Book Review: Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Despite being encouraged to pick up Ship Breaker, I was deeply hesitant at first because of my experiences with The Windup Girl, which was a painful amalgam of racial nastiness and objectification. However, many people I trusted told me to give this book a shot, and I ended up being glad I did; while Ship Breaker is not without flaws, it’s clear that Bacigalupi learned from his experiences. Authors don’t have to be frozen in time, incapable of making any adjustments to their worldviews, unless they want to be, and he clearly was willing to step outside himself and do some learning.

Like The Windup Girl, this text brings us a world dealing with the aftermath of environmental catastrophe, clearly an important theme for Bacigalupi. Ship Breaker is set on the Gulf Coast, where teams are working to denude stranded oil tankers of any profitable components, breaking them down at the behest of major salvage companies. Our hero Nailer works for what’s known as a light salvage crew, consisting of children; they’re the only ones small and agile enough to get into the small corners of the ship to strip out valuable copper wiring and other materials. As they age out, they hope to make heavy salvage crews, but many are aware that they won’t be big and strong enough, which will force them to turn to other means of revenue.

The world of the Gulf Coast in the future imagined in Ship Breaker is brutal; children are effectively slaves, people live on the beach in makeshift housing, a limited number of people control all the resources, and everyone hopes to get lucky by hitting a pocket of crude oil on the ship and making their fortune. Life is short, hard, and rough, and criminality rules the sands. Nailer’s life takes a sudden and dramatic twist in the wake of a storm that heaves a valuable boat ashore, along with a lone survivor, a young woman who hails from the moneyed upper classes of society.

Many of the characters in Ship Breaker are people of colour, though they do tend to fall into an ‘ambiguously brown’ stereotype; rather than having clearly identified racial origins, most of the characters are a blur. Authors sometimes seem to feel a need to do this in order to be sufficiently diverse while dodging specific critiques about the depiction of particular races and the representation of specific backgrounds. In futuristic fiction in particular, it seems like authors are trying to imply that a high degree of racial mixing has occurred, rendering everyone nonspecifically not-really-white-or-anything-else, but that rings a bit hollow to me.

Humans have been around for a long time, with a lot of racial mixing. It’s safe to assume that in the future, racial and cultural differences are not going to erode entirely, since they haven’t in all this time, and that people of many different races will still be observed in a wide variety of social classes. But I give Bacigalupi points for at least trying to step outside his formerly deeply stereotyped and gross depictions of racial minorities; instead of fetishised depictions of Asian women, Ship Breaker features a more balanced array of characters. And it’s notable that Nita, the woman Nailer finds on the boat, is identified as Indian; here at least is one instance of a case where a character is allowed an identifiable race, and the same holds true for Nailer’s friend Pima, who is Black.

There is, however, a lack of examination about the connection between race and power, an inevitable consequence of collapsing races into each other, and it is important to note this. There is no discussion about the role of white authorities in the disaster that changed the world, nor are there conversations about how race dictated survival through the disaster, or determined which communities suffered hardest at first. Bacigalupi has made the common mistake of attributing social inequality solely to class, rather than looking at the intersection of race as well.

I’m also intrigued by the dog-men, the human-animal hybrids bred and treated as slaves in the world of Ship Breaker. Only the wealthy can afford the genetically engineered servants, who are useful for things like personal security, crewing ships, and other manual/brute labour tasks. They’re depicted initially as terrifying and scary, and only over the course of the book do we learn both that they are more complex, and that they are not as subservient as people have been led to believe. Despite their breeding and genetic manipulation, they have the capacity to want and need freedom, as well as the will to take it, if they want it, at least in some cases.

It’s interesting to see Bacigalupi exploring narratives of human slavery alongside that of genetically engineered creatures (themes he touched on in The Windup Girl as well); as the nebulously brown characters from the light salvage crew struggle for freedom and find solidarity among each other, they also see the dog-men around them fighting for their own self-determination. I like that these revolutions are led from within rather than imposed from without by a saviour swooping in to save everyone, and that the story is very much centred on their experiences.

Ship Breaker illustrates that Bacigalupi has matured as an author, and while he’s not there yet, he has potential. Rather than avoiding the difficulties found in writing the other by turning the other into primarily amorphous blobs, I’d really like to see him try his hand at honestly depicting the lives of people of colour, after taking the time to research and refine his understanding. He’s a fantastic writer and his visions of the future are intriguing—I have a fondness for ecocatastrophe dystopians—he just needs that little extra push to transform himself.