The story is set in a future where oil has almost run out and is extremely valuable. Sailing ship have returned to the world's oceans and the enormous tankers that once used to transport oil around the globe have been beached and are slowly being dismantled for reusable metals. The working conditions for the workers who break up the ships are appalling. Exposed to toxic chemicals and just about every hazard one can think of on an industrial site, life is short and brutal for these workers. The heavy work, reclaiming the ships' steel is mostly done by crews of adults. So called light crews strip the ship of valuable copper and aluminium. This scavenging is usually done by children small enough to move though the cramped interior of these ships. Kids like Nailer Lopez.
Nailer does not know his own age but thinks he is about fifteen. His mother died some time ago and his father is a violent drug addict. One of the most frightening men on the scene, even to his son. Nailer is not large for his age, just small enough to work the light crews but quite aware that his days on that job are numbered. He is looking for a way out but so far an opportunity has not yet presented itself. When he is involved in an accident on the ship he is working on, nearly drowning in an oil residue left on the ship, his outlook on life changes. Quite inconvenient really, when he is confronted with the survivor of a shipwreck washed on the shore after a devastating hurricanes hits the region. He is faced with a choice, claim the scavenge or help a fellow human being. Survival alone is no longer enough.
For a young adult book Ship Breaker features some pretty heavy themes. Nailer's home and working conditions are quite clearly a reference to the conditions in which ships are scrapped in places like Alang, India. How the west disposes of its waste is not something we consider every day. Some of the ways we choose to deal with it are downright shameful. By placing those practice on American soil Bacigalupi brings some of this problem very close to home. There's a lot of references to the effects of climate change too. A polar sea that is ice free and used for shipping between Japan and the American east coast for instance. More severe weather events, catastrophic sea level rise, entire coastal cities drowned, the world Bacigalupi envisions is not a pretty one.
Another interesting bit of scary science is the presence of genetically engineered beings called half-men. They are described as a mix of human, tiger and canine genetic material and provided muscle and unquestioned loyalty for those who can afford to pay for them. They are disturbingly intelligent but practically enslaved. Bacigalupi raises an interesting point about genetics here, one that is also relevant to Nailer's relationship with his father.
"Listen to me, boy. Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." Tool's eyes flickered to the captain, and his sharp teeth gleamed in a brief smile. "When the fighting comes, don't deny your slaughter nature. You are no more Richard Lopez than I am an obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others may believe."The influence of genetics on behaviour remains an interesting but poorly understood issue I guess.
Half-man Tool to Nailer - Chapter 19
There's also quite a bit of attention for the peak oil event (or rather, oil running out entirely) present in much of Bacigalupi's writings. Some very clever ways of dealing with it are described in the book. It doesn't seem to be set in his Windup future however. At least, I haven't come across references to that particular technology. Especially the sailing technology described in the book is fascinating, although Bacigalupi seems to realize it cannot replace the massive fossil fuel powered ships that currently travel the world's oceans. All of this changes views on our current consumer society for Nailer and his generation of course. They tend to view the people living in what they call the Accelerated Age as extremely wasteful. Nailer is making us look in the mirror in a way. Quite a lot to take in for the young reader indeed.
When you get right down to it the story isn't about the world's ecological struggles however. It's about a boy looking for a better life, a bit more comfort and above all, people he can trust. It is very interesting to see Nailer move from raw survival mode to compassion and trust. He's faced with various issues of trust and loyalty throughout the novel. Bacigalupi also mercilessly exposes the gap between the privileged elite, even in this exhausted world they are quite comfortable, and the immense poverty on the scavenger beaches. At first glance this gap seems enormous but Nailer soon learns he does have things in common with the rich. He may even like some of them.
Ship Breaker is meant to be a young adult novel, I would have loved this book at thirteen, but Bacigalupi has put enough food for thought in this book to appeal to more mature readers as well. While my attention was clearly drawn to the environmental themes of the book and the links with his other works, the author did not forget to tell an exciting story. Even if you ignore Bacigalupi's bleak outlook on the future and just let yourself be swept away by Nailer's tale it is a very good read. Enjoyable on multiple levels, Bacigalupi has created a very interesting book with Ship Breaker. I would have loved it at thirteen, I guess I love it at thirty-three as well.
Title: Ship Breaker
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
First published: 2010