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on 7 June 2010
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.
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on 18 December 2011
If you've read Windup Girl by the same author, imagine a similarly dystopic near future world suffering from environmental and structural collapse, largely controlled by corporate interests.

The protagonist is very much the young boy 'Nailer', I can only imagine this leads credence to the concept of this being a YA book, but honestly as someone long past young adulthood (alas) I still enjoyed this. I can't categorise it as unputdownable, but if you read Windup Girl and you are hunting for more of Paolo, this will definitely provide a fix. The style is similar, but doesn't quite have the polish, strength or the depth and breadth of character set that 'Windup Girl' has, but is still a good read.

The book begins accessibly and with quality writing instead of relying on shock value to keep you reading, and remains so throughout. Nailer feels completely a believable character, as are many of the supporting cast. At no point does the plot feel flawed or contrived, and the few deus ex machinas that are inevitable in the vast majority of fiction don't detract from the tale.

Definitely not one of those books that will stay with you, but a good read none the less, for young as well as old adults.

As ever, shame about the ridiculous e-book pricing.
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VINE VOICEon 30 November 2010
I love Paolo Bacigalupi's writing, building on the deeply evocative wind-up girl this story takes us to a near future Gulf coast where obsolete tankers and other large ships are broken and salvaged. The future is environmentally challenged and impoverished and instead of the Gulf we know of today it's more like Bangladesh. The story revolves around two teenage salvage workers Nailer and Pima and their discovery of a wrecked ship (complete with helpless, lost rich girl), stuffed with riches beyond the dreams of avarice, well food and money, their horizons are as impoverished as their lifestyles and environment. It's a classic actioneer do they take the money or save the girl? The dystopian near future is well sketched out, well if you imagine the future to be like coastal Bangladesh anyway, and the main tropes of environment awareness, morality and ethics are finely drawn into the plot.

I was surprised to find this billed as a YA book, parts of it are properly dark and quite nasty on occasion but it's an enjoyable romp and a cracking read.
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VINE VOICEon 27 March 2011
An excellent book, aimed at young adults and so containing some violence and mildish swearing, Ship Breaker tells the tale of Nailer, scratching a living in the Gulf of Mexico in a dystopian future of climate change and limited power and food. Nailer works to break up ships left stranded in the new world and he inhabits a vividly imagined world. The early chapters are exciting and well thought out. As we learn about the Nailer's life and times, he is catapulted into an adventure that will test his loyalties and his courage.
Although this is aimed at young adults it is perfectly good as a "normal" novel, although the final part does tend to lose some of the imagination and detail of the earlier part. But overall it is still a very good piece of work.
Bacigalupi has won praise for his short fiction (Pump Six and other stories is very good, although his futures all tend to be very similar, focussing on climate change and how we will cope after the oil has all gone). I have The Wind-up Girl next in my reading pile....
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on 29 October 2012
Presumably set in the same dystopian future as his critically - and popularly - acclaimed "The Windup Girl", Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker" remains one of the best Young Adult dystopian science fiction novels of recent vintage and one with well-drawn characters and a superbly vivid prose style that will endear itself to audiences of all ages. On the Gulf Coast of Texas, in what was once the United States, a young teenage boy, Nailer, who works on a "light crew" combing wrecked, rusted oil tankers for precious copper wiring, stumbles upon a wrecked clipper ship whose only survivor, Nita, is a young wealthy heiress of one of North America's most prominent mercantile trading families. Opting to seek a future far more promising than his dreary present, Nailer embarks on trek with Nita towards the distant half-drowned city of New Orleans, escorted by a genetically modified hybrid human bred for war, Tool, hoping to find another clipper ship and a loyal crew working on behalf of her family. Theirs is a journey fraught with peril as they contend with murderous thieves and fanatical mercenaries, and the crew of an armored clipper ship loyal to her family's bitter rivals on a mission to find her at all costs. "Ship Breaker" is replete with much of the same visually arresting, descriptive prose found in "The Windup Girl", demonstrating once again, Bacigalupi's considerable talents as one of the premier literary stylists writing contemporary science fiction in the English language. This is a notable recent work of dystopian science fiction that should interest a readership extending well beyond science fiction.
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on 6 September 2011
I've seen Ship Breaker described as a dystopia. Well, it's certainly that, but in some respects there are plenty of people in the so-called developing world who already live this dystopian vision of life at the fringes of a technological society.

So, they're not tearing apart derelict oil tankers with their bare hands (near enough), but today's 'breakers' risk their health and well-being tearing apart our discarded computers, mobile phones and other electronic junk, with just as little regard from those of us living in the rich world.

Nailer is little more than a child but he is already a veteran of the 'light' crews. Small enough to crawl into the labyrinth of ducts on the dead ships, he strips out the copper wire that is then sold on to the big salvage companies. Of course, he sees little more than a pittance and this goes to pay off his debts to the gangmasters that control life and death in the ramshackle beach community that earns its subsistence of the wreckage of our drowned world.

The seas have risen. Coastal cities across the world are drowned ruins. The oil has gone, but sometimes a 'breaker' like Nailer strikes it lucky and finds a pocket of oil leftover that can buy them out of their servitude. Nailer shares the dream, but his more pressing concern is to make it onto the 'heavy crews' -- who dismantle the great ships' hulls -- once he grows too big for the duct work. It's that, or destitution and starvation on the beach -- perhaps an even worse fate.

Though it is never said in the novel, it is worth wondering if Nailer's ancestors weren't once citizens of New Orleans, or maybe one of its replacement cities built as the tides advanced, only to be themselves claimed by the rising waters, to leave the young man's forebears washed up on the edge of ruin and faced with a future that Nailer now dreams of escaping.

Escape for him comes with a storm. A so-called city killer that plunges Nailer into the heart of an internecine struggle within one of the great trading companies that dominate this brave new world. When he comes across the wreckage of a clipper ship, broken by the storm, he discovers the mother of all salvage strikes. It will change his life -- if he can stay alive that is.

From Nailer's beach existence and the grim story of his life on the fringes of the 'civilised' world, Nailer is thrown into a series of struggles and events that can only be described as a kind of high seas adventure. In the end, it's not the prize that sees him stay the course, but his own sense of loyalty to his 'crew', even though it means he often wonders if he is not risking his life for nothing. But then, the in itself reflects the life he has known as a breaker. It's a grim world where poeple live as best they can, any way they can, and loyalty and trust is more precious than the last dregs of oil.

The writing is vivid, the characters raw -- in the sense that they are flayed by the cruelties of their existence -- and Ship Breaker presents a saddening and maddening contrast between the brutal struggle for existence that is Nailer's life and the opulence of the trading clans. It's a saddening, maddening depiction of a world created by our own follies and short-sighted greed. And it's the Nailers of this world that are forced to pick up the pieces.
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on 15 August 2011
With dystopia almost as the new science fiction, and contemporary reality-based dystopia(1) as one of the most used fads in YA these days, it's hardly surprising that an author like Paolo Bacigalupi, whose roots lie in classic sci-fi, would try to fuse the two and come up with a book like Ship Breaker. But in essence, Ship Breaker is way old school and basically delivers - besides the dystopia - a straight up adventure story, featuring a boy and his troubled life.

The boy is Nailer, one of the light crew who scavenges ships and dismantles the old oil tankers that lie along the shores of what once was the Gulf Coast. His troubled life is decided by that great old divide between the haves and the have nots. Nailer is a have not, who longs for a Lucky Strike before he gets too big to be a member of `light crew'. When he almost drowns in a sea of oil (which he thinks might be his lucky strike), one of his crew members decides not to help him, and as such betrays the blood oath that exists between crew members. This event introduces us to the first major theme of the novel: loyalty. Loyalty gets tested on several levels: loyalty between crew members, loyalty between family members, etc. The lucky strike that Nailer and his friend Pima are waiting for seems to come when they encounter a girl, who is the only survival of a city killer, on her clipper. The encounter with Nita, the Lucky Girl, further explores the theme of loyalty, but it also introduces us to the concept of justice vs. loyalty, and what the value of human life is, in this post-oil era.

With an abundance of books about similar circumstances, the strength of Ship Breaker does not lie in the originality of its theme, but in the way that Bacigalupi builds up his story and the way that he lets the reader be his/her own reader. In an almost show but don't tell way, there is a message to be found here somewhere in the novel, yes a warning even, but it's very well disguised as a linear adventure story of a boy's struggles in the face of adversity. It doesn't exactly tell us how the world arrived where it arrived, but it shows us what it looks like now, what creatures walk the new earth, leaving a lot to the imagination of the individual reader to make his/her own back story. My main point: Bacigalupi never gets overly explicit, because there's simply no time: the action pushes the reader and the story forward. There's a sentence here, a sentence there, where Bacigalupi does indeed tell us what's what, but he never wallows in preachy messages, but instead shows us a post global warming brave new dystopia, in which there are half-men, city killers (worse than type 6 hurricanes), ship breakers (the have nots scavenging what's left of the old world) and swanks (the ridiculously rich haves).

It's a fairly risky path to take as an author, because this also means that with the exception maybe of the protagonist Nailer, there's virtually no back story to the other characters. The most notable example here is Tool, a half-men who - contrary to the rest of his race - does not pledge allegiance to just one master. Of course, the question is whether Tool would still be such an interesting character if his past weren't shrouded in mystery the way it is now. Bacigalupi now lets us make up our own mind for ourselves, based Tool's actions throughout the story. It's a risky undertaking, but in the end it makes for a far more realistic story. People encounter people, things happen, you make decisions, you move on, you act on your decision (or not). Especially in a grim world like Nailer's there's no time to wallow in what was or might have been. You act or you don't act. And it's your actions that decide who you are as a person, not your genes...Tool, or Nailer, or any other character in the story, would not be who they are, if they constantly looked back.

Ship Breaker is one of those books that can appeal to so many different types of readers (probably a reason why it won so many awards). Whether you want a fairly simple adventure story, or a novel with a message, a bit of sci-fi, a teensy weensy hint of romance, or just an action-packed afternoon read,... Ship Breaker delivers. Having a bit of everything is both its strength and its weakness, though. There will be a companion book soon (Bacigalupi does not want to call it a sequel), The Drowned Cities, which will undoubtedly draw in even more readers, and which will hopefully give us more of the raw universe that was sketched in Ship Breaker. Either way, the cat looks forward to it.

1. The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Carbon Diaries 2015 and 2017, to name but a few ...
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on 9 August 2011
A good read but not, I eventually realised, for me.

The story is about a boy called Nailer who works hard gathering copper wiring from old oil tankers in order to make quota and keep his pitiful job. The setting? A bleak and miserable future 100 years from now. One day he finds something on board a wrecked clipper ship that is destined to change his life forever in ways he could never have imagined... sounds suitably ominous and intriguing.

But, ah, there was a bit too much oil and ships and copper wiring for me.

There were some great fast-paced action scenes, some real gritty nastiness and the author had a tendency to describe the gory details very accurately. I thought some parts were better written and more interesting than others but, on the whole, the story failed to grab me and, thereby, failed to hold my interest.

One of my favourite parts of this book were the constant moral battles the characters faced of self-preservation vs doing the right thing. Getting rich or saving a life? Helping your colleague out of a sticky situation or using their misfortune to further your own career prospects? The tagline of the book is:

Oil is scarce. But loyalty is scarcer.

And that couldn't be a better summarisation of what the novel is about. I was thankful that, even though a lot of the story is built around trust (or lack of) and relationships, there was no birds-singing, cupids-flying, starry-eyed romance; it seems to be an almost unavoidable component in modern dystopian fiction and it made a nice, refreshing change.
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on 8 June 2015
Ship Breaker is a gripping read, with an engaging protagonist, but it is the world building that is the real star. Bacigalupi's stand-out talent is to immerse the reader, and in Ship Breaker we are taken to a dystopian future, post peak oil, where Nailer and his crew scavenge for copper and other valuable stuff in the guts of wrecked ships washed up by the retreating tides of the Accelerated Age.
[That's us, by the way, the wasteful, blind people who have left the world wrung out and damaged.]
Nailer encounters an entirely new way of living when he and Pima find a 'swank' boat, washed up after a storm. Finding an unexpected survivor presents him with moral challenges, and for the rest of the book he must deal with the consequences of his actions.
Bacigalupi is a thoughtful and passionate author who puts character, ideas and context above plot. His message about environmental and social decay is a powerful one, but he skilfully conveys it as part of the story, rather than as a rant.
I have been eyeing this YA novel on my school Library shelf for a while, and finally got round to it after reading Paolo Bacigalupi's new novel 'The Water Knife', which is very good indeed.
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on 5 October 2011
I read Shipbreaker after rave reviews from my 13-year-old son. I was struck by how much it resembled Treasure Island and Kidnapped: A boy on the brink of manhood, who is betrayed by the adults he should be able to trust is sucked into a rollicking adventure. As with Stevenson, there's not a lot of humor and the almost continuous downbeat atmosphere means that it's not a light read - but definitely compelling.
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