Cover image of "The Drowned Cities," a novel in which Washington DC is underwater

It’s about a century or two from now. Rising seas have proven to be the most drastic effect of runaway global climate change. Like most of the world’s coastal cities, Washington DC is underwater now. Up to at least the second story not just downtown and throughout the low-lying residential neighborhoods but on its most celebrated monuments as well. This is the picture Paolo Bacigalupi paints so vividly in The Drowned Cities.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Everywhere, an eye-for-an-eye society

The action takes place in and around the ruins of the nation’s capital. They’re 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 are 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.

Most of the world’s population ekes out a primitive living in such ruins. Only the relative few who live within the confines of Island Shanghai, Beijing, Seascape Boston, and a few other cities continue to flourish behind seawalls, protected from invasion by the genetically enhanced armies ranged around them.

The Drowned Cities (Drowned Cities #2) by Paolo Bacigalupi (2012) 328 pages ★★★★★ 

Map of cities that will be underwater by 2050, including Washington DC
Every dot on this map represents a city that will be underwater by 2050, according to scientific estimates. Image: Forbes

Two young castoffs left loose in the waters of Washington DC

Years ago, the people of China sent a peacekeeping force to the Drowned Cities to forge peace among the warlords’ contending armies. The effort failed. But when the peacekeepers evacuated Washington DC, they left behind Mahlia, the teenage daughter of a Chinese general and a local woman—a “half-breed,” a “castoff,” a “war maggot.” This is Mahlia’s story.

Not long after her father abandons her and her mother, Mahlia is set upon by soldiers from the Army of God. Simply because she is who she is, they cut off her right hand. A younger boy, hiding nearby, creates enough of a distraction to allow her to escape with her left hand intact. She calls the boy Mouse.

Two youngsters meet a bioengineered soldier

Together, Mahlia and Mouse encounter one of the “half-men.” He is a monstrous, bioengineered soldier named Tool, a blend of superior human intelligence and body shape with the face of a dog and the strength, speed, cunning, and ruthlessness of the world’s most able predators. Their meeting turns out to be fateful. And it proves to be the pivot on which the plot turns in this beautifully written and fully realized post-apocalyptic novel. Sadly, the author’s picture of Washington DC underwater is by no means far-fetched. 

Marketed as a book for young readers, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best for fans of any age. The only way in which this novel falls short through adult eyes is that it avoids obvious references to sex. (Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.)

About the author

Photo of Paolo Bacigalupi, author of this novel in which Washington DC is underwater
Paolo Bacigalupi. Image: Artists and Climate Change

Paolo Bacigalupi was born in Colorado in 1972, where he lives today. He graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in East Asian Studies. Bacigalupi is the author of three adult science fiction novels, three for young adults, and one for younger readers as well as a collection of short stories and many other uncollected shorter pieces. He has won every major award in the science fiction field. One of his novels, The Windup Girl, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. And nearly every other longer work he’s published has been nominated for one of these awards. 

This is just one of 5 thrilling science fiction novels by Paolo Bacigalupi.

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