Paolo Bacigalupi‘s Ship Breaker starts out with the main character inside the ducts of a crumbling oil tanker. And although the character soon leaves that cramped lightless place, the narration never loses that narrowness of vision.
And that’s a very good thing.
All too often in science fiction and fantasy, the fate of some insignificant peasant/slave/nobody has world-shaking reprecussions. In fantasy empires crumble and evil kings or mages get their cumuppence. In science fiction, corporations fall, world governments topple or the destiny of a whole galaxy shifts.
This doesn’t happen in Ship Breaker. The main character Nailer cares about himself and the people around him, his family. Like many people of his (my) generation, Bacigalupi uses Ship Breaker to meditate on what family is, how it’s defined and who makes that decision.
However, while the focus is small, the story is anything but. The reader is thrown right into action, fear, threats, love and loyalty. And although Bacigalupi has set Ship Breaker in a distopian future that probably none of his readers could relate to, he creates relationships we know all about.
This is the strength of a good science fiction novel – offering the reader something we experience day to day using an alien (or in this case futuristic) setting which forces us to re-examine what we think we know about our world and our relationships.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There’s nothing pedantic or preachy about the novel. It’s a good teenage-boy action romp through a drowned and decaying Mississipi delta with gun fights, chase scenes and just the right amount of inaccessible love interest.
I’ve heard the publishing industry complain that there’s not enough teen-boy fiction out there. This book helps to fill that gap with style and with depth.