I’ve already sung the praises of Paolo Bacigalupi on this blog, but after Ship Breaker (2010) I hold his work in even higher regard. As great as his earlier books are, this one’s is even better: a gritty, powerful, swiftly paced young adult novel full of high adventure, powerful themes, and rigorous science fictional thinking.
In a post-petroleum future wracked by rising sea levels and devastating, extreme weather, Nailer is a young ship breaker working on the storm-battered Gulf Coast. He and his crew eke out a living salvaging wire, metal and other raw materials from the dead hulks of oil-age ships. But then his luck starts to change. First he survives a near-death experience, and then he and his friend Pima stumble across a major piece of salvage: a sleek clipper ship. Clearly the property of a wealthy, faraway clan, the ship runs aground on a nearby island. Its components are worth a fortune to the impoverished ship breakers, and that’s not even accounting for the luxuries within it. But their lucky strike comes with a complication: a “swank” survivor, Nita, is onboard. Very much a product of their environment, Nailer and Pima quickly see Nita as perhaps the most valuable salvage of all, and are tempted to sell her out to improve their meager lot. But Nailer, who longs for a better life, resists the greedy, knee-jerk reaction, and embarks on a series of hard choices that send him on an exciting, perilous adventure.
Ship Breaker is pretty much the total package: inventive world-building, vivid descriptions, likeable characters, compelling conflicts, a propulsive plot, all bracingly executed. This is also maybe Bacigalupi’s most focused, polished prose. It’s a fast, addictive read, its coming-of-age adventure plot clicking along briskly without sacrifice to the complex themes and thorny dilemmas typical of his work. And, perhaps most impressively, it’s a thematically strong work on multiples levels, examining concepts of family, loyalty, environmental concerns, the ethics of genetic modification, and perhaps most powerfully, issues of class and wealth distribution, the battle between short-sighted greed and forward-looking generosity at the heart of so many decisions. There’s a reason this one raked in so many accolades and awards. Highly recommended.