Ship Breaker, the new novel from highly acclaimed author Paolo Bacigalupi, poses a challenge to critics: How do you explain how good it is without a dozen “spoiler alerts”? One of science fiction’s pleasures is the dislocation it confronts readers with, sometimes from page one. Reading along and finding yourself in outer space, under water or in a future you never envisioned creates the sense of wonder the best sci-fi inspires. To give away too much would be cruel, but here are the basics:
The story follows Nailer, a teenage boy and one of the “ship breakers” of the title, as he scavenges for copper wire inside the ductwork of grounded oil tankers, off the Gulf Coast of an America sometime in our future. He has cruel bosses, difficult quotas and a dangerous job which he’ll soon grow too big to do anymore. So when he stumbles upon a clipper ship washed ashore in a hurricane, it seems as though he’s hit the jackpot. Instead, what he finds inside the ship forces him to reconsider his life so far—and his chances for a better, and happier, future.
The novel has surprises in store, not least among them the juxtaposition of a bleak landscape (including forced labor, grinding poverty and drug addiction) with a nautical adventure story, and ultimately a touching discussion about the families we surround ourselves with for comfort and survival, whose ties run deeper than blood. Bacigalupi’s seeming ease in tying these themes together, and interweaving them with a dark take on the consequences of oil scarcity, is evidence of his talent. He paints a vivid portrait of the scavengers’ culture with perfectly chosen details: Facial tattoos that serve as work permits, glowing LED face paint to illuminate the darkened ducts, the luxury of rat on a stick and the scary amphetamine-like drug “crystal slide” all bring their world to life. Ship Breaker is definitely worth exploring, and offers much for readers to take away.
Heather Seggel reads and writes in Ukiah, California.