Paolo Bacigalupi has been on my radar for awhile, as one of my friends let me know about his short story collection The Windup Girl, which I promptly downloaded as a free ebook from Night Shade Books. Unfortunately, as it all too often happens, I loaded it onto my Sony Reader and did not have the time to finish it. I liked what I read, but other demands on my time drew me away.
So, when I saw that he was writing a YA novel, I got pretty excited. Ship Breakers came out and resolved to read it. Time passed, as it is wont to do, and I never got to it. When Ship Breaker won the Printz Award for 2010, I made it a priority to get it read, and I was not disappointed.
Nailer lives in a run-down village on the Gulf Coast of what used to be the United States of America. Some major disaster–likely ecological, more than nuclear–occurred in the last century, and metal and oil are in high demand. Working on the light crew of a scrap company, squeezing into tight crevices in the bowels of washed up oil tankers, he tried to fill his day’s quota by scavenging all that he can. He generally comes up with copper wiring or the odd electronic component, but the ticket out would only come if he got a lucky strike–oil. Nailer and his other crewmates, mainly Pima his lifelong friend, just try to make it through the day and put some food in their mouths. They live by the whims of harsh taskmasters, and the only law is that of salvage–and whoever can keep it.
After a “city-killer” hurricane sweeps through, Nailer and Pima discover a shipwreck off the coast before anyone else. They find enough treasure there to buy their way into the easy life. The only thing stopping them is the teenage girl, Nita, the “Swank” who owns the boat and turns out to have some pretty significant connections. Nailer must decide whether to help her or to let his abusive, greedy father hold her for ransom–or just kill her to make life simpler.
This novel really does a great job of exploring human nature. What makes you human? and what does it mean to try and fight your base urges? Nailer could have simply killed Nita and lived an easy, plush life from that point on. He could have let his father die during the storm to stop his abuse. He has the ability to survive in the most dire circumstances, he sees the opportunities laid out before him, if only he’ll take a life or make a terrible decision. Furthermore, there are terrible genetic experiments going on, splicing together the genes of people, dogs, and tigers to make “half-men.” Nailer learns from one of these that he can fight his deadly instincts.
I wanted a bit more context for the world. Some idea of how it got to be this way, for what the broader scope of things is like, though I suppose that will come with the sequels. I also thought there could be more discussion of the relationship between Nita and Nailer, some more depth explored. It might come later, though.
This was very good, well worth the read, and I look forward to the next book.