Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Genre: Science fiction, post apocalyptic, young adult
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: The abandoned oil tankers lining the Gulf Coast are the source of life for the poor people living on the shore. Crews work constantly, stripping the ships of everything salvageable – copper wire, steel, items left behind. Sometimes you find an excellent and highly lucrative scavenge, or your “Lucky Strike” – something that will lift you out of poverty. Nailer, a teenaged boy working the ships, hopes to find a Lucky Strike that will take him away from his abusive father. But when his chance comes for a better life in the form of a stranded “swank” (an extremely wealthy person) who needs his assistance, Nailer must prove that he’s both lucky and smart enough to get out.
After being blown away by Nothing, I wanted to read the book that won the Printz Award over the others. I had read a description of the novel, and it just sounded like an adventure set in a dystopian America. Psh, I thought, it can’t be as deep or well written as Nothing. Well, I am glad I put my existential-loving bias aside and gave Ship Breaker a chance. It’s a thrilling adventure with moral and philosophical undertones that make it a really engaging read.
I think the best part of the book is the lack of backstory. There is no awkward introduction into Nailer’s world, no forced history lesson that takes you away from the immediacy of the text. Bacigalupi creates the world around Nailer, and we have to figure out what happened from context clues. Humans destroyed the environment, and we let the divide between the poor and wealthy grow even greater. Normal society is broken, and you are either swank, poor, or slightly better off and in charge of the poor. There are also different factions that formed in the wake of the social apocalypse. There are Harvesters, people to whom you sell body parts for cash. And also crazy religious cults (we can never get rid of religious nutbags, even after the apocalypse. Sigh.). There are light crews and heavy crews, boss people, nailsheds, shipping clans, and more inhabiting this America. Even though Bacigalupi drops you right into the story without much explanation, you still are able to inhabit the world right away. He trusts the reader to get it, which is refreshing.
The world itself is really grim, but realistically so. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine America slipping into this desolate place where the poor fend for themselves and the rich get even richer. (Well, that’s how it is now. But even worse). This believability made the text seem more urgent, almost portentous. There are cities submerged in water, trapped under the surface of rising sea levels. Storms tear through the land as the natural barriers were destroyed. People are desperate for work, or for any sort of money that will ease their extremely tough life. This terrible situation causes people to revert to more superstitious beliefs. There is a Scavenge God, to whom you make sacrifices in order to stay safe or who will perhaps help you get a Lucky Strike. When Nailer escapes a deadly situation, people give him “luck gifts” hoping some will rub off on them.
This whole idea of luck is really important in the novel. Lucky Strikes are something that constantly come up, and it really speaks to the absolute hell the people live in. Some are willing to give up all things – crew loyalty, family, their very humanity – in order to get that chance at a better life. Even as you judge the characters that do terrible things, you can’t help but ask if you’d do the same. If your family was dying of starvation, how far would you go to help them survive? But as Nailer says, it’s not just about luck. It’s also being smart enough to utilize the luck that has befallen you. It’s also about choice – whether or not our genetics define who we are. Nailer’s father is an absolute psycho – when he isn’t high or beating Nailer, he is brutally running a crew. People tell Nailer he is so much like his father, in his looks and build. Nailer struggles with this throughout the novel, and must learn how our decisions and feelings make us who we are.
A character who adds to the theme of nature vs nuture is Tool. He is what the people call a “half-man.” They are genetic mutations, a mixture of men, hyenas, and other things that I can’t remember right now. Created in a lab, they are totally loyal to one human. The sci-fi element really comes into play with these half-men characters. But Tool has agency, and tells Nailer that he too can make decisions that aren’t influenced by his genes. While the creatures introduced another layer to the text (what does it mean to be human?) they needed more explanation. And yes, I know I said earlier I liked not having too much backstory. However, nothing else in the world seemed to be genetically engineered. I feel more things would’ve been fucked with had the technology been available, so this element of the story could use some beefing up to make it more believable or necessary. I also wanted to know more about Tool, and how he came to have free will. But I suppose that is part of the mystery.
Back to Nailer – he really makes the book what it is. Bacigalupi doesn’t allow Nailer to shy away from very tough decisions. Sometimes, Nailer isn’t very sympathetic. He isn’t afraid of violence, and he can also be selfish and sneaky. But he also has a fierce determination to live, and remains loyal to the people he calls family. The other characters are also really well-developed. Nita, the swank girl Nailer decides to help rescue, turns out to be more than a pretty rich girl. Though she is sheltered, she learns to adapt quickly to her surroundings. She can be haughty in one breath, and very humane in the next. Then there is Pima, the head of Nailer’s crew, a tough, shrewd girl who is always there for him. She thinks Nailer is nuts for helping Nita instead of selling her off to the highest bidder, but she helps him regardless of this opinion. That’s what family is for, after all. These and other characters inhabiting the future America, combined with the plot and pacing, make the story both an exciting read and one that makes you ask serious questions of yourself. And that’s a rare combination in any type of literature.
-Highly believable future, which adds to the gravity of the novel
-Deeper philosophical themes temper the high-action plot
-Excellent characters, with flaws and shining moments
-Beautiful, lyrical language
-Half-men creatures seem out of place in the world
-Everything is wrapped up super-neatly, too much so
This existential 20-something loved this book. With its subtle and sophisticated take on human choices, it’s a smart and gripping adventure well-deserving of the accolades it’s achieved.