Paolo Bacigalupi brings his unique style and science fiction sensibility to young adult fiction with Ship Breaker. If you were all, “I want my kid to read some socially conscious SF about the future of our society as global warming slowly takes hold” but were also all, “Holy shit The Water Knife has a lot of swearing and death in it!” then Ship Breaker is the book to recommend. It reminds me a lot of The Water Knife in how Bacigalupi skilfully portrays the bleakness that could accompany a warmed-over planet. And even if the violence and brutality is slightly toned down in comparison, make no mistake: this book has its share of violence, of killing—but also compassion. Above all else, it reminds us that the line between civilization and barbarity is thinner than we would like, and often which side we fall on is more a matter of luck than smarts or skill.
Ship breaking is a real industry; you can read about it in this National Geographic article from 2014. Bacigalupi is not merely fantasizing that someday we will be desperate enough to send kids into the hulks of old ships for their wire and metal. It happens nowadays in Bangladesh; his only embroidery is transposing it to the Gulf Coast. This Gulf Coast has been devastated by super-storms and other effects of climate change. New Orleans has been gutted multiple times. On the much altered coastline, in Bright Sands Bay, Nailer and other people—children, really—break ships for little pay and almost no protection. That all changes when Nailer and a friend stumble upon a wrecked clipper ship and find a survivor—a “swank” girl rich enough to be worth something if they keep her alive.
But before we meet the swank Nita, Bacigalupi does his best to introduce us to Nailer’s rough existence. It’s striking because there is nothing romantic about it. Bacigalupi very explicitly depicts everything about Nailer’s job as subsistence and survival: it is back-breaking, life-threatening, dirty and terrible work. You don’t know who to trust. Your parents might be dead or absent or abusive. The people paying you would just as soon see you gone or turned out on the beach if you can’t work for whatever reason. Nailer is lucky enough to be small for his age and able to work light crew, to crawl in the tight spaces and remove the smaller but valuable pieces of ship. One day he’ll get too big. Their crew boss girl, Pima, is verging on that moment—too big for light crew, too small for heavy crew, no idea where else she will go. This is a society from which there is no easy exit. There is no education, no regulation, no safety net.
Bacigalupi has a talent for immediately reminding us that your circumstances of birth are a fluke, a roll of the dice, yet inordinately influence what you become. I saw this in The Windup Girl and The Water Knife both, and along with his motifs of global warming and slightly-recognizable worlds, he returns to this theme in Ship Breaker. Unlike many authors whose recurring themes become staid and predictable, Bacigalupi so far has always delivered a story that is utterly unique and devastating for both its complexity and the heart-breaking narrative it contains. In this case, Nailer is clearly an intelligent but also compassionate person. Yet until very late in the book, he hasn’t even learned how to read. All he knows is barely getting by, working day in and day out on the crew, and huddling in beach huts—when they haven’t been washed away by a super-storm, that is. His life and conditions are so squalid compared to what I grew up with, and the worst part is that they aren’t even unrealistic. There are kids like Nailer all over the world, right now, growing up in conditions as poor or worse than his. Growing cold and becoming killers not because they are but because they have to be, if they want to survive.
Ship Breaker reminds us that we are only ever a power failure away from chaos, if you know what I mean. Give people food and running water (and these days, Internet) and they are civil. Take away our technology, our warmth, our comfort, and we revert to something barely more recognizable than animals. Bacigalupi emphasizes this with his inclusion of the half-men or augments, who are created from a mixture of animal DNA, including dogs, hyenas, and tigers. These half-men are fanatically loyal to whomever purchases them from the breeding houses; they are bred to hunt and to kill, yet they are in some ways more predictable and reserved than people like Nailer’s murderous, double-crossing father. Humans are both violent and tenaciously mutable in our convictions, and that is dangerous.
The plot rests on Nailer’s gradually growing relationship with Nita. Bacigalupi develops this at a nice pace: Nailer spares Nita out of decency, initially, but also with a plan for profit. He doesn’t always fully trust her, but she starts to prove herself to him—and vice versa. The layer of unrequited romance, so often present but not always deserved in YA, works very well here (and whether it’s a case of unrequited love or star-crossed love I wasn’t too sure, and it looks like the second book is a companion rather than sequel, so I guess I’ll never know). I like how Bacigalupi shows us, from Nailer’s perspective, that there is this whole, wider world out there he has never glimpsed until now, without overwhelming the reader with exposition that is irrelevant to the plot. We learn about the Patel Corporation, and the trader and fighting clipper ships that dominate the ocean in these days, but we know little enough about the geopolitical situation beyond that. And that works here, because it doesn’t really matter to Nailer’s story. What matters are the decisions he makes, which start off as decisions made merely for survival but soon become ones built from courage and self-sacrifice as he starts to care more about rescuing Nita than merely living another day. This transformation, this growth, is quite a beautiful thing against such a backdrop of ugliness and squandered opportunity.
Ship Breaker is my third novel by Bacigalupi, and so far he has not gone wrong for me. His writing is clear and sadly has notes of prescience. He hews closely to the trends of our current society, hinting at the tenor of the future if not its entire melody. Despite delivering such critical social commentary, his books are not preachy; they are, if anything, extremely entertaining adventures. I highly recommend this one, for teens or adults, young or old.