Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (2010)

Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around hum as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. the staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist. He yanked again at the wiring. A meter’s worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him (p 1).

ship-breakerIn the ship breaking yards along the Gulf Coast, crews work tirelessly to strip grounded oil tankers of copper wiring and other valuable materials. It’s a thankless, bleak, and dangerous task. Nailer is small enough for Light Crew, those assigned to dive into the tight spaces on a ship to plunder. Conditions are horrible and accidents are frequent. That’s why crews swear blood oaths. So you know someone has your back and you have someone else’s back.

Yet everyone’s looking for a Lucky Strike, a get-rich-quick scavenge that will free them of their drudge life. Nailer and his crew leader and friend, Pima, come across just such a Lucky Strike when a fancy clipper ship wrecks along the coast after a city killer storm rolls through. In their attempt to scavenge the light materials before Heavy Crew workers sliding on crystal arrive to take their find, Nailer and Pima find a beautiful young girl trapped in the wreckage. She obviously swank but she’s alive.

Nailer is faced with a life-changing decision. Does he save the girl and hope for a reward or leave her for dead (the smart thing to do)?

Paolo Bacigalupi has created a fascinating post-oil era dystopia where humanity has paid for their crimes against nature. Cities along the Gulf have been destroyed and buried by category 6 hurricanes called city killers. The few extremely wealthy have usurped power and administer through cruelty. Science has created genetically enhanced “half-men” whose DNA is a combination of animal and human, making them loyal and vicious.

It is in this jungle that Nailer has learned to survive. Though his father beats him and his crew mate betrays him, he begins to change. Instead of sinking in the quagmire of self-interest and brutality that surrounds him, he begins to see through them, to empathize and to detach.

This was not an easy read. It felt a bit like reading a Philip K. Dick book where you are discovering this complex world and how it came to be throughout the work. There is no convenient introduction and explanitory dialog. A fantastic read but it took me a while to plow through it. It’s intense.

Read an interview with the author.

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