Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2010. 326 pp)

Born in 1972, Paolo Bacigalupi is a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook, Theodore Sturgeon, and Michael L. Printz awards, and has been nominated for the National Book Award. His most famous work, The Windup Girl was named one of the top ten books of 2009 by Time Magazine.


Dystopian novels always reveal something about the human condition, and that’s why I tend to gravitate toward them. I read not for a love of seeing what the world would be if it fell into disarray, but to catch slight glimpses of the human condition put against the backdrop of extreme chaos and difficulty. Ship Breaker exposes, amidst a darkened world, one of the finer aspects of the human character—loyalty. But, before I explore the idea of loyalty, I feel like it’s important to first tell of how the world of Ship Breaker occurred.

How the World Collapsed 

In a sentence, climate change has caused the world to fall into ruin.

Describing what happened, Tool, a half dog, half man reminisces with the protagonist of the novel, Nailer, on how this dystopia came about.

“‘No one expected Category Six hurricanes. They didn’t have city killers then. The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well.’ Nailer wondered at that idea. That no one could have understood that they would be the target of monthly hurricanes pinballing up the Mississippi Alley, gunning for anything that didn’t have the sense to batten down, float, or go underground” (204).

Photo by NASA

With decades of climate change, city killers—category six hurricanes—ravage the world. The hurricanes move the coastline inland as much as a mile, and leave derelict ships behind. More important to the plot, these storms also cause severe class splits between the “swanks”, or extremely rich, and those who aren’t. Nailer, living in poverty, benefits from city killers because they wreck ships in the bay. Also a member of “light crew”, or teenage laborers, he breaks down ships for their precious materials such as copper, hoping to bring home enough to make quota, feed himself, and live to see another day.

In a twist of fate, Nailer is forced to pair up with a swank named Nita, whom he finds a difficult person to trust at first, due to her elite status.

Loyalty Can Be Rare

Nailer found Nita nearly dead aboard a derelict ship, while trying to plunder her exquisitely lavish clipper ship of any valuables. Finding out that she was rich led him to take her for ransom. But, his conscience, evidently rare in this world, led him to return her to her family because it was the right thing to do, not because her wealth could give him a better life. Nailer ends up trusting Nita, even with his life, and he becomes extremely loyal to her.

Remarkably, in this disheveled and hectic world, loyalty is hard to come by. Nailer, sadly enough, cannot even trust his own father.

“Nailer laughed. ‘My dad doesn’t give anyone a chance for second thoughts. He cuts you first. He talks about family sticking together, but what he really means is that I give him money so he can [drink] and make sure he’s okay on his binges, and he hits me when he wants.’ Nailer made a face. ‘[Nita] is more of a family than he is’” (251).

This quote reveals the way Nailer’s world is. He cannot trust his own father; much less those around him that he knows even less. But, Nailer finds, through some trial and error, that character is what speaks to the trustworthiness of a person, not position or relationship.

A Bigger Message and Some Hype 

Ultimately, this book was written for young adults, and as a result it was a quick read; I finished the three hundred pages in a single day. But, it was extremely entertaining. I enjoyed the bigger message of ecological awareness, and especially the theme of loyalty that ran through the entirety of the novel. Thus, I recommend this book to anyone that enjoys a fast-paced plot with a dystopian theme.

Because of this book, I’m looking forward to Bacigalupi’s next novel, The Drowned Cities—a companion to Ship Breaker, where Tool (the previously mentioned man-beast) teams up with two natives of the war-torn and flooded world. I think Bacigalupi is an author to watch, as all the awards he has gathered, in my mind, are well earned.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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