Monday, 20 August 2012

Ship Breaker: Paolo Bacigalupi

I started reading Ship Breaker about three weeks before I got round to finishing it. You hit a book like that now and again, something solid enough that the first couple of chapters establish the world and the characters well enough that you feel safe taking a break from them. I went off and re-read pretty much the whole of George RR Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire, and was able to come right back to Ship Breaker and pick up right where I left off.

Bacigalupa isn't a flashy writer; you're not going to be pulling quotes out of Ship Breaker. But he's a solid writer and it's interesting to read him in the immediate aftermath of finishing off the Hunger Games trilogy. Both are set in a ruined future where an underclass struggles to get by in primitive conditions while a privileged elite enjoys a high tech life style. I think that Ship Breaker was written as what they're calling a Young Adult novel; I'm still trying to make time to read Bacigalupa's more grown-up The Wind Up Girl, which I suspect will have a more sophisticated style to it. But even correcting for the notion that he's simplifying things a bit, he's simply streets ahead of Suzanne Collins in the sophistication with which he puts together his world. Collins has her narrator explain every unfamiliar detail of her world, where Bacigalupa lets the reader infer the shape of the larger world from the way that his characters scrape along in it. This, of course, is  the problem that all SF and Fantasy has to overcome; you've created a different world, but how do you show it to the reader? For me, the guy who changed the rules was William Gibson, who set out to show us how people would live in the near future by having them talk about it the way that we talk about our own world. I'm sure other writers had tried the same thing, but I hit Gibson when I was just old enough to appreciate the cleverness.

So Bacigalupa gets the world sketched in right, and he also has a more credible world to sell. Not very much of the Hunger Games milieu adds up for me; it's a high concept with nothing holding it up off the ground. The world of Ship Breaker is all too easy to believe in. Nailer, the protagonist, scrapes a living pulling the salvageable metals out of beached freighters on a stretch of coastline somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. There are poor communities doing just that right now in bays along the coast of India; it's no stretch at all to imagine the poor of a collapsing USA being driven to similar extremes in a world without oil or trade. Ship Breaker doesn't need to create a horrible loaded contest to show us how the rich can shaft the poor; it just shows us what being poor would be like in a world that climate change has devastated and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. It's grim, and all too believable.

Having said that, it's not all good. The opening half of the book sets up the world and its day to day problems; Bacgalupa is less successful in setting up a credible plot to drag the characters through this horrible world towards a conclusion, and the second half of the book feels rushed and incoherent compared to the much more gripping opening half. And Bacigalupa is guilty of the common problem of setting up the resolution of the climax a little too obviously; each thing which Nailer learns and comes across in the second third of the book turns out to be needed in the closing pages. Chekhov's gun is all very well, but you can take economy of narration too far. One day, I want someone to spend time carefully setting up a training experience for his protagonist, and then brutally subvert our expectations by creating a problem where it's of no use whatsoever. Of course, if I want it that badly, I probably ought to write it myself, possibly in my long awaited fantasy novel where the protagonist starts out exactly where he's needed, rather than thousands of miles away.

Still, this is a good writer. My grumbles are only about where the structure falls short of the obvious talent. The Drowned World is a sort of sequel, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out.

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