#CBR6 Review #18: Ship Breaker
Profile: Speculative Fiction, Young Adult
After Action Report:
There is a gritty reality to Paolo Bacigalupi’s work. A grim straightforwardness that crushes the optimism older SF styles. On its own, this same honesty produces brilliantly brutal speculative fiction, like Windup Girl. But there is a necessary optimism to Young Adult literature that is at odds with Bacigalupi’s tone. Ship Breaker lives in artificial space between two styles, carving out its own literary niche, but at the same time feeling discordant and incomplete. And yet, it is a technically excellent novel that I really did enjoy.
Like many of Bacigalupi’s stories, Ship Breaker deals with a post-industrial crisis world. Climate changes has melted the ice caps and destroyed much of costal civilization. Technology and wealth have concentrated even further and the average person lives at the whim of a few mega-corporations that dominate the world. Nailer and his crew are child laborers who scrape a living from salvaging the wrecks of cargo ships from the old era. When the ship of a wealthy heiress crashes into their lives, Nailer jumps at the opportunity to escape his dead-end situation, only to get caught up in an international power struggle.
Ship Breaker does a few things extraordinarily well. The book is paced beautifully, keeping readers moving forward with each new twist, while weaving the core conflicts together. Nailer’s drive to escape his hellish life is balanced by his fear of the unknown and later by his newly instilled fear that life at the top may not be all he thought it was. Bacigalupi also does a good job of keeping things from devolving too far into straight Black and White. Lopez is a deeply disturbing villain not only because of his violent insanity, but also because of his lucid moments where he seems almost human. Still, there is a clear distinction between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ that feels out of place in a world where morality is a luxury.
The novel alsoskimps on the setting and the science, ostensibly for the benefit of younger readers. The result is an incomplete vision of a world heavily impacted by climate change. Inconsistent technological levels and living conditions plague the novel and cause an already bleak setting to feel actively oppressive. The widespread use of human genetic engineering is never really explained, nor is its strange presence at both the bottom and the top of the socio-economic ladder. The minor scientific quibbles mount up over the course of the book and are quite annoying in retrospect, though I didn’t notice them so much while I was actually reading. Credit again to Bacigalupi’s pacing.
All these little inconstancies add up to something like a narrative itch. It brings up questions that shouldn’t need to be answered in a Young Adult book, but feel important because, in many ways, Ship Breaker isn’t a YA novel. At the root of the problem is schism between the ‘dystopian’ and ‘survivalist’ tones that the book pinballs between. While there are dystopian elements to Ship Breaker, namely in the form of the heavy-handed cooperate presence and the extreme wealth concentration, the primary negative aspect of the world presented is environmental, not societal. As a result, the narrative tries unsuccessfully to balance its survivalist mentality with a plot that is fundamentally not about survival. Nailer’s quest is to escape the cutthroat life of the survivor.
So Ship Breaker splits its focus between a post-civilization survivor narrative, and a dystopian ‘punk’ narrative. Neither tone succeeds at feeling like a realistic motivation for Nailer or his companions, so the whole adventure feels slightly off. About the only thing that was clear was Nailer’s desire for a better life, and his equally important desire to find a way to get that better life without betraying his friends. And at the end of the day, I just don’t believe that either of these character traits are going to motivate a boy to go to the lengths that Nailer goes to by the end of the book. His arc feels more like a grand gesture that it does actual character development or drive.
In spite of these more arcane literary problems, the story is compelling. There are traces of male power fantasy tropes here, but the character of Nita strikes a good balance between damsel and secondary protagonist. Her inability to save herself doesn’t stem from her being female so much as it is a result of her complete ignorance of the world she crashed into. Nailer’s relationship with his father is also a good source of drama that avoids the tonal confusion. And Tool is great. You’ll have to read to understand, but he is a fascinating character.
For a YA novel, Ship Breaker is pretty strong. But I as mentioned above, the book isn’t quite a YA novel. I’d love to see Bacigalupi rewrite the book for an adult audience, or just ease up on one of the thematic lines he’s using here. Regardless, the book is still very good, just maybe not quite up to my unreasonably high standard. TL;DR four out of five, would read again.