I’m slightly ambivalent about Bacigalupi’s writing, but Ship Breaker has strengthened my affection. His short stories are hard for me, as in hard-edged, hard-hitting, hard-healing. I liked The Wind-Up Girl, mostly, though I was troubled by the lack of feminism and the bleakness of the dystopia. Young adult might be the area where Bacigalupi and I best intersect; Ship Breaker is full of his evocative prose, great world-building, and is generally more hopeful, more identifiable, and more empowering.
Ship Breaker is about a teen named Nailer who works with a small crew of kids removing light metals from abandoned oil tankers. It’s dirty, dangerous work, and the people who do it live a subsistence existence, staying in impermanent shacks on the beach, with frequently hungry stomachs and no real way out of poverty, except for the mythical Lucky Strike. A ‘Lucky Strike’ is a chance to claim valuable salvage in such a way that the finder can keep it for himself instead of having it stolen away by thugs or bosses. Nailer is small for his age, so he’s still able to crawl the ducts, but won’t be able to for much longer. He’s more than a little dreamy in his spare moments, fascinated by the swift clipper ships and their technologically advanced parasails reaching for the upper atmosphere.
Boss-man wants one more scavenge run before a big storm, and he and Nailer come close to blows until his best friend and crew leader Pima speaks up for him. Nailer reluctantly heads back in to the ducts, spurred on by Sloth’s offer to take his place. A mistake lands him in a room full of oil, but by keeping his head, he manages to escape, earning him the title of “Lucky Boy” among the ship breakers. The title and luck-gifts earn him a brief respite from a violent, drug-addicted father. “Even so, the truth was that Nailer shared his father’s eyes and his father’s wiry build, and Richard Lopez was a demon for sure. No one would argue that. Sober, the man was scary. Drunk, he was a demon.” When storm comes, it is one of the mythically bad ones, a ‘city-killer,’ a night that ends up changing their lives.
Bacigalupi achieves a perfect balance in his writing; descriptive, atmospheric world-building with steady pacing. I can see the world he creates; the blinding sunlight, the salt-stinging air, the ringing and scrape of metals. It’s a rare talent that can create that world without the reader feeling overwhelmed with imagery, or losing the plot among the pictures. With exquisitely chosen words, he conveys so much of the complexity of Bright Sands Beach.
“Bright tropic sunlight and ocean salt breezes bathed him. All around, sledgehammers rang against iron as swarms of men and women clambered over the ancient oil tanker, tearing it apart. Heavy crews peeled away iron panels with acetylene torches and sent them wafting off the sides like palm leaves, crashing to the beach sands below, where more crews dragged the scavenge above high tide… An ant’s nest of activity, all dedicated to rendering this extinct ship’s bones into something usable for a new world.”
Plotting is brisk, rife with both human and environmental dangers. For many readers, viewing it as a straightforward adventure story will more than satisfy: a young man experiencing storms, ship wrecks, illness, captors, escape, trains, new cities, pirates, new species–you get the idea. Interestingly, I never felt like the pace was breakneck exhausting. Given Bacigalupi’s thematic sensibilities, there’s also a somewhat subtle background issues on environmental change, corporate profits, and subsidiaries concealing the true human cost of manufacturing. When I finished, I could only admire how he so subtly turns the tables between India and America, and America’s complicated and exploitative relationships with computers and disposal.
I enjoyed the characterization and feel like a rare complexity was achieved with many of the characters. It is in keeping with themes of loyalty and deception, and learning how to negotiate even with different agendas. Nailer was young, but a type of youthfulness that lacks experience of worlds outside his own more than a simplistic view of humanity. He struggles with concepts of ‘family,’ and ‘loyalty.’ Pima, his best friend, is a fabulous female lead: “Pima, their boss girl, taller than the rest and filling out like a woman, black as oil and hard as iron.” While she originally struggles in her role as boss girl, her ethical dilemmas become even more complex after she and Nailer discover a shipwreck. I enjoyed the way she and Nailer frequently contradicted each other, able to be companionable but not required to unhesitatingly acquiesce. Nita was perhaps less developed, but I suspect that is partly because of her role as object in Nailer’s life–she isn’t given much of a personality partly because of class difference limiting Nailer’s ability to understand her, and partly because of what she represents being more important than who she is.
Adults, on the other hand, seemed to be operating in a world with different rules and privy to knowledge the kids don’t have. Sadna, Pima’s mother, and Richard, Nailer’s father, are perhaps the most simplistic characters. As polar opposites, I think they represent the adult forces at work on a child’s life, forces that a child may strive to influence despite ultimately remaining under their control. I believed in the promise of Lopez’ violence, and thought Bacigalupi did a marvelous job of creating a villain, even if is clear he isn’t worthy of Nailer’s loyalty. Tool, the genetic half-dog man was done with lovely sensitivity, a further example of the complexity of the concept of loyalty.
Overall, a great book. A little hard, a little grim, but with hope.