Ship Breaker

27Feb11

Paulo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker won this year’s Printz Award. Bacigalupi won a Hugo Award for his sci-fi novel, The Windup Girl, and has written a couple of novellas and a collection of short stories, but this is his first YA novel.

Nailer is 17, and he’s still alive and working because he’s small–he can fit through the ductwork on the ancient tankers and salvage the copper wiring. But he’s growing, and soon he’ll be to big to work the light salvage crew and he’ll never make it on heavy salvage. This is a dystopian future in which there is little oil and no law. Crew and family are the only safety, the only way to eat. Nailer lives in a shack on the beach with his abusive, drug addicted father and the memories of what life was like before his mother died, before his father lost what was human. Pima, his light crew’s boss, is a friend. Her mother and their shack is a haven, almost a home. This is a world of luck and the Salvage God, where a Lucky Strike can save your life, where you sell organs to live if all else fails, and where death comes quickly.

The story truly begins with a symbolic rebirth: Nailer falls into what should have been his Lucky Strike. He is immersed in a pocket of oil and drowning. He calls to his crew member, Sloth, for help but she betrays him. He lives through wit and courage, expelled like a newborn through a rent in the tanker hull. What oil is left goes to someone else, but he lives, wounded, and is changed. Sloth’s betrayal costs her . . . perhaps she can live as a prostitute or by selling her organs, perhaps not. This is a tale of death and rebirth, in which each decision has a price. Next year, if Pima can’t bulk up enough to get on heavy crew that may be her fate.

When Pima and Nailer find the fresh wreck of one of the incredible clipper ships, the salvage could be their Lucky Strike, or it could mean a swift death at the hands of Nailer’s father. Nailer and Pima find a dead swank, a girl their own age, and begin to remove her jewelry. They can’t get her rings off, but she bleeds when they try to cut them and she opens her eyes.

The smart thing to do would be to cut her throat and sell her organs, and perhaps Nailer would have done that before his plunge into the oil pocket, but he can’t now.

“Don’t cut her,” Nailer said. “We can’t make a Lucky Strike like this . . . It would be like Sloth was with me.”

That pits him against his father and forces him into a dangerous plot involving competing factions for control of one of the huge multinational corporations that rule this post-apocalyptic world.

Like the Mockingjay series, this is an unblinking look at a terrifying and all-too-possible future, and like that series it is seen through the eyes of a compelling protagonist. Where it parts company, though, is that in Bacigalupi’s world there is greater possibility for trust, for redemption and for love.

Highly recommended for older YA.

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