Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

Having read Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which takes place in a not-too-distant future after global warming has melted the ice caps and raised the sea level, I was excited to discover that his next book, Ship Breaker, took place in the same fictional universe but was directed at a YA audience.  The Windup Girl focused mainly on themes surrounding the genetic engineering of crops, diseases and people and the disastrous implications of that engineering gone wrong.  Likewise, Ship Breaker is also concerned with genetics, though I would argue in a far more familiar way: the main characters of Ship Breaker struggle mainly with the implications of family and class.  The main character, Nailer, is cursed with a violent, cruel, drug-abusing father who will kill and betray anyone, including his son, in the pursuit of profit.  Nailer is desperate to escape Bright Sands Beach, where he and everyone he knows is engaged in the backbreaking and very dangerous work of disassembling the stranded hulks of old oil tankers in order to sell the valuable scrap metal to major corporations.  He puts great store in the blood oaths of loyalty and mutual support that he swore to the rest of his lightcrew (responsible for stripping the ships of light metals like copper and aluminum) and he, like many, worship the Fates and gods of Luck.  Nailer recognizes that being born into this life of ship breaking means a short, brutal and cruel existence, from which there is no escape, except for those individuals with brains and luck.

When Nailer and his friend/work chief Pima stumble upon the wreck of a new ocean skimmer, wrecked by one of the frequent “city killer” hurricanes that sweep often through “Mississippi Alley,”  Nailer is unable to kill the lone survivor in order to ensure the wealth of the salvage goes uncontested.  The girl, Nita, turns out to be extremely valuable alive as a pawn between her father and uncle who are struggling to take control of one of the largest remaining corporate conglomerates in the world.  Nailer sees Nita as his way off of the beach and into a better life and turns against his father in order to see Nita, newly blood-sworn as crew, returned to her wealthy and powerful father.

Other readers of the novel are likely to comment on the “love triangle” between Pima, Nita and Nailer, though it is as subtle as Team Gale/Team Peeta in the first book of the Hunger Games and seems even less of a contest.  Nailer often comments on how Pima and her mother Sadna feel more like family than his own father, but regularly addresses Nita’s attractiveness, despite being a “swank” or rich girl with high-class taste. Nailer regularly fears becoming like his father, though he is assured by one of the genetically-engineered “half-men” Tool, that “Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe” (248).

The action of the book takes place against a stark backdrop of the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast.  Drowned cities, hidden under the ocean water, are regular set pieces.  The gap between poor and wealthy is depicted as obscene and uncrossable, as it takes the right family and clan connections (signaled by facial tattoos) to navigate through the complex caste systems of work and where one wrong move can find you cut from those clans for life.  The first third of the novel is relatively slow reading, as the oppressive work conditions and constrictive social structure appear to offer no reprieve for any of the characters.  However, once Nailer and Pima discover their “lucky strike,:” the action is quick and suspenseful.  The commentary on family drama and socio-economic status is powerful and insightful, especially when juxtaposed against the larger issues of global warming, corporate control of trade and global economic systems.  This book would be right at home alongside copies of The Huger Games and Divergent and should find a home on the bookshelves of fans of YA dystopias.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall. 

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