Friday, July 29, 2011

Ship Breaker

Here’s a fun question:  When you first started driving, what was the cost of gas?  When I turned 16 in 1998 it was less than a dollar.  I almost think I remember it hitting $0.89 at one point.  Now the notion of watching the “Gallons pumped” meter outpace the “$” meter is as foreign as having to actually remember your friends’ phone numbers in order to call them.  It makes one ask the question, what if the oil actually ran out?

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi takes us to a future world where that has actually happened.  Tankers, cruise ships, and all other form of oil dependant sea vessels now sit on beaches as fossils of what people refer to as the “accelerated age.”  Our main character is Nailer, a 13ish (he’s not completely sure about his age) boy living along the gulf coast where people survive by stripping the old ships of anything useful.  Nailer’s main talent is that he is small, so he is tasked with crawling into the smallest areas of the ships to remove copper wiring and other precious metals.

The book is marketed to young adults as most of the main characters are in their teens.  Readers should note that it does contain some very mature elements.  Nailer’s world is dangerous and violent.  His father is an abusive drunk, and many of the other people he meets aren’t much nicer.  Nailer is forced to confront a number of serious decisions, some with rather gruesome outcomes.  

I should be clear at this point, I am in no way dismissing the book due to its mature elements.  When I was a seventh grader at a small Lutheran school I had a teacher tell me that I couldn't use the novel Creature for my book report because it was inappropriate.  You may ask, how did I come about a horror novel in a nice Christian school?  I got it from the Scholastic book order the teacher gave me, duh.  Of course I read the book anyway.  It was an OK thriller with a few curse words and some people dying and I remember wondering why the teacher thought this was way to much for me to handle.

All that is to say that when we try to overly sensor what our students read, especially as they enter adolescence, we insult their intelligence and do them a disservice.  Ship Breaker addresses some very real issues of sustainability, poverty, drug use and economics that are worth discussing.  

I appreciated that the author did not try to get preachy or heavy handed about the exact circumstances preceding the end of the “Accelerated Age”.  We are dropped directly into Nailer’s present world and the challenges now facing him.  In this way the book does what science fiction should, it creates a fictional world with enough ties to our own that we are led to examine ourselves while still enjoying a good story.

Although the book does touch on a lot of different issues, at its heart it is and adventure novel with a great pace solid characters.  I would recommend it to any teen interested in action or science fiction stories.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Life as We Knew It

Does anyone else remember 90s disaster movies?  In my memory Independence Day was the one that really kicked it all off.  It used the basic formula of establishing several different perspectives, one of them being a person in high authority (The President), another being a lower level soldier or operative on the front line of what is happening (Will Smith), the next a scientific mind that has the insight everyone else is missing (Jeff Goldblum), and finally find an average Joe and give them something heroic to do (Randy Quaid’s family).  I remember seing this repeated over and again throughout the 90s in movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact, Godzilla, Volcano... any others I’m missing?

Anyway, the 90s ended and movies decided to change the formula.  Movies like War of the Worlds and Cloverfield took on the big disasters through the eyes of a single family or group of friends teaching us that a shaky camera is always necessary to pull this off.  Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer does just that in book form.  (I borrowed this book from my local library, which I assume is the reason that the necessary shaky cam was not included.  I found that reading whilst sitting in the back of a pickup traversing a field at 37.8 miles per hour produced the desired effect)

The basic setup of the book is that a freak incident causes the moon’s orbit to change just slightly, and as the book’s tag line goes “the weather finally broke, for good”.  Tidal waves wreak the coast, volcanoes erupt, temperatures plummet, and we see it all through the diary of a teenage girl in Pennsylvania.

First off (yes I’m 4 paragraphs in a using the phrase first off) as far as disasters go, I love the choice Pfeffer makes.  If militant aliens show up or a giant rock his the earth, the dangers are a little more obvious.  Having the rock hit the moon really is equally disastrous, but it takes a little more time for all the dangers to become evident.  As a teacher I love when a novel provides the opportunity to touch on different disciplines, and this provides a great opportunity to investigate the science of the moon and the relationship it shares with our planet and its climate.  This science of this is discussed somewhat it the book but not in any detail, providing plenty of room to elaborate with students.

Ultimately however the book is not about the disaster but the teenage girl named Miranda.  I’m sure that is this world there is a brilliant yet misunderstood scientist running around somewhere, but we never meet him, nor do we get to peek at the government master plan being planned in a secret bunker with lots of unnecessary computers screens.  Instead we follow Miranda, watching her concerns move from those of the average CW television character to basic survival.  

I found the pace of the book to be very rapid at first, but it began to slow significantly as the story progressed.  I think this may have been at least a little intentional, as Pfeffer works hard to paint an honest picture of a post-disaster world.  This is not an action packed story where roving gangs don football pads and terrorize the populace.  It is an increasingly isolated family battling nature and learning to depend on and support one another.

I also give Pfeffer credit for exploring a number of serious issues in a manner that is not too heavy handed.  We clearly see Miranda’s view yet she never claims to have mastered the issues with which she wrestles.  I could see a number of great classroom discussions developing from different scenes of the book.  Miranda has two close friends that we meet early on, and each chooses a different thing in which to place their hope as the world degenerates.  I found myself examining the choices I would make in a similar situation (and sometimes wondered why it should take a disaster to consider such things).

I recommend this story for anyone in middle school or older.  Although it contains what could be considered some elements of science fiction, it really is a very grounded story of human relationships that should appeal to a wide audience.