Literary Criticism and Significance
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker was released to critical and commercial acclaim, and it will be expanded into a young adult series. Ship Breaker has received many accolades, including a nomination for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and it was chosen to be among Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of the Year. Ship Breaker has consistently earned praise for its world building, its socially conscious premise, and its nuanced themes and characters.
Ship Breaker is Bacigalupi’s first young adult novel, but it is strongly representative of his larger body of work. Bacigalupi’s previous novel, The Windup Girl, was a breakthrough science fiction success. In both The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi has chosen a post-apocalyptic setting in which resources have become scarce and people have to make difficult decisions to survive. Critics often take the time to highlight Bacigalupi’s ability to create unique societies against which to set his stories.
Bacigalupi’s creative setting adds a great deal of tension to the Ship Breaker because his environmental commentary strongly recalls contemporary ecological and environmental disasters. Writing for Booklist, Cindy Dobrez admits that
this book couldn’t be more timely, unfortunately.... The descriptions of a future Orleans and Orleans II, devastated by city-killer after city-killer, is almost as hard to read as the real-life coverage of a post-Katrina New Orleans.
Although Bacigalupi’s focus is more on the characters’ struggles, his environmental commentary is strongly suggested through his choice of setting. The class stratification that is so prevalent in Nailer’s world further recalls the tensions of the recession.
Bacigalupi has a great deal of skill in world building, but his characters are also quite well drawn. Lynn Rutan of Booklist suggests that
although Bacigalupi’s future earth is brilliantly imagined and its genesis is anchored in contemporary issues, it is secondary to the memorable characters.
Bacigalupi achieves this through the creative and gripping conflicts that his characters face. Nailer does not change very much throughout the novel. His values are largely set after he is betrayed by Sloth. However, Bacigalupi tests Nailer’s loyalty, luck, and intelligence in captivating ways, which makes for a thrilling read. Writing for SF Signal, John DeNardo concludes that “the plight of Nailer is delivered at a relentless, rapid-fire pace,” which is perhaps what has made it such a popular young adult novel.
For its pace, setting, and characters, Bacigalupi would probably have been successful in writing this novel. However, because his themes are so intelligently drawn, Ship Breaker has earned respect and awards. Bacigalupi has since announced that Ship Breaker is to be the first in a series of novels set in Nailer’s world.