The B3 crew has read and reviewed some YA books recently, but one book kept coming to the top of the buzz worthy list, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. A post-apocalyptic tale of a young man, a bleak existence and possible salvation.
Ship Breaker kicks off in intensely claustrophobic fashion with our hero, Nailer, scurrying through the bowels of a long dead commercial vessel beached on the Gulf Coast shores.
As a reader familiar with the world of modern ship breaking (where giant commercials vessels are disassembled by hand in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh ) Ship Breaker’s microcosm is instantly a sad setting. Bacigalupi however takes us deeper into a world devastated by natural disasters, further fractured by politics and economic tugs of war.
And yet for all the desperation and systemic poverty, this book strangely is not sad. It is grim, but more like the grim determination of humanity moving forward after disaster. The haves vs. the have nots. Humanity is reorganizing, re-purposing the wastes of the past while forging a new future.
Ship Breaker is a wrecked Industrial Revolution rebooted.
As far as characters, Nailer is a perfect lead, strong and young. His moral strength surpasses that of his wiry frame. Nailer’s morality was certainly not learned from his murderous, abusive father who appears like a shark at pivotal moments throughout Ship Breaker. Nailer’s real family are his fellow ship breakers, tough love born out of the instinct to survive. Life is a commodity while empathy is a luxury.
After nearly drowning in a pocket of oil in the guts of a ship, Nailer’s life takes one dramatic turn after another. A massive storm changes his course next, before pushing Nailer to a wrecked cutter that completely alters the trajectory of his life.
With the introduction of ‘Lucky Girl,’ the bejeweled sole survivor of the ‘swank’ cutter, Nailer’s moral compass is spun a last time. Scavenge the clipper, kill the girl or save her? The hardest decision of an already hard life.
Bacigalupi as futurist writes nuggets of details (especially about the sleek carbon-fiber hulled cutters) blending in accessible near future technology and scientific extrapolations. Bacigalupi’s most ambitious addition to this YA world are the “half-men,” genetically engineered serfs, slave and attack dogs, literally. These “augments” as they are also known, are genetic hybrids of man and animal.
This flooded world and genetic beasts of burden reminded us of Satoru Ozawa’s post-apocalyptic manga Blue #6 (adapted as anime in recent years.) In Ship Breaker a character favorite of this reader was a ‘half-man’ known as ‘Tool.’ Filling the role of a dog faced Queequeg, Tool is a vicious man with a strong sense of independence and knife edge morality.
The settings for Nailer’s adventures leap from the beach to the wrecked stagnant ponds that were once cities, to bustling commercial future- retropolis and eventually out to a strange future sea.
Ship Breakers is not deeply introspective, but that is the only thing missing and probably a by-product of the age-group it was written for. The action is frequent and on the edge of Pg-13, with the climactic battle gruesome and smartly foreshadowed. There is not a perfume whiff of romance between Nailer and Lucky Girl to slow the plot, so the story propels forward to its maelstrom climax.
At the end of the day, Ship Breaker might a Young Adult book, but its maturity and sense of adventure should appeal to readers regardless of age or gender.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi was purchased for review by the Boston Book Bums