Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Back in the summer of 1998, I was living in Colorado. I had no air conditioning, so I often spent Saturday afternoons at the movie theatres. One particular afternoon, I watched Saving Private Ryan. I walked out of that theatre, back into the blazing afternoon sun along with a large crowd of gob-smacked people, and wondered if any other movie would ever come close to what I had seen on the screen that day. The effect was profound, and it was quite a while before I watched another movie without saying to myself “Meh, it’s no Saving Private Ryan”.
What does this have to do with Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker? Partway through Ship Breaker, I had a Saving Private Ryan moment. It wasn’t that I thought I would never be able to read another book. No, I wondered if I would ever be able to write another book. From the first paragraph on, I was jealous of Bacigalupi’s skill – his ability to find the perfect word to create the perfect image at the perfect time. Ship Breaker is a masterpiece of Young Adult Literature.
The story is set in the future, after the polar caps have melted, and the ways of the ‘Accelerated Age’ are left behind like the relic ships grounded on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Nailer is a teenage boy, still small enough to crawl through the vents of these rusted wrecks to help salvage the bits of copper, brass and aluminum that can be sold to turn enough of a profit to earn him his next meal. But Nailer has some big problems, and when a hurricane pushes a new wreck onto his beach, his problems multiply, and his simple life of survival gets capsized by the storm’s waves.
The story is fantastic, well plotted and paced. The characters are perfectly named, and the conflict very well done. But it is the words Bacigalupi uses to paint Nailer’s world that are truly spectacular. Ship Breaker, though eminently readable, is Literature, with a capital L. The story is commercial, and fits in nicely with the post-apocalyptic craze in publishing. But the words… the words are amazing.
As I read the book, I thought about my own manuscripts, and their various states of being. I had a difficult conversation with my agent over the summer about how some of my chapters were perfect, and some were just carelessly thrown together as I rushed to complete them. I read Ship Breaker, and I compared Bacigalupi’s prose to my own. I wondered if this style, this vocabulary, came naturally to him, or did he spend long, tedious hours polishing every paragraph, every sentence and every word? I wondered if I had that effort in me. Was it a talent I just didn’t have? Was I willing to do the work needed to get to that level? Was it even a goal I should try to reach? Maybe my style is just different – simpler. Or is that just a cop-out?
For a day or two, the book weighed on my mind, and sank me into a mini-depression about my writing career. Then, this morning, as I began plotting out the changes for my novel Labeled that I wrote earlier this year, I started to get excited again. The rush of creating – of coming up with the story and making it better each time – was something that I would miss if I stopped doing it. I realized that I was / am willing to do what it takes to make the story the best I can make it, because the stories I have… they have to be told, and I know people will like them.
So instead of looking at Ship Breaker as an impossibly high standard, I’m going to look at it as a source of inspiration, and as a model of what I should be aiming for, while still holding true to my own style. Maybe someday I’ll win some of the awards Bacigalupi has won, and maybe someday, some writer will turn to my words for inspiration. But that will only happen if I keep writing. So I will.
If you haven’t read Ship Breaker yet, do it soon. You won’t regret it.