Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. Little, Brown. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: In a future America, teenage Nailer works light crew with other teens, scavenging the parts of rusted-out, abandoned ships that only those small and thin enough can get into. If Nailer is lucky, he will bulk up enough to qualify for the heavy crews that strip the ships. If he is really lucky, he will discover a “lucky strike” that will let him buy his way out of the endless cycle of poverty, work, and brutality that is life on the Gulf Coast.
A hurricane hits and Nailer gets lucky. A luxury clipper ship wrecked. Scavenging this would bring him riches, if he can keep it secret long enough. Only problem is, there is a survivor, a teenage girl, a rich, spoiled “swank.” Rescuing her could mean losing his “lucky strike” — or could be an even luckier strike, if the reward for finding her and keeping her safe is high enough. To “keep her safe” he’ll have to out smart or out fight the desperate people who want to loot the ship, all of them bigger, stronger, and better armed than him. He’ll have to go against the blood oaths he swore with his light crew friends. And scariest of all, he’ll have to confront his father, Richard Lopez, a man whose days are passed in drug-fueled highs and violent fights to the death.
The Good: Bacigalupi’s vision of a post-fossil fuel world offers a look at a “what might be” as well as “what is today.” This is true science fiction. There is no magic, just an imagined scientific future. Coal and oil burning ships are replaced with clipper ships that use high-altitude parasails to harness the jet stream to sail. And wow, talk about “reuse, repair, recycle” in action. The old wrecks of ships are stripped down until nothing is left, each staple, each wire reused. Problem is, the recycling going on is not a clean yuppie version, it’s a dirty, backbreaking, health-killing process that is carried out by the poorest of the poor. I read about ship breaking (taking apart a ship to use its parts) thinking, “wow, Bacigalupi has some imagination!” Then I checked out the book website and saw the report on modern day ship breaking in Bangladesh.
Nailer’s view of the world is limited by his class, his poverty, his geography. He cannot read or write; his knowledge of history, the past, the present, is all based on oral stories. Nita, the “Lucky Girl” he rescues, is rich and educated. Both teens are smart; Nailer is smart enough to want to escape his circumstances, Nita is smart enough to figure out how to adapt to her new circumstances. Bacigalupi weaves their stories and knowledge in such a way that no infodump ever occurs. The book starts with Nailer deep in the ducts of a ship, an action filled beginning that includes Nailer almost getting lost and trapped in the maze of the inside of the dead ship. The reader is quickly brought up to speed with what Nailer is doing, the economics of it, the blood oaths that crew members take and just how important that loyalty is to everyday survival and what it means to betray it. Later on, the contrast between Nita’s and Nailer’s lives and experiences provides more information to the reader, via conversation. The reader learns more as Nailer learns more. It’s a deeply complex world, one of those where the sequel (and the author is working on one!) could be the continuation of Nailer’s story or could just as easily take place in Nailer’s world but in a different time and place.
Nailer’s world is multicultural and multiethnic. Nailer describes himself as no one thing: brown skin and black hair like his mother, blue eyes from his father, Richard Lopez. His best friend Pima is “black as oil and hard as iron,” someone else is “skinny and pale,” another is “the shade of brown rice.” Nita, part of a powerful family, is a Chaudhury and a Patel.
One of the many fascinating things Bacigalupi has done is create not just a future world, but a future culture. There are throwaway religious references that never overwhelm but instead give depth to the story, letting us know that the future has a mix of strange and familiar beliefs: Fates, Ganesha, Jesus Christ, the Rust Saint, the Life Cult. Nailer and his friends and family are marked by tattoos and piercings to show who they are, what they are a member of, or whether — if a tattoo is cut — they belong nowhere. One of the first things Nailer notices about Nita is how smooth and clean her skin is. The use of markings to show identity or membership is not new; but what struck me, reading it, is the permanence of it that reflects both how serious that membership is and how impossible it then would be for someone to move beyond their current existence. Nailer’s body will forever mark him as a ship breaker from the Gulf Coast.
Ship Breaker is breathless, non stop action, with barely room to breathe. Getting lost in ships, hurricanes, deadly infections, knife battles, and that’s just the first third! The world-building is done so seamlessly that it’s not noticed. Along the way, much is given to the reader to think about. This is set in the future, but all the big questions are about our today: the divide between the haves and have nots, the ecological impact of actions, the use of child labor, as well as questions about loyalty, choice, and fate.
Everything is stacked against Nailer, from his violent upbringing to his daily exposure to health risks to his scarred body. Still, he strives, to escape, to better himself, to be a better person. I love this boy. I want him to win. I want him to triumph. So of course this is a Favorite Book Read in 2010.