Friday, October 01, 2010

Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigalupi)

I was keen on reading Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl ever since I saw it mentioned on io9. But there was always some other book, always something else in the way. Then I came across his dystopian YA novel, Ship Breaker, and figured this was a good place to start as any.

At a time when the polar ice caps have melted and the ocean levels have risen, Nailer struggles to eke out a living as a light crew member, someone who strips copper and other useful wiring off grounded tankers and ships. After a particularly devastating hurricane whips through Bright Sands Beach, he and his friend Pima discover a new clipper ship that has run aground nearby. Its crew is dead, except for Nita, a wealthy girl who could probably be the biggest scavenge of all. But Nita (or Lucky Girl, as Nailer calls her) is no ordinary 'swank'; she's an heiress caught in the middle of a huge takeover of one of the world's biggest shipping companies. As expected, Nailer rescues Nita and with help from some unlikely quarters, they journey to restore her to her family.

The opening circumstances reminded me a lot of Terry Pratchett's Nation, where island boy Mau and shipwrecked rich girl Daphne find themselves turning to each other as they pick up the pieces after a life-changing tsunami. Of course, the differences in genre, tone, and approach prevent further comparison but the thought was pretty much foremost in my mind as I was reading Ship Breaker. Just a little reminder (again) to take my comments with a grain of salt, especially if I forget to be objective.

Mr Bacigalupi explores geopolitics for the younger set: the poorly-built cities that collapse under nature's tide, the corporate wars fought over flotsam and scavenge, the genetic experiments that breed half-men. I think Mr Bacigalupi builds Ship Breaker's world with admirable confidence and boldness and this well-drawn scenario was what immediately hooked me.

The novel is not without a few stumbling blocks. Its pace is exciting but somewhat uneven. Mr Bacigalupi spends the first four chapters detailing Nailer's work in the belly of an oil tanker, which I thought was a good pace for a reader acquainting herself with the boundaries of a new world. Somehow, though, in the middle of the action, certain things were glossed over. While I am satisfied with how the book turned out (the first of a series, I'm told) in the end, part of me wishes that the time Nailer and Lucky Girl spent in the Orleans had been longer than two chapters, or at least had been utilized enough to establish a stronger bond between the two, other than being co-fugitives. I didn't really feel the friendship or the mutual dependence and--if the last scene is meant as foreshadowing--an attraction beyond teenage hormones. The characters are a bit timeworn, but for a story that driven by plot, I think they were still effective.

Ship Breaker spins an exciting coming-of-age story. Before Lucky Girl, Nailer lives and dies by his scavenge: 'Ahead, the gull-white hull of the wreck gleamed in the sunlight, beckoning (p78).' In the last scene, as he is watching Lucky Girl's ship, his world and his possibilities have widened: 'Beyond it, the blue sea stretched to the horizon, beckoning (p323).' A lifetime has happened between these two incidents, and stubborn, enterprising Nailer waits to see how many readers will come along for his next adventure.


Osing said...

You know when I read this book, I sort of liked it but I felt that there was something missing. You explained that missing thing perfectly. I'd still like to read book 2 though.

dementedchris said...

Thanks for the comment! I think I was waiting for something to cement their friendship but it felt a bit flimsy to me. Same here, though, I'd still like to read the second installment.