by Paolo Bacigalupi
Review by Ernest Lilley
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316056212
Date: 01 May 2010 List Price $17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Ship Breaker is Paolo Bacigalupi's second novel, and it's good news for everyone, showing that this rising star is nowhere near his apogee, turning out thoughtful but engaging fiction about the post-petro future full of young protagonists and old conflicts. In Ship Breaker, Nailer, a teenage urchin working on a salvage crew to tear apart the massive steel behemoths of the oil-era, dreams of a berth on the super-sleek sailing ships that rule the waves of the not so distant future.
The shipbreaking community, set on the American gulf coast, is a dead on realization of the hard life that exist today in regions like Bangladesh, where 30% of all ship recycling takes place, much of it by children like Ismael Hussein, a 13 year old shipbreaker chronicled by NPR in their 2009 marketplace story. Nailer, like Ismael, dreams of a better life, but the harsh realities of survival in the toxic hulls of aging ships blot out everything but the present, until he discovers a beached sailing ship after a storm, full of enough treasure to make him a big fish in the small community, or it would if there hadn't been a survivor on board, making salvage illegal.
Of course, Nailer and his friends could just let the rich girl die and be rid of a lot of complications, but what self respecting teenage boy can pass up the chance to save a princess, though the royalty of his world is more corporate than monarchic.
The girl is Nita, whom Nailer and his friends dub, Lucky Girl, and in classic young male hero style Nailer leaves the ship breaking community to help her find her way home. Though Nailer has never been outside his gulf coast world, the two are joined by Tool, a human-canine hybrid that has defeated his programming to be free, much as the protagonist in The Windup Girl breaks free of her master/slave programming. His father, whose abusive relationship is nicely played, realizes the opportunity that Lucky Girl represents, and is determined to stop Nailer at any cost.
Though The Windup Girl was positioned by the publisher as a YA novel, that was just plain wrong. Not that teens wouldn't like the kinky sex, obsession over genetic foods, and slave rebellion motifs, but it was clearly a book for an older audience. Ship Breakers, on the other hand, is a coming of age story made for early teens, where Nailer has to choose which world he wants to live in, and decide how hard he's willing to fight for his choice.