Seeds of broken futures sown in today's dysfunction

By Linda Hall

The Drowned Cities

by Paolo Bacigalupi, Hachette, $21.99

AMERICAN science fiction and fantasy writer Paolo Bacigalupi's latest book, The Drowned Cities, is a dark tale of death, destruction, love and loyalty.

Aimed at young adults, the story is set in a terrifying future where the inhabitants either fight for their lives or bow to a brutal authority.

Main characters Mahlia and Mouse live by their wits rather than trust anyone. When they rescue a beast named Tool they unwittingly set off a series of events that will see them separated, chased down, beaten and starved.

When one is captured the other must decide whether to risk their lives to follow them or flee to safety.

Action-packed and at times gruesome, The Drowned Cities is an excellent read but not a tale for the faint-heated.

I asked Bacigalupi some questions about his book.

WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE?I write about broken futures because my sense is that that's the sort of future we're going to hand to our children. It seems worthwhile to give young people a peek into the possibilities that we're providing them.

AUTHORS OF HISTORIC OR CRIME NOVELS HAVE PLENTY OF MATERIAL TO DO THEIR RESEARCH. HOW DO YOU RESEARCH FOR A BOOK ABOUT THE FUTURE?It's really the same. In The Drowned Cities, I was interested in political failures that lead to war and child soldiering. There are plenty of real- world examples for these sorts of social collapses, so you harvest from those models and then mould the material to fit the place and circumstances of your future society. Very little is actually made up, ultimately, and really very little in human history changes very much.

Some of the technologies and settings change as we move through time, but the basic dynamics of war and peace are strikingly similar.

SOME OF YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NASTY. WHAT'S THE SECRET TO GETTING READERS TO SEE CHARACTERS AS REAL PEOPLE?If your character has a history, with loves and regrets and desires, they almost automatically become real and they also become the sorts of people that you can identify with as a reader. You might not love what they do, but you can understand and empathise with them because you get to see their history and experiences, and you have to ask yourself if you would be different if you were put in their place. Generating empathy is really the key. After that, you can't help but care for the characters, even if they're caught up in horrific circumstances.

TELL US HOW TOOL EVOLVED?I've always been interested in powerful monsters who are supposed to be loyal to their masters but ultimately aren't. Tool was bred to be a perfect predator - part human, part tiger, part hyena, part dog - a genetically superior super soldier. But then you have to ask the question: if a soldier can be made this perfect, what happens when it starts fighting for itself instead of obediently following its general?

DO YOU THINK IT'S POSSIBLE THAT THE WORLD IN YOUR BOOK COULD BECAME A REALITY? I worry that some of it could. When I build my broken futures, I'm always extrapolating from current trends. In the United States we have a great deal of political dysfunction, and it makes me wonder if we're equipped for the big challenges that face us in terms of the end of cheap oil and the increasing consequences of global warming.

I want to be wrong about all my stories, but I'm afraid that I'm more right than I'd like to be.

WILL READERS GET MORE OF MAHLIA, HER FRIENDS AND ENEMIES? Yes, I expect that I'll be writing more about Mahlia and the world that I started with Ship Breaker. There are more stories to tell.

HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE FINISHING A BOOK? I don't, really. I never really feel finished. Mostly I send out a book, wander around in a daze for a little while, and then start working on the next project. I keep meaning to remember to celebrate, but I haven't figured out how.

WHAT IS THE FIRST BOOK YOU REMEMBER READING? The first book that I remember loving was Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy.

WHOM DO YOU MOST ADMIRE IN THE LITERARY WORLD? Readers. I'm glad they exist and that they still care about words and stories and the ideas that books explore.

TOP TWO TIPS FOR WANNABE WRITERS? The most important thing to be successful as a writer is absolute tenacity in the face of failure, and the willingness to keep learning and improving no matter how long it takes to break through. I wrote four novels that were all rejected before I finally became published, and it took me 13 years. Talent is nice, but the ability to learn and improve and never give up is probably more vital.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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