Friday, June 25, 2010

Sci-Fi Friday Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Found via: Publisher's Weekly 4/19

Ship Breaker

You all know that I'm a sucker for science fiction, especially when it falls into the dystopian camp. I'm also a huge fan of books that bring in strong and interesting non-white characters (okay, I prefer my white characters to be interesting as well, but characters of color are harder to find!). Ship Breaker is one of the few books that combines both of those passions into an awesome story.

17 year old Nailer has spent his whole life living on the Gulf coast, working on the crews that break down the ancient oil rigs and shipwrecked boats that were abandoned as fossil fuels were exhausted and the climate changed so radically the coast began suffering through Category 6 hurricanes - aka City Killers. It's a rough and tumble life for everyone, but perhaps a little more so for Nailer who lives with his alcoholic father who isn't afraid to re-live his glory days as a wrestler by taking out his frustrations on his son.

Everyone on the crews dreams of making like Lucky Strike, the former crew member who found a secret oil deposit and was able to smuggle enough out to buy his way off the crew and set up a comfortable life for himself. Nailer thinks he's found his shot with the discovery of a modern and swanky clipper ship wrecked on the shore, filled with silver and gold and copper and, unexpectedly, a survivor - a young woman. Nailer and his friends are tempted to kill the girl and claim the boat as salvage, but ultimately Nailer decides to spare Nita after she promises there'll be a handsome reward for her safe return.

What Nita failed to mention is her rich father isn't the only one looking for her. Trouble is brewing in her father's industry, and a former colleague has pursued Nita across the Gulf, hoping to use her as a hostage. Without Nailer's help, she'll never reach safety. With the promise of adventure and a better life for himself and his friends, Nailer agrees to help, setting in motion an adventure that takes him from the ravaged Gulf to the ruins of New Orleans and out onto the ocean as he's always dreamed.

Bacigalupi is a rising star in science fiction right now, having just won the 2010 Nebula Award for his 2009 adult novel. So Ship Breaker continues the trend of adult writers turning towards the YA market, but after reading this one I'm happy to welcome Bacigalupi into the YA field. This is a tightly crafted adventure story, with a setting that feels all the more timely in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill (boo, hiss). I also found an interview with Bacigalupi that's interesting to read in light of the New Yorker article on YA dystopias. The New Yorker notes that a lot of YA dystopias don't truly work as social commentary like 1984 and Brave New World do because teenagers can't do anything to change their place. Bacigalupi, however, takes a different tack, saying "Adult readers nod their heads like a Chihuahua (bobble head) on a dashboard and say, 'Wow, that's really deep.' Then they get in their car and drive to work again. But with young people, they actually still have a chance to make better decisions than we made." Hopefully that means he plans on writing more YA!

The diverse cast is definitely one of the strengths of this novel. Not only are most of the characters not-white (specifically Nailer is Latino and Nita is Indian), but both men and women, boys and girls are part of the action. Nita starts off physically frail, but she's clearly clever and is a fast learner so she can earn the respect of Nailer and his crew who've known nothing but hard labor. Sadna, the leader of Nailer's crew, is a strong and imposing woman who has clawed her way up the ranks. At least in the shanty town, there's no difference between races or gender, it's all about how you can contribute and earn your keep.

When Nita arrives on the scene, class also comes to the forefront of the story as it becomes apparent that the entire world isn't in shambles like the Gulf coast is. Farther inland there are working cities with industries and infrastructure going strong. The only way those cities continue to thrive, however, is by exploiting people like Nailer to salvage every last resource from the wreckage people like us left behind.
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