I hadn’t realised that this was a young adult novel when I picked it up. I read The Windup Girl a couple of years back, and that is very much not a young adult book, so it was interesting to see the difference in tone between the two. In a way, it felt like the confines of young adult fiction, whatever those may be, may have been good for him.
I’ve only read two of his books, but from that sample it seems like Paolo Bacigalupi’s bread and butter is richly-imagined dystopian futures caused by environmental disasters. In Ship Breaker, the polar ice caps have melted, drowning coastal cities around with world, and fossil fuels have run dry. An industry based around scavenging resources from beached old-world oil tankers has grown out of the demand for recycled materials.
We follow Nailer, a young teenager on one of the light oil tanker crews, tasked with collecting copper wiring by crawling through ship ventilation. He lives a miserable life with his drug-abusing thug of a dad and really has no options for his future. Soon he will be too large to continue working in light crew, but he is unlikely to ever be large enough for heavy crew, so he’ll be left with no way to support himself. He just continues working while he can, constantly daydreaming of finding a lucky break. That lucky break appears in the form of a clipper wreck, a solar-powered luxury ship from the new world that crashed in a storm. What they find inside will change everything.
The first half of this was interesting but a bit slow to develop. I loved the creative world, but I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters. Once the group splits up a bit, and the story focuses on just a few of the characters, I found myself much more engaged. I couldn’t put down the book for the last half of the story.
There are a lot of fascinating themes in this book, but most are really only touched upon – the divide between the rich and poor, the meaning of family, free will and slavery, to name but a few. The idea of nature vs nurture is probably the most developed of them all. Nailer’s father is an awful man, and he struggles throughout the novel with how much of his father may or may not be part of his own personality and impulses. Bacigalupi does any excellent job of bringing all of this up while keeping the novel light, but I would have liked to delve in a bit deeper with these ideas. He created such a great world, and it felt like a lost opportunity to not take the time to explore these themes a bit more in that setting.
One of the characters is a half-man, which is a genetically engineered man who is a mix of human, dog, and tiger. They are essentially slaves who are bred to have unbreakable loyalty towards their masters, and this character is one of the only half-men to circumvent that training and live his own life. He was, by far, the most intriguing character, but his story was only teased in this. It does look like the second Ship Breaker novel, The Drowned Cities, is the story of his origin. I would have liked to see him more involved in this particular story, but I’m definitely interested to read more about him.
I found Bacigalupi’s last book to be quite confusing, actually, with the character viewpoints not feeling distinct enough, so in a way this simpler story, with one viewpoint character, was a nice change. That was his first novel, to be fair, but I had a tough time keeping everything straight in my head. In both novels it took me nearly half the book to feel any attachment to the characters, but I’m always immediately in love with the worlds he imagines. That really seems to be his strength as a writer, but I hope characterization catches up with his worldbuilding. This was certainly a step in the right direction, at least.
This was a fun novel. If I come across the next in the series, I’ll be sure to pick it up. I’m also interested in reading his latest adult novel, The Water Knife. Paolo Bacigalupi seems like an author to keep an eye on.