Paolo Bacigalupi is one of science fiction’s most outspoken voices on issues of environmentalism; thus it is no wonder that his work has garnered critical attention whenever “climate fiction” (abbreviated as “cli-fi”) or “eco-fiction” is mentioned (see, for example, Berry).

Literary critics have focused on his dystopian visions of ecological disaster and capitalist exploitation (see Hageman; Otto; Tidwell), as witnessed in his adult science fiction writing. They argue that his work is a sharp warning call on issues such as genetic engineering, gene patenting, invasive species, and the devastating human intervention in processes that shape our current geological age, the anthropocene. Both his short stories of Pump Six (2008) and his debut novel The Windup Girl (2009) prove insightful in terms of these issues as their plots center around characters navigating these dystopian societies with aplomb, currying political and economic favor in corrupt systems and using whatever means necessary to further manipulate their world. 

            Bacigalupi’s young adult novels similarly play out in dystopian worlds in which ecological disaster has struck, but they focus on adolescent characters and their search for identity–a common trope of young adult fiction (see Ostry 223-24) that in the dystopian context becomes infused with “political strife, environmental disaster, or other forms of turmoil as the catalyst for achieving adulthood” (Basu, Broad, and Hintz 7). Bacigalupi’s young adult novels Ship Breaker (2010) and The Drowned Cities (2012)–both based in the same story-world, but only loosely connected–thus each center around adolescents trying to survive in a harsh world challenged by political, economic, and ecological crises. And even though the novels acknowledge global warming, rising sea levels, climatic changes, the loss of fossil fuels, a drastic decline in global economic power, and a post-national power struggle between either rivaling company factions or warlords, respectively, these crises function only as dystopian backdrop on the macro level of diegetic world. For the young adult audience, the dystopian, with its “capacity to frighten and warn,” additionally manifests on a personal micro level: when the adolescent characters need to negotiate “liberty and self-determination, … questions of identity, and the increasingly fragile boundaries … [of] the self” (Basu, Broad, and Hintz 1), they are confronted with the dystopian. But it is here also that the narratives reveal their utopian hope in that they provide their adolescent protagonists with the choice of a different path, offering an alternative to the dystopian status quo.

The protagonistsʼ coming of age plays out against the backdrop of a dystopian society shaped by overt self-preservation and cutthroat capitalism. The crises mentioned before all feed into this social make-up of fierce individualism, which forces the adolescents to confront their own morals and values at an early age, thus foregrounding these issues in the novels. Influenced by social expectations and a stark genetic determinism, both protagonists–Nailer in Ship Breaker and Mahlia in The Drowned Cities–fight to become more than a product of either their genes or their upbringing. They have to choose their actions towards others, whom to trust, whom to help, and whether or not to break promises and alliances. At the heart of these decisions are issues of identity, community, and otherness that Bacigalupi positions within contemporary discourses of posthumanism. As Elaine Ostry has stated with regards to posthumanism: “If adolescence is the time when one considers what it means to be human, … then there has never been a period of history when it has been more difficult to figure this out than now” (222). 

Further evidence for the centrality of posthumanism in the two novels is their only other connection (apart from general story world), which manifests in the character of Tool, a genetically engineered creature, who stands in as the ultimate Other, while at the same time providing a necessary counterpart for both Nailer and Mahlia to test their values against and to offer an alternative perspective on the state of the world. Tool, a mercenary and warrior-like figure, is a posthuman creature, a “genetic cocktail of humanity, tigers and dogs” (SB 212), and thus ideally suited to function as a reflector for questions of human identity, as he finds himself in an ex-centric position, always outside of society: “He’s despised and distrusted by normal human society because he’s so different,” which makes it possible for him to be “watching and judging … from his own peculiar perspective on the outside,” as Bacigalupi notes in an interview with A.S. King. 

            By allowing Tool to voice a strong subjectivity, a self beyond his genetic programming, Bacigalupi establishes a position that opposes the genetic determinism, anthropocentrism, and speciesism fueling the oppressive and dystopian society and instead engages a critical posthumanism determined by a zoe-centric, complex, and interrelated subjectivity that understands the human, in the words of Pramod Nayar, as “co-evolving, sharing ecosystems, life processes, genetic material, with animals and other life forms” (8). Bacigalupi thus proves his novels to be “expressly concerned with how to use [the dystopian] warning to create new possibilities for utopian hope within the space of the text” (Basu, Broad, and Hintz 3). I argue, therefore, that both novels are critical posthumanist commentaries on questions of (young adult) identity formation, calling for adolescents to reject humanist notions of exceptionalism and a superior position inherent in genetic determinism, and instead embrace a zoe-centric subjectivity. This position refers to an understanding of subjectivity not as privilege or property of the human but extending to all matter – a view in contrast to classic humanist notions of exceptionalism. In a critical posthumanist stance then, life cannot be conceptualized as bios (in the limited sense of a subjective and purposeful ‚human‘ life) but instead as zoe (in the all-encompassing sense of the raw and ‚objective‘ life common to all beings) (cf. Schmeink 43). In this reading, Tool acts as a stand-in, using Stefan Herbrechter’s phrasing, for all those “ghosts … repressed during the process of humanization” (9) and reminds readers that in posthuman times, the human as a category is not exempt from the consequences of the anthropocene and that all life should be valued equally.

 “If Genes are Destiny”: Genetic Determinism as Dystopian Reality

Before exploring the notion of Tool as reflective screen for issues of identity formation in the process of the adolescent coming-of-age, it might be prudent to note that both Nailer and Mahlia start their journeys with a pre-conceived notion of identity. In fact, both struggle with the identity thrust upon them by their surroundings, which is based merely on their genetic heritage. 

            In the beginning of the novel, Nailer is part of a crew of child workers whose job it is to break down rusting shipwrecks into recyclable parts; in his case, he is part of the crew that scavenges in the hard-to-reach places inside the ships’ ducts to extract wiring and other light valuables. Nailer’s job, due to his size, is to crawl through the ducts and loosen the wiring so that the rest of his team can reel it in. When not earning his living in this way, he lives with his father, Richard Lopez, a violent cutthroat and drunk, in a shed on the beach. Due to his father’s foul moods, Nailer spends most of his time with his best friend Pima and her mother Sadna, who takes care of him as a surrogate mother and is the only reliable adult presence in his life.

            After a storm, Pima and Nailer find a stranded luxury yacht and hope to be able to scavenge it and become rich in the process. When they discover Nita, a young girl, the owner and only survivor of the wreck, they decide against killing her (thus forfeiting the scavenge rights) and instead help her. Nita is the wealthy, privileged heiress of a corporate empire, who is being hunted by a rival faction within her father’s company to be used as a hostage. When a conflict about Nita and the scavenge ensues with Richard Lopez, Nailer and Nita escape to the Orleans in order to find help from Nita’s family. They are aided by the mercenary creature Tool, who thus repays a debt owed to Sadna for saving his life when they worked on the same shipbreaking crew. 

From the earliest moments of the novel, Nailer is determined not to be seen as being like his father, a feat that proves hard to accomplish as people draw such comparison easily from physical similarity and Nailer can do nothing to contradict them: 

And then there was Nailer. Some people, like Pearly, knew who they were and where they came from. … Nailer was nothing like that. He had no idea what he was. Half of something, a quarter of something else, brown skin and black hair like his dead mother, but with weird pale blue eyes like his father. 

Pearly had taken one look at Nailer’s pale eyes and claimed he was spawned by demons. … Even so, the truth was that Nailer shared his father’s eyes and his father’s wiry build, and Richard Lopez was a demon for sure. (SB 9-10)

The similarity does not stop with physique, though, as Nailer fears he may share his father’s violence and ruthlessness. When Nailer is forced to kill another mercenary, Tool compliments him by comparing Nailer to his father, which prompts Nailer to answer emphatically: “I’m not my father,” inwardly nonetheless afraid “at the thought of mirroring his father” (SB 175). 

Nailer and the other characters in Ship Breaker here echo a form of genetic determinism that equates identity with DNA. The artists and scholars Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr have pointed out that this belief in genetics has becomeentrenched in contemporary culture as a “discourse of exaggerated claims and overstatements concerning DNA” (“Big Pigs”). In their opinion, this “genohype” reduces the intricacies of human existence into simplistic catch phrases such as “We are our DNA” in order to provide “cause-effect formulas” for us humans, “who are ‘locked’ within our physiology” (“Ethics” 126). Evelyn Fox Keller has identified this kind of rhetoric as being linked to the notion that the Human Genome Project “has promised to reveal the genetic blueprint that tells us who we are” and that DNA functions similar to computer code, running the biological hardware of our bodies. But genohype and genetic determinism are not sustainable as proven by functional genetics (Keller 4, 5-7). Instead, as Catts and Zurr argue, additional factors similarly structure the organization of life, which needs to be understood as “a whole organism (or part of an organism) that exists, grows, and changes together with its environment” (“Ethics” 136).  

In the novel, Bacigalupi complicates the genohype position and shows Nailer not as someone programmed by his DNA (Nailer becoming his father) but rather as a specific material expression of that genetic code (Nailer as an individual), which develops in a specific environment (growing up on the beach, cultivated by the caring relationship with Sadna). Although Nailer does have the genetic traits that allow him to kill, these characteristics are neither inherently good nor bad but merely one expression of his genes, as Tool aptly points out: “It’s human nature to tear one another apart. Be glad you come from such a successful line of killers” (SB 175). 

That Nailer is not simply enacting his father’s genetic program becomes clear when he sides with Nita and escapes from the beach. At one point during their escape, Tool lectures Nita on how genes do not dictate behavior and how personal choice factors in: 

   “If genes are destiny, then Nailer should have sold you to your enemies and spent the bounty on red rippers and Black Ling whiskey.” 

   “That’s not what I meant.”

   “No? But you descend from Patels, and so you are all intelligent and civilized, yes? And Nailer, of course, is descended from a perfect killer and we know what that means about him.” (SB 212) 

At the end of the novel, Nailer has to confront his father, fighting him and realizing that Richard “was horrifyingly fast. … The man was born to fight” (SB 305). Nailer is even afraid that his father might not be able to die, echoing the superstition of Richard as a demon. Nailer kills him, later pondering if there is part of his father in him: “I felt strong. Really strong. … [Now] I don’t feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I was glad when I did it. And now I don’t feel anything at all. I’m empty” (SB 319). After his return to the beach, it is Sadna who guides Nailer through this experience, soothing his doubts and guilt, and giving him caring advice. In her view, identity is not determined by genes but by actions: “You’re not your dad. If you were your dad, you’d be down on the beach … feeling pleased with yourself. You wouldn’t be up here worrying about why you don’t feel worse. … Be glad you were lucky and fast and smart. And then go do something right in the world” (319). Nailer’s genetic make-up is merely a tool that determines the range of his abilities; his values, his decisions, and his actions determine his identity as a person. 

Bacigalupi further stresses this self-determination of identity through the character of Nita, who is introduced as a privileged “swank” (SB 97), a rich girl, educated and sophisticated, who does not know about Nailer’s world. She is shown to be merely a plaything in the world her father inhabits, a pawn to pressure the patriarch and owner of Patel Global. As with Nailer, people prejudge Nita as a “boss girl,” “worth more dead than alive” (SB 97), manipulative, arrogant, and spoiled. But when pressed to survive on her wits, Nita similarly proves more than the swank everybody takes her to be:

Nailer had expected Nita’s prissy distaste for the slums of the Orleans to continue, but she adapted quickly, with a fierce attention to whatever Tool and Nailer taught. She threw herself into work, contributed her share, and didn’t complain about what she ate or where she slept. She was still swank … but she also showed a determination to carry her weight that Nailer was forced to show respect.  (SB218)

Being forced into a different role, Nita adapts quickly, rejecting the stereotypes of her heritage and proving herself to be self-reliant. In contrast to Nailer, though, Nita does not reject her family but instead in the end embraces it, as she sees her father’s actions as morally superior and worth emulating. When discussing the conflict within Patel Global, Nita rejects the exploitation promoted by her father’s antagonist Pyce and instead holds strong to her father’s ideals: “My family is a clean company. Just because a market exists doesn’t mean we have to serve it” (SB 194). At the close of the novel, Nita, as successor of her father’s empire, will actually have the chance to prove this moral ideal by changing the work conditions at the shipbreaking beach. The novel suggests, though, that Nita needed the experience of being forced out of her role as swank to be able to come to this decision. Her privileged position never allowed her to understand the consequences of her company’s business decisions beyond the theoretical and idealistic. But when confronted with the abject disregard for the poor in the Orleans, Nita is forced to become more than her current status. As a swank, she was missing something: “Then again, he wasn’t too sure that she was a person either. Swanks were different. They came from a different place” (SB 210).  In Nita, Bacigalupi balances out Nailer, by allowing both characters, though starting from very different positions in life, to convene on a similar self-determined position of identity.

In The Drowned Cities, the protagonist Mahlia also faces a struggle of identity after having been abandoned by her father and losing her mother to the conflict of the Drowned Cities. In the war-torn region, Mahlia is rescued from being slaughtered for her bi-racial heritage by Mouse, another orphaned child, and both struggle to survive until they find shelter with Doctor Mahfouz, a physician, in the village of Banyan Town. Even though a warrior gang has amputated one of Mahlia’s hands, Mahfouz makes her his assistant, educating her to become his successor, and letting her work alongside him. 

When the village is seized by a group of child-soldiers hunting for the escaped hybrid creature Tool, Mahlia not only attacks the soldiers but also escapes with medicine to heal Tool and convince him to help her and Mouse escape the Drowned Cities. But Mouse gets captured by the soldiers only to be recruited and marched off back into the Cities, making it necessary for Mahlia and Tool go after them and attempt a rescue. 

Whereas Nailer struggles with his very direct parental lineage in the form of Richard Lopez, Mahlia is fighting a war against her perceived racial heritage, both her father’s Chinese and her mother’s Drowned Cities origins. Mahlia is not concerned with character traits inherited from either parent but rather struggles as being perceived as a “castoff”, a child born of mixed-racial heritage to a Chinese “peacekeeper” and a citizen of the Drowned Cities (i.e. an American),left behind when the peacekeepers left their post: a “throwaway” (DC 37, 38). 

Both parts of her heritage bring with them positive as well as negative associations. In her memories and desires, she connects the Chinese with wealth, civility, and order, effectively constructing a fantasy she has never been part of: 

In exchange for Mahlia’s promising to speak Chinese like a civilized person and keeping herself polite, her father had given her ice cream … [a] fairy-tale luxury from a fairy-tale land. According to her father, China had … cities with towers a thousand feet high, all because they were civilized. Chinese people didn’t war amongst themselves. They planned and built. … China had culture. It was civilized. Chinese people knew how to hezuo–“cooperate.” Work together. (DC 61).

But at the same time, her Chinese origin is a constant reminder of the intimate betrayal of being left behind (“Her father had abandoned her” [DC 218]) and the cowardice she assigns to it (“Her father had run away with his tail between his legs” [DC 63]). Further, it is a reminder of the Chinese troops invading the Drowned Cities and imposing their humanitarian aid with military force in the first place: “All of them rich enough to meddle where they didn’t belong” (DC 30). Mahlia’s genetic make-up is obvious to everyone who sees her, and they react to it with hate, being confronted with the occupation and the conflict with the Chinese: “ʻHalf,’ he said. ‘For sure, you’re half. And you’re the right age, all right. Some peacekeeper nailed your old lady, left you behind.’ He cocked his head. ‘Don’t got much use for collaborators’” (DC 89).

Her origin as stemming from the Drowned Cities is just as conflicted, though. She has taken on her father’s judgment of the Americans as being poor, self-destructive, quarrel­some, without respect, and untrustworthy: she sees herself as “one of the animals he’d found ungovernable” (DC 63). Her evaluation of her mother is especially tainted with her experience, branding her mother as ignorant and unpractical: “Reality was all around her, but she couldn’t see it. She just kept pretending” (DC 147). At the same time, however, the moniker Drowned Cities has also come to represent a form of survival instinct for Mahlia: “If Mahlia had been as civilized as the peacekeepers, she would have been dead ten times over, just getting out of the Drowned Cities” (DC 63). The selfishness she sees as her genetic heritage from the Cities becomes a tool to be used for survival: 

She’d survived the Drowned Cities because she wasn’t anything like Mouse. When the bullets started flying and warlords started making examples of peacekeeper collaborators, Mahlia had kept her head down, instead of standing up like Mouse. She’d looked out for herself, first. And because of that, she’d survived. All the other castoffs like her were dead and gone. The kids who went to the peacekeeper schools, all those almond-eyed kids … [had] been too civilized to know what to do when the hammer came down. (DC 66)

Just as in Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi here reveals genetic determinism as faulty and the organization of life as far more complex. Mahlia is influenced by her mixed-heritage, but does not conform to either “programming.” The novel reveals her to be adapted to her environment, using her traits as needed–not merely a product of genetics, whose supposedly positive traits like Chinese civility or Drowned Cities pride might get her killed, but a conscious agent, who can choose to use her negatively connoted traits like Chinese cowardice and Drowned Cities deception to help her survive. She is smart and organized, very good at planning ahead, but, when needed, also ruthless in order to survive her dystopian surroundings. 

            Aside from being a source of the social prejudices the characters have to confront, genetics also plays a role in their purely physical existence in the form of their adolescent and changing bodies. Heightened by the ecological crisis of global warming and the economic crisis of a loss of fossil fuels, human life has been transformed into a commodity within the inhuman system of the dystopian world depicted by Bacigalupi. Both Nailer and Mahlia experience this commodification of human life, as their own value is determined only in regard to their usefulness in their local economy. 

Nailer’s value is determined according to his body size and the limits this puts on his work: “Light crew needed small bodies. Most kids got bounced off the crew by the time they hit their midteens, even if they starved themselves to keep their size down” (SB 11-12). The stratified system of work at the ship-breaking beach is kept running by bodies, and body type determines one’s position in life: small bodies for light crew, strong bodies for heavy crew or as bodyguards for those with wealth. Those without any of these attributes can sell their bodies for entertainment as “Nailshed girls” (SB 49) or for genetic experimentation in the form of eggs to the “Life Cult” (SB 50). Bodies are literally worth their weight in coin; when they are clean and healthy, they can be sold as medical supply parts to the “Harvesters”–a fate that would have awaited Nita, due to her exceptional health and pristine condition (see SB 196). Everything revolves around bodies and their value in the scarcity of the economic system.  

            Similarly, Mahlia is constantly measured against expectations of bodily standards, her missing hand marking her as incomplete and ineffective. The townsfolk determine her worth by her function as Doctor Mahfouz’s assistant: “ʻWhat’s that man see in a one-handed nurse?’ Amaya asked. ‘Is that why Tani’s dead? Because you got no hand?’ … ‘She didn’t need a useless crippled China girl for a nurse’” (DC 37). Moreover, the war economy of the Drowned Cities functions on bodies as much as the beach does. Young boys are recruited as soldiers to be used in the war: “If men like Glenn Stern … had a use for you, you could live a little while. But you were just a pawn. Her. Mouse. All those soldier boys who’d been hand-raised to shoot and knife and bleed out there in the Drowned Cities” (DC 400). Those not fighting in the conflict keep it alive with their bodies, becoming part of the “seething hordes of dust-covered slave labor” surrounding the war effort (DC 272). 

            This view of the human body as commodity in the capitalist economy of the dystopian world reduces the human being to mere bio-mass. It emphasizes a development that Bacigalupi has already commented upon in his adult works, such as in the short story “The People of Sand and Slag” (from Pump Six), and which Christy Tidwell identifies as “a growing separation from and control of nature and bodies, … [which] are nothing more than resources to be profited from or destroyed” (100). But whereas in the adult stories Bacigalupi portrays the world from the perspective of participating subjects, the characters seeing nature as Other and separating themselves from it, making use of it, in Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities he focuses on adolescent bodies, which are not participating subjects yet. Rather, both Nailer and Mahlia experience their own bodies as grotesque, partial, and unfinished. Nailer fears growing too big for light crew and physically experiences the toll his work takes on his body (“black grime in the filters” [SB 3]), culminating in his close escape from the oil pocket and the rusty piece of metal that opens him up and leaves a wound. Mahlia similarly is defined by her missing hand and the traumatic experiences of the war zone: “Instead, she carried scars, and her hand was a stump, and her eyes were hard like obsidian, and her smile was hesitant, as if anticipating the suffering that she knew awaited her, just around the corner” (DC 227). Their status as incomplete, as still becoming,marks them as transgressive of boundaries, as inhuman Other in a world that puts value only on the usability of the body. Adolescents, as Ostry puts it, possess a “frightening body, subject to violation and very far from finished perfection” (231). In both of his young adult novels, Bacigalupi reveals a world that sees them as expelled Other, not as full members of society, because of their bodies/genetics/heritage. It seems little wonder then, that he further presses this point by introducing the ultimate grotesque body, the monster, and aligns it with the adolescent position as Other.  

Of Monsters and Animals: Human Exceptionalism and the Other

Allen Weiss reminds us that monsters represent “categorial ambiguity, ontological instability, … the confusion of species” (124). Therefore, the monster is a cultural marker of transgression, a reminder of the boundaries and delineations of categories such as the human or nature. Monsters are used to contrast their Otherness with “prevailing conceptions of the human and of normalcy” (Weinstock 3). And as Jeffrey Cohen points out, monsters “are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration” (6). As such, Tool, with his chimerical genetics marking him as monstrous, as a “dialectical Other … an incorporation of the Outside” (7), culturally aligns more closely with the unfinished and becoming bodies of the adolescents than with the displayed conceptions of the human and of normalcy within the novels. 

            When introducing Tool, Bacigalupi emphasizes his difference and potential as threat, both real and imagined. His physical superiority and animal features make him stand out among the humans, but it is their superstitions and fears that position him on the outside of society: 

The monster’s huge muscled form loomed over the rest of the thugs, its doglike muzzle snarling and showing its teeth to scare back the hungry people. … 

   Lucky Strike laughed. “Well, at least you all listen to my killer dog, huh? That’s right. Everybody step back. Or my friend Tool here will teach you a lesson in manners. I mean it, everyone, give us some space. If Tool doesn’t like you, he’ll eat you raw.” (SB 70-71)

Tool’s ontological status is that of a monster–neither fully human, nor fully animal. He is depicted as a chimera, a creature genetically created from several different species, specific attributes of each built into the creature to make it suitable for the tasks it is supposed to perform. His chimerical nature thus highlights the categorical transgression and forces readers to position Tool uneasily beyond human and animal:    

The creature’s massive pit-bull skull loomed close. Scars and torn flesh. Animal and human, crushed together in one nightmare beast. Ropy gray scar tissue covered one eye, but the other eye was wide open, rabid and yellow, big as an egg. The monster growled, revealing rows of sharp teeth. A gust of blood and carrion washed over her. 

 “I am not meat,” it snarled. “You are meat.” (DC 77)

Tool is not a natural creation but a “living war weapon, … [a] bioengineered supersoldier,” as Bacigalupi claims in an interview with Jeff VanderMeer. As such, he is shown to have abilities that go far beyond that of a human: “They’re better than us. Faster. Stronger. Many of them are smarter. Perfect tacticians. Built for war, from day one” (DC 162). In addition, his body is genetically engineered to withstand the harshest environment and grave injuries: 

Don’t think of a half-man as human. It is a demon, designed for war. Its blood is full of super-clotting agents and its cells are designed to replicate as quickly as a kudzu grows. 

   If you cut a creature like this with a knife, the wound closes itself within minutes. … Flesh torn down to the bone. Ligaments ripped apart. Bones snapped. None of it matters to a creature like this. (DC 166)

The descriptions as monster or demon reveal the fear that humans experience, the threat Tool poses, and thus confer a specific power on him. They hint at the posthuman potential to supplant the human as the most dominant species. Mahlia is reminded of this possibility when she tries to control him: “Fates, what was I thinking? She’d forgotten what a monster it was. It dominated its surroundings” (DC 173). 

            In order not to feel the threat of losing dominance, most humans employ a linguistic strategy to limit Tool’s categorial transgression by referring to him as animal. In their descriptions, Nailer and Mahlia (as main focalizers of the narratives), as well as other characters in the novels, highlight their view of Tool as an animal, as doglike, describing his fangs, his muzzle, and the snarling sounds, repeating phrases such as “dog-face” (e.g., SB 45, DC 72) and “yellow dog eyes” (e.g., SB 87, 138). 

But more important than the physical assessment as animal is the functional value that is inherent in this dehumanization and linguistic marking. Here his name is revealing, as humans do not want to see more in him than a mere tool to be used for their needs: “Half-men were used for bodyguards, for killing, for war” (SB 211). The most common response to him is fueled by the same genetic determinism that bears down on Mahlia and Nailer: “Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog” (SB248). Out of the diversity of genetic traits, the most harmless and convenient for humans are his dog-traits, which also make him a perfect soldier: obedience, loyalty, and the ability to be trained for tasks. These are the traits that become dominant in human descriptions of Tool and in his perception of himself, filtered by his experiences:

Tool … was a very bad dog. His masters had told him so many times as they beat him and trained him and molded his will to match their own. They had forged him into a killer and then fit him into the killing machine that had been his pack. A platoon of slaughter. For a little while, he had been a good dog, and obedient. …

   Tool had been such a bad dog that he still lived. … 

   When he had been a good dog, an owned dog, a loyal dog, his masters would have stitched and treated wounds like these. … Good dogs had masters, and masters kept good dogs close. (DC 12-13)

As before, the evaluation of Tool as a weapon to be wielded reveals a separation from nature and a human exceptionalism that places humans above all other creation. Tidwell describes the attitudes that characters display towards Tool perfectly when she talks about creatures in Bacigalupi’s short story “The People of Sand and Slag” that were “created only to serve; they are a subclass from which the humans intentionally separate themselves. Similarly, there are also bio-jobs, creatures created for a variety of functional purposes from the DNA of older, less useful animals. … Bio-jobs have no rights or value other than their usefulness to (post)humans” (99). 

The animal thus becomes the dichotomous Other of the human, which the novels constantly probe and explore. This dichotomy, as Cary Wolfe notes, has been part of Western cultural history since antiquity, the animal functioning as reflector of “the constitutive disavowals and self-constructing narratives enacted by that fantasy figure called ‘the human’” (6). To become fully human and acquire a stable identity, humans require “the sacrifice of the ‘animal’ and the animalistic” (6). The speciesism inherent in this thinking once more reestablishes the notion of human exceptionalism that, as Wolfe notes, can easily be used to justify wars, genocide, and slavery, if only some humans are marked as animals. In the novels this speciesism is apparent, on the one hand, in the notions of animals as lesser beings that are of little value beyond the specific use they have to humans, as shown before. But with precision, these notions are then, on the other hand, transferred to human bodies in order to allow for their dehumanization. 

In The Drowned Cities, children orphaned by war, such as Mahlia, become “war maggots” (DC 36) that need feeding and give nothing in return, and the same term is later employed by the soldier boys to describe the townsfolk they enslave. Whenever one party wants to express disdain for a specific behavior of another party, they refer to the other as animal: “Think we’re just animals? That’s what you peacekeepers always used to say, right? Called us animals? Called us dogs?” (DC 109-10) The war boys employ the same tactic, referring to their enemies as animals, and even the townsfolk see Mahlia’s aggressiveness as inhuman: “Doctor Mahfouz was staring at her with dismay, as if she were some kind of animal gone wild” (DC 38). 

A similar disdain shows in the words of Nita in Ship Breaker when she refers to drug users and describes them as less valuable: “That’s what surge rats use. Combat squads. Half-men. It’s for animals” (SB 134). The label becomes especially meaningful when contrasted with terms such as person or human, as when Nita “thought of [Tool] as something like an animal, a useful creature like a dog, but not actually a person” (SB 210). Even Tool rejects the animal part of his nature as less valuable: “Tool was not some brute animal, able to think only in terms of attack or flight. He was better than that. He hadn’t survived this long by thinking like an animal” (DC 20). 

Bacigalupi counters this speciesism by allowing Tool a subjectivity that “undermines the ontological stability of ‘human beings’” (293), as Andrew Hageman has pointed out for the similarly posthuman Emiko in The Windup Girl. As Sherryl Vint argues for science fiction as a genre, the novels prove “an excellent resource for interrogating how we construct the posthuman, and the political ends inherent in various constructions, because [science fiction’s] generic conventions provide a space for narrating agency for non-human subjects” (189). It thus seems interesting that Tool is specifically positioned to reject the humanist ideology of a useful and separate nature, which “privileges the rights of humans … over those of all other forms of life,” as Barbara Heise has pointed out (qtd. in Tidwell 77-78).

The most important privilege that Bacigalupi challenges in his writing is the idea of a superior position of the human species. As mentioned before, half-men are physically and mentally “augmented” beyond human ability; “they’re people-plus” (SB 262). Consequently, from a humanist position of separation and exceptionalism, posthuman superiority necessitates some kind of control mechanism so that human masters remain in charge of their creations. When half-men are captured or their masters die, a genetic fail-safe robs them of a purpose to live for, as one of the owners of the creatures explains: “Augments aren’t like us. They have a single master. When they lose that master, they die. … They pine. They are very loyal. They cannot live without their masters. It comes from a line of canine genetics” (SB 262). This loyalty is built in via a genetic predisposition but then ultimately induced by strict behavioral training, as Tool reflects: “Trainers. Hard men and women with their discipline rods … knew how to build obedience. Lessons of raw meat and cold electricity. Showering sparks. BAD dog!” (DC 133). After the negative reinforcement, the designated master of the half-men is introduced as a savior, generating gratitude: “And then, their general came. The kind and honorable man who rescued them … [and] led their pack out of Hell. … In desperate thanks, they gave their loyalty to General Caroa, forever after” (DC 133). Ultimately, this fail-safe is supposed to keep half-men loyal to their masters and stop them from gaining control over their actions: “So they can’t go rogue against their wealthy masters. So they can’t raise a flag for themselves. The worst nightmare of any general would be an army of augments gone rogue” (DC 163). 

“I am not your dog!” Posthuman Subjectivity and Utopian Identity

In the face of this genetic determinism and the behavioral training binding half-men, Tool challenges the hegemonic categories of master and slave, human and animal, subject and object, and instead promotes what Rosi Braidotti has called a posthuman “ethics of becoming” by establishing himself as a “relational subject that works across differences” (49). As Sherryl Vint argues, critical posthumanism “acknowledges that self is materially connected to the rest of the world … It is a posthumanism that can embrace multiplicity and partial perspectives, a posthumanism that is not threatened by its others” (189).

Tool does not accept his subservient role, stating that “not all of us enjoy slavery” and that he realizes he is “smart enough to know that I can choose who I serve and who I betray, which is more than can be said of the rest of my … people” (SB 211). When the rest of his platoon died, Tool fought to become free, to gain a subjectivity beyond the object-status of a weapon, openly rebelling against orders and genetics: “ʻYou think my general offered to let me walk free of his own accord?’ … [Tool] alone had won free. He alone had survived. The bad dog who had turned upon his master” (DC 135-36). As such, Tool is an anomaly–his existence puts into question the idea behind these servile genetic chimeras: “Tool was an impossible creature. … [N]o independent half-men existed. And yet Tool had walked away from many masters, … had simply walked away when it no longer suited him” (SB 262). 

Tool’s refusal of his genetic programming and training is reminiscent of the adolescent coming-of-age in that Tool similarly needs to explore his hard-won identity, test out specific values, and finally act upon chosen morals. He struggles with his genetic heritage just as much as Mahlia does, torn between a fierce individualism and a need for companionship he cannot explain: 

Tool wondered if it was his loyal nature, bred and trained into him, that made him feel guilty for leaving [Mahlia] to her fate. Some vestige of the training that had made him so obedient to his original masters. Was that why he kept following her, trying to persuade her to leave this doomed land? Had he simply been reverting to his original conditioning? The loyal dog who would not leave its master? (DC 235-36)

Moreover, he is just as fierce in reacting to any judgment rendered on him from the outside as Nailer is when confronted with his father’s character traits: “You do not reward me with raw meat, you do not scratch me behind the ears, and YOU DO NOT OWN ME!” (DC 173) 

            Tool has rejected the genetic determinism placed on him, denied the simple logic of obedience, and instead adopted a subject position that is relational, accountable, and communal. When Nita confronts him about his loyalty and the rejection of his master, Tool challenges her: “You wish that I was a good dog-man? That I had kept allegiance to Nailer’s father, maybe? … Richard Lopez thought your clean blood and clear eyes and strong heart would fetch an excellent price from the Harvesters. You wish I had stayed loyal to that?” (SB 196) Tool’s words reveal the underlying issue: obedience induced through genetics would have left him merely a weapon, determined by the morals and values of the one wielding the weapon, and not accountable for any of his actions. Tool instead proposes a moral accountability, a subject position that takes into consideration its relation to other life and the community surrounding it:    

“The wealthy measure everything with the weight of their money. … Sadna once risked herself and the rest of her crew to help me escape from an oil fire. She did not have to return … Others urged her not to. It was foolhardy. And I, after all, was only half of a man.” Tool regarded Nita steadily. “Your father commands fleets. And thousands of half-men, I am sure. But would he risk himself to save a single one?” (SB 197)

Tool’s decision to reject the existing system of genetic determinism–the status quo in the novels–positions him clearly with Nailer and Mahlia, both of whom are in a similar conflict with the adult world they inhabit. Both Nailer and Mahlia feel trapped and struggle with their position. For them, Tool becomes an alternative to the existing value system, an ally against the restrictions and pressures of their dystopian world, and ultimately a reflector of their own search for identity. As Basu, Broad, and Hintz argue for current young adult dystopias: “The confrontation with the realities of the adult world may lead to a standoff between adolescents and adults that empowers young people to turn against the system as it stands and change the world in ways adults cannot, locating the utopian potential of dystopian scenarios within young adult protagonists themselves” (7).

            I believe, that for Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, this utopian potential is not just located in the adolescent protagonists but also in the posthuman subjectivity represented by Tool. Whereas the genetic determinism of this dystopian world would force judgement on Nailer (criminal, beach rat) and Mahlia (castoff, war maggot) that limits their identity formation, Tool offers a different set of values, expressed not in the idea that we are determined by our DNA, but in the idea that we are determined by our decisions. 

             Bacigalupi establishes this set of values by offering a replacement for the missing, defective institution of family–both Nailer and Mahlia are effectively orphans. Whereas Nailer and Mahlia are connected to their families via DNA, their value system and their morality are determined by other figures, providing a different set of environmental influences. Nailer is shaped by Sadna and Pima, who instill in him a loyalty that is formed by the concept of “crew”–a community united by cooperative struggle and connectedness to others in order to survive. Loyalty is given to those whom one is working with in collaboration; actions determine one’s worth. When crew-member Sloth breaks her vows and acts against her allies, she is punished by a community that sees itself as interconnected: “They all looked down the beach to where Sloth had been dumped. She’d be hungry soon, and needing someone to protect her. Someone to share scavenge with, to cover her back when she couldn’t work. The beach was a hard place to survive without crew” (SB43). 

            Sloth’s betrayal shows the value of crew, but it is Tool who makes this clear by siding with Sadna instead of his current employer, Richard Lopez, as mentioned above. Tool is part of Sadna’s crew, and her actions have formed a bond that is more important than obedience towards an employer or master. Nailer realizes that the idea of crew is a stand-in for decisions based in morality (what is right and what is not) and loyalty to those who share one’s morals. He crews up with Nita, and they each promise the other to help: “I got your back, you got mine” (SB 116). When Richard wants to sell her, Nailer decides to uphold this promise: “We’re crew, … I’m not selling her. … We can’t just give her to them. It’d be like giving Pima to my dad” (SB 179-80). The contrast with the concept of family becomes most pronounced when Nita is kidnapped and Nailer hires on to rescue her. The captain questions his loyalty to Nita (whom Nailer refers to as Lucky Girl), expecting him to be loyal to his father instead: 

“My dad doesn’t give anyone a chance for second thoughts. He cuts you first. He talks about family sticking together, but what he really means is that I give him money … Lucky Girl’s more of a family than he is.” 

   As soon as he said it, he knew it was true. Despite the short time he’d known her, Nailer was sure of Nita. He could count the people on one hand who were like that, and Pima and Sadna were the ones who topped that list. And surprisingly, Lucky Girl was there, too. She was family. …

   “It’s not about my dad. It’s Lucky Girl. She’s good, right? She’s worth a hundred of some of my old crew. A thousand of my dad.” (SB 251-52)

It is important to note that Nailer has an innate sense of what is good and what is right that seems to have been nurtured by Sadna and Pima, and he bases his decision about Nita on this feeling. He adopts the term family to mean those whom you can count on, who act accordingly–and not to refer to blood relatives or genetics. 

            In The Drowned Cities, Mahlia has a similar notion of family being unreliable. Her father has abandoned her, and her mother died of ignorance and left her struggling for survival–all of which has made her fiercely self-reliant but also somewhat self-centered. However, she does have a strong sense of right and good as well and will not go back on her promise to Tool: “I promised I’d give the half-man medicine” (DC 148). Her motives are far from selfless, but essentially she is the only one to see beyond the animal side of Tool and not act as if he were a monster: “But what if it was something else? It hadn’t killed Mouse, even when it could have. A soldier boy would have done him in a second, but the half-man had let him go. That had to count for something” (DC 152). It is of course no coincidence that while Mahlia is pondering the value of Tool’s life, she is listening to his heart: “Huge and thick. Heavy. … Crazy big” (DC152). A certain poetic contiguity is at play here: Tool is portrayed as merciful, his heart big enough to let Mouse live, whereas the soldier boys (i.e. humans) are vicious and malignant. Mahlia thus decides to save Tool, and when the Doctor tries to force her against Tool, she reacts instinctually, sensing “something of the predator” (DC 153) in the Doctor, and fends him off. 

She has formed an attachment to Mouse, who, with utter disregard for his own life, saves her from the soldier boys. Her loyalty to him is founded on their mutual survival–again the idea of community in a common struggle and the connectedness with other lives, each depending on the other to survive. When Mouse is captured, Mahlia is willing to fight a whole army by herself: “I got to get him back. If he’s dead, I’m dead. It’s how it is” (DC 191). It is this reaction that Tool recognizes and aptly names: 

“Pack,” the half-man said. “He’s of your pack.” The way the half-man said it made Mahlia think that it was more than just when you talked about dogs or coywolv running together. It was something absolute and total. 

   “Yeah,” she said. “Pack.” (DC 191) 

The concept is beyond her human understanding–the attempt to grasp the term through its human usage (“dogs running together”) is limited and fails to realize the non- or posthuman meaning behind it. For Tool, pack is charged with ritualistic meaning: It refers to a crèche–a group of half-men genetically produced as a unit–that trains and fights together, which to him is the essence of his life: “We are nourished by victory, Doctor. Life’s blood, from the beating hearts of our foes. Our enemy fortifies us. The more enemies we have, the more we feed. And the stronger we become. …Conquest feeds itself … We welcome our enemies, as we welcome life” (DC 176). 

It is important to note that this loyalty (at least as Tool promotes it) does not include his master but is built on the idea of connection through similarity of experience. A close connection to the pack does not excuse one of its members from making decisions based on individual morality. And for Tool, individuality includes a subjectivity that sees the interconnection of all life–zoe–not a specific cultured life–bios–both in terms of his own purpose (“Killing in one place or killing in another; it makes no difference” [SB 182]) and in terms of who is worthy of his loyalty. He recognizes Mahlia’s loyalty to Mouse and feels connected to her through his near-death, from which only Mahlia is willing to save him. He agrees to help her, bonding with her over a shared enemy’s heart: “ʻIf we are pack, then conquest is our sustenance, sister.’ … With a wet tearing, the heart came out, glistening and full of blood, veins and arteries torn. The muscle of life. Tool held it out to her. ‘Our enemies give us strength’” (DC 243).

Both crew and pack are presented in the novels as alternative concepts for determining loyalty, morality, and identity. They emphasize a shared subjectivity based in a shared experience, in a shared environment. Tool is representative of this posthuman subjectivity: His status as monster, based in an ontology between human and non-human animal, is ideally suited to challenge the young adult protagonists, as well as the readers. As Joan Gordon points out, “Once we allow other beings subjectivity, their position as tools is problematized” (334). And this is exactly what Bacigalupi has done. The dystopian scenario he describes, as we have seen, is expressed in a separation from nature, privileged subjectivity (adult, able-bodied, wealthy), and the exploitation and dehumanization of those bodies that do not conform to the privileged position. In this world, genetic determinism traps both Nailer and Mahlia in grotesque bodies–incomplete, wounded, of faulty origin, lacking power. But they reject this power dynamic, embrace the conflict with the established system, and test out their own identity. In them, the utopian moment shines through, and alternative subjectivity is possible. 

Bacigalupi further enhances his message by employing a powerful posthuman subjectivity in the form of the chimera Tool. Tool is closely allied with the adolescents due to his position as Other, as “the sexualized, racialized, and naturalized others, who are reduced to the less than human status of disposable bodies” (Braidotti 15). He provides Nailer and Mahlia with an ex-centric view and the possibility to explore their own morality and identity. An ethical or critical posthumanism, as presented in Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, reveals to readers the possibility of utopian hope in the face of dystopian systems. At the end of The Drowned Cities, readers can feel with Mouse and the other soldier boys–Ocho’s words summing up the helplessness of young adults in the face of an adult world beyond their control: “ʻNone of us asked for this!’ he shouted. ‘None of us! We were all just like him. Every maggot one of us.’ … ‘None of us were like this,’ he said again. ‘We aren’t born like this. They make us this way’” (DC 416). At this point, because of Tool’s own development, the adolescents have found an alternative: “They were getting out. All of them. They were leaning into the wind, eyes brighter and more alive than anything she had ever seen. A whole pack of soldier boys, all pursuing a future that they thought they’d never be allowed to have” (DC 431).

Works Cited

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—. “A. S. King Interviews Paolo Bacigalupi About His Latest Book The Drowned Cities.” Interview by A. S. King. SF Signal. 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2014.

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Ursprünglich erschienen als:

Schmeink, Lars. „Coming of Age and the Other: Critical Posthumanism in Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities„. Finding Humanity in a Post-Human World. Hg. Anita Tarr and Donna White. U of Mississippi P, 2018: 159-78.