BICS, 9-10 October 2010

New Releases: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

340x_ship-breaker Ship Breaker (2010) is a young adult, post-apocalyptic, science fiction novel from Paolo Bacigalupi. The titular character is Nailer, a teenager who lives (barely) and works (hard) on one of the polluted coasts of North America.

Nailer is part of one of many hundreds of crews that swarm over derelict ships and dismantle them for their raw components. In the post-greenhouse-meltdown world, resources are scarce - if it weren't for the crews, there'd be no materials left at all.

Nailer's world is a brutal one. The crews are part of a nasty, feudal society. Teens like Nailer are caught between roles - growing too big to crawl through ducts in search of valuable wire, but not big enough to join the adults that dismantle heavy machinery. There's nowhere to fit in and, of course, no escape.

Nailer's luck takes a turn for the better when he makes a massive find. One of the newfangled, "swank" clipper ships has washed ashore. The only thing that stands between Nailer and valuable, life-changing salvage? The near-dead young girl that he founds on board.

Fortunately, this being a young adult book, so Nailer does the right thing. Also, she's hot.

Nailer and Nita (his pretty new friend from the right side of the tracks) are forced to run. As well as being pursued by Nita's high-class corporate enemies and Nailer's low-class gangland foes, they have to deal with the brutal facts of life in their ruined world. Any infection is potentially lethal. A rat makes for a good meal. Half-dogs roam the streets as corporate assassins (ok, the last is a little far-fetched, but give the author credit for having a bit of fun). Bacigalupi's future is a bleak and uninviting one.

Ship Breaker is, ultimately, a good story, if not a particularly insightful one. It dances near serious themes, but then sashays away at the last minute. There aren't really a lot of problems that aren't quickly resolved in the next chapter, and most personal relationships don't get explored any more deeply than a confession of "liking" (or even "not liking"). Nailer's world is divided into good people and bad people. Occasionally there's a bit of drama when a bad person turns out to be a good person, but that doesn't happen often enough to be a source of real anxiety for anyone involved. It all concludes in a surprisingly upbeat fairy-tale ending that defies current trends in young adult genre fiction - daring to give the reader satisfaction instead of setting up the gloomy sequel.

Ship Breaker isn't a flawless book by any means. Bacigalupi tends to wax preachy when it comes to the use and abuse of natural resources. Agree or disagree, he lays it on a bit thick and interrupts his own storytelling. Having a world with The Orleans (and "The Orleans 2" and two other cities on the same spot) all destroyed by "city killer" hurricanes - all caused by the stripping of barrier islands - is shamefully heavy-handed. Similarly, the characters all become uncharacteristically chatty when the topic of consumerism comes to the fore.

Ship Breaker is, largely, an old-fashioned Boy's Own adventure. A young man goes in search of his fortune and, after proving himself morally righteous, finds it. It is a tried and true formula, and one that the author adopts well. An enjoyable book - just one that sometimes gets distracted by another agenda.