Lowdown: The fates hold a new future for a boy growing up as a recycler of old tanker ships.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s first book, The Windup Girl, has won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for best science fiction book of 2010 – an achievement it shares with a rare few others. Feedback from reliable sources (my wife) informed me that book’s style is of a type that often gets on my nerves, full of lengthy descriptions and taking a while to get to the point. I probably will read The Windup Girl sooner rather than later, but I decided to go for a softer Paolo Bacigalupi debut: Ship Breaker, a young adult science fiction book that shares many a theme with its prestigious sibling but doesn’t go around the bush.
Ship Breaker takes us to a world a few centuries in our future, a world where drastic climate change already took place, cheap energy humans can dig from the ground ran out, and most other earthly resources have already been dug. This is a world where no planes fly anymore and ships use vast sails to get from place to place, a world where the poor’s only choice for making a living is scavenging on relics left from the so called Accelerated Age - our age. Our hero is a teen called Nailer whose entire life thus far was spent child laboring on a beach at the southern part of contemporary USA, with him creeping up old oil tankers duct tunnels to recover wires and other precious resources in a manner similar to children being used for their small size in order to clean chimneys back in Victorian England. These scavenged materials Nailer recovers are then passed on to the big conglomerate running the beach while the beach dwellers themselves live in dog eat dog conditions where nothing resembles civilized social welfare.
Fate has something special in store for Nailer. One day he falls out of a duct tunnel and into a pool of oil. He nearly drowns there while his scavenging partner prefers to let him die and reap the rewards of the precious rare find. Nailer, however, is resourceful enough (or lucky enough?) to get away by the skin of his teeth. That experience proves a life changing one for him as a city killer storm hits his beach and brings with it changes no one in our boy’s environment expected.
Ship Breaker is high quality beginners’ science fiction. It is an exciting read interwoven with futuristic ideas so subtly and with such depth you hardly notice them while you read the book, yet the book would be nothing without the future it proposes and the effect that future has on its population. Science fiction motifs and adventure tales aside, Ship Breaker offers a very decent debate on the merits of fate, fatalism and taking matters into one’s own hand. The human aspect of the story is not neglected either: the conflict between Nailer and his father is at the center of the book and is used to form a discussion on the merits of family, friends and who the major stakeholders in our lives really are, a discussion that develops just as Nailer develops his own identity. All is done at a level that is perfectly suitable for a young adult and doesn’t fair too badly for this adult, either.
I did feel like there were forced soft spots here and there, such as the excuse for the political conflict driving the plot (the ethics of sourcing energy from tar sands), but while I did get the occasional itch I found Ship Breaker a very pleasurable and rewarding read.
Overall: Ship Breaker may not have delivered too much to this adult but it didn’t demand much either; if anything it was an excellent holiday read. To its target audience of young adults Ship Breaker is guaranteed to deliver much and serve as a good appetiser for the science fiction genre as a whole, making it a very worthy 3.5 out of 5 stars read.