Paolo Bacigalupi is the award-winning author of some very cool short stories (collected in Pump Six and other stories), and two very cool novels, The Wind-up Girl and Ship-Breaker. Despite having enjoyed the first two of those, it took me until this week to read the third, his first young-adult novel.
Ship-Breaker takes place some years into what seems to be the long, slow wind-down of human civilization, a time after some serious environmental consequences have dealt both climatological and resulting economic blows to the great powers of our own day. City-killer storms are common. Whole peoples have lost their homes to rising waters and taken to piracy. Fossil fuels no longer drive the economic engines of the day. Around the ruined Gulf of Mexico, the starving underclass can survive through no other activity than gutting and salvaging whatever they can from the wrecks of the giant ships that used to rule the oceans.
In short, the novel’s setting reads like something right out of Jane Jacobs‘ grim Dark Age Ahead, a bleak trip perhaps a century further down the path of decline that she predicts for us.
The main character, Nailer, works on a light crew. He is, by necessity, a child-labourer, employed mostly because his small size allows him to get inside the tight confines of the beached hulks to rip out whatever copper or other metals he can find. In a harrowing opening scene in which he gets stuck inside a ship and is betrayed by one of his own crew, we see just how much is at stake and how cheap human life has become in this complicated, nuanced setting.
Why this doesn’t suck:
Because it’s awesome. I entered Ship-Breaker already expecting it to be good. The author has a track-record, and the reviews have been positive.
Still it managed to exceed my expectations. The first thing I loved in this novel was the crisp particularity of the writing. Bacigalupi has a keen command of just the right noun, just the precise and tangible detail to make you feel the claustrophobia and desperation Nailer’s world. The writing is fresh and detailed without ever slowing down for any showing off or elaborate phrasing.
But good writing alone isn’t enough. Bacigalupi has some pretty impressive storytelling chops. The plot rockets along at a frenetic pace. I suppose it’s obvious that in a story about a boy who works on salvage, the plot is going to hinge around something he finds; but this author is able to make that “something” into a whole new opening up of the plot, the setting, and the very difficult moral questions of the story. I’ve already mentioned Jane Jacobs, and I think she’s a definite influence on this book, but it isn’t any dry treatise on the human future; the novel’s high-energy story has ancestry that reaches back quite demonstrably at least as far as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson.
One of my biggest pleasures in a well-plotted book is being able to sit back and enjoy the ride. A good story, and this is a really good story, gives you the security that you’re being guided along by a teller who has everything planned all along so that the ending will somehow bring everything full circle, the conflicts, the moral choices, the changes in character; and that we will, in Eliot’s words “arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.” Paolo Bacigalupi does all that in Ship-Breaker.
It’s his second published novel, and it reads like he’s been doing this for half a lifetime.
Strongly, strongly recommended.