Paolo Bacigalupi's multi-award-winning novel The Windup Girl almost didn't come to be. After making an impressive start to his writing career with Pocketful of Dharma in 1999, the American sci-fi and fantasy author wrote novel after novel in what he calls his "years of failure", up to 2003, and none of them found a publisher.
He returned to short-story writing and found almost immediate success with The Fluted Girl. He wrote a flurry of short stories and, beginning with The People of Sand and Slag, was nominated for 18 major awards between 2005 and 2011, winning both the Hugo and Nebula in 2010 for his first novel, The Windup Girl. "I'd written a lot of short stories, and people were asking me if I had a novel in the works." He did, and it was a brilliant one, but it was still rejected by every major publisher before finding a home with Nightshade Books.
He has no such problem now, after publishing Ship Breaker and its companion piece, The Drowned Cities. He thinks a return to the world of The Windup Girl may be possible, but this time set in India, and without Amiko, the heroine of his first novel.
His latest novel is set in the same dystopian future. It's a future which expresses Bacigalupi's intense interest in environmental issues - global warming has destroyed the world as we know it; countries have dissolved into anarchy and warlordism; the civilised world is ruled by the biotechnology companies, the rest is ruled by child armies.
"I have to work with something that feels pressing and relevant; the world has to make sense," he says. "There was a point where I realised I could use literature to illuminate question marks about where we were going as a species with certain technologies."
Is it propaganda for environmental concerns? "Absolutely. I'm writing propaganda, but just because I have a point of view doesn't mean I'm wrong." He sees global warming as the major environmental concern, but there are many issues, and they're all interconnected. And while he doesn't see the apocalypse as inevitable, there is a chance of profit-driven ignorance and denial leading to disaster. "Seeking profits doesn't build a long view into the marketplace. That's where dystopia starts making sense." He believes that we must do something about the situation right now. "If we delay too long, the train has left the station."
The Drowned Cities is marketed as a young adult novel but it is a long, long way from Pippi Longstocking. It gives us a world where competing child armies held together by terror, drugs and a desperate comradeship, fight over the steaming bones of America.
Mahlia is a survivor of an attack where her hand was cut off as punishment for being a cast-off, the child of a Chinese peacekeeper and a local woman. She survived because her friend Mouse made a rash attack on the soldiers by throwing stones at them, luring them away. They encounter another survivor of the warlords' cruelty, Tool, a living war machine with human intelligence and bestial savagery and strength, who also appeared in Ship Breaker. Mouse is captured and indoctrinated as a soldier, and the unlikely duo of Tool and Mahlia try to save him. It is an odyssey as savage as any in fiction.
The book is stunningly engaging, and pulls no punches. This is dystopia distilled, because it shows the effect on innocent children who had no part in the making of this world. It is not just fiction for young adults. <div class="endnote">