Review: Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker
Paolo Bicigalupi
Little, Brown, and Co.
May 2010

Ship Breaker is set on the Gulf Coast in a richly imagined post peak oil world. The protagonist, Nailer, is ship breaker. He spends his days scurrying around inside the narrow passages of beached wrecks of oil tankers, stripping copper and other valuable metals from the ship’s remains.  Nailer and his friends don’t expect much from life, but that begins to change when a clipper ship carrying an wealthy stranger washes ashore during a huge storm. The swank may be Nailer’s ticket to a new life, but his involvement with her might also end up killing him.

I finished this book (well, read this book all day on planes) almost a week ago, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Bicagalupi is a consummate world-builder, that’s for sure. Nailer’s world is richly detailed; all the members of a crew have their crew mark tattooed on their cheeks, for example. It feels not only real but scarily possible. The power of giant corporations, the complete disconnect between the wealthy and the impoverished, not only in terms of lifestyle, but basic world view – those aspects of the book worked beautifully. If world-building is your thing, I really recommend this book.

The part that worked less well, at least for me, is the characters. I couldn’t connect with Nailer; I never quite figured out his motivations. I felt like I was supposed to be seeing the world through his eyes, but because I didn’t get him, I couldn’t really get invested in the story either. The details that are supposed to make Nailer unique – his interest in the clipper ships, for example – seem obligatory, as do the “lessons” about family. I read for character more than anything else, so for me, the impenetrability of Nailer’s personality, and the…obviousness of his individual characteristics kept this good book from being a great one. That said, my husband, a true sci-fi lover, is reading this and enjoying it a lot, so I’ll definitely be encouraging the sci-fi fans I know to pick this one up.

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