Meg’s Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Audiobook read by Joshua Swanson
At a recent trip to Barnes and Noble, I found a themed display table that proudly declared “IF YOU LIKE HUNGER GAMES.” And I do indeed like Hunger Games, so I moseyed on over to peruse the selection. Most of the books I had read–the I Am Number Four series, Divergent, Variant–and there, in the corner, was Ship Breaker.
“That’s the one that was billed as sci-fi dystopia. I kept expecting aliens to show up,” I told my shopping partner.
“Looks like it was a National Book Award Finalist,” she said, tracing the embossed award announcement on the cover.
I just sort of blinked at her for a moment before blurting, “But God, that book was so boring.”
And it was. Ship Breaker is written in beautiful prose–no less should be expected from the uber-talented Paolo Bacigalupi. But I almost think it was a case of being too beautiful. I actually listened to the book and found myself phasing out of the narrative for ten minutes at a time only to phase back in and realize that the character hadn’t actually moved at all. The past ten minutes of audio had been scenery description, observation of other character’s actions that had little to do with plot, or a lengthy internal debate. It made for great multi-tasking, but it did not make the text particularly engaging–or memorable.
Ship Breaker follows Nailer, a young-ish boy in a world set in the distant-ish future. His life revolves around stripping the old oil tankers that dot his Gulf of Mexico beach village of all their usable parts. In the aftermath of a hurricane, Nailer finds the boat of a rich girl smashed upon the rocks. Instead of the lucky strike of wealth he is imagining, the discovery of the boat propels him on an adventure that sets him at odds with the greatest villain he knows: his own father.
The world that Bacigalupi has created in Ship Breaker is a narrow one, focusing in on one specific subculture of this brave new world. Such tight focus made for terrific language use; the book single-handedly reintroduced the word ‘swank’ into my vocabulary. There were times when I caught myself thinking in the island-ly dialogue that many of the characters in the book spoke.
Another big part of the book’s charm was the reader Joshua Swanson–the same reader of the newest Percy Jackson series–who managed an impressive array of voices and dialects.
But…the book was just boring. Part of the issue may have been the way it was presented. When I hear “dystopian sci-fi” I expect a number of things to be handed to me, not the least of which is actual dystopia. In Ship Breaker, there was no fight against the man, no uprising against the government. It was mostly a story about a boy trying to move up within his own social class; it was futuristic view of the world to be sure, but I was not the flavor of dystopia that I am used to. And while there were these dog-tiger-human crossbreed things (which were totally cool), there were no other sci-fi-ish elements present. No aliens, no robots, no fancy gadgets, no creepy social engineering–nothing.
At the end of the day, Ship Breaker was a National Book Finalist for good reason–it was superbly beautiful prose and well-structured. But the book lacked the thrill of both scifi and dystopia. Honestly, it read a bit more like a nice lit fic adventure. So if you’re looking for a nice jaunt through a narrow world, I highly recommend this story. But if you’re looking for something to fill the Hunger Games void, you’re going to have to look a little farther afield.