I first mentioned the book in my post on most memorable books of 2010. Briefly, Ship Breaker is about Nailer, a teenager who salvages old oil tankers for valuable parts: copper wires, precious metals, odd pockets of usable petroleum. His job is dirty and often dangerous (in one sickening scene, Nailer nearly drowns in a pool of oil). Home offers no safety, as Nailer’s father is an abusive drunk.
So far this sounds like something from a third-world country. Except it takes place on the Louisiana Coast in an unspecified future after the world’s oil has run out. One day a sleek clipper ship crashes onto the beach, and that’s when Nailer meets Nita—rich, privileged Nita who represents everything Nailer will never have. It would be easy to kill her and plunder the ship…except Nita swears that she can lead Nailer to a better life.
Ship Breaker is above all an adventure story filled with complex characters and breakneck pacing. Better yet, it’s one of the few YA books that can spark intelligent conversations about climate change. Obviously the Printz committee awarded Ship Breaker based on the writing; in fact, I’m willing to bet the words “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” never came up during discussions of the book’s merit. Still, concern for the climate is partly what drove Bacigalupi to write the book.
I suspect that young adults crave stories of broken futures because they themselves are uneasily aware that their world is falling apart, he wrote in a New York Times discussion on the popularity of young adult dystopian literature.
Whether we’re looking at the loss of biodiversity, or the depletion of cheap and easily accessible energy, or the hazards of global warming, our children will inherit a world significantly depleted and damaged in comparison to the one our parents handed down to us. And they know it.
With “Ship Breaker,” a novel set in a future when oil has run out and New Orleans has drowned under rising sea levels, I was trying to illuminate the sort of world that we adults are handing off to them.
Despite the book’s classification as “dystopian” literature, it doesn’t feel like science fiction. There are no aliens or supercomputers. It feels real because the setting is a logical extrapolation of what we know to be true. Sea levels are currently rising, and the story takes place in a future when coastal cities have drowned. Today’s scientists strive to harness high-altitude winds—and in the book those winds fuel powerful clipper ships. Even ship breaking is far from fantastical: look at this footage from Bangladesh.
As an environmental reporter, I couldn’t have been happier when Ship Breaker won the Printz.* Fiction adds a much-needed dimension to the story of climate change. I often write about dire things—air pollution, sea level rise, deadly droughts and hurricanes—in articles of 1200 words or less. But as much as I try to infuse my writing with character, the bottom line is that journalism is based on fact. I can’t invent funny anecdotes to draw my readers in; I can’t even change a scientist’s reported hair color for alliteration or poetic license. Of course nonfiction can be incredibly effective: think of what Rachel Carson did for the environmental movement, or Elizabeth Kolbert with her splendid New Yorker articles. But even they can’t write a book-length story with invented characters set in the future and call it journalism. That belongs to fiction. Ship Breaker works because it’s not preachy. The climate facts form the frame, but the characters steal the show. And because of that, someone who would never read a magazine article on climate change might pick up Ship Breaker for the plot, and through that, learn something about our changing world.
Interviews with Paolo Bacigalupi:
*Disclaimer: I met Bacigalupi when I interned last year at High Country News, a magazine in his hometown, but we never had a real conversation. (He used to work for the magazine before becoming a full-time novelist). His books are prominently displayed in the local bookstore, which also doubles as a yarn shop.