Ship Breaker (by Paolo Bacigalupi)

3 08 2011

With dystopia almost as the new science fiction, and contemporary reality-based dystopia[1] as one of the most used fads in YA these days, it’s hardly surprising that an author like Paolo Bacigalupi, whose roots lie in classic sci-fi, would try to fuse the two and come up with a book like Ship Breaker. But in essence, Ship Breaker is way old school and basically delivers – besides the dystopia – a straight up adventure story, featuring a boy and his troubled life.

The boy is Nailer, one of the light crew who scavenges ships and dismantles the old oil tankers that lie along the shores of what once was the Gulf Coast. His troubled life is decided by that great old divide between the haves and the have nots. Nailer is a have not, who longs for a Lucky Strike before he gets too big to be a member of ‘light crew’.  When he almost drowns in a sea of oil (which he thinks might be his lucky strike), one of his crew members decides not to help him, and as such betrays the blood oath that exists between crew members. This event introduces us to the first major theme of the novel: loyalty. Loyalty gets tested on several levels: loyalty between crew members, loyalty between family members, etc. The lucky strike that Nailer and his friend Pima are waiting for seems to come when they encounter a girl, who is the only survival of a city killer, on her clipper. The encounter with Nita, the Lucky Girl, further explores the theme of loyalty, but it also introduces us to the concept of justice vs. loyalty, and what the value of human life is, in this post-oil era.

With an abundance of books about similar circumstances, the strength of Ship Breaker does not lie in the originality of its theme, but in the way that Bacigalupi builds up his story and the way that he lets the reader be his/her own reader. In an almost show but don’t tell way, there is a message to be found here somewhere in the novel, yes a warning even, but it’s very well disguised as a linear adventure story of a boy’s struggles in the face of adversity. It doesn’t exactly tell us how the world arrived where it arrived, but it shows us what it looks like now, what creatures walk the new earth, leaving a lot to the imagination of the individual reader to make his/her own back story. My main point: Bacigalupi never gets overly explicit, because there’s simply no time: the action pushes the reader and the story forward. There’s a sentence here, a sentence there, where Bacigalupi does indeed tell us what’s what, but he never wallows in preachy messages, but instead shows us a post global warming brave new dystopia, in which there are half-men, city killers (worse than type 6 hurricanes),  ship breakers (the have nots scavenging what’s left of the old world) and swanks (the ridiculously rich haves).

It’s a fairly risky path to take as an author, because this also means that with the exception maybe of the protagonist Nailer, there’s virtually no back story to the other characters. The most notable example here is Tool, a half-men who – contrary to the rest of his race – does not pledge allegiance to just one master. Of course, the question is whether Tool would still be such an interesting character if his past weren’t shrouded in mystery the way it is now. Bacigalupi now lets us make up our own mind for ourselves, based Tool’s actions throughout the story. It’s a risky undertaking, but in the end it makes for a far more realistic story. People encounter people, things happen, you make decisions, you move on, you act on your decision (or not). Especially in a grim world like Nailer’s there’s no time to wallow in what was or might have been. You act or you don’t act. And it’s your actions that decide who you are as a person, not your genes…Tool, or Nailer, or any other character in the story, would not be who they are, if they constantly looked back.

Ship Breaker is one of those books that can appeal to so many different types of readers (probably a reason why it won so many awards). Whether you want a fairly simple adventure story, or a novel with a message, a bit of sci-fi, a teensy weensy hint of romance, or just an action-packed afternoon read,… Ship Breaker delivers. Having a bit of everything is both its strength and its weakness, though. There will be a companion book soon (Bacigalupi does not want to call it a sequel), The Drowned Cities, which will undoubtedly draw in even more readers, and which will hopefully give us more of the raw universe that was sketched in Ship Breaker. Either way, the cat looks forward to it.


[1] The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Carbon Diaries 2015 and 2017, to name but a few  (all recently read by the cat, though not all reviewed on this blog).

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1 07 2012
The Drowned Cities (by Paolo Bacigalupi) « Ringo the Cat's Blog

[...] 2011 Paolo Bacigalupi won the Michael L. Printz award with Ship Breaker and this year the companion novel The Drowned Cities has been appearing on a lot of [...]

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