Friday, April 27, 2012

Ship Breaker, Printz Award, 2011

 Ship Breaker bases a fast-paced, fascinating story in an even more fascinating world. There’s no doubt setting is Paolo Bacigalupi’s crowing achievement in this book and the primary reason it won two awards. Paolo flawlessly works references into the story that are easily recognizable even though they’re completely unfamiliar in our world– things like Harvesters, the Life Cult, the Scavenge God, the Rust Saint, the Fates, City killers, Orleans II, and the Teeth. The imagined world is frighteningly realistic, since the reader can easily trace a pattern of event from now to that dark, ugly age. The explanation for how that world came to be is even scarier - “The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well.” 

Its style of story telling is quick, with plenty of forward momentum. The style of language is often poetic like when Nailer nearly drowns in oil–“Spinning, spinning, spinning the wheel, his lungs bursting, all or nothing, reckless with the need to get out.” Or when Paolo describes injuries–“His should was a bright blossom of pain.”

Character’s voices reinforce the nature of their reality. Nailer and Pima speak with slang, irregular grammar, and in a clipped terse way like, “Luck or smarts, I don’t care, long as I’m not dead.” Nita speaks in perfect formal language with large words and complex syntax.

 Nailer’s fighting spirit is what makes him stand out as a character. My favorite example of this is his exchange with Pima at the end of the story.
            “What makes you think some lower deck grease monkey ahs a change with a girl like that?”
            “Beats me. Maybe I think I’ll just get lucky.”    
Even through terrible physical circumstances, Nailer is always dreaming big, working hard, and protecting those he loves.

Themes in Ship Breaker include intelligence, luck, poverty, wealth, war, oil-dependence, global warming. The consequences of killing stands out as an important theme as Pima’s mother coaches Nailer on how to deal with his feelings “You’ve got blood on your hands. It always costs. It never goes away.” The primary theme is family. Nailer reminds us that loyalty is more important than blood ties and blood ties don’t make our character. “The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies."

The only part of the book I didn’t care for was the weak explanation of the corporate war going on that trapped Nita in the middle. The evil guy’s main character flaw was quasi-legal tax evasion? Maybe I missed something big. I think teenagers are old enough to understand business relationships, but Paolo used such large words in Nita’s mouth that I didn’t understand most of it. Paolo knows teens can handle the violence and darkness in the world of Ship Breaker, so why doesn't he give them the chance to understand a few business concepts? Keeping this information lofty and out of reach is just as bad as talking down to kids.

While I don’t usually quote other readers, Stefan, a reviewer on, wrote a comment I completely agree with and couldn’t say better myself: “While I enjoyed Ship Breaker, and would recommend it to mature YA readers, I can't help but wonder if this story wouldn't have worked better as a regular, non-YA novel. Some of the darker concepts, situated on the periphery of Nailer's story, are only broadly hinted at rather than described outright, which left me feeling frustrated and wanting to read more. If you told me there was a 600-page adult version of this 340-page YA novel, in which Paolo Bacigalupi really embraced the story's darkness and delved more deeply into the world's history and set-up, I'd be first in line to read it.” I too wanted to know more about the darkness of this world, and I wanted so many more pages of this wonderful story.

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