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In Association with
Ship Breaker
Paolo Bacigalupi
Little, Brown hardcover $17.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Once upon a time, the basic unit of science fictional expression was the short story. Catering to an audience hungry for tales of grand engineering and even grander discovery, the pulps provided their audience with a monthly instalment of single-serving ideas. Beautifully conceived though all-too-often indifferently expressed, these short stories were for a long time the essence of science fiction: you pay your money; you get four or five great ideas. Everyone's happy. However, as the economics of genre publishing began to shift and change, the basic unit of science fictional currency ceased to be the short story and became the novel.

Now it was not enough to fictionalise a single idea, you had to fictionalise several ideas at once and in such a way that the fictional bits did more than merely provide a platform for articulating your ideas. You needed proper plots. You needed proper characters. You needed tone, atmosphere and subtext. You needed a different skill-set. Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six And Other Stories (2008), was a timely reminder that, at a time when the economics of publishing are shifting again - this time from the novel towards the open-ended series - the short story is a form that still has the power to amaze, enrapture and capture the cultural moment.

Much like Ted Chiang's Stories Of Your Life And Others (2002), and James Tiptree Jr's Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (1990), Pump Six will still be discussed in 20 years' time. We will still be discussing it partly because it is a fantastic collection of stories but mainly because it is a book that perfectly articulates one of the great social and psychological challenges of the 21st century, namely how can global capitalism's unrelenting demand for economic growth and humanity's rapacious hunger for cheap energy ever be reconciled with the twin realities of runaway climate change and depleted natural resources? Pump Six considers a number of different attempts at squaring the circle but all of them are unpalatable. All of them speak of a future filled with poverty, war, desperation, and the gradual erosion of what we think of as our basic humanity.

Bacigalupi is often described as a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction but placing him in such a broad critical category requires turning a blind eye to many of the subtleties and nuances of his thinking. Indeed, post-apocalyptic fiction is usually about the end of the world and attempts by survivors of that old world to either cling to the tattered remnants of their old civilisation or build a new world from scratch, but Bacigalupi's fiction fails to acknowledge that our world has ended. He does not write about death and rebirth but about suicide and self-harm. His stories show us the look of self-righteous glee and deranged ecstasy in humanity's eyes as it takes a razor to itself before feasting on its own flesh and blood. Bacigalupi writes not about our failure to change our ways and do the right thing but about the perverse joy we take in making all the wrong moves at all the wrong times.

Bacigalupi's first novel The Windup Girl (2009) won myriad awards for its capacity to capture the moment. It even shared a Hugo with China Mieville in a year where China Mieville's The City & The City could do no wrong. However, while The Windup Girl may well have demonstrated that Bacigalupi is one of the deepest thinkers working in speculative fiction today, it also showed quite how far he is from being a truly great novelist. Bacigalupi's first novel is, in many ways, a brilliant work of SF; its ideas are not only timely but complex, innovative and subtle. It is a novel full of powerful thematic undertones and fiercely clashing atmospheres that all work together to articulate the west's paradoxical attitude towards the global south. A global south that serves as a frontier for globalisation, marking the boundaries between the declining 'civilised' world of global capitalism and the wild and woolly 'barbarian uplands' of the developing world; uplands full of sources of revenue but also religious extremism, ethnic violence and an endless capacity for creating new diseases and sources of unrest.

But, despite its raw conceptual power and astonishing political awareness, The Windup Girl is far from being a flawless novel. All too often reading like a collection of dovetailed short stories, The Windup Girl vibrates with dazzling harmonies but lacks a proper melody. It is a book positively overflowing with wonderful tones, images and subtexts, but tragically devoid of engaging characters or coherent plotlines. This lack of a properly novelistic foreground also goes some way to explain why the book has been accused of both racism and misogyny as, without characters to engage a reader's, sympathies, it is sometimes difficult to locate a book's moral centre. A moral centre that is absolutely vital for a writer as politically engaged as Bacigalupi.

Given The Windup Girl's technical shortcomings, the announcement that Bacigalupi's second novel would be a work of young adult fiction came as something of a surprise. Although far from being a perfectly mapped out critical term, the 'YA' designation usually carries with it an expectation of comparative simplicity: simpler plots, simpler characters, simpler worlds and simpler themes. It is a form in which melody is everything and harmony is, at most, an Easter egg. It is a form that requires a focus upon precisely the kinds of foreground narrative structures and simple, catchy, melodic narratives that were so painfully absent from The Windup Girl. Because of this, Ship Breaker was always going to be either a brilliant success or a complete shuttle crash. Thankfully, Bacigalupi's second novel will not require the services of any search and rescue teams.

Ship Breaker takes place in the same environmentally ravaged world as The Windup Girl and the earlier short stories The Calorie Man and The Yellow Card Man. However, rather than returning us to south-east Asia, Bacigalupi starts us off on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. The sort of beach that hosted spring break parties for one generation of American youth now hosts another generation of American youth as they eke out a living by salvaging materials from wrecked ships. The sort of ships that once brought oil to the Americans of one generation are now picked clean of salvage by the Americans of another. The beach, the young Americans and the ships are still there but, in the space of a single generation, the relationships between the three have been completely realigned.

Nailer is a member of the more recent generation of Americans. Small and wiry, he makes his living working 'Light Crew', crawling through the ventilation ducts of great ships in search of copper wiring whilst living in hope of a 'Lucky Strike' - such as a pocket of oil - and in fear of a piece of bad luck '- such as getting lost inside a ship or contracting one of the antibiotic resistant super-bugs that can implant themselves in even the most harmless-looking scratch or graze. The life of Nailer and his crew-mates is not just difficult, it is very nearly impossible. So impossible, that new religions and superstitions have sprung up to give these powerless urchins some sense of control over their meagre destinies. When Nailer narrowly avoids drowning to death, he finds himself the beneficiary of offerings designed to 'borrow' some of his luck through a simple act of devotion:

The crew gathered around the bonfire, swapping drinks. Pima went away and came back a little while later with a pot of rice and beans and then surprised Nailer again with a stick of grilled pigeon. At his look of surprise, she said, "Other people want to get close to God and the Fates. People saw you come out of the ship. No one gets luck like that." - page 42

The people of the beach pay homage to each other, to the Fates, to the Christian God and to the Rust Saint in the hope of being lucky enough to survive let alone prosper but the smarter inhabitants of the beach quickly come to realise that luck alone will never be enough:

"Yeah." Pima grimaced. "That's where luck comes in, I guess." She looked around at them seriously. "You should remember that, all of you. If you're just smart or just lucky, it's not worth a copper yard. You got to have both, or you're just like Sloth down at those bonfires, begging for someone to find a use for you." - page 51

However, as Nailer soon realises, there is more to survival than luck and smarts. There is also morality. He realises this early on in the book when he is trapped and left for dead by an ambitious younger crewmate who is intent upon taking his place in the crew's pecking order. While Nailer survives to fight another day because he chooses to 'do the right thing', Bacigalupi is eager to avoid the simplistic moral equation of self-interest with community spirit or in-group loyalty. The challenge of survival, Bacigalupi suggests, lies not in whether or not to be loyal to your friends but rather in choosing who those friends are. The subtleties of this decision are made apparent to Nailer when he uncovers the wreckage of a richly-appointed clipper ship.

For a brief and luminous second, all of Nailer's problems seem to be solved, as the ship contains enough salvageable material to make Nailer and his friend Pima rich beyond their wildest dreams. However, when the clipper ship's owner is revealed to have survived the wreck, Nailer must choose between murdering the survivor in order to claim the salvage and protecting the survivor in the hope that she will return the favour by helping Nailer when her people come to save her. Nailer does the right thing but by choosing to recognise the clipper ship's beautiful young owner Nita as a friend, it is clear that he is testing both his smarts (being able to read people) and his luck (the young owner must also choose to place her faith in him).

"Yeah, she's rich all right. But she's not crew. No matter what you say. And I don't trust her. I asked her about her family, who they were..." Pima shook her head. "She ducked and dodged like Pearly when you ask him why he thinks he's Krishna. She's hiding stuff. Don't be fooled just because she looks so sweet." - page 121

Nailer's life is governed by the forces of luck, smarts and morality; forces that are constantly reinforcing and battling each other in the daily battle for survival. Nailer does well because he is lucky, smart and moral but his fellow crewmate Sloth is held up as a warning to others because for all of her smarts and her luck, her lack of morality resulted in her losing all of her friends.

    "You don't deserve anything. Maybe Sloth was an oath breaker, but she was smart enough to know you don't deserve things, you gotta take them."
    "I don't buy that." Pearly shook his head. "What have you got without your promises? You're nothing. Less than nothing."
- page 52

Life's three forces express themselves through the concept of 'Crew'. Nailer and Pima talk about crew in the same way as we might talk about family, friends, or tribe. Crew is sacred; it is a circle of perfect trust and the recipient of one's loyalty. Your crew has your back and you have theirs. If you do not have your crew's back then they are not your crew. Survival depends upon your choice of crew and that choice requires luck, smarts and morality if it is to be successful. However, far from being a simple synonym for family or tribe, crew is but one of a number of different social institutions to feature in Ship Breaker. Indeed, one of the book's major themes is the difference between one's crew and one's family. Bacigalupi explores these differences by turning the details of Nailer and Nita's family lives into engines for the book's primary plot.

Nailer's father is savage, unpredictable and utterly lethal. In a series of beautifully written encounters, Bacigalupi makes it clear that much of Nailer's smarts come from having to deal with his abusive father. In fact, Nailer's relationship with his father has not only served as a training ground that has prepared Nailer for the dangers he will soon be facing, it also serves as a symbolic microcosm for Nailer's relationship with the world itself.

Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fuelled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father's bouts of frenzied work and brutality. Underneath the man's tattooed features a storm was brewing, full of undertows and crashing surf and water spouts, the deadly weather that buffeted Nailer every day as he tried to navigate the coastline of his father's moods. Richard Lopez was thinking. And now Nailer needed to know what - or he'd never escape the shack without a beating. - page 56

Nita is the beloved daughter of the leader of one of the world's great trading empires. While these trading clans may look, and act, very much like multinational corporations, they have replaced the language and hierarchies of the corporation with those of the traditional family unit. However, instead of leading to closer working relationships and greater in-group loyalty, the clan's appropriation of the language of the family has resulted only in a devaluation of the family as a social institution. So, while Nita's clan may well claim to be one big family, it is a family full of political intrigue, rampant self-interest and familial ties that are just as meaningless and toxic as those of the most dysfunctional and abusive 'blood' families.

    "It's Nathaniel Pyce. A business-marriage uncle." She hesitated, then said, "He and his people want me for leverage."
    Nailer frowned, confused. Nita saw his lack of comprehension. "My father learned about some of his dealings. Pyce was misusing the family's corporate resources. Now Pyce wants to use me to keep my father from making trouble. I'm the best way to put pressure on him."
- page 192

Ship Breaker is a briskly plotted adventure story in which two teenagers from wildly different backgrounds must work together using the skills they have learned from their different family environments. Nita's diffuse but complex family have taught her to think strategically while Nailer's ceaselessly hostile home-life has taught him how to deal with the sort of life-threatening situations that Nita has never before been confronted with. Despite having radically different expectations as to what constitutes family, the pair quickly learn who is and who is not worthy of being called 'crew'. Crew is about loyalty. Crew is about trust. Crew transcends background, wealth and social class.

What is most impressive about Ship Breaker is the way that Bacigalupi has managed to incorporate so much thematic complexity into such a well-heeled and accessible adventure narrative. Despite dealing in quite substantial ideas, the book rockets along at a rate of knots, stopping only occasionally for the odd conversation or introspective moment in which background themes are dragged into the foreground and flawlessly integrated into the protagonists' discussions of their future plans. However, while Nita and Nailer are sympathetic enough to engage our sympathies and complex enough to maintain our interest, the book reserves its truly impressive moments of characterisation for its secondary characters. Characters like Nailer's high-functioning drug addict of a father, and Tool the genetically-enhanced 'half man'.

Aside from being beautifully well-rounded and intriguingly complex, these secondary characters also serve as test-beds for some more extreme manifestations of the book's central themes. For example, in Nailer's father Richard Lopez we have a man who is an almost perfect individualist. Endlessly selfish, utterly opportunistic and thoroughly unpleasant, Lopez lives life on his own horrific terms and, as a result, is so utterly undeserving of trust or loyalty that his capacity to maintain the allegiance of both his son and a crew provides an elegant counterpoint to the main plotline's contention that a degree of moral seriousness is a necessary condition for survival.

The half man Tool provides a similar counter-example to the book's decoupling of blood from family loyalty by presenting us with a creature that, despite being genetically-engineered to be loyal to a single master, seems to serve no purpose other than his own. Wise despite his terrific strength and outwardly savage appearance, Tool's master-less status combined with his utterly unbending sense of honour is reminiscent of the so-called master-less samurai known as ronin. Only time will tell whether Tool is truly master-less or whether, like the ronin of Japanese legend, he is only pretending to be master-less in order to better serve the long term interests of his real master but, in the meantime, his inscrutable self-reliance and absolute moral compass cast fascinating shadows over Nailer and Nita's somewhat more straight-forward moral journeys.

The fact that Ship Breaker is a novel that deals in questions of morality and loyalty is also fascinating. Most YA fiction, by dealing in coming-of-age stories, tacitly assents to the idea of there being a clear demarcation line between the world of adults and the world of children. YA protagonists not only 'learn the world' but 'learn about themselves' and these journeys of discovery invariably windup having quite an obvious point of arrival. A point at which the protagonists grow up, learn their world and learn themselves...

Bacigalupi rejects such simplistic dualities, and presents the process of growing up less as a journey with a fixed point of arrival and more as a continual process of self-examination and re-definition. Indeed, like most contemporary thirty-somethings, I still struggle to think of myself as an adult and one reason for this is that there is no objective threshold of psychological maturity; there are just more mistakes to make and more lessons to learn. By turning his back on one of YA's most regrettably tenacious tropes, Bacigalupi has not only moved the genre forward, he has also demonstrated that psychological complexity and accessible storytelling are in no way incompatible. And therein lies the significance of Ship Breaker as a novel.

Exquisitely paced, fearsomely intelligent, beautifully imagined and colourfully characterised, Ship Breaker proves that as well as being able to handle powerful harmonic themes and ideas, Bacigalupi can now produce exactly the kind of soaring narrative melodies that were so sadly absent from The Windup Girl. Ship Breaker is not only a major milestone in Bacigalupi's artistic development, it is also a compelling read that bodes well both for the rest of the books in this young adult series, and for Bacigalupi's next 'grown-up' novel. In fact, if Ship Breaker is what Bacigalupi is capable of producing when he is pulling his punches for a younger audience then 'Rust Saint' alone knows what he will produce once when he lets himself off the leash.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press