The environmental, economic, and social catastrophe currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico gibes so perfectly with the near-future setting of Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker that it's almost uncanny. One can see quite clearly how such an event as the BP spill could be the first falling domino that results in Bacigalupi's bleak neo-feudal future of a human-poisoned world in which carbon fuels are all but exhausted, class divisions are so vast, in terms of wealth, technology, and education, as to be all but unbridgeable, global warming has led to inundated, storm-battered coastlines, and a ravaged subsistence economy sustains itself by cannibalizing the wreckage of a bygone age. It's a seamless bit of extrapolative world-building from Bacigalupi, whose previous novel, his first, The Windup Girl, just won a Nebula Award over some pretty stiff competition. Marketed as YA, and probably best suited to that age group, Ship Breaker nevertheless contains a lot for adult readers to admire and enjoy—though, to be honest, its embrace of a certain nostalgic formula may be more problematic for an adult than a young reader.
Most of the action is set on and around Bright Sands Beach, an ironically named location that could be anywhere along the Gulf Coast. There, in the shadows of derelict oil tankers and other beached dinosaurs of the fossil-fuel era, half-sunk in the shallows that lie behind the graveyards of submerged cities and housing developments, in an environment with a distinctly Ballardian vibe, we meet our hero, Nailer, a teenage boy with swirling tattoos on his cheeks, "half of something, a quarter of something else, brown skin and black hair like his dead mother, but with weird pale blue eyes like his father." Nailer's trajectory in this novel is a familiar one, redolent of fairy-tale wish-fulfillment, but its details are fresh and convincing enough to breathe life into old archetypes. Small and slight, Nailer belongs to a tribe of teenage scavengers called a light crew—their jobs are to harvest wire and other small, useful items from the grounded hulks; the heavy crews, made up of adults and the occasional half-man—genetically engineered hybrids of humans and other animals, bred for ferocity, strength, and loyalty to their human owners—perform those salvage operations requiring greater strength and endurance. The crews of ship breakers, light and heavy, are run by bosses who contract their services to larger corporations—Nailer's crew, and much of Bright Sands Beach, is under contract to a company called Lawson & Carlson.
Membership in a crew can mean the difference between life and death. Those unaffiliated lack protection, shelter, and income; thus, a crew slot is highly coveted and fiercely protected. An injury, a mistake, almost any arbitrary occurrence, can result in the loss of crew status, after which, especially for a teenager, life is apt to become a fast downward spiral of abuse and degradation. Yet growing up, too, puts light crew at risk, for once they become too large to navigate the small interior spaces of a ship, they will be booted out—while still too young to compete for heavy-crew slots. It's a brutal system that breaks the body and the spirit, leading to a fatalistic mentality that endures the daily grind with the help of drugs and drink, all the while dreaming of a "lucky strike" that will bestow wealth and freedom. Universally admired on Bright Sands Beach is a man named just that—Lucky Strike—who turned his stroke of good fortune into a thriving quasi-independent business of smuggling, loan sharking, and gambling.
Nailer's world is limited not only by his bleak near-term prospects—his light-crew career cannot go on much longer—but by his father's jealous regard. Richard Lopez is a man both admired and feared along the beach. A fierce fighter, famed for his viciousness in the ring, Lopez is a drunk and speed freak, his drug of choice a potent amphetamine called crystal slide. When drunk or high, which is most of the time, Lopez is a frightening figure, all impulse, and most of those impulses sadistic and violent; like many such men, he resents his son's youth, his very existence, seeing therein his own failures reflected back at him.
To escape, Nailer dreams of the great clipper ships that ply the oceans. These beautiful, graceful craft are marvels of high-tech engineering. Powerful cannon send parasails thousands of feet into the air, catching slipstream winds that pull the ships up onto hydrofoils and tug them along at speeds in excess of fifty knots. They are symbols to Nailer of all that he yearns for, all that he cannot have. They are also apt symbols of Bacigalupi's imagination, which, while remaining grounded in the possible, soars high indeed.
In the aftermath of a ferocious storm, one of the Katrina-like city killers that has become a common occurrence along the Coast, Nailer and his crew chief, a girl named Pima, stumble across the wreckage of a clipper—their dreamed-of lucky strike. Only amidst the salvage they find a badly injured young girl, approximately their own age. Pima wants to kill her in cold blood, eliminating the complications of her survival, but Nailer, somewhat to his own surprise, finds himself interceding; he tells Pima that they can parlay the girl's survival—her name is Nita Chaudhury, and she is the heir to Patel Global, one of the big multinationals—into a king's ransom. Pima reluctantly agrees.
But this plan doesn't survive the intrusion of Lopez, who claims the girl and the rest of the salvage for his own. Worse, at least from Nailer's perspective, and Nita's, too, is that he is prepared to sell her back not to her father but instead to his rivals, unscrupulous men who have already tried to kill her. Seizing a desperate chance, Nailer, Pima, and Nita, with the assistance of a half-man called Tool, escape from Lopez and set off to find a loyal Patel ship that will return Nita to her family.
Tool is an intriguing character. He is an anomaly, lacking—or seeming to lack—the inbred fanatical loyalty of his kind. As a result, his fellow half-men view him as a freak, almost a monster . . . as, for very different reasons, do most human beings. Bacigalupi endows him with dignity and nobility—two traits in short supply among men and half-men alike.
As Nailer, Pima, Nita, and Tool make their way along the coast, dodging Lopez and the other men intent on capturing or killing Nita, the distinctions of class, experience, and genetics that separate the three young people and the half-man begin to narrow as circumstances draw them closer together, into a tight-knit crew of their own. Between Nailer and Nita, especially, a closeness grows that edges into romance—a romance that may not be contingent upon their situation.
This is the fairy-tale aspect to which I alluded earlier, the idea that, with a little luck and hard work, dreams can come true, differences can be overcome, and virtue will be rewarded—America may be down and out, but the spirit of Horatio Alger lives on, and any humble boy may grow up not to be a revolutionary subverting the established order but instead a part of it, ameliorating its excesses from within. Despite the gritty Ballardian details of this story, it's an oddly optimistic, not to say fantastic, premise, and it seemed almost anachronistic to me, a throwback to an era of sunnier, more innocent YA science fiction.