Presenter of the National Book Awards

2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship Breaker

Little, Brown & Co.

Interview by Eisa Ulen


Eisa Ulen: Though you are the author of two other award-winning books, Ship Breaker is your first YA novel. Why did you decide to write a science fiction novel for younger readers?

Paolo Bacigalupi: To be blunt, it's because adults are a waste of oxygen. More and more, it seems that young people are the only ones with any capacity to make real choices about how they live and focus their lives. We adults seem to be on drooling autopilot, paying our mortgages and buying things like this: http://bit.ly/d4h5ac. So at some point, you realize you're wasting your breath on them. Young people will inherit all the costs and consequences of the short-sighted and selfish decisions we adults make, so really, if you're going to write about sustainability and the environment, writing for teens is the only decision that makes sense.


EU: You’ve said your father introduced you to science fiction. Do you remember the first science fiction narrative you ever read? What were some of your favorite sci-fi books and movies when you were a kid?

PB: Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein, that was the first book. It was actually my grandfather's copy, passed from him, to my father, to me. I'll probably give it to my son in a couple more years. And he'll probably look at me as if I've grown two heads and then go play a video game. As for favorite movies... I loved Star Wars, of course, and E.T. and Battlestar Galactica, version 1.0, with all that feathered hair. For my favorite books it was things like Frank Herbert's Dune, and Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired. Everything by William Gibson. Also J.G Ballard. Ursula LeGuin... there are too many.


EU: Speculative Fiction is work that imagines worlds other than our own, but often science fiction imagines the world we will create if we don’t manage our natural resources with greater regard for the earth—and sea. Sustainability is clearly an important concern of yours. Why is oil drilling, especially its connection to Global Warming, a particular interest of yours?

PB: I'm interested in oil (and to some degree, coal) because it's the source of our prosperity, and it also seems to be our undoing. Currently, the thing that fascinates me about oil drilling actually has less to do with global warming, and more to do with technologies like Deepwater Horizon (that fabulous drill rig that blew up in the Gulf). Deepwater Horizon was an ultra-deepwater drill rig, and it exists because our basic run-of-the-mill drill rigs weren't good enough to go after the scraps of oil that we're currently hunting. Presumably after we finish with ultra-deepwater drill rigs, we'll move on to super-ultra-deepwater drill rigs, and oil will be more expensive than ever, and then, at some point, the party will stop and it will become impractical to keep hunting for oil, and we'll leave our children holding the bag, and wondering why everything was so fun in the good old days.

EU: Class also figures prominently in the dystopia you present in Ship Breaker. The line between those who work in poverty and dangerous filth and those who are the wealthier beneficiaries of all their body-breaking labor is clearly drawn. Is it your hope that young adult readers of your novel will think about the tremendous cost of our American Standard of Living—a price that is often paid by young people the same age that they are but who live in other parts of the world?

PB: A lot of people say that I write dystopian fiction, but the truth is that all I do is steal from other parts of our present. Mostly, I also have to make my fictionally mangled worlds a lot nicer than the current reality. No one really wants to know just how difficult it is to work as a ship breaker (http://bit.ly/b684ak) or what it's like to tear apart computers in Ghana (http://nyti.ms/9SxCok). So you have to lighten it up a little bit, even when you're trying to point to larger truths about how our stuff gets created and where it goes to die.


EU: What would you say to readers who think that the issue of Global Warming is overblown? How would you respond to a reader who thinks that a future where once-thriving cities are drowned by rising sea levels would never happen?

PB: I've got land in Louisiana that I'd love to sell them.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com, TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.