Cover image of "The Water Knife" by Paolo Bacigalupi, one of his five thrilling science fiction novels.

Colorado-based author Paolo Bacigalupi has been writing science fiction novels since 2009. Together with the many short stories he has produced, his writing has earned him a torrent of nominations and a slew of awards. Among them are both the Hugo and Nebula, the two most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy. And one of his novels was a finalist for a National Book Award. Bacigalupi’s fiction is distinguished by sharp, well-defined characters and unusually detailed and imaginative future scenarios. The environment figures as a dominant theme in all his work.

Below I’ve listed the five thrilling science fiction novels Bacigalupi has published from 2009 to 2017. Each is linked to its review. (As of 2023, he has published a total of eight novels.)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The Windup Girl (2009) – A frightening novel about bioengineering gone wild

Bacigalupi’s debut novel, The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel and confirmed him as one of the genre’s most skillful younger authors. (He was born in 1972, which by my standards means he’s young.) In the grim, 23rd-century Thai environment of the novel, one character wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another. The windup girl—a genetically engineered woman “trained to be an obedient secretary, interpreter, and lover to the businessman who buys her”—is one of a large cast of memorable characters, each a finely rendered portrait of a human being tormented by personal demons, haunted by the ever-present ghosts of Thailand, and caught up in an ugly and unstable system.

The Drowned Cities Cycle

Ship Breaker (2010) – Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master

The inaugural entry in Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities Cycle, Ship Breaker was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It’s set in the same future environment the author envisioned in The Windup Girl. Humankind’s failure to arrest global climate change and our unstoppable addiction to fossil fuels have drowned nearly all the planet’s coastal cities and left most of the human race living hand to mouth in abject penury while a lucky few—in China and the United States—wallow in luxury because they control trade with armies of genetically engineered “half-men” bred for speed, strength, and loyalty.

The Drowned Cities (2012) – Another great sci-fi novel from Paolo Bacigalupi

The action takes place in and around the ruins of Washington, DC, now part of the Drowned Cities that lie on the mid-Atlantic and southeast coasts of what used to be the United States of America. Everywhere in the region, private armies roam about in constant warfare with one another, their ranks dominated by the child soldiers they have forcibly recruited from the area’s surviving population. In the eye-for-an-eye society that has emerged, few live to adulthood.

Tool of War (2017) From Paolo Bacigalupi, another spellbinding Drowned Cities tale

Runaway bioengineering has created vicious new predators. Government has failed nearly everywhere; only a few city-states (Shanghai, Lagos, Boston) remain intact and peaceful behind massive seawalls. A handful of mighty corporations dominate world trade. The two characters at the center of the action are familiar to readers of the previous two novels in the cycle.

A standalone novel about drought in the US Southwest

The Water Knife (2015) – Dystopian fiction that breaks the mold

The late-21st-century reality portrayed in The Water Knife brings into high relief the consequences of climate change and the resulting water scarcity on the American Southwest. This sad, violence-ridden world is fully realized through the seemingly bottomless imagination of the author. Prolonged drought, the draining of the aquifers, and climate change have combined to make most of the Southwest into a desert, while the states of the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf, and the Midwest are succumbing to the rising level of the seas and monster storms that dwarf anything previously known in human history.

Three Paolo Bacigalupi novelettes

The Fluted GirlThe People of Sand and Slag, and The Gambler – Three science fiction novelettes by Paolo Bacigalupi

In The Fluted Girl, twin girls’ development has been arrested before puberty and their bodies converted into musical instruments. They are showpieces in a future media-mad society, destined for stardom at the price of their humanity. The People of Sand and Slag are engineered security guards who are impervious to the harsh conditions in the vast mining complex where they work. They thrive in the poisonous atmosphere and pools of toxic chemicals that surround them. However, The Gambler, the most recent of the three novelettes reviewed here, is more firmly grounded in today’s reality than the other two. The protagonist, Ong, is Laotian. He is a refugee from the New Lao Kingdom, a repressive dictatorship that has pushed aside the old Lao Democratic Republic. Ong is employed by an online media company that thrives on scandal and celebrity news.

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