Little, Brown and Company, 2010, 336 pages
In America's Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota - and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it's worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life.
In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.
If you've never heard of ship breaking, catch a documentary or two. It's a hellish job in a hellish environment for the most wretched, expendable people who can be found. In Ship Breaker, those people are found on the Gulf Coast of the United States, in a future where the seas have risen, polar bears are extinct, and Category Six hurricanes known as "city killers" are common.
Nailer (who doesn't even know his own age, but guesses it to be about 14 or 15) is on "light crew," bands of children who are small enough to wriggle into the narrow passageways and ducts and gaps of rusting old hulks to salvage copper wire and other valuable materials. The beaches of the ship breaking yards are a dog-eat-dog world of desperate poverty and brutality. Nailer's father is drug-addicted cheap muscle for hire who beats him at the slightest provocation. Nailer's only refuge is the friends he has on his crew, and even they might sell him out for a chance to move up just a little bit.
Then a storm brings a treasure: a fabulously expensive clipper ship, broken on the beach, just out of sight. Nailer and his friend Pima are the first to find it. The salvage alone could make them rich, by the standards of the ship breaking yards, but it turns out there is a survivor. And she's the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the world, an heir to one of the great multinational corporations the ship breakers call "blood buyers."
In many respects, Ship Breaker is a typical boy's YA story. Nailer has a brutal home life, he's rough and unschooled, but his environment hasn't yet crushed all the goodness out of him, and he's eager to make a better life for himself. He has the wit and courage to seize an opportunity, and he can still dream. The introduction of Nita Chadhury as the rich girl love interest is almost de rigeur for the genre, but I found her fairly tolerable considering that she's basically the prize in a "Rescue the Princess" plot. Nita is no Action Girl (Nailer's non-romantic girl friend Pima is much more formidable, as is Pima's mother), but she's smart and determined and is nice enough in her cluelessly privileged way.
Ship Breaker stands out for its thoughtful examination of loyalty and morality. In Nailer's world, the loyalty of your crew is all you have, but as in any loyalty-obsessed culture, that doesn't mean betrayals don't happen. Balancing this are the ties of blood, and Nailer's father, who is truly demonic at times, is still his father. Even during their most violent confrontation, Nailer cannot see his father as a monster without also seeing him as the man he once was. But Nailer lives in the same world that produced his father, and made different choices. One of the most important choices was what to do with Nita. When Nailer and Pima discover her, it's Pima, who is the one friend whose loyalty and good sense Nailer can absolutely rely on, who wants to simply cut the "swank's" throat and take her jewelry. Pima doesn't understand why Nailer would throw away a fortune for a rich girl who will leave him in the crapsack world he came from as soon as she can get away. Nailer struggles with this himself; his moral choices are not portrayed as something that springs from his innate goodness or that come to him easily, and he wrestles with where his loyalties and obligations lie throughut the book.
Being YA, Ship Breaker moves briskly and with very little exposition, but Bacigalupi weaves just enough worldbuilding into the book to give us a sense of the environment without answering many questions about what the world outside Nailer's polluted, jungle coast is like. High-tech hydrofoil sailing ships now ply the shipping lanes, and there is evidently still satellite and laser technology, as well as genetic engineering which produces the "half-men" created from human, dog, and hyena DNA. (No, this doesn't make much sense scientifically, but I'll give most SF books one gimme before my suspension of disbelief tanks.) In an adult SF novel, we'd expect to learn more about the history and environment of this world and see some other conflicts, but Bacigalupi keeps the story tightly focused on Nailer. There is some pretty serious violence, but the gore is kept to a YA level. Likewise, there are several points in the book where the threat of rape is fairly obvious if one reads between the lines, but it's only barely hinted at.
Overall, it was a great read, if a bit light for the subject matter because of its target audience. There is a sequel coming next year, which I will probably read, though I'm hoping there will be more world-building and not just "Will Nailer and Nita get together?"
Verdict: Bacigalupi is an award-winning author and I've enjoyed pretty much everything I've read by him. Ship Breaker hits Bacigalupi's usual themes of global warming, post-oil scarcity, genetic engineering, and an eco-punk sensibility, but wraps it in a brisk story that will appeal to teens and adults. It's a bit trendy, since the shelves are full of YA dystopian SF right now, but it's intelligent and engaging and stands up on its own as good SF. I liked it, and would have loved it when I was younger.
Also by Paolo Bacigalupi: My review of The Windup Girl.