Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review of Ship Breaker

What's most impressive about Paolo Baciagalupi is his ability as a writer to convey the minds and lives of people so far from his experience. His technical and scientific knowledge, while vast, is not what makes his books memorable. This is not to say that the science in his books is second rate, or that he sloppily imagines a futuristic world wherin he writes out his space operas. He doesn't. The science in his books is thought provoking, clever, and like the best science fiction, grounded in the here and now, which makes the message in his books all the more chilling.

To look at a picture of Paolo Baciagalupi is to see someone who could easily be in charge of a science research lab, or an exectuive in charge of a division of microsoft. Yet I have rarely encountered an author who so convincingly portrays the lives of beggars, societal outcasts, and the flotsam and jetsam of this world.

The world of Nailer, the teenage protagonist of Ship Breaker, is brutal. And he is one step from rock bottom. He works on a "light crew" salvaging the huge abandoned oil tankers that have run aground on the shores of the gulf coast. The great wrecks sprawl there like dinosaurs rotting in the sun. Money is to be made though from salvaging the materials on the ships and a whole economy has sprung up around it.

The work is dangerous, dirty and what is worse, Nailer may soon have grown too big to do the salvage. He will be out of a job, and forced to try to work for one of the heavy crews, where men much larger and more deadly than him will sooner stab a potential rival than try to outperform them on the job.

All of which is allowable in this world. National governments have ceased to exist, as well as any federal, state, or local police force. Corporations, however, have thrived and run rampant in a world where no legislation or legislative bodies exist to enforce standards of human decency. In an interesting twist, though the world may be post oil, it is not technologically backward. Great clipper ships, their hulls made from special alloys and their internal workings fired by complex machinery sail the seas and carry on trade. A trade, it seems, that has left the United States behind.

And here is where the author steps up his game and shows you something truly new. He takes you into Nailer's brutal, tribal world, where it is literally work yourself to death, or farm your body parts out to medical corporations so they can clone your parts, or if you have a true killer instinct, join a security force for one of the work gangs. This is a bleak world but within it the author shows characters who try to hang on to their humanity. Characters who are so oppressed, but yet refuse to let their sense of decency wither.

Nailer gets moral and ethical guidance from a local family, a woman and her daughter who exist in this world but also maintain their sense of right and wrong. When Nailer is forced to commit a heinous act, to kill to survive, the mother says "he needs to be watched. A death like that always costs something, always takes something from you."

And it is this combination of the technologically advanced with the barbarism and mentality of a tribal culture that makes the book unique and a wonder to read. Its his ability as writer to plunge you into this world, to make you feel Nailer's desperation, that grips the reader. And by extension, this makes you realize that as we speak there are people on the planet who live similar existences around the globe. Though Ship Breaker may be science fiction, and set in a future, it does the job of all good science fiction, and makes the reader understand their own world a little better.

The follow up book to Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, is due to be released in May 2012.