Ship Breaker


Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. I picked up Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel Ship Breaker purely because of its striking dust-jacket, on which the title appears to have been scratched into a rusty boiler by a patient maniac, and I’m happy to report that the book more than lives up to it.

The story is set on and beside the Gulf of Mexico, a part of the world which is currently famous for having rather too much oil all over it. In the world of Ship Breaker, however, there is barely any oil left at all. The book’s hero, Nailer, is a boy who makes his tenuous living by stripping salvageable copper out of the hulks of abandoned supertankers which have been grounded on a beach near New Orleans – or near where New Orleans used to be, since the city itself has long since been drowned by ‘city killer’ storms sweeping in off the Gulf. Out on the ocean, hi-tech clipper ships race along the horizon, shooting their microfibre sails aloft to catch the jetstream. When one of them comes a cropper on a reef near Nailer’s beach, carrying the heiress of a wealthy trading clan, he finds himself propelled into a rattling adventure which leads him through the sweaty ports of the Mississipi Delta and out eventually onto the high seas and a sailing ship chase which could have come out of Patrick O’Brian. (I loved everything about Ship Breaker’s clippers, which are like object-lessons for arts-grad steampunk tinkerers like me in the way that sci-fi can recreate the excitements of a historical novel while still presenting plausible future technologies.)
There are a lot of near-future dystopias about at the moment, and before I read Ship Breaker I feared that it was going to be one of those pointlessly depressing books that drags you through a horrible Third World future while the author goes, “REPENT!” (Surely there’s enough to be depressed about in the actual Third World without inventing thinly disguised future versions?) Or might it just wallow in poverty-chic, like that dreadful James Cameron-produced dystopia-lite TV series Dark Angel (in which characters who look like supermodels mooch around a cityscape so much less dystopian than bits of most present-day US cities that it’s impossible to see what they’re all grumbling about)? But no: Mr Bacigalupi nimbly avoids both of these traps; the world he creates is vivid and gritty enough to make readers think about what real poverty means, but his book isn’t a Dire Warning; it’s an adventure story, like something Robert Louis Stevenson might have written if he’d read a bit of William Gibson. There’s a certain simplicity about the plotting and characters which suggest it’s aimed squarely at the YA market, but simplicity is no bad thing: it certainly kept me turning the pages, and I’m goodness knows how old.
I gather that Mr Bacigalupi has also written several adult novels, and I’ll be seeking them out soon. I’m sure they’ll be worth reading; I hope their covers are as good as Ship Breaker‘s.

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