When writing the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award Winner Ship Breaker, author Paolo Bacigalupi drew inspiration from concerns with global warming, environmental issues in the Gulf Coast region, and knowledge of ship-breaking in Bangladesh. By transposing the world of the third world ship breakers to the more familiar setting of the United States, he hoped to help his readers examine the possibilities of the world we might all face if we are not careful with the Earth’s resources.
While there is an ominous moral behind Ship Breaker, the novel never feels didactic or heavy-handed because Bacigalupi has woven it into and throughout a fast-paced adventure. Ship Breaker focuses on Nailer, a scavenger who helps to pull apart the old-world oil tankers that are run aground on the Gulf Coast. He crawls and slithers into the ducts of the abandoned ships, pulling out copper wiring and other bits of valuable metal. Soon he will be too big and too heavy to crawl through the duct systems, though, and without regular work on the light crew, he’ll be forced to fend for himself out on the dangerous beaches. Though his loyal friend Pima and her mother Sadna are fiercely protective of him, they won’t be able to help him get a spot on heavy crew – he isn’t strong enough to pull apart the outer hulls and massive pipes of the shipwrecked tankers. Nailer hasn’t given much thought to his future, though, because surviving the dangers of his current job and his violent, drug-addicted father take up most of his time.
After a particularly close brush with death, Nailer is lucky to come across an opportunity to escape his life scavenging the ships of the Gulf Coast: he and Pima discover a wealthy young girl trapped in a shipwreck, and she seems to be their ticket to a new life. The daughter of an important shipping magnate, Nita tells them that she is being hunted by her father’s enemies, who want to use her as leverage to gain control of her family’s global corporation. If they will help her make contact with employees who remain loyal to her father, though, there will be a reward.
While Pima chooses to stay behind with her mother, Nailer decides to help Nita escape – burning all bridges with his violent father and hoping that he will be able to find a new life in the North. And so, while the first part of Ship Breaker explores the violent, seedy world of the scavengers and the Gulf Coast beaches, the second part of the novel follows Nailer and Nita as they set out on their journey through Orleans I and Orleans II to find someone who will take Nita back home to her family – and hopefully provide a place for Nailer as well.
Most of the novel is fast-paced and very involving, so I think that I would have enjoyed the story no matter the setting – but the way that Bacigalupi slowly unfolds his vision of a post-oil world is fascinating. The dystopian setting lends itself to the events of the novel in such a way that Nailer, Pima and Nita’s adventures feel fresh and unusual to me – although I must admit that I am not very well-read when it comes to science fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed other dystopian novels, but this is the first that I have felt is quite so tangibly connected to the world in which we are currently living. In 2010, many of us watched on the newsreel as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region were hit first with Hurricane Katrina, then the BP oil spill; Bacigalupi builds upon these disasters in the novel, creating a very believable and disquieting future for the American Gulf Coast. Connecting so closely with a work of dystopian literature was a little bit creepy for me – but also thoroughly engrossing.
Because we have had the images of devastated New Orleans so recently before us, it is not difficult to imagine this section of the country as hell-on-Earth; I’m impressed, though, with the way that Bacigalupi develops the details of this harsh new America. The residents of New Orleans have always been known as colorful and superstitious, so it is not surprising that in the wake of such extreme environmental disasters, a new society would spring up that is similarly religious/superstitious. Nailer’s world is filled with people who are both cruel and religious, who are willing to turn to both violence and the Fates in order to survive. It is this picture of a desperate society reduced to brutality that makes Nailer such a sympathetic character – he is one of the few that still dreams, still values human life, still seeks to understand those around him. As Bacigalupi pulls you along on this fast-paced adventure, you will likely find yourself hoping for Nailer’s survival not only as an individual, but as a symbol of compassionate humanity triumphing over the poverty, destruction and desperation of society. This is a novel that is interesting and engrossing for both its distinctiveness and its universals, enjoyable on all levels.