Sunday, April 22, 2012
Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
I had previously read his 2010 Hugo-award winning novel, The Windup Girl, and enjoyed it very much (though I'll admit that I preferred the award-tied The City & The City by China Mieville). Hence, I decided to check this novel out and see if he still has the skills.
I read this fast, very fast. Bacigalupi has created a truly engaging story made ready accessible thanks to its simple language and plot. That's not to say that this is a shallow book: it's set in a very realistic postapocalyptic world and deals with the issues of global warming, famine, and our dependence on oil.
The book is about a young man whose life has been to strip apart ships and sell them as scrap. Everything changes for him when he finds a much more advanced clipper ship near the shore, and a rich girl alive inside. Abandoning the promise of wealth from stripping the ship and ransoming the girl, he instead sets out to help her return home in the hopes that she can give him a better life.
The plot, though simple, is actually not that easy to predict. It takes a while (until Nailer and company discover the stranded clipper) for it to take off and there are many places I thought 'X will now happen' and instead something completely different happens. This unpredictability made me keep reading to see how the story progressed. Only near the end was I able to predict some of the events and recognize the earlier foreshadowing.
The plot is very focused in this book. There are very few scenes that are superfluous; everything feels like it happens for a reason. The only potential loose end is Tool, but I understand makes an appearance in the 'sequel' The Drowned Cities and regardless it's not that Ship Breaker feels incomplete. This is very different from many of the books I read (for example, epic fantasies) where a multitude of events and topics are introduced but only some of them are pertinent to the story, the rest serve to flesh out the world.
This is a young adult novel and it shows: there is only one point of view through the story and the character struggles with some of the same issues any young man will, albeit in a far different setting than most readers will be familiar with. The story focuses on the young boy Nailer, also known as Lucky Boy. He is a ship breaker, a scavenger whose job is to go into wrecked oil tankers and strip them for parts. He is part of a crew of other young men and women stuck in the same place, with the same hard labor. Nailer has lost his mother and his father is an abusive addict and alcoholic. You can tell things aren't really working for him.
The character that changes everything is Nita, Lucky Girl. She is a swank, a rich girl, whose clipper ship has crashed into the sunken remains of a city near Nailer. The book initially presents us with the familiar viewpoint of us vs them, with the good guys being the poor ship breakers in Bright Sands Beach and the bad guys being the greedy corporations. However, Nita turns this around by being a nice, likable character and showing us that even the corporation struggle within themselves to do what is right. It's not a very satisfying scenario (we want to hate the corporations), but it reveals that the world is much more complex than we can imagine.
Other characters, like Tool, Richard (Nailer's father), Candless, Pima, etc, make important contributions to the story. However, as the focus is on Nailer alone we never learn their full story and only perceive them through Nailer's lens.
Setting / World Building
Bacigalupi has created a completely believable world set after peak oil, world-wide famine, and global warming have changed society. Extremely strong hurricanes, genetically engineered humans, higher sea levels, shipping lanes through the ice-empty North Pole, and a greater dichotomy between the have's and have-not's are just some of the features this world has. Nothing is too surprising, but everything seems so real- a natural projection from today's society. It's a bleak world, but it's our world.
I get the feeling that Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl are both set in the same universe. One of the characters, Tool, is a genetically engineered half-man and it's mentioned that these, and others, are modified humans produced in Nippon. This is exactly the same situation as the windup girl herself. The setting on these two novels and their focus, though, is very different. If anything, they present two separate views into the same world. The Drowned Cities continues exploring this universe, though I've heard it is not a strict sequel to Ship Breaker.
I enjoyed the book quite a bit and was astonished at how quickly I finished it. I could easily have read a few hundred more pages without trouble. It feels a lot simpler and cleaner than The Windup Girl, but also touches on many of the similar themes. I think I enjoyed that book more than Ship Breaker, but I can still recommend either without reservations. One thing to note is that this is a young adult novel and it really shows in how it deals with characters and the plot, though it does have some very dark things (like murder, addiction, etc) thrown into the mix. I look forward to The Drowned Cities when it's released May 1st, though I may have to wait a while before checking it out.