In futuristic U.S. oil is scarce and grounded oil tankers are broken into and stripped, sold for their parts. Nailer scavenges ships in order to stay alive. When he finds a rich, beached ship with a girl in the wreckage, he has to decide if he should strip the ship for its wealth or rescue the girl. Is the girl the ticket he needs to get out of poverty or will she drag him down further into his hellish world?
As Ship Breaker opens, we are plunged into a claustrophobic, dark setting of a ship’s service duct. We immediately realize that Nailer’s dirty and dangerous job is to crawl deep into the wrecks of the ancient oil tankers that line the beach, scavenging copper wire and turning it over to his crew boss. Quota must be met or you might not live for the next day. Nailer and his crew live in extreme poverty where food and clean drinking water is scarce. While the book is considered a dystopian and futuristic society, one can’t help but feel that the dire situation mirrors what reality is for many, if not all, impoverish communities living in many countries today. The division between the haves and the have nots is staggering, but unfortunately not startling. While the world may not be different from today’s economic times, what is startling to see is the lengths humans are willing to go to in order to survive. Like the resources that are limited in Nailer’s world, trust, loyalty, and family is almost nonexistent, which is portrayed both by the book’s characters as well as the distant, third person narrative.
Ship Breaker is a gripping and fast paced story that fans of dystopian novels will enjoy. I learned a lot about the job of being a ship breaker, which I did not know about until I read this book. I really appreciate Bacigalupi in using racially and culturally diverse characters in his novel. Both the female and male characters have equal presence and importance in the novel. Themes such as environmental responsibility and social/economic inequity would the book a good choice for a book discussion.