Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi


I wish I’d written this book. And not just because I wish my last name were Bacigalupi – though I do wish that, too. This is the kind of book I wish I could write: it’s an outstanding idea, it’s a fast-paced thriller, and it has a wonderfully relatable hero that made it possible for me to feel like I was in the story, along with characters that hint of far greater depth to the world, which makes me want to read the “companion” book, The Drowned Cities. And I probably will.

On the other hand: because there are hints of depth to the world-building, and especially to the most interesting character, the half-man Tool, which are left entirely out of the story, I feel like this book was just gutted by editors who wanted to pick up the pace and cut down the word count so it would sell better. I know that if I had written this book, it would be at least twice as long, and so I’m kind of glad that I didn’t write this book because I would hate to have my book cut in half – and then have it be successful? Have it be a finalist for the National Book Award? That would drive me crazy. I realize, of course, that the success and the accolades that accrue to a book this short with this rapid pace tells me something about my own writing – it’s too wordy and slow to ever enjoy this kind of sales in the modern market – but I still hate the idea of taking out all the good stuff to pander to a readership that gets bored inside of fifteen seconds.

(There’s a lot of background to this, by the way. I’ve written four novels, all of which have been repeatedly rejected by agents and publishers; the two times I’ve gotten interest in short samples and sent in longer portions of the work, I’ve been rejected both times after a second reading because my writing is too wordy and too slow. Rather than cut out half of my stories to make a book like this one, I’m self-publishing my long works, because fuck ’em if they like their books short. Yes, I’m an idiot. But I also wish that prizes like the National Book Award didn’t go to the short fast books. Though this one is probably good enough to deserve to be a finalist even in its presumably truncated form. And maybe I’m wrong all the way, and Bacigalupi wrote it exactly like this. But I wouldn’t have, so there it is. I’m bitter, and he’s successful. Moving on.)

The story is set in this wonderfully real and timely dystopia: climate change has raised sea levels and created Category 6 “city killer” hurricanes, and corporate capitalism has so run amok that it seems to be the only basis of social organization; all else is might-makes-right anarchy. The story mainly takes place in a beach – uh, I guess it’s a “community” – in the Gulf of Mexico; the beach is strewn with the rusted remains of the old steel ships, cargo ships and oil tankers and the like. Oil has now become rare enough that it is no longer how cargo is moved: the modern cargo ships are sleek hydrofoils called “clipper ships,” and they sail with wind power – jet stream winds, that is, since they have huge sails that they launch, with cannons, several miles up into the stratosphere. And the people in the book make a living by ripping the old steel ships apart for salvage. Hence the title.

The main character, Nailer, is a teenaged boy who lives a hard and brutal life among the ship breakers. This is where the writing really shines, because Bacigalupi has created a society where environmental and economic devastation has made life a thousand times worse than it is in our world today – and yet, the problems on the human level are exactly the same. (I have no doubt, as well, that there are places in the world that are pretty much exactly like this place, and it’s only science fiction to me because I live in the sheltered part of the world. Like Lucky Girl in the book.) Nailer’s mother is dead and his father is a violent drug addict; Nailer has to work to earn his own food and possessions, and he is constantly having to prove himself or else someone else will take his job and he will starve – he can’t take time off when he gets hurt at work, for instance, or he will get replaced. Nailer lives in a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone fights everyone else for everything they have, all the time. Almost no one is willing to help anyone else, because it puts themselves at risk; we see this early in the book, when Nailer, whose job in ship breaking is to crawl through the duct work and collect copper cable, gets trapped in the depths of a derelict ship, and when he turns to another person for help, he is refused and left to die. His death would be more profitable to the other person than his life, and so that means – Nailer is left to die. (Spoiler: he doesn’t.) Because that is his world, the most important thing to him is loyalty, and the greatest virtue is – kindness. Generosity. It is the rarest quality, and so it is prized.

That leads Nailer into the main conflict, when a modern clipper ship is wrecked on their beach, and Nailer discovers it – and the survivor aboard, one of the people from the other side of the world, where wealth protects and shelters you from all of the terrible conditions that Nailer lives with on a daily basis. And again, despite everything else that is going on in the world and around them, the things that matter at that point are loyalty, and kindness. That’s the story of the book.

There’s more: but not enough more. The story ends with the resolution of the main conflict, but it ends right there; you don’t get to know what comes next, even though a number of things change, in very important ways, for the main characters. The half-man, Tool, is a great creation; the half-men are genetically altered mixtures of human and canine DNA, and they are fanatically loyal to their owners, even dying, samurai-like, when their master dies – except for Tool, who has no master but himself. He’s a remarkable character, and I desperately want to know his backstory, but I never get it; he also vanishes at a certain point in the book, and we never find out what happens to him, which also drove me batty, and is the reason I think the book got the crap cut out of it before publication. And I understand the need for a book to be fast-paced and exciting, especially when it’s YA fiction like this one; but dammit, I want to know Tool’s story. I want to know what comes next in Nailer’s story. I want more of this book!

Ah, well. This is a good book, a fast read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I definitely recommend it. Though I hope that people also look for and buy the books that go more in depth, that give a reader something to think about beyond the bare essentials, that give you a world and characters you can sink your teeth into. (Maybe buy my books, for instance. They will be available soon. Don’t worry: I won’t turn every review into a sales pitch. Just this one.)

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