This series of books offers a grim glance into our futures from the mind of Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi depicts a world that is an environmental dystopia, deeply impoverished and unequal. In both novels our protagonists are children. We witness this dark future through their eyes.
In Ship Breaker we meet a group of children who work on a "light crew," stripping dead ships for valuable materials. Their little bodies are perfect for scouring the tiny crevices for copper wire. They live, I estimate, on the drowned coast of Texas in the oppressive shadow of the scrap dealers in their shacks.
In the follow-up book, Bacigalupi trades economic marginalization for civil war. The Drowned Cities is set in the tropical swamps and jungles in the Potomac River area. Our heroes are caught in the brutal, bloody conflict between warlords around the former capital of the vanished United States.
The plots of both stories, broadly, are similar. An incident and encounter with someone new forces our protagonists to try to flee for their safety and an opportunity for a better life. Their escapes lead them deeper into danger and shows the reader more of their ruined world. Only rare glimpses of wealth and comfort are given. Mostly, we see an America in decay where everyone makes their living by picking the bones of the dead.
The science and speculative fiction elements are bold. Genetic engineering, climate change, and technological adaptation paint a gritty, alien world. Non-human species are now a part of everyday life, but also act as a constant source of unease and horror.
Despite these elements the stories feel grounded. This is likely because endless civil wars in poverty stricken countries are a real thing in this world. That child labour in dangerous ship-breaking is a real thing in this world. The setting and circumstances are changed, but it remains a human, contemporary story in significant ways. I would highly recommend these novels to fans of science fiction. While both of these books are great reads, I still think The Wind-Up Girl is Paolo Bacigalupi's best work.