Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker (2010). 323 Pages. Hachette Book Group. $17.99
I feel like I’ve inadvertently written an essay about this book, but if you’re interested in reading more, by all means, click through.
Mankind has caused the ice caps (or at least most of them) to melt and raise the water levels, in most cases, far more than was ever predicted. As a result, many cities were lost, and much technology is gone. There are two groups remaining; the rich and the poor. The rich are ultra-rich, living on clipper-ships (which are like yachts, but nicer) and controlling the fate of the poor, whether or not they are aware of it. The poor, meanwhile struggle to get by, working at whatever jobs they can find, and dreaming of a better life.
On the beaches of a greatly-expanded Gulf Coast, Nailer works as part of a scavenge crew, breaking down ancient oil tankers for scrap. Specifically, Nailer works on light-crew; the group of youths who are small enough to fit into the ducts and reclaim copper wire*. It is dangerous, dirty work with a high mortality rate, and every time Nailer crawls into the ducts, he hopes it won’t be his last. He dreams of a bit of luck, and hopes for a day when he won’t have to work on the ships to survive.
After a huge storm– a category 6+ hurricane, or “city killer”– Nailer finds a crashed clipper ship, leaving him to face a choice he’s not ready to make; should he kill the only survivor and claim the ship, or help her for the promise of a distant “reward”? Whichever choice he makes will alter his life forever, and not necessarily in a good way.
Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers** and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist.
From the very beginning, it is clear that while Nailer’s world may once have been our own, it is very far from that reality now. With every vivid description we are reminded that things have changed, and that everything we, as readers, may know is long-gone.
The waters over the Teeth were calm, a light breeze rippling across them. A few black struts and chunks of construction protruded up through the waves. Beneath the surface, tall brick and steel buildings lurked, their crumbling structures hidden by the water. The people who had built the Teeth had misjudged the sea rise quite a lot. The only time any of their buildings showed was at low tide. The rest of the time, the city ruins were entirely hidden. (74)
Nailer, his friends, and his family live in utter poverty. For most of his life, Nailer has only known hunger, and abuse. It makes him a stronger character because he has risen above it, rather than succumbing to it, but it also means that his worldview is bleak. He has grown up in a society where nobody does anything for free, and few people have ever offered a helping hand.
Nailer has very real moral choices to make, and because the narrative is third-person limited, we get everything filtered through him, so we see his thought processes. He is a determined and loyal boy who puts his skills and brain to good use again and again. (At one point, it is said that you have to be both lucky and smart, and that rings true throughout the novel.) He does seem to grow a bit, but the most dramatic changes in him come within the first few chapters. After that, he is largely a static character within a changing setting.
The supporting cast adds a lot of dimension to this novel by giving Nailer advice, forcing him to face things, or in a few cases, trying to kill him. It is because of them that Nailer’s story is so special; where so many others submit, he keeps fighting. None of them are particularly well-rounded characters, but they don’t need to be; it’s Nailer’s story, not theirs.
I was so impressed by this book that I couldn’t put it down. Literally. I may have sad some unkind things to my boyfriend when he attempted to distract me. The writing was beautiful, the descriptions vivid, the protagonist believable, and the world eerily plausible. Sure, there’s a bit of a social commentary (of current habits) mixed in***, but I tend to ignore those with stalwart determination. I don’t care about the agenda of the author, I care about the story they tell, and the way they tell it.
I keep saying it recently, but I’ve had an extraordinary run of good books. This is yet another which deserves a solid 5/5 for being fantastic. It’s dark but hopeful, alien but familiar, and at times thought-provoking.
As an aside, I will mention that those of you who are from the gulf coast, or who have been to the gulf coast may find some scenes more disturbing than I did. I don’t know for sure, but we get descriptions of what little remains of New Orleans, as well as “Orleans 2.” The idea of the land being flooded, of houses being lost to the waters, I imagine it’s not so alien to people who were there during, or following Katrina. I’d like to hear some differing perspectives on this, if you have one.
* My brothers once made $50 by stripping insulation off a couple pounds of scrap-copper. It’s a worthwhile metal already.
** This made me wince. My father and I had just recently had a conversation about him doing electrical work in asbestos-filled buildings before they realized just how dangerous the stuff was.
*** It’s because of our dependence upon oil that the ice caps melted and submerged everything. And in many ways, the crude salvage town is not so different from places in existence today. The ships, too, are not so different from the relics floating in the mothball fleet today.