Tool of War by Paolo BacigalupiTool of War by Paolo BacigalupiTool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War (2017) is the third entry in a series of futuristic novels in which catastrophic climate change projections have come to pass. The American seaboard is flooded, and the United States government has been overtaken by transnational organizations. The most stunning technological breakthroughs are in gene editing, and elite organizations own “augments,” creatures that are part human and part animal, part slave and part soldier. The main character here, Tool, is the greatest of the augments because he can defy his training and act independently. Who knows what he might be capable of?

Tool of War is also a sort of augment, part YA and part techno-thriller. Unlike the best techno thrillers, this one offers too few info-dumps. It makes up for it in its enthusiasm for classifications, including raptor-class drones, narwhal-class dirigibles, and manta-class schooners. There is also a surplus of military dialogue — “yes sir,” “affirmative,” etc. The plot, meanwhile, moves from action sequences to confrontations between soldiers and their commanding officers to flashbacks to action sequences. It’s easy to turn pages, but it can also become tiring in the same way that listening to too much Metallica while driving can be tiring.

Although the rising seas and transnational organizations may recall many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, the most striking influence on Tool of War seems to be the Jason Bourne films (novels?). An elite soldier wakes at sea wounded and largely forgetful of his past. A powerful organization armed with surveillance technology, drones, and analysts knows more about the hero than he knows about himself. They want to destroy him before what he knows can destroy them. Fortunately, he has friends — and deadly skills. He wants to determine his life, his destiny, and his own missions. He’s going to bring the fight back to them, but maybe he won’t like what he learns when he gets there. It’s almost a spoiler to compare the extreme ways of Jason Bourne and Tool.

Techno-thrillers are often forgiven for limp relationships, but this one’s still didn’t work for me. Jones is an analyst who is constantly at odds with her general, Caroa. Their relationship is too adversarial, and I found the general especially unconvincing — aren’t generals supposed to be at least sometimes in control of their emotions? Tool and Mahlia have a mentor/mentee relationship, but somehow I never came to find it charming in this entry. (I say this as someone who is generally a pushover for mentor characters.) Nailer and Nita’s relationship is a bit more enjoyable, thankfully, but even they are too cutely adversarial for my taste. And they appear too briefly.

I didn’t like Tool of War, but I will note two things in its favour. First, it’s a fast read with a lot of action, which should appeal to some readers. Second, Jayant Patel is great. It occurs to me that Bacigalupi may be at his best writing about negotiators, middle managers, and characters that punch above their weight (Tool, sadly, is unstoppable). Although the dust jacket states that Bacigalupi is “one of science fiction’s undisputed masters,” this novel made me wonder if this claim was undisputed because no one was aware of it. I like several of Bacigalupi’s novels, including the first novel in this series, Ship Breaker, better than Tool of War.

Published October 2017. Set in a dark future devastated by climate change, Tool of War is the third book in a major adventure series by a bestselling and award-winning science fiction author and starring the most provocative character from the acclaimed novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. In this gripping, eerily prescient sci-fi thriller that Kirkus described as “masterful,” Tool–a half-man/half-beast designed for combat–proves himself capable of so much more than his creators had ever dreamed. He has gone rogue from his pack of bioengineered “augments” and emerged a victorious leader of a pack of human soldier boys. But he is hunted relentlessly by someone determined to destroy him, who knows an alarming secret: Tool has found the way to resist his genetically ingrained impulses of submission and loyalty toward his masters… The time is coming when Tool will embark on an all-out war against those who have enslaved him. From one of science fiction’s undisputed masters comes a riveting and all-too-timely page-turner thatexplores the intricate relationships connecting hunter and prey, master and enslaved, human and monster.


  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.