May 26, 2010

Yeti Review: Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi

30 words or less: Although slightly restrained by the YA nature of Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi demonstrates the talents for developing realistic characters and show-not-tell worldbuilding that won him a Nebula award.

My Rating: 4/5

Pros: Stellar worldbuilding that only explores a fraction of its depth; dynamic characters that are deeper than your average YA protagonists; story is accessable on multiple levels and appropriate for both teenagers and adults

Cons: The events of the novel don't match the bleakness of the setting; Bacigalupi occasionally resorts to YA cliches; Bacigalupi tones back on the darker elements that he usually writes about (if that is your thing)

The Review: Paolo Bacigalupi has a knack for capturing the best and the worst humanity has to offer and his latest novel is no exception. Readers experienced with his fiction will discover yet another brilliantly constructed dystopia filled with intriguing ideas. Newer readers will find the same thing but for the first time. More adult than Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and no-less imaginative, Ship Breaker is poised to introduce a whole new set of eager readers to the rising SF talent that Bacigalupi represents.

Ship Breaker chronicles the adventures of Nailer, a teenage boy eking out an existence working salvage on the Gulf Coast of a future America on the catastrophic side of peak oil. Exploring the inner workings of derelict freighters is hard, dangerous work and Nailer longs to escape the daily collection quota of feet of wire and pounds of scrap. Bacigalupi does an excellent job of quickly capturing the harsh reality of this future, making the first portion of the book particularly gripping as we accompany Nailer through a particularly memorable day in his scavenging career as things go awry deep within the bowels of an oil tanker.

With every page of Nailer’s introduction we learn more about his character and the world he inhabits. Where the average author resorts to what is derogatorily referred to as infodumping, Bacigalupi demonstrates his world in enviable show-not-tell fashion. As a result, the future culture of Ship Breaker feels authentic and rooted in our own history rather than an artificial construct. The strong foundations of the novel allow for more fully developed characters and in turn, a more enjoyable narrative.

After the strong opening that cements Nailer in the hearts of the audience, the main plot is realized as the young protagonist stumbles upon a shipwrecked state-of-the-art clipper ship and its priceless cargo: a discovery beyond his wildest imaginations. Nailer soon must make a difficult decision and make it fast before his abusive, alcoholic father discovers his son's secret and claims it for himself. As the action ramps up, the plot quickly travels in interesting directions, exploring the boundaries of a future begging to be exposed and leaving ideas in the background that could support entire novels in their own right.

It's worth repeating that Ship Breaker is being published as a YA novel. Ignoring the debate over what should or shouldn't be allowed in a YA book, there is no denying that some of his early work is by no means appropriate for younger audiences. Bacigalupi has written stories full of shocking material, covering topics that include population control squads hunting down and executing illegal children in cold blood and the traumatic regenesis of beings created primarily for sexual pleasure as they come to terms with the perverted nature of their existence. Bacigalupi writes this dark material well, using it to provoke thought rather than to shock and disturb but it can get pretty messed up, even for seasoned genre veterans.

The dichotomy between the unadulterated humanity of Bacigalupi’s early work and the restrictions of the YA market was one of my primary concerns going into Ship Breaker. After reading, it’s clear that he is capable of toning down some of the more adult themes that have been prevalent in his early work without losing his touch. There is a strong balance to the novel as Bacigalupi includes the trademark darker elements but relegates them to the background. There are drugs, slaves, and organ thieves in the periphery of the story but at its core, Ship Breaker is about a boy overcoming his fears.

At the same time, there is no denying that Ship Breaker is guilty of conforming to certain YA staples. A budding romance between the two main characters develops. Young characters must face older antagonists in “authoritative” positions and eventually decide the type of person they want to be in the face of pressure. Even the ending is a little bit too positive when you consider the bleak background that Bacigalupi has painted behind his cast. However, when this occurs, it’s not to excess and the strengths of the characters and the setting clearly outweigh any perceived weaknesses.

Ship Breaker is an excellent novel and a worthy successor to the Nebula-Award-Winning The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi makes worldbuilding look easy, explaining complex ideas clearly with an economy of word that allows for richer characters and a dynamic plot. Every Bacigalupi story demands further exploration of the well-crafted worlds that he only hints at. Based off the strength of his first two novels, limiting him to only one imagined world would be a mistake, both for his creativity and the good of the genre as a whole. Despite the occasional blunder into YA tropes, Ship Breaker is still thought provoking science fiction at its best; effortless to read and difficult to forget.

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