Dystopia and the Work of Paolo Bacigalupi

Dystopian young adult literature, while not new, is currently all the rage. Many theories abound as to why this is. Some claim it’s merely a reflection of adolescence itself, an allegory for the dubious and prickly nature of adulthood’s dawning. Others claim that it’s not just a microscopic lens, but a macroscopic one: to some children, it’s not a fictional future but a cold and very real now. In this case, it’s the author taking on current social issues, if not warning us where our own actions might lead. Laura Miller, writing for The New Yorker, elaborates on these ideas, as do many of today’s YA novelists in Room for Debate, The New York Times’ Op-Ed space.

However, it’s still exciting news that, amongst all the worthy titles out there, Paolo Bacigalupi’s young adult novel, Ship Breaker, has won ALA’s 2011 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Bacigalupi, whose adult sci-fi has won him both the Hugo and Nebula Award, has employed the usual YA dystopia skeleton and teased out a unique little mind-blower.

In a bleak future along the oil-slicked Gulf Coast, New Orleans has been moved inland three times, hurricanes are dubbed “city killers” due to their frequency and intensity while class divides and violence are the norm. In true Dickensian style, Nailer and his friends work the “light crew,” crawling about the deep bowels of abandoned oil tankers scavenging for copper. During one such expedition, Nailer narrowly dodges death. Soon after, a hurricane surges through his community of lean-to dwellings and make-shift families. Accompanied by his tenacious and loyal best friend, a girl named Pima, they walk the debris on the beaches. They come across a shipwrecked clipper and a half dead “swank”, or rich person, surrounded by valuables. In this dog-eat-dog world, Nailer’s choice seems obvious: this could be the ticket out of the slums for both himself and his friends. But his near-death experience has complicated things and shifted his perception. It’s at this point that their lives are overturned.

High seas adventures, breath-suspending altercations, issues of friendship, morality, family, loyalty and the most ethnically diverse cast of characters I’ve ever seen in YA all weld together to make for a book that earns its 2010 National Book Award Finalist title, its Printz Award, as well as your undivided attention. -Shannon