Monday, October 3, 2011

Books for Writers: Breaking up "Ship Breaker"

             I picked up Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker the other day because he and I are writing on the same page. Ship Breaker deals with a near-future dystopia caused by environmental collapse; my manuscript deals with a near-future dystopia caused by environmental collapse. His protagonists are teens; my protagonists are teens. Our list of similarities goes on. Our primary difference is that Ship Breaker was written for the young-adult audience in mind, and in my Leaving Home I’m aiming for the middle, transitional audience. (How — and if — Leaving Home ends up marketed is a different post altogether.)
I cracked open Bacigalupi’s world in hopes of learning three things from the National Book Award finalist:  One, how to create a world that is wholly familiar but totally alien to our own. Two, how to deliver a message in a story without, you know, making it read like a message. Three, how to use character dialog to show cultural divides among age mates.

One: Bacigalupi accomplishes the first by a trick of latitude and longitude. His main character's titular occupation, a scrap-yard scavenger, was inspired by modern-day workers in Bangladesh. By moving the Third World to a familiar location, in this case the Gulf Coast of the United States, Bacigalupi creates a world that is both familiar and foreign. There's enough recognizable to make the dystopian elements seem real.
“Tick-Tock's dad claimed that none of them would grow that big anyway, because of the calories they didn't eat. Said that people up in Seascape Boston were tall, though. Had plenty of money and plenty of food. Never went hungry. Got fat and tall ...” (Ship Breaker, page 12)
Another tactic Bacigalupi adopts in this vein is to avoid using specific dates. His Ship Breaker is set sometime in the next 100 years or so, but he never tells exactly when. The reader just knows it's been long enough to get bad. Turns out, time-certain avoidance was a conscious choice.
“Honestly, when I write, I try to avoid actually putting a specific date on it,” Bacigalupi told Francesca Rheannon on her radio program The Writer's Voice, on April 11 this year. “I'm always aware of George Orwell's '1984' being time-stamped with obsoletion [sic], sort of. Even as it becomes more relevant. And so I try to avoid putting dates on anything. There's a general sense that it's 100 something years forward but I never actually try to nail that down too closely. Because I don't want the reader to get distracted by expecting this event by this time point or that even by that time point.”
This is a kind of show-don't-tell strategy that allows the reader to fill in the blanks on his or her own. The readers comes to her own conclusion, thus buy more deeply into Bacigalupi's world.
Two: In speaking to Rheannon,  Bacigalupi freely admits Ship Breaker is meant to convey a warning.
“The whole purpose of Ship Breaker,” he said in the interview, “is to really to give young people a chance to see the society that we're handing off to our children. We're handing off a society that that has fewer resources, fewer options and more challenges than we were given, and that's a generational failure.”
Bacigalupi says his adult fiction is grimmer, because “adults don't deserve hope.” He conveys this message by wrapping it in a story with compelling characters and plot, with plenty of action (and a potential love interest and a dog man) to keep the YA audience interested. Still, he told Rheannon, he wonders if Ship Breaker misfired, if the book is too much fun to make people think.
“It does kind of concern me when someone says, 'hey, that was really cool and fun',” he said. “I say “great, but did you get anything more than that?”
Bacigalupi walks a fine line here, and I also wonder if Ship Breaker is little too jazzy to punch a hole into the consciousness of the average reader. The ecosystem in the book seems to be working just fine: at one point the protagonist, Nailer, goes home to the shack that he shares with his father on the “margin of a jungle surrounded by kudzu vines and cypress.” (Ship Breaker, page 53) At another point, he goes with a friend to gather crab to eat. Subtleties, like the fact that the “Orleans” Nailer heads for when he flees his father is not the first city by that name, might be lost on many young readers.
However, the other side of that card is to make the book so detail specific that no youth wants to read it. Bacigalupi cuts across the middle with a book that will send a message to the sharper youths while being at least being entertaining to the majority.
Three: Nailer is an uneducated scavenger who grows up nearly feral among like-minded children. His speech, and that of his gang, is laced with slang, in-jokes and cultural references that show who he is and what sort of society he belongs to. In the following exchange, Nailer is trying to convince a member of his gang not to leave him to die after he gets trapped in the bowels of the ship they are scrapping.
“Damn. You screwed big-time, Nailer?” she asked.
“Yeah. Big-time screwed.” He grinned weakly.
“Pima sent me in for you.”
“Tell her I need a rope.”
A long pause. “Bapi won't do it.”
Another long silence. “He wants copper. Sent me in for copper. Before the storm comes.”
“Just drop me a rope.
“Gotta make quota.” Her glow face disappeared. (Ship Breaker, page 27)
Nailer escapes and shortly comes across a youth with a much higher socio-economic status. This girl is educated and she's never had to scrape to stay alive.
“You got crew who will come looking for you?” he asked.
“Someone want you to come home?'
Her eyes never left his. “Of course,” she said. “My father will be hunting for me.”
“He rich?” Pima asked. “Swank like you?”
Nailer shot her an annoyed glance. Amusement flickered across Lucky Girl's face. “He'll pay, it that is what you are asking.” (Ship Breaker, page 111-112)
In the course of making his escape, Nailer begins to get an education and his speech changes. In this passage, much later in the book, Nailer is asked how he feels about the death of his father.
“I don't know.” Nailer stared at the sea. “Maybe you're wrong. I —.” He hesitated. “ [SPOILER OMITTED] Really glad. I remember seeing all those levers and knowing just what I had to do. And I did it.” He looked up at Sadna. “As soon as I heard those machines kick on, I knew I'd won.”  (Ship Breaker, page 318)
Bacigalupi shows Nailer's growing sophistication, as well as his adoption of new norms to better fit in, through the use of such dialog. It's another example of showing the character's growth, rather than telling about it.
Based on Bacigalupi's example, I believe I'm dealing with the world-creation and message issues fairly well. The events that take place in my manuscript are set somewhere between the now and Bacigalupi's world. My message, I think, is subtle enough to stay out of the way of the story. Will every reader get it? Time will tell.


  1. Have you read RUT by Scott Phillips? It's definitely aimed at an adult audience, but it does deal with a near-future dystopia with an environmental component. And it's funny. :)

  2. I have not read it, but I shall put it on my ever-changing list. Thanks for the recommendation.