Friday, November 12, 2010

Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker is a National Book Award finalist in Young People's Literature, and while it had been on my radar since the beginning of the summer, it didn't seem like the kind of book I'd be interested in, so I let it pass by.  But I decided I wanted to read all the finalists, and I started with Ship Breaker.  Boy, was I wrong about it not being my kind of book. 

The book opens with Nailer working light crew, which entails sliding through small ducts in old ships, trying to strip the ship of anything usable.  As the first chapters unfold, readers become aware of how hard Nailer's life is, with an abusive father and violence and drugs pervading the harsh society.  There are small sparks of hope in his life, including his friend Pima and her strong mother, but Nailer is facing an uncertain future.  Eventually he will become too small to go through the ductwork, and will have to find another way to earn what little money he can.  But suddenly a "city killer" storm rips through his beach community, turning Nailer's life upside down.  He discovers a hydrofoil ship which has wrecked up the coast from his shack.  Nailer and Pima go to look for scavenge on the ship, and discover a rich girl, barely alive.  What Nailer and Pima do next goes to the core of who they really are.

This summary sounds compelling, but it doesn't do justice to the plot of this novel.  At heart, this is an adventure story and things happen to Nailer at a rapid pace.  And once you're sucked in to the story, Bacigalupi does not let the suspense slack off.  It is a heart-stopping pace, with Nailer, Pima and the rich girl (Nita) escaping both Nailer's abusive father and other pursuers in an effort to get Nita back to her family.  There were times I could not stop reading, thinking "I should really stop - oh, I'll just read one more chapter...".  You want to see Nailer and Nita safe, but it seems that their society has other ideas.
Bacigalupi's talent is science fiction, and while this is an adventure story, the background is definitely sci-fi.  I really hate the world-building part of a science fiction novel - I don't like the feeling of uncertainty and not understanding what is going on.  Ship Breaker is not like this.  There are enough familiar elements to guide readers and the world-building is introduced slowly and in context.  The book takes place off the Gulf Coast, sometime in the future.  Technology has continued to advance, including clipper ships that can travel incredibly fast due to an ingenious hydrofoil system.  But all of the technology, including genetically enhanced half-men and weaponry is accessible to teen readers and doesn't bog down the plot.
I do feel obligated to talk about the violence in this book.  While some of the violence is drug-fueled (Nailer's father is a druggie and often beats Nailer while high), much of the violence is necessary as different factions struggle for power in this shipping-based society.  However, life for Nailer is full of violence, even if he is not comfortable with it.  This ties into some of the current topics that Bacigalupi weaves into this story, including the wide gap between rich and poor in this society.  There is also prejudice between various groups and climate control (most of New Orleans is underwater now).  Basically, life for Nailer has always just been about survival, and suddenly he is fighting for more than he ever dreamed possible. 

I also have to say that I am relieved for once that there is not an obvious opening for a sequel.  It seems like every great book lately has an ending which will lead to a trilogy, and this ending was a breath of fresh air. 

I think this is a great National Book Award finalist, and I am glad I made the effort to read it.  The pacing, the combination of science fiction and adventure, and most of all the characters made it worth my while.  Well written.

Ship Breaker.  Paolo Bacigalupi.  Little, Brown and Co., 2010.  Borrowed from the Lewis and Clark library

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