Ship Breaker, released in May 2010, is the second full length novel by Paolo Bacigalupi after The Windup Girl, which won the Nebula Award and is currently in the running for the Hugo Award, and his first Young Adult novel.
Ship Breaker is set in the Gulf Coast region of the United States in the near future, a world ravaged by poverty when oil reserves have been depleted and the sea level has risen dramatically due to climate change, causing geographic and societal shifts. Oil tankers, freighters and other huge sea vessels are no longer of any use due to the lack of oil, their only remaining value is whatever can be salvaged from them. On the Coast, ship breakers work at salvaging whatever they can from these huge ships, tearing them apart bit by bit until nothing remains. Light crews, constituted of children and teenagers due to their ability to fit into cramped ducts, are responsible for the smaller salvages such as the copper wiring or scrap metal whereas heavy crews salvage the bigger, heavier components.
Nailer Lopez, a teenager, is a Ship Breaker, he works for a light crew struggling as best he can to make salvage quota. After a severe hurricane known as a "City Killer" hits his coastal community, he and his crew-mate Pima discover a shipwrecked Clipper inside which they find wealth beyond their wildest dreams: silverware, food, paintings, etc. The crew are all dead, but they stumble upon the unconscious body of what appears to be a very wealthy, and beautiful, teenage girl. They are faced with a dilemma, salvage anything they can from their "Lucky Strike" before anyone else notices the wreck, or go against their instinct and save the girl.
Ship Breaker is a very enjoyable read full of action and adventure that tackles some themes currently in the Zeitgeist (climate change, peak oil) in a convincing way. This especially rings true with the current oil leak in the Gulf Coast. Bacigalupi paints a very bleak, dystopic portrait of our future if we don't find solutions to these problems soon. Clearly, one of the main messages this book sends is that we need to take a lot better care of our environment if we want to live as a species, and not just survive as best we can. I must say the world building in this book was phenomenal, the setting feels both plausible and alive, I would very much like to read more stories set in this world. The huge gap in wealth between the rich corporation owners and everyone else and all the other social commentary felt very à-propos.
The characters and their interactions were mostly vivid and fun to read, I especially liked the idea of the human-dog hybrid slaves. The relentless pace, action and adventure get you hooked in right from the start, it's a real page-turner. It's hard not to feel empathy for Nailer and his friends and the things they go through make you care even more for the characters. However the plot itself felt a bit formulaic and, to me, left something to be desired.
At times I found it hard to believe this novel is aimed at young adults, since some of the darker parts and events of the book had me a little squeamish. I hear this is typical of Bacigalupi, however this is the first book of his that I've read so I wouldn't know. At other times, the moralizing felt a bit heavy handed and repetitive, reminding me that this is a YA novel.
Had this novel been available when I was 13, and had I read it at that time, I'm sure it would have become one of my all-time favourite novels, much like Ender's Game. If the themes or the setting interest you, I highly recommend you read this book, whether you are in the target age group or not.