Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
Nailer (who might be 14, might be 15 - he isn't sure) scrapes out a living by crawling through the ducts of old, long-wrecked oil tankers, pulling out copper wire and anything else valuable he can find for his crew. He and the rest of the ship breakers live day to day in temporary shacks made of found junk, hoping to survive to adulthood and beyond.

After a huge storm (a "city killer"), Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship, which is the term for the light and incredibly fast ships that use sophisticated materials and technology to skim along the ocean's surface on hydrofoils. In the wreck is a girl named Nita, a "swank," who has lived a life Nailer can't even imagine. Against his better judgment, he helps her to escape both the people who have been chasing her and also his own dad, whose villainy knows no bounds - and this decision changes his life.

This is dystopian science fiction but it could just as easily, with some tweaks, take place today. Nailer lives in a Gulf Coast hit by city-killing hurricanes and flooded by rising ocean levels. Oil is a fuel of the past, hence the crippled, obsolete oil tankers, and in fact the earth has been stripped clean of much of its resources. However, the bare and harsh existence Nailer has lived since he was born looks a lot like that of a slum child in India or Brazil or many other third-world countries. Nita, the rich girl, would never call her world a "dystopia" - for her, it's a paradise until it turns upside down.

Nailer isn't always likable. Although he's obviously a good person, his brutal life has made him tough and pragmatic, and he doesn't always waste time being nice. And yet he's clearly so decent and even fragile (being young and not a psychopath) compared to those around him. Except for Nailer, we don't get much of an understanding of the characters, but most of them are fairly interesting and one in particular is fascinating - that of the intriguing dog-man Tool (yes, he's genetically altered), bred to be a loyal fighter bound to a patron but somehow fiercely independent.

This is gritty and violent SF, with little glamor or even advanced technology (except for those clipper ships and a fancy train). It feels much more realistic and likely than another drowned-Earth book, Raiders' Ransom by Emily Diamand (my review), in which the surviving citizens of England have formed clans that resemble something out of the Dark Ages. It's hard to read about the almost insurmountable rift between the millions of teeming masses barely able to survive and the few rich elite - especially since that situation does exist in our world today.

A bit of swash-buckling adventure on the high seas adds a final exciting element to this tale (not to mention giving characters and readers some welcome relief from the muddy, oily coastal setting we are mired in for most of the story), making this all the more recommended for ages 12 and up.

Note: This title is a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in the category Young People's Literature

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