Ship Breaker is the first young adult novel written by Paulo Bacigalupi, a new but critically acclaimed science fiction writer who recently won a Nebula award for The Windup Girl. This is no light read in terms of poverty, abuse, violence, and environmental conditions – but at the same time a fun, action-filled read set in a vivid dystopianworld.
Ship Breaker is about a boy named Nailer, who lives in grinding poverty and works in near-slavery conditions as a ship breaker, meaning he is part of a team that salvages light materials like wire from the hulks of rotted-out ships. Young children are used for this work primarily because they can get into small places, and even though the work is deadly these children fight each other for every job.
Nailer has an abusive, drug-addicted father and his mother is dead. The bonds of the crew he works with are far greater than those of family, but even crew will betray each other to survive. His only friends are an older girl named Pima, who is also the boss of his team, and Pima’s mother.
Nailer dreams of someday sailing on one of the new clipper ships, rather than the old coal-burning iron freighters and oil tankers he climbs through every day. He thinks his luck has changed when, after a hurricane, a clipper ship filled with wealth (china, silver, jewelry) washes up on shore and he and Pima are the ones to find it. The dead bodies filling the ship don’t bother him too much – he’s used to death and violence – but then he finds the almost dead body of a girl who is clearly the daughter of the ship owner. Should he save her and give up the wealth that would change his life? Pima is ready to leave her for dead but Nailer can’t.
From there the story takes a number of turns, as Nailer’s father turns on him and begins hunting him for the wealth he knows this girl (Nita) will bring if sold to her enemies. Nailer has to try to get her home in safety, and while he sincerely wants to help he also hopes she will change his life if he does.
Nailer is a sympathetic character who doesn’t always use his head, but at least his heart is in the right place. He trusts this rich girl when no one else does. It could have been stronger on character development, especially the development of the relationship between Nailer and Nita, which remains largely superficial. They depend on each other for survival but it’s not clear how much they get to know each other. But this is a young adult book and young teens are not likely to get into that much depth. The book is action-focused and the pacing of the action is well-done. I hate when the action scenes in a book are too fast, too non-stop, or completely unbelievable – this book had none of that.
The world that Bacigalupi establishes is a frightening one. It’s mostly modern day – the work of ship breaking, child labor, differences in extreme wealth and extreme poverty, abuse and drug addiction – these are not futuristic elements but very real ones. Ship breaking exists today, primarily in India and Bangladesh, with the serious health hazards and environmental impacts that Bacigalupi describes.
We know the book is set in the near future primarily because New Orleans is no longer a livable city – the city was wiped out by frequent hurricanes, caused in large part by oil drilling which eroded the wetlands and left the city unprotected. Bacigalupi makes the same point about the melting of polar icecaps in Antarctica. These items are less than subtle and not really necessary to the story.
More interesting, society has learned to genetically engineer a race of “half-men” who seem to be part man, part dog but with super strength and trained to fight to the death. These “men” are treated as slaves and also engineered to be so loyal to their masters they will die voluntarily if those masters go away.
Nailer is assisted by one of these half-men, who has broken out of the slavery he was engineered for and now lives independently. No one who meets him can understand how this is possible, and yet he exists. Bacigalupi raises concerns not only about genetic engineering but slavery in general – how we justify slavery by seeing enslaved people as less than human, who are not capable of living independently, and who lack the emotional capacity to suffer as we do. There is a scene where Nailer questions one of the half-men about whether he can break his bonds with his master, and it’s incredibly painful to watch the half-man struggle with this question when he is “programmed” not to question.
Bacigalupi excels in his vivid descriptions of the world, the ships, and the characters, who are described to the level of skin color even where race isn’t an explicit issue in the book. These details make for a much more compelling read – I don’t know much about the inside of ships but from the description I felt like I was experiencing the events as Nailer did.
I don’t know if this is the beginning of a series but it certainly could be. These issues could be explored in much more depth, and I would like to see what happens to Nailer next.