Aug 7, 2011

Book Review–Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

If you are part of the Speculative fiction scene, even in this great southern land of ours, you will have heard of Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker .  It was published in the Northern Hemisphere last year and snared the 2011 Michael L Printz1 award and was a National Book(US) Award finalist.

Now Bacigalupi (BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee2) is no stranger to awards.  His adult novel The Wind Up Girl was awarded both a Hugo and a Nebula and Ship Breaker seems to feature some of the ideas that made that book a hit. 

Dystopia? Biopunk? Just great fiction
Ship Breaker , features a dystopian future world with human society living in the wreckage of an age of excess, where green technology is not some fanciful ideal but a necessity, a part of life. 

Our story starts on Bright Sands Beach where our protagonist Nailer, works on a “light crew”-clans of young workers who crawl the ducts of abandoned container ship wrecks3 searching for copper wiring and other salvageables. It’s here we learn of a future world where the disparity between rich and poor has grown, where the rich travel the seas on futuristic sailing vessels and the poor are left to fend for themselves scraping a living off the bones of the past. Where strange religious cults have merged with old religions, where genetically engineered dogmen are grown, bought and trained as loyal soldiers and where even blood bonded crew will sell you out if the price is right.

This less than ideal lifestyle is interrupted by the wrecking of a “swank”(rich person) ship on the Teeth(the submerged ruins of an old city).  Nailer finds a young girl alive on the wreck and from this point on he is faced with a number of life changing decisions; to kill her so that he and his friend can claim salvage, to sell her to the life cult who will harvest her organs, or to return her to her father for a reward - if indeed she is who she says she is. What ensues,however, is a classic adventure tale with far future, Biopunk colour.

What I think makes this great fiction for teens is the choices Nailer has to make, the decisions that he has to weigh.  Life for Nailer, just like the rest of us, is not a case of making clear decisions based on black and white thinking.  Sometimes what advantages us isn’t what’s right and sometimes when we do what we must our actions don’t bring us solace.

Teens Plus
Don’t let the YA/Teen categorisation put you adult readers off.  Reading this book encouraged me to buy the rest of Bacigalupi’s work.  He’s a good story teller and like Scott Westerfeld and Marianne de Pierres he has a talent for making his work exciting and relevant to adolescents and enjoyable for those with a little more life experience.

I note that this book was recommended by the Wall Street Journal as a “good book for young men” in a side panel of the now infamous Darkness Too Visible 4 article that castigated the young adult genre for being too dark. 

Considering the thrust of that article I find its inclusion odd, because while well written, there are depictions of brutal familial violence and killing(though not without consequence, emotional and physical).  Perhaps this is just moral conservatism, which seems to have little trouble with young men reading about violence but frowns heavily on depictions/mentions of sex  - and it isn’t mentioned(sex) in Ship Breaker, child prostitution is faintly hinted at and the male and female protagonists share a quick peck, but that’s it. 

I’d suggest the book for the 14+ age group because of the violence. I’d also recommend it to adults who want to participate in a deftly imagined and painted and possible biopunk future.  It feels very plausible to me, a world where our technology allows us to survive and progress as a civilization but where not everyone gets access to that technology. A subtle warning with a glimmer of hope.
This book is a review copy provided by Atom Books

1. The Michael L. Printz Award is an award for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature. It is named for a Topeka, Kansas school librarian who was a long-time active member of the Young Adult Library Services Association.
2.Start practicing the pronunciation now, I have a feeling Paolo is here to stay.
3. I am sure that Paolo used the ship breakers of in developing countries as for inspiration
4. An opinion article that I am sure was designed to be inflammatory, as it fails to establish with any degree of certainty what darkness is, uses Teen and child interchangeably, and fails to give produce any convincing evidence that the YA category is full of “kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings”.

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