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Saturday, April 24, 2010
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Reviewed Format: Advance Reading Copy
Release Date: May 1, 2010
Nailer scavenges dead ships for component parts--copper, scraps, sheeting, anything the shipping companies can buy and reuse in their sleek new Clipper ships. Since he’s still small in comparison to some of the other kids in Light Crew, he has the undesirable duty of crawling in spaces where people were not meant to crawl. Eager to escape his life as a ship breaker and get as far away from his drunk, addicted, and abusive father as possible, Nailer is quick to bargain a deal with a girl found in a shipwrecked mess on another part of the island. Scouring the beach after a storm for anything of interest with his friend and crew mate Pima, they mistake Nita for dead. Rather than kill her and run with her valuables, the two have devised a plan sure to win them a Lucky Strike. With the promise of money to motivate them, Pima and Nailer begin imagining the possibilities that lay beyond their dirty and forgotten island. All they have to do is keep the Swank (slang for rich person, i.e. Nita) a secret from Richard Lopez.
In this post-oil world stricken by global warming, it’s hard not to find similarities between Ship Breaker and Bacigalupi’s debut, The Windup Girl--positive similarities. As in his adult SF release, Nailer’s future Earth is not pretty--in fact, it’s quite desperate. Progressive rebuilding has resulted only in ruinous achievements. New Orleans has been reincarnated not once, but twice after the public realized it was prone to flooding. The worlds suffer similarly, as do the people. The privileged few oversee large corporate entities; the underprivileged majority do the worst possible jobs to get by every day (one has to wonder if this isn’t happening right now). The divide between the rich and the poor is drastic.
Both are gritty dystopias. The worlds are, quite literally, falling apart. China is still a world powerhouse and humanity won’t stop engineering composite lifeforms. Sea levels are rising at alarming rates, cities have been drowned. Despite the compulsion I felt to make a comparison, Ship Breaker is not entirely similar to The Windup Girl. There’s something piratical that marks it distinctly from his debut and not just because there were large bodies of water and ships involved. Thievery mentality and loosely based support systems thrive along the wasted Gulf Coast. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d never quite left Emiko’s world, though. Things are not exactly the same--it’s unfair of me to declare Ship Breaker the YA version of The Windup Girl. What is fair is to say the similarities I found in these two books are the same types of outcomes seen in a wide variety of dystopias.
It might be the thematic predictability of such books is what’s turning a brilliantly adventurous book into something that didn’t quite go as far as I would have liked, but I don’t think so. Making the fantastical extrapolations that these dystopias do seems natural. The world is realizing our resources are not finite; the weather is acting strangely. These things are happening right now. Why not imagine a future where we do one day run out of oil, where the weather’s gone to the extremes?
The characters are all a bit quirky with mono- and disyllabic names and a broad range of ethnicities and skin tones. What’s amazing about this is how subtle and normal Bacigalupi makes this information. It’s so offhand and inconsequential to what’s really important that I wanted right there and then to tell him how much I appreciate this. Not making a fuss out of skin color is just as amazing as including minority representation.
One of the more interesting character elements was the inclusion of Tool. Tool is an odd collection of genes (hyena, tiger, dog, human) engineered to have utter loyalty, a fierce temperament when needed, but has the unfortunate side effect of having a face that looks a bit canine. While he may not look pretty, Tool’s face is supposed to inspire fear, especially since half-men like him are mostly used as thugs and bodyguards. Tool makes a unique case. His rebellion against the natural order of half-men (and the irony of his name) has elevated him to the mysterious and aberrational ranks of Emiko. And here is one other similarity I found between Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl. What frustrated me the most wasn’t the connection between how Tool acts and how Emiko acts--both break with convention and “go against their programming”--but rather the lack of a backstory. Tool keeps his past shrouded in mystery, constantly reminding Nailer and those around him how unexpected his actions are. I didn’t stay frustrated for long; Tool’s origins are probably best left unanswered, especially since I realized it was not knowing combined with how anomalous he was that became so fascinating. His right to secrecy allows him the dignity his social status wouldn’t provide otherwise.
I did, however, wish I’d gotten more information on half-men in general so I could really relate to everyone’s incredulity rather than being told how loyal they are and how unorthodox Tool’s behavior was against those conventions. That would have helped me believe the other character’s reactions much better. Ship Breaker is such a short book relative to the events that happen--I can see why Bacigalupi may have stylistically left that out. There was so much suspense and multiple rescues that I felt the book could have done well as two! We’re never in any one place for very long before something happens. I found myself wanting to linger at certain scenes, but couldn’t when Nailer was quickly whisked away to the next.
I think there’s room for a sequel. I say this because I want a sequel. I want more adventures and the implications are there for another. Ship Breaker is one of the bestYA books I’ve read, not just this year so far, but ever. And this is the best solution I can think of when I say I want more. I wasn’t quite ready to leave Nailer’s world and wouldn’t mind going back for another visit. Bacigalupi proves yet again he has the talent to write an engrossing story with very human considerations at heart.
Thank you to Little, Brown & Co. for my free review copy!
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