones with the simple answers that sound so seductive.

In the Drowned Cities, no one minds that the fighting continues as long as scrap and antiquities are still being shipped out. There’s profit in the civil war of the Drowned Cities. So unless some significantly more powerful faction imposes control and forces all the combatants to submit, or unless the profitability of the war fades or is shut down, it will continue, forever.

King: Tool. I love him so. Tool was the character I most wondered about after I finished reading Ship Breaker. So to start reading The Drowned Cities and immediately find a scene about him was a draw like no other for me. How did you make me love a killing beast? Where did he come from? Why do you think I love him so much, even though he could kill me and eat my heart in mere seconds?

Bacigalupi: Tool has always been a favorite character for me. As soon as I conceived of him as being this strange cocktail of human and hyena and tiger and dog, he came alive. Growing up, I always liked reading about killer warriors: Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Wolverine, all of those. For me, Tool is my Conan: an unstoppable, relentless warrior who strikes fear in all he meets-who is also a complete outsider. He’s despised and distrusted by normal human society because he’s so different, and it’s one of the things that I love most about him-that he’s watching and judging us from his own peculiar perspective on the outside, and he’s able to see us differently than we see ourselves. When I was writing Ship Breaker, I knew I was going to be returning to him in later books because he’s so layered and intriguing, and so much fun to write.

King: One thing I specifically loved about Tool was that he was different from all other half-men. He had no master. As I read The Drowned Cities, I wondered if both he and his solitary free will stood for something larger. I personally saw him as a brilliant example of self-sufficiency in lemming times.

Bacigalupi: Tool’s independence is interesting because it’s so hard-won. He was bred and trained to be obedient. He was designed to kill. He was given a patron, a religion, and a moral code for his work, and then he was sent out to war on behalf of his masters. But at some point, he stopped to wonder why he was fighting on so many battlefields, why he was causing so much bloodshed, and began to wonder about his purpose.

When I look at America today, I’m astonished at how easy it is for us to beat the drums of war. And I have to think that it’s at least partly because we now have a professional, rather than civilian, army. We have excellent tools for killing and war, and we use them indiscriminately because most of us don’t have any risk or skin in the game. We can say “support our troops” or wave our flags, but I can’t think of a single war we’ve fought in the last decades that we would have supported so fervently if our military had been comprised of drafted citizens. If everyone had skin in the game, from the richest CEOs to the poorest kids in Baltimore, I can’t help thinking that we’d be more thoughtful about how we use our military.

Tool believes in war and fighting. It’s fundamental to his design and thinking, but he’s not stupid. He tore free of his masters because they weren’t worthy of his loyalty. They were bloodthirsty and wasteful of their troops and thoughtless, and Tool despises that even more than he despises a pacifist.

King: When I was a girl and I complained of something I didn’t want to do or didn’t think I could do, my mother would remind me that I had my hands and feet and that I should be thankful for them and everything they allowed me to do. In The Drowned Cities, the warring factions have a tradition of removing hands and feet-the point of which was to render a person powerless. Mahlia is one of their victims, but she shows a great deal of inner power that allows her to overcome the loss of her hand. Similarly, Tool is considered less than a man, yet he exhibits a great amount of power over himself when compared with the monstrous “true” people he encounters. To me, this book had a lot of messages about power-both inner power and sinister outsider power. How would you articulate them?

Bacigalupi: One of the things that’s interesting about child soldiers is that they’re inherently empowered. They’ve got guns, right? They’ve got the ultimate power over life and death. And yet, when you look at the places where child warriors are used, they might have power, but they don’t have agency. They’re the victims of adults who have decided to use them and degrade them in this way.

In the Drowned Cities, the kids do all the shooting, but it’s the adults who do the deciding, for good or ill. And that’s something that’s really important to me: that we examine not just physical power over other people, but the role of authority figures and how they influence others to accomplish their ends. I’ve long thought that one of the great ironies of the world is that we adults are continually telling young people that we know what’s best for them, while we do terrible things to their future. We refuse to invest in our children’s education, we refuse to limit global carbon, we fight trivial wars for trivial gain. We have power, and we use it very poorly.

But the other thing I find interesting about power is that it’s not actually inherent to us. Our leaders only have power because we give it to them-because we decide to obey them. Children give their parents power. But there’s always another path, and that’s defiance. Mahlia, for me, symbolizes that. People want to take her power away. They tell her she’s less than human because she has a peacekeeper father, and they chop off her hand and they try to keep her down, and yet she never accepts that. She continues to fight for herself, despite everyone’s attempts to get her to accept their power over her. It’s not so much that she’s powerful, per se; it’s that she refuses to give power to anyone else, no matter what they inflict on her.

King: I love the way you invented an entire world with its own language and history and geography. I also loved how this book and its characters stand on their own and yet connect perfectly with Ship Breaker. Can you tell us a little about your writing process-specifically, how you handle the intricate world-building aspect of your work? Did you know you were going to write a companion novel while you were writing Ship Breaker? Will there be any more books set inside this vivid world you built?

Bacigalupi: I actually didn’t mean to write The Drowned Cities this way at all. It came about because I had written a truly terrible direct sequel to Ship Breaker. When I was trying to figure out how to fix this broken book, I came to the painful realization that there was only one part in the story that was worth saving, and that was the part about this place of perpetual war called the Drowned Cities. The war and its origins and its impacts on its people were really interesting to me, so I scrapped everything else and focused on that.

I think of world-building as a layering process. I’m looking at things like the physical, cultural, historical, technological, and ecological layers of my theoretical world, and seek to make each of those layers echo and interact with one another. I’ll start with a general conception, say, that I’m going to write about a broken America with child soldiers, and then I’ll start building out the implications for that. How did the world come to this? Who leads them? How do these kids survive day to day? How do they fight and recruit? How do they get guns? And each of these questions will start giving you a sense not only of politics, but also culture. Kids will decorate their weapons with the lucky symbols of the United Patriot Front or the Army of God. They’ll use brands and scars to mark their allegiance because they’re too poor for fancy uniforms. Guns are scarce, so having one becomes a sign of status. Each aspect of the world feeds back into the rest.

And then there are questions about how the world has changed: How has global warming affected the future? How does that affect flora and fauna? How has nature evolved? How big can alligators grow without so much human encroachment on them? How far north can pythons live in the wild? In the Drowned Cities, a new hybrid of coyotes and wolves has emerged to take advantage of environmental niches that have opened up. Coywolv stalk the night. And as all these things happen, it affects human culture in turn. People fence in their animals at night against coywolv marauding, and their language takes their new circumstances into account. Metaphor and simile are rooted human experience, so now someone can be “cold as a coywolv.” These are just a few examples, but each detail you add leads to consequences for the world, and the more you allow those consequences to echo into other layers of the world, the more it feels real.

Of course, the other consequence of building a world to this extent is that it also opens up new questions for me as an author. I’m curious about other parts of this world and want to explore them more-so yes, I’m definitely going to be returning to it again.



A.S. King is the author of the Printz Honor recipient Please Ignore Vera Dietz, as well as the acclaimed novels Everybody Sees the Ants and The Dust of 100 Dogs.

2 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE: A.S. King Interviews Paolo Bacigalupi About His Latest Book ‘The Drowned Cities’”

  1. Absolutely brilliant. I look forward to reading more of Tool very much. I do wonder sometimes whether fiction can effect social change. I think Ship Breaker was a beautiful, if tragic message about climate change, and I hope that if more books like this are written, perhaps when this generation of children become politicians, things will change.

    But for now, at least they’re damn entertaining stories for the rest of us.

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