Monday, May 23, 2011

Ship Breaker

In Ship Breaker, author Paolo Bacigalupi  hooks readers  through the use of setting and engaging scientific detail. The first two pages are a lesson in craft. This futuristic, dystopian YA novel, a 2010 National Book Award finalist is a page turner from the first sentences.

The protagonist, Nailer works an unusual job. He is a scavenger searching for scrap metal inside the carcasses of toxic wrecked oil tankers, in a civilization ruined by violent storms.

The first two sentences of the novel read: "Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose." Service duct? That sounds like a narrow space. Asbestos fibers? Puffed up? Mouse grit? I could hardly breath as I read!


One doesn't need to read futuristic novels to find workers exposed to lead dust and asbestos fibers. Workers battle hazardous environments every day as they sand blast bridges and clean up toxic waste sites.  Filter masks and respirators in these settings are a life saving safety barrier, and outside of occupational health settings, not much is said about them.

But Bacigalupi uses this information. After he places his protagonist in a toxic environment, he gives him a dysfunctional filter mask. As detail about filter masks in a YA novels are not commonplace, it caught my attention.

What details? About Nailer's life-saving mask, the narrator says, "The mask was a hand-me-down . . . the wrong size, but it was all Nailer had. One its side, faded words said: DISCARD AFTER 40 HOURS USE. But Nailer didn't have another . . . the microfibers were beginning to shred from repeated scrubbings in the ocean." If it isn't enough that the mask is too old and doesn't fit, it is not meant to be washed and reused! No mask, it seems, would be as good as than this mask. Will Nailer even make it through his workday?

Bacigalupi skillfully uses setting and believable scientific detail to get this thriller  going. But, as might be anticipated, we find out that a faulty filter mask and asbestos fibers is the least of Nailer's worries.

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