Paolo Bacigalupi's SHIP BREAKER: YA adventure story in a post-peak-oil world

Paolo Bacigalupi's remarkable debut novel The Windup Girl won the Nebula Award and tied for the Hugo award, so of course, I knew that his first young adult novel, Ship Breaker, would be great. And it was. But what I wasn't prepared for was how different Bacigalupi's young adult fiction would be from his adult work.

Ship Breaker is set in a degraded, post-peak-oil world where the drowned coastlines are littered with the smashed wrecks of old sea-freighters, all acrawl with desperately poor "ship breakers" -- scavengers who get paid a starvation wage to extract the steel, copper, and oil reserves from the hulks of the old world. Nailer is a young boy, 14 or 15, on a "light duty" crew, and he's skinny enough to eel his way into the ducts of the ships and tear loose the copper wire; if he gets enough out to make quota, his crew eats. If not, they risk being fired, and turned loose to sell their bodies (or parts of them -- kidneys and eggs and eyes), beg, or steal.

Even for a light duty scavenger, Nailer has it hard; his drunken, amphetamine addled father has grown more and more vicious since the day his mother died, and is so brutal that he even beats Nailer after he is badly injured (and nearly killed) in a mishap on one of the freighters. But still, Nailer rescues him when a "city killer" storm sweeps the Gulf Coast, finding a sympathetic adult to carry his unconscious, amphetamine-drained father to high ground, because despite it all, Nailer is fundamentally good.

And that's why Nailer rescues the young aristocratic girl he finds in the wreckage of a high-tech schooner that is wrecked in the storm, and how he finds himself embroiled in a quest to rescue her and take her away from the coast, up to Orleans, to help change the destiny of one of the great corporate empires that live on the blood and rust of Nailer and his people.

Ship Breaker and Windup Girl share the same post-peak-oil, corporate-kleptocratic setting, but the similarity stops there. Where Windup Girl was dense and lavish, Ship Breaker is lean and fast-moving, the description spare and precise, whittled down to the bones. Where Windup Girl's plot meandered around on a tour of the beautifully realized imaginary world it described, Ship Breaker moves like it was fired out of a cannon, blurring past with tight, fast pacing (I read the whole book in two sittings).

But like Windup Girl, Ship Breaker is very, very good. Bacigalupi's starting to remind me of one of my favorite authors, Kathe Koja, whose adult work is every bit as elaborated and lush, and whose YA is every bit as spare and clean (Koja's split the difference in her latest book, the very highly recommended dark erotic war-novel Under the Poppy).

Ship Breaker


  1. Would love to buy read WINDUP GIRL but no ebook available via B&N or anywhere else except Amazon, and I don’t own a Kindle. What kind of crazy publisher would not offer all readers access?


      The Windup Girl is available from Night Shade Books on the Webscription website. You can get it in various formats: mobi, kindle, epub, html, rtf, lrf, lit, etc.

      It’s only six bucks. And I highly recommend both the site and the book.

    2. I will seriously pay you to take my (hardback) copy off of my hands. I love post-apoc fiction, but Windup Girl was seriously one of the worst books I have read in near memory.

  2. I use something smaller than a Kindle, with better ambient lighting, and every page pre-rendered and collated with a convenient numbering system. It supports multiple bookmarks and does not require recharging. It Just Works.

  3. Post-apoc is the new Western. I wonder if we are in the Golden Age of post-apocalyptic literature?

  4. Both Bacigalupi books are amazing. Windup Girl is one of the best I’ve read in years.

    P.S. You could always go to a library and see if they have it. That’s where I got both. =)

  5. I enjoyed Ship Breaker, but not as much as I enjoyed Windup Girl. Ship Breaker reminded me of a Michael Crichton novel, with lots of action and a strong main character point of view. It wasn’t nearly as politically heavy as Windup Girl, but the two books could easily take place on the same world. Bacigalupi’s quickly becoming a favorite author of mine.

  6. As soon as you say “Post Peak Oil World” I immediately think, OMG POST Y2K WORLD WHERE WE EAT RATS AND COCKROACHES BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THAT SURVIVED.

    The thing is, books based on popular bugaboos are naked cash-ins, and I immediately discount them with a derisive eye-roll, even if people claim they’re good. And the tragedy here is that they might actually be good but for that one weakness, succumbing to the temptation to exploit a popular bugaboo in exchange for slightly higher media exposure. Why don’t they just try to stand on their own merits? If they’re actually good, they’ll make it anyway. If they suck, well then they need all the help they can get, and so exploiting a bugaboo is only natural.

    So I naturally think exploitation books always suck, even if people I respect say otherwise. I’m pretty sure peak oil isn’t going to crush the world economy any more than Y2K did.

    So anyway, it just seems like a waste of time to read it if it’s going to be pushing an agenda instead of an actual story.

    1. @Coherent: I’ve gotten tired of seeing SF fiction that seems to exclusively use global warming/climate change/end-of-oil as the de-facto near future setting. At the very least it seems very lazy on the part of SF authors but there are some authors that I don’t mind writing in this type of the future and Paolo Bacigalupi is one of them, he is flat-out one of the best SF writers out there now.

      The future in The Windup Girl wasn’t the point to book, merely the backdrop to a well-plotted and well-told story. And oftentimes his works are more upbeat about the future then you’d initially imagine, Pump Six was a great example of this.

    2. Post peak oil is ever, ever so slightly different to a world in which everyone’s alarm clocks reset at the same moment. Learn to discriminate between a beatup and the real thing.

  7. SHIP BREAKER targets a different audience, accomplishes something different than WINDUP GIRL. I really appreciate it for what it is and think it stands up well as a current, intelligent YA offering.

  8. The Windup Girl though very tragic, is one of the best distopia themed books I have read. I would put it up there with The Road and Parable of the Talents. A great setting and wonderful story telling. Ship Breaker is just as good without the adult themes. I would highly recommend both books.

  9. Just bought this for my son for Christmas. Of course I had to read it first (because there cannot be a book left unread!!!). Plowed through it last night, and couldn’t put it down!

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