Breaking bonds and coils – Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker continues his exploration of post-scarcity economics which underpins part of The Windup Girl. Published as a young adult novel, this a rip roaring escapade which is exhilarating and frightening, and a subtle tale.

Nailer is growing older and beginning to get to the stage where he can no longer fit into the ship hulks to strip out the copper wiring for his bosses.  He needs to find a way out or to move on. When a ‘swank’ clipper ship is wrecked off the coast, he has to find the oil and scrap precious metals to buy his way out and to fund his ‘retirement’.

On board, he finds the body of a swank who wakes up when her throat is about to be cut to make sure that she is dead. Life is short and brutal, and loyalty is scarcer than his oil. His own crew and family begin trying to kill him as he argues that Nita, the apparently dead girl, should live. As he does so he finds out that Nita’s own clan are engaging in their own in-fighting leading her to be chased and to questioning who is loyal to her.

Bacigalupi delivers a series of rip-roaring chases which force Nailer and Nita to realise that the worlds are closer than they think. Both are victims of their circumstances and, though the novel ends on an ambiguous note, they find ways of adapting and accepting that they are similar when social mores are stripped away.

It sets up a dialogue regarding how materials are being used and mined which begin in the Wind-Up Girl. Though it is not resolved, there is enough material in the book to make the reader consider the forgotten side of transport and consumerism. There is a forgotten class of people who recycle the waste side of capitalism and the means of moving goods from producer to consumer.

Bacigalupi explores an all to dystopian, familar world. There is enough in this which is extrapolated from this one but there is no definite feel good moment. Rather it comes as more of a 1984-style warning about the shape of the world as it is. There is no fix, rather a more subtle Orwellian tale. The world that he protrays is a broken one but it can change and motion towards a less monotone colour but only if vested interests allow.

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