BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the flooded, post-oil wasteland of the Gulf Coast, a young boy named Nailer is faced with a decision: claim a wrecked ship as salvage and live like a king among the poor, or save the rich girl survivor and perhaps find a way to a better life.
PROS: Outstanding world-building; excellent characterizations; non-stop pacing; never a dull moment.
CONS: The world building is so good, it leaves you wanting more, particularly regarding the unseen northern society.
BOTTOM LINE: Ship Breaker grips you from the start and doesn’t let go.
The near-future world of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is not a pretty one. With severe flooding in the Gulf Coast region of a post-oil United States, its only value is the copper and iron that can be salvaged from uselessly beached oil tankers. The difficult work of stripping the precious metal is done by indentured crews scrambling to make a living – particularly by children since they are small enough to navigate the dangerous ducts of the tankers. A young teenage boy named Nailer is a member of one of these fiercely loyal crews. Like most “ship breakers” he has little hope of a better life beyond making his daily quota. A strong hurricane changes that situation when Nailer discovers a beached clipper ship. He’s faced with the choice of claiming the ship as salvage, thus securing his financial future (as it were) in this Gulf Coast wasteland, or rescuing the affluent girl he finds on board who might be the key to a better life away from everything and everyone that he has ever known.
Nailer’s dilemma plays out nicely against Bacigalupi’s first-rate world building. The localized eco-apocalypse in the Gulf has spawned a trade-based economy that allows corporations to enlist the locals to do their dirty work. Driven by desperation and reliant upon the gods of luck, the crews of the Gulf live day by day, struggling to salvage enough metal to sell back to their corporate masters in exchange for meager earnings. They have a strong sense of family, but at the same time are willing to kill anyone that crosses them. Contrast that risky lifestyle with the “swanks” who live further north and are largely unaware of the existence led by the people in the forsaken Gulf Region, where the trinkets they wear as throwaway jewelry are worth more money than they would see in a month. Bacigalupi’s depiction of this society is first rate and wonderfully gloomy.
But a book is more than just setting; it’s about people, too, and this well-imagined world is populated with interesting and culturally diverse characters. Besides Nailer there’s his friend Pim, a tough-as-nails ship breaker whose mother looks after Nailer because Nailer’s father is abusive and otherwise too drug-addled to care; Sloth, their greedy fellow crew member who, like all of them, is waiting for her one big break from poverty and labor; Tool is a genetically engineered “half-man”, bred with canine loyalty and an animal ferocity to match; and Nita, the rich survivor they call “Lucky Girl” who might not actually be the salvation Nailer hopes she is…a deception she perpetrates to keep her from the blood harvesters. The majority of characters in Ship Breaker are, in fact, driven (sometimes to kill) by the desperation of survival. Nailer, at least, is smart enough to know that he needs a way out of this society. And he trustingly sees Nita as his ticket out.
Before the impression is left that Ship Breaker is all world building and characterization, know that the plight of Nailer is delivered at a relentless, rapid-fire pace. At one level, the book can be seen as a series of gripping action scenes with brief pauses of imaginative world building and it hangs together amazingly well. It’s difficult to not become involved when you see characters you care about on dangerous excursions stripping copper from a loosely fastened duct, or physically confronting a life-threatening parent, or attempting high-speed-train-jumps, or engaged in knife fights, or immersed in high-seas adventure. And while there are elements that you might expect in something labeled young adult (like Nailer overcoming impossible odds, confronted with life-changing choices, and learning that he can control his destiny despite the gods of luck), there are also moments that take an unexpectedly dark turn that make this book stand out from its peers.
Simply put: this book has it all. It grips you and doesn’t let go, which is reason enough to say that Ship Breaker is an outstanding novel.
Want to see for yourself? Read the first 4 chapters of Ship Breaker online and see if you don’t want more.