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Ship Breaker by Paolo BacigalupiPaperback edition

Buy from IndieBoundWhat impresses most about Paolo Bacigalupi’s second novel, Ship Breaker, isn’t just that he wrote a YA novel. It’s in how the Hugo-and-Nebula-winning boy wonder has shifted from complex and inescapably adult dystopian SF in The Windup Girl to young-adult dystopian action-adventure SF, while sacrificing nothing in the way of thematic integrity during the process of making his storytelling more accessible. Bacigalupi remains fixated on real-world problems, specifically climate change and resource depletion. In Ship Breaker, he conveys these themes without a hint of didacticism, chiefly by rooting his story in strong and relatable young heroes, always the key to YA success.

Nailer is a young boy working along Gulf Coast beaches as a ship breaker, helping to dismantle old washed-up wrecks, scavenging them for invaluable scrap metals. He’s small for his crew, made up of other adolescents like himself, and so he gets the dirtiest jobs, crawling through dark cramped pipes and ducts. The work is nasty, but crew loyalty is paramount. As Nailer’s father, Richard, is a near-psychotic drug addict prone to fits of uncontrollable violence, his crew is really all the family he has.

Every ship breaker hopes for the Lucky Strike, the one piece of fantastically rich salvage that will elevate them out of rank poverty into something like independence. In the way of all hard working people everywhere, their contempt for wealthy “swanks” is in some ways a thinly veiled envy. When an intense tropical storm lashes the coast, Nailer and his friend and crewmate Pima think they’ve discovered their Lucky Strike. Exploring the fresh wreckage of a lavish luxury yacht, they find a survivor. Nita Chaudhury is the daughter of the owner of Patel Global Transit, a family conglomerate that sometimes buys the scavenge of the ship breakers but are mostly loathed as “blood buyers.” Nita is a swank, and Nailer and Pima have every reason to abandon her to her fate. (Or even kill her outright and harvest her organs for cash.) But Nailer, who knows a thing or two about being left for dead, cannot bring himself to let the girl perish like a worthless piece of meat.

It appears Nita’s father is beset by a hostile takeover back home, and Nita’s ship was grounded because they were trying to escape her father’s enemies. The story settles into a tremendously exciting and suspenseful ride. Nita and Nailer have to work together, breaching the rich/poor wall between them, in order to protect her from her pursuers, and both of them from the maniacal Richard. The pursuit takes them to New Orleans, and to a rousing sea chase that's among the best action setpieces you're likely to see in any young adult SF.

Bacigalupi never flinches from depicting the evils of a collapsed society when the tale calls for it. While Richard can sometimes seem like a stock villain, he also convincingly acts like a man who has figured out long ago that he has no future, only a present, and thus decided the only way to survive that is to uninstall his humanity. We also see how the collapse has really changed nothing about humanity's priorities in so many ways. Patel and its enemies keep the whole ruthless corporate greed machine churning along for its own sake, though the world has little left of material luxury to reward that greed.

The expected themes are put through their paces — the way that the divide between the haves and have-nots unjustly keeps us from appreciating our shared humanity, the value of friendship and trust (Bacigalupi commendably allows Nailer and Nita’s feelings for each other to develop organically, rather than succumbing to love-interest conventions), and of course, look what we’re doing to Mother Earth, people! But Bacigalupi never gets behind the lectern or anything. Through his storytelling art, he simply allows readers to become immersed in a dangerous and yet thrilling near-future that we can still, hopefully, avoid, assuming we ever stop being too stupid to work together in our species’ best long-term interests.

Followed by The Drowned Cities.