Paolo Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker" imagines the polluted future of the Gulf Coast

This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

Set in a climate-changed future, Ship Breaker is the first young adult novel from Windup Girl author Paolo Bacigalupi. It's about a boy who scavenges abandoned tankers for cash, struggling to survive in a world of indentured servitude and bioengineering.


The age of cheap energy has ended, and the consequences of that time have caught up to civilization. Global warming has caused the oceans to rise and society's boundaries to shift. In the former Gulf Coast region, Nailer Lopez is a ship breaker, a young man who is part of a team that goes aboard abandoned oil tankers and transport ships, stripping them of their wiring and anything of value. Their loot is then turned over to a sort of company boss, who sells them to someone else. The citizens in this region are an indentured workforce, unable to move away or to seek out a better life.

Nailer's prospects shift dramatically when a major storm (nicknamed a ‘City Killer', something akin to Katrina, most likely), comes through the area, blowing to shore an advanced clipper ship, one with the daughter of a wealthy company owner aboard. Nailer must navigate through a complicated set of events, each of which can fundamentally change his life for better or worse. Throughout the story, he is faced with choices: to take a monumental risk and hope for something better to happen because of it, or act on his instincts, preserving what is familiar. This is a theme that permeates the book throughout, and for that reason, it's a solid addition to the YA market, because of the lessons that can be learned from it.


What truly stands out for Ship Breaker, much like Bacigalupi's previous novel The Windup Girl, is the way his vision of the future seems firmly rooted in reality. Ironically, I picked up this book around the same time as the ongoing Deepwater Horizon explosion and read it during the resulting oil spill that has since contaminated much of the Gulf in the past five weeks. With that in the back of my mind, it's clear that Bacigalupi has a point throughout his stories: we need to care for our environment, and his biopunk stories (including the fantastic People of Sand and Slag) really look to this theme.

Like The Windup Girl, this story also brings a fantastic cast of characters into the environment that he's put together. Nailer is highly relatable for a protagonist, someone caught in the middle of a vast number of changes outside his control. He's a heroic figure throughout, but one who is tortured by his choices, such as his relationship with his abusive and violent father, and some of his fellow workers. ‘Lucky Girl', or Nita, plays a sort of damsel in distress, whom Nailer discovers after the storm. Tool is a ‘half-man', a bioengineered guard, composed of human and canine DNA , who's broken away from his genetic programming to assist Nailer. All of these elements blend together in a notable book, one that is likely to really win awards.

What struck me the most, however, is the detail and care that has been put into the world-building of this future. While the plot left me wanting a bit more (and keeping in mind that this was a YA novel), what left me far more interested in finishing was the society and issues that Bacigalupi has put into the story. There's a major stratification of society between the rich and poor, with major industrial powers rising, and with people looking to survive off of whatever they can find. There's an immense amount of relevant commentary within this book, even though at points, I found the plot to be somewhat predictable.

Overall, Ship Breakers is an exciting and rewarding read for a variety of age group. Bacigalupi presents, once again, a frightening vision of the future, one that seems very likely to me. While I did not feel that it's up to the same caliber as The Windup Girl, it stands very well on its own, and leaves me wanting much more from Bacigalupi's world.


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Chip Overclock®

I'm reading Windup Girl at the moment. The book came highly recommended by Mrs. Overclock (etc.), which was a good sign. And it reminds me very much of River of Gods, which from me is high praise indeed, since River was probably the best book of any genre I read that year.

It's a special time when I discover a new author that I really like. This places Bacigalupi in good company along with such luminaries as Iain Banks, Neal Stephenson, Robert Charles Wilson, Vernor Vinge, and Ian McDonald.

I very much look forward to reading Ship Breaker.