When an accident leads Nailer to discover an exquisite clipper ship and its lone survivor beached during a recent hurricane, he must choose between his dreams and doing the right thing. The decision will lead him on an adventure that could cost him his life -- or end up saving it.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 54.
- Review Date: 2010-04-19
- Reviewer: Staff
SF novelist Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl) makes a stellar YA debut with this futuristic tale of class imbalance on the Gulf Coast. Teenage Nailer scavenges ships with his crewmates, eking out a poverty-filled existence while avoiding dangers that range from giant “city killer” hurricanes to his vicious, drug-addicted father. When a storm strands a beautiful shipping heiress on the beach (earning her the nickname “Lucky Girl”), Nailer manages both to infuriate members of his camp (including his father) and to become embroiled in upper-class trade disputes that he barely comprehends. As Nailer and Lucky Girl escape toward the drowned ruins of New Orleans, they witness rampant class disparity on individual and international levels (tribes whose lands were flooded have taken to the seas as pirates, attacking multinational shipping firms). Bacigalupi's cast is ethnically and morally diverse, and the book's message never overshadows the storytelling, action-packed pacing, or intricate world-building. At its core, the novel is an exploration of Nailer's discovery of the nature of the world around him and his ability to transcend that world's expectations. Ages 12–up. (May)
Boy's adventure in a frightening near-future
Ship Breaker, the new novel from highly acclaimed author Paolo Bacigalupi, poses a challenge to critics: How do you explain how good it is without a dozen “spoiler alerts”? One of science fiction’s pleasures is the dislocation it confronts readers with, sometimes from page one. Reading along and finding yourself in outer space, under water or in a future you never envisioned creates the sense of wonder the best sci-fi inspires. To give away too much would be cruel, but here are the basics:
The story follows Nailer, a teenage boy and one of the “ship breakers” of the title, as he scavenges for copper wire inside the ductwork of grounded oil tankers, off the Gulf Coast of an America sometime in our future. He has cruel bosses, difficult quotas and a dangerous job which he’ll soon grow too big to do anymore. So when he stumbles upon a clipper ship washed ashore in a hurricane, it seems as though he’s hit the jackpot. Instead, what he finds inside the ship forces him to reconsider his life so far—and his chances for a better, and happier, future.
The novel has surprises in store, not least among them the juxtaposition of a bleak landscape (including forced labor, grinding poverty and drug addiction) with a nautical adventure story, and ultimately a touching discussion about the families we surround ourselves with for comfort and survival, whose ties run deeper than blood. Bacigalupi’s seeming ease in tying these themes together, and interweaving them with a dark take on the consequences of oil scarcity, is evidence of his talent. He paints a vivid portrait of the scavengers’ culture with perfectly chosen details: Facial tattoos that serve as work permits, glowing LED face paint to illuminate the darkened ducts, the luxury of rat on a stick and the scary amphetamine-like drug “crystal slide” all bring their world to life. Ship Breaker is definitely worth exploring, and offers much for readers to take away.
Heather Seggel reads and writes in Ukiah, California.