Every few years, critics wonder anew whether young adult (YA) fiction, particularly science fiction, has become “too dark.” If such a cultural shift actually happened, it was long before I learned to read, but there is something alluring about YA dystopias that persists even after one is beyond the age of perpetual angst. Good YA tends to present a relatively limited setting extremely well, focusing on a small set of characters on the cusp of adulthood. For authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, who writes fiction in both YA and adult genres, it's a chance to pare down a huge idea (the entire world, destroyed by global warming) into something relatable.

Since YA science fiction tends to be more accepting of overt politics than modern SF or “literary” fiction, it's also a natural fit for someone whose work is a vicious condemnation of inequality and self-interested blindness to suffering. Bacigalupi's characters and settings are often nuanced, but the ideals that permeate them are undeniably political and even polemic — one of his first stories revolves around a beautifully malformed girl inadvertently eating her lover, who has been killed and cooked by his wealthy owner.

Bacigalupi has written in other settings, but he frequently returns to a post-apocalyptic world still recovering from the collapse of what's called the “Accelerated Age,” when oil was cheap and natural resources were sold off to rapacious private buyers in order to enrich equally greedy and short-sighted bureaucrats. After a nebulous political and economic collapse, environmental disasters have claimed most low-lying areas, and technologists make as much use of clipper ships and animal labor as they do computers and gene splicing techniques.