Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Growing up poor, no matter America or in Africa, is a difficult task.  Human nature being what it is, a variety of perspectives can be taken of the wealth gap.  The affluent side might be something mysterious and forever unattainable, it can be motivation to work hard and one day find yourself amongst the rich and likewise a lifestyle entirely undesirable, it can be something that becomes owed—like feelings of victim hood, it can be the nexus for crime and other means of obtaining fast wealth, it can be the source of depression and frustration, and it can be accepted as normal; life just goes on, best to be happy with what you have instead of don’t have.  An interesting examination of the haves and have nots, Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2011 YA novel Ship Breaker takes a look at the world through the eyes of a poor teenage boy.  Existing at one of the lowest rungs of society, it’s through a whirlwind adventure that the ultimate value of his life is made apparent.

Ship Breaker is set in a post-oil world warmed drastically by the greenhouse effect.  The polar ice caps have melted and raised sea waters hundreds of feet, inundating the continents.  Humanity pushed back but not defeated, the effect is nevertheless significant.  Whole cities drowned, conglomerates of the destitute have emerged wherever food can be found and valuable materials scavenged.  It is on the coastline of what was once Louisiana that young Nailer is found.  Rooting through abandoned tanker ships, he locates steel, copper, and other metals to earn his quota for the day.  Choking dust and mold filling every breath and the danger of being in tiny, enclosed environments haunting every step, his working conditions are abysmal.  But nothing is as bad as his return home.  Richard Lopez, Nailer’s father, is a drunken drug addict who beats his son for the most trivial of transgressions.  But one day, when a major storm breaks over the beach, their lives change forever.

An amazing story unfurling itself in the aftermath of the storm, Ship Breaker is a classic yet gritty adventure.   Bacigalupi building excitement wonderfully, there are eye-filling discoveries, dangerous captures, the joys of fulfilling dreams (even if only for a moment), jungle escapes, traipses in foreign cities, the eluding of enemy agents, a sea chase—all in all an outright grand and imaginative adventure.  The plot pieces clicking into place time and again, Ship Breaker is great storytelling. 

But Ship Breaker is not a fairy tale for teens.  The place Nailer finds himself at the end of the novel is not the same as the beginning, but not materialistically.  There is no castle, princess, and treasure awaiting the end of his tale. Bacigalupi keeping Nailer’s story grounded somewhat reasonably from a personal and moral standpoint, it’s only in the flights of storytelling and the presentation of Nailer’s father that the bounds of reality are pushed.  Slowly but steadily the young teen bounces back and forth on the currents of humanity, but always gaining more knowledge than losing, and eventually coming to a higher plateau of existence, even if his wallet is still thin. The ricochet points may not always be consistent, but the message at the conclusion is.

Thus, the depiction of Richard Lopez is disappointing.  Where Nailer’s character is developed throughout the story, his father is the same ultra-evil at the beginning as the end.  But the flatness of his character is not the issue.  Given he is Nailer’s foil, the same degree of complexity is needed such that the results of their interaction can achieve the depth of meaning desired.  As it stands, Lopez’s comic book evil reduces the impact of their relationship rather than bolstering the tension underpinning it.  I had a really hard time swallowing the several scenes wherein Lopez is trying to kill Nailer.  Had the two never grown up together, had Nialer’s father never held him as a baby, or had Nailer been a grown man who wronged his father in some unforgettable fashion, I might be able to believe Lopez wants revenge bad enough to violently murder his son.  But as Nailer is a young teen still with a few memories of a loving father, nor has he ever done anything to hurt the man, it’s really difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. Reading of a father uttering classic one-liners like “I’ll slit your throat from ear to ear” rings false.  (My quote, not Bacigalupi’s, but there are numerous lines with the same sentiment.)  It is not necessary for Nailer and his father to hug and make up at the conclusion for Ship Breaker to be ‘good’, but a more complex treatment of Lopez’s character would have made the book a richer, more layered experience, in turn commenting with more profundity on the very real issues of substance, emotional, and verbal abuse that exist.  As it stands, the depiction of Lopez makes a strong attempt to destroy the novel.

In the end, Ship Breaker is a YA novel featuring a good, old-fashioned and original adventure.  Glorious sailboats, a detailed post-global warming setting, gritty action, a plausible near future social scenario, and a young man the reader will sympathize with, it makes me wish I were fourteen again and could enjoy it as such.  The boy’s father is characterized very poorly, but the lessons the young man learns are worth the rocky road he walks—and must walk—to arrive at.  More violent than the average YA offering (and occasionally unnecessarily so), the novel nevertheless looks at family values, materialism, and seeing beyond one’s immediate circumstances for a broader vew of life.

A side note: in 2006, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Edward Burtynski put his camera on his shoulder and headed in search of some of mankind’s biggest proofs of existence on Earth.  The documentary Manufactured Landscapes resulting, it spends the majority of its length in China, presenting jaw-dropping scenes of humanity’s effect on our planet and the underlying industrial mechanisms which are accelerating our takeover. The clip featuring a woman manually assembling a circuit breaker in a factory (200 per day!) will stay with me as long as I live.  Equally stunning footage, however, was shot on the shores of Bangladesh.  A graveyard of massive tanker ships the focus, humans scurry like ants among the behemoth metal corpses, breaking them down for iron and steel, copper and other valuable metals.  The opening scene of Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 YA novel Ship Breaker precisely the same, Burtynski’s documentary comes highly recommended as complementary material to the novel.


  1. I've been meaning to tell you that I finally saw and enjoyed Manufactured Landscapes after reading this review. Thanks for the tip!

    1. When a "professor" in China, I included Manufactured Landscapes as part of my syllabus for a Business Ethics course. I got a mixed reaction from the students. Some of them watched in the same awe I did, while others thought, oh, China, boooooring.

      If you liked Burtynski's film, I would also highly, highly recommend two films by Ron Fricke: Baraka and Samsara, if you haven't already seen them. Both films of the same format and mode, each is by turns stunningly gorgeous and unsettling in the manner it depicts humanity. For example, the thousands of people living - thousands living - in, at, and on the the landfill outside Rio de Janeiro (or was it Sao Paolo) is mind-blowing, as is the intricate creation of mandalas by monks in Burma. And there are hundreds of other scenes which draw some kind of viscerally emotional reaction. Highly recommended...