Last year, I was totally blown away by Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, which has since gone on to win a Nebula, is in the running for a Hugo award later this year and was named as one of Time Magazine's top ten books of the year. The book certainly deserves that attention, and Bacigalupi has rapidly established himself as a rising star in the genre, already with the Theodore Sturgeon award for his short story The Calorie Man in 2006, as well as several Hugo and Nebula nominations for The Calorie Man and The People of Sand and Slag. It comes as no surprise, then, that Ship Breaker, his first foray into Young Adult fiction, is a high quality and fast paced novel, one that is both thought provoking and exciting to the reader.
Set at some point in the indeterminate future, Ship Breaker could easily fit into the worlds that have been established in Bacigalupi's other stories. The age of cheap energy has ended, and the consequences of that time have caught up to civilization. Global warming has caused the oceans to rise and society's boundaries to shift. In the former Gulf Coast region, Nailer Lopez is a Ship Breaker, a young man who is part of a team that goes onboard abandoned and decaying oil tankers and transport ships, stripping them of their wiring and anything of value, which is then turned into a sort of company boss, who sells them to someone else. The citizens in this region are an indentured workforce, unable to move away or to seek out a better life.
For Nailer, his prospects shift dramatically when a major storm (nicknamed a ‘City Killer’, something akin to Katrina, most likely), comes through the area, blowing to shore an advanced clipper ship, one with the daughter of a wealthy company owner onboard. Nailer must navigate through a complicated set of events, each of which can fundamentally change his life for better or worse. Throughout the story, he is faced with choices: to take a monumental risk and hope for something better to happen because of it, or act on his instincts, preserving what is familiar. This is a theme that permeates the book throughout, and for that reason, it’s a solid addition to the Young Adult market, because of the lessons that can be learned from it.
What truly stands out for Ship Breaker, much like The Windup Girl, is that Bacigalupi’s vision of the future, one that seems firmly rooted in reality, transposing current issues into the future. Ironically, I picked up this book around the same time as the ongoing Deepwater Horizon explosion and read it during the resulting oil spill that has since contaminated much of the Gulf in the past five weeks. With that in the back of my mind, it’s clear that Bacigalupi has a point throughout his stories: we need to care for our environment, and his biopunk stories (including the fantastic People of Sand and Slag) really look to this theme.
Like The Windup Girl, this story also integrates a fantastic cast of characters into the environment that he’s put together. Nailer is highly relatable for a protagonist, someone caught in the middle of a vast number of changes outside of his control, and provides a very heroic figure throughout, but one who is tortured by his choices, such as his relationship with his abusive and violent father, and some of his fellow workers. ‘Lucky Girl’, or Nita, plays a sort of damsel in distress, whom Nailer discovers after the storm. Tool is a ‘half-man’, a bioengineered guard, composed of human and canine DNA , who’s broken away from his genetic programming to assist Nailer. All of these elements blend together in a notable book, one that is likely to really win awards.
What struck me the most, however, is the detail and care that has been put into the world-building of this future. While the plot left me wanting a bit more (and keeping in mind that this was a YA novel), what left me far more interested in finishing was the society and issues that Bacigalupi has put into the story. There’s a major stratification of society between the rich and poor, with major industrial powers rising, and with people looking to survive off of whatever they can find. There’s an immense amount of relevant commentary within this book, even though at points, I found the plot to be somewhat predictable. Despite that, it’s certainly far superior to most YA novels that I’ve read recently, and it’s certainly something that will bring more attention to Mr. Bacigalupi.
In the end, Ship Breaker is an exciting and rewarding read, one that is good, and should bring new messages and meanings to a variety of age groups, whether it is to the young adult demographic or to adult speculative fiction readers. Bacigalupi presents, once again, a frightening vision of the future, one that seems very likely to me. While I did not feel that it’s up to the same caliber as The Windup Girl, it stands very well on its own, and leaves me wanting much more from Bacigalupi’s world.