Review – Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

shipbreakerShip Breaker is a dystopian novel of a future America, ravaged by the storms which climatologists suggest are worsening as a result of global warming. It focuses on Nailer, a young teen who works as “light crew” on a ship-breaking operation.

In Nailer’s world you don’t go to school, there is no guarantee of three meals a day, and “home” is, if you’re lucky, a shack assembled out of spare parts. The “health care system” is on middle-aged woman who knows some herbal cures. There’s no suggestion of anything like property ownership. Nailer and his people live on a beach on the Gulf Coast, where no one who had the money to escape would want to stay.

Light crew members crawl inside the rusting hulks of the oil tankers which were abandoned in the Gulf, looking for good salvage. The author never tells us how or why they were abandoned, and it doesn’t matter. They’re there, and the only chance Nailer and his friends have of earning a living is to dissect them and sell their parts. The light crew, all children, because only children are small enough to crawl in the ducts, are largely responsible for bringing out copper wiring and stripping it for sale.

When a kid gets to big to be light crew, he hopes to join the heavy crew, dismantling the hull. If he’s not strong enough for this work, he starves.

Of course, this ugly world is only a sliver of America during Nailer’s time. There are also still rich people, who live somewhere beyond drowned New Orleans. There are also still multi-nationals and, perhaps, governments. After a particularly violent storm in which the home he shares with his drunken, abusive father is destroyed, Nailer finds a clipper ship over turned in the waters of the gulf. Clippers, powered by wind using sails that extend ridiculously far into the air, are the only practical form of transport on the sea now that there is no oil. Nailer goes in to scavenge what he can and finds a survivor, the owner of the yacht, a rich girl his own age. She’s on the run from a murderous family member who wants to take over her father’s company, she needs help to get to safety, and she can pay handsomely for it… if those who help her aren’t murdered.

The story is fast-paced. I had trouble putting it down while reading it. Well-drawn characters show the extremes to which humans can be driven by desperation, and illustrate the attitudes of those raised in poverty contrasted against those born to wealth. The poor don’t come off as saints and the rich don’t come off as spoiled weaklings. All the characters seem real, with foibles and virtues.

If you know me, you know I’m a bit on the fence about climate change and global warming. I do not “deny” climate change. The idea of “denying” something that either can or cannot be proven scientifically is ridiculous. It’s as silly as asking someone if they “believe” in evolution. Science isn’t there to be believed. You either accept the evidence or you don’t. If you don’t, you need to be prepared to make a case, or you’re not competent to hold an opinion. At present, despite a good deal of reading, listening and study, I do not consider myself competent to venture an opinion on global warming science. I simply cannot say, one way or the other, what’s going on. I have an open mind, and I’m willing to review evidence. (And reviewing scientific evidence, for me, never consists of watching anything on television.)

That said, I do consider myself competent to hold an opinion on politics; and I consider most of what’s said about global warming to be political, not scientific. I also consider most of the initiatives being floated to address global warming or climate change to be short-sighted and rooted in both socialism and the belief that humankind is not a natural part of earth’s eco-system.

So I’m probably not a candidate to enjoy a book which takes global warming rhetoric as fact and builds on it. But I did enjoy this book very much. The climate change was not in your face. It simply was. The storms got worse. The oil ran out. The world changed. That’s all believable, and it was done without the author or the characters suggesting that the human race or any particular political party was stupid or had cause to feel ashamed. Indeed, the only critical opinion expressed in the book about what was done in the past regards the repeated rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, which Nailer feels was a bad idea, given that people kept drowning there.

My only complaint about the story, then, regards the end. It was very cinematic. Big action, big, violent, life-and-death conflict, and things getting destroyed around the characters as they tried to escape and find the Maguffin. It was the only time I thought I sensed the author trying to write a movie instead of a book. And that is a huge pet peeve of mine. Because there’s been such big money in books–especially YA books–being turned into movies in the last decade or so, authors are apparently setting out to write screenplay-friendly books. It’s not helping them make better books. Comic books are now subject to the same failings, and it’s the reason why Marvel and DC are now incapable of publishing anything I enjoy reading. They’re not writing stories for readers, they’re creating content which might be used to develop a movie. But while Marvel’s and DC’s literary outputs suck equally, at least Marvel is succeeding at making entertaining films, where as DC’s efforts in that direction are not promising, if Man of Steel is any indication.

Still, this book is worth your time. A gripping story with memorable characters. What higher praise is there for a novel?

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2 thoughts on “Review – Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. I perused The Windup Girl by the same author, but found it unreadable. Instead of describing the scene as “she walked to the door and opened it”, he wrote “she walks to the door and opens it.” I guess that format really fits into what would be written for a screenplay. Is this book written in that same style?

    • No, this one’s written in the more traditional third-person past tense. You’re right, present tense is more suited to screenplays. Comic books, too. But I’ve read novels written in present tense. Can’t name one off-hand, but I have. It’s distracting at first, but I’ve always been able to get used to it. Actually, now that you mention it, I wrote portions of the novella “A Man Walks Into a Bar” in present tense. It was a bitch switching back and forth as a writer. Hope it works for the readers!

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