The difference between Ship Breaker and other YA dystopias is that Ship Breaker is a dystopia.
And no wonder this is a darker read: Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl, an award-winning and bestselling adult novel. More so than other YA dystopias, Ship Breaker hovers on that increasingly narrow precipice that separates teen and adult fiction. Say what you will about the violence of Hunger Games, or the bleak plot of Blood Red Road, Ship Breaker is a much more complicated, grown-up world. Many other YA dystopias that I have read (Divergent, Matched, Hunger Games) are built on an interesting premise as a kind of “what if our world were like that?” Whether it’s teens who must choose a vocation or partner for life at a certain age, or even a more complex hierarchy of cities all serving a privileged core, these worlds all have boundaries. They exist simply within the bounds of the novel, and it feels like the whole society can be encapsulated and explained within these pages.
Ship Breaker does not have this same feel at all. Rather, it feels like a vast world full of unexplained technologies and social structures. Why are there half-dog-half-men creatures? Where do they come from? We have a glimpse into the main character, Nailer’s world, and it is filled with so much detail and complexity, that one can only guess at what the rest of the world must be. So whatever else it is, Ship Breaker is a gritty and startlingly intricate vision of the future.
It begins with Nailer, a teen who is probably fifteen but doesn’t really know his own age. Because he’s so small, he can still work the light crew, stripping old tanker ships of their copper wiring to make his scavange quota. He lives on a beach somewhere in America’s Gulf Coast region, an area polluted by poisons excreted by rotting tankers, and populated by impoverished and desperate people. Life is cheap here – those who can’t make quota, who are too big for light crew or who are too weak for heavy crew must fend for themselves. All too often this involves selling themselves – their organs or reproductive materials – for enough money to survive. Everyone dreams of a Lucky Strike and loyalty to one’s crew is the only type of fellow feeling there is.
Though he is a dreamer, Nailer always makes quota and he has a family of sorts in his best friend Pima and her mother. His own mother is dead, and his father Richard Lopez is a violent drunk at the best of times. The opening pages include Nailer’s near-death in a vat of oil and a deadly tropical storm that wrecks the settlement and kills several people. It is immediately clear why Nailer’s people place their faith in luck; although for his part, Nailer vows to be smart and lucky.
After the destructive storm, Nailer finds what should be his Lucky Strike – a wrecked clipper ship with a fortune of scavenge. However, he also finds a half-dead girl named Anita on board. Tying his fate to hers will be the biggest risk of his life, but he finds himself compelled to help this wealthy “swank” who seems truthful despite the lies she tells about herself. Together they undertake the most dangerous of adventures.
There are people today who make a living breaking ships to recycle materials and scavenging on top of enormous landfills. In many ways Nailer’s world, with its oil shortages and population surpluses, is only a few steps away from ours. In other ways – in the genetically engineered monsters that are a combination of man/dog/tiger/hyena – I found it came entirely out of left field. Nailer’s existence is described in intricate detail – the slang, the code of honour, the tattoos and world view. We also get a glimpse at Anita’s swanky world – full of luxury items, bodyguards and comfort – not too dissimilar from what it is to be a billionaire heiress today. Bacigalupi does a beautiful job in capturing these existences and hinting at a richly complex world that exists in between these extremes.
The plot and action of Ship Breaker move along well. True to the YA form, there is not a lot of waste in this novel, and we move reasonably quickly into the meat of the story and drive towards the finish. The strongest element (and the most enigmatic) of the story is Tool, a gigantic dog-man creature. He is supposed to have an overwhelming loyalty built into his genetic code, but Tool serves no master except for himself. Instead, Tool chooses to help those around them as it suits him. He serves as an unlikely ally for Nailer, who is initially terrified of him. And when he decides the risk is no longer worth it, Tool departs. It is no surprise that the sequel to this novel begins with Tool’s fate (a first chapter is helpfully included at the end of Ship Breaker). Tool somehow reminded me of Asimov’s robots – designed to serve humanity, though exhibiting a will to live of his own. He was compelling, and I am keen to hear more of his fate.
The rest of the characters were quite well described (particularly Nailer), but were not the strong point of the novel. In particular, I was frusterated by Richard, Nailer’s father. As a drunk, drugged-up and abusive father he was terrifying and all-too believable. The scenes between him and Nailer were heartbreaking in their emotional and physical violence. What I could not believe is that this monster of a man was somehow capable of masterminding a complex and sustained criminal conspiracy. His portrayal as a substance abuser with long blackouts just didn’t translate consistently to his identity later in the novel as a respected leader of evil men. As a result, the conflict between Richard and Nailer – so crucial to novel – was undermined because it felt forced on the story as a plot and thematic device. That said, the father/son conflict still managed to be fairly compelling and powerful.
I very much enjoyed Bacigalupi’s creation – it felt gritty and real, and a departure from others in the genre that come off feeling shiny and tidy in comparison. That said, I’m not sure everyone reading these YA dystopias will love it as much. There was no love triangle in Ship Breaker and no easy answers. Like House of the Scorpion or Oryx and Crake there are nightmares in this world and very few safe havens. Unlike the middle-class ethos of some YA dystopias (all will be well if you just conform to society’s demands – a precept the main characters universally reject), there is no safety in Ship Breaker. Normal is painful and marginal – the only possible escape from an already precarious existence is to risk everything.