I’ve enjoyed other Paolo Bacigalupi books, but I initially put off reading Ship Breaker because it was listed as young adult fiction. When I read that it was being made into a movie, though, I decided to give it a try. I’m glad that I did!
Ship Breaker is set in a distant future where the world has succumbed to the ravages of climate change and the resulting societal collapse. The main character is a young scavenger named Nailer who lives on the beach and spends his days crawling around in old shipwrecks, ripping out copper wire and any other valuables he can find for his crew to sell. His whole world is turned upside down when he comes across the salvage opportunity of a lifetime which turns out to be the start of an exciting adventure.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ship Breaker for several reasons.
The novel works well as young adult (YA) fiction. It addresses many of the most common YA themes — family problems, friendship, betrayal, coming of age, young romance, etc. It touches all of the familiar bases without being formulaic or overly predictable. This depth of character and plot is greatly facilitated by a very well-developed setting. The setting is dystopian, but it’s not the vague and generic dystopia portrayed in some YA fiction. It’s a complex, gritty, realistic world that is revealed to us bit by bit through the eyes of the main character. Vivid description of this setting and the characters who populate it make this story stand out from the rest of the genre. There are several moments of violence that may be too much for really young or sensitive readers, but it all felt very appropriate to the plot and was treated very seriously and realistically rather than being glorified or sanitized.
I also like the fact that this novel works well for adults. Some YA ficton is so caught up in melodramatic genre tropes that it becomes unreadable for anyone who’s grown out of their angsty teen phase. Ship Breaker leans in the opposite direction — an excellent story that happens to include some young characters at the center of the action. The author has done a great job of crafting a tale that’s accessible to young adults but mature and robust enough for older readers.
Of course, as a climate fiction author myself, one of my favorite parts of the novel is the way that it addresses climate change. The story takes place in a future setting where sea level has risen considerably, drowning coastal cities and contributing to the collapse of society as we know it. Most of the book doesn’t explicitly talk about climate change, but the whole setting is a constant reminder of the consequences of our actions if we continue along our current emissions trajectory. This is a great way to get the message across without explicitly emphasizing it. There’s also a point, though, where characters do explicitly discuss climate change and how their actions may contribute to it. I felt that it was handled very well — letting the characters talk about it at a natural moment for them without having it seem forced or heavy-handed.
I would definitely recommend Ship Breaker both to young adult readers and to any older adults with an interest in climate fiction, dystopian fiction, biopunk, or any related genres. Paolo Bacigalupi is an excellent author, and I’m looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of Ship Breaker as soon as it comes out.