Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mentat says 'hello' and breaks a ship

Greetings readers and fellow bloggers. I see that Reave has made his appearance and I thought I'd best do the same before my infinite powers of procrastination see me to mid-summer without having posted. Kir'Shara and I have known each other for nearly 25 years and over that generation (!) of time we've had many a discussion about politics, history, science, the human condition and the human future. Also, science fiction, fiction in general, film and television--the whole power and joy of narrative; so, he invited me to participate and here I am. I can't promise I'll be the most steady of contributors. I wasn't joking about my infinite powers of procrastination! But I shall try and not let too much time pass between posts.

As to the nature of my posts. Those of you who have read the science fiction book Dune, by Frank Herbert, will recognize that the mentats were the "human computers" who advised the rich and powerful in a society which had outlawed "thinking machines." I certainly don't claim to be a human computer, but one of the mentat's functions was to absorb vast quantities of information. Since I read voraciously and widely over many areas of interest, when I needed to come up with a google blogger handle, I whimsically chose "Mentat." So, most of my posts will probably be either book reviews, or musings about several books, or ruminations inspired by some book I have read. I won't always be on topic (i.e., not all my posts will focus on the ecological crisis or our post carbon future), but Kir'Shara assures me that that's okay. For this first post, however, I thought I'd keep it on topic by talking a bit about a cool YA (Young Adult) science fiction book I finished last July, called Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.


Ship Breaker's story is set several hundred years in our post-carbon future. Its protagonist, Nailer, is a boy living in a tough community of "ship breakers", people who scrape together their livelihood by salvaging what they can from abandoned and derelict oil platforms and tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. The world depicted is fascinating and believable-- the stark customs and moral codes prevalent in Nailer's community remind me of what one might find in poverty stricken shanty towns in West Africa: clannish and brutal, but also characterized by fierce loyalty to family and close friends. Nailer is small enough to work on a team of breakers that crawl through duct work and other tight places looking for copper wire. The community sells the salvaged material to corporations who keep them in a situation similar to indentured servitude. Nailer's life consists of making his daily quota, dealing with his abusive father, and day dreaming about the large clipper ships he sees passing by on the horizon to the south, indicating that somewhere in the world a post-carbon recovery has occurred complete with ocean going trade on these sleek, clean sailing vessels so different from the greasy, dank hulks he crawls through day after day. A hurricane precipitates the Novel's main narrative and Nailer's moral journey. He and one of his team members discover a beached clipper ship with a young girl, a "swank" from the North, still alive on board. Should Nailer claim the salvage rights to the ship? Or help this girl he doesn't know?

The world building in this novel is impressive and intriguing. Bacigalupi deftly hints at so much going on in the background (all in a "show-don't-tell" manner) that you really get a sense for this future world as a real place. The communities on the Gulf and north of mostly submerged New Orleans are well drawn. There are some tantalizing hints about the more affluent, recovered, societies to the North, with their post carbon technologies. There is an interesting subplot about the genetically engineered character named Tool, a human slave designed with canine genes for animal ferocity and loyalty. This being a YA novel, the plot moves along at a break neck pace. Bacigalupi manages to insert his world building and character development in a story that in many ways is a series of exciting action sequences. And yet, YA though it might be with its pacing and teenage protagonist, the story has several darker aspects that set this apart from much YA fiction (though I understand this sort of more complex, nuanced, YA fiction is something of a trend these days). As I read it I thought a lot about John Michael Greer's books, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future in which he describes our future not as a sudden apocalypse so much as a long descent, a slow-motion catastrophe marked by energy shortages, climate change, wars and other painful adjustments playing out over decades and centuries. His descriptions of salvage-based economies as this long descent plays out obviously resonate with Bacigalupi's thoughts about our future.

Bacigalupi has made quite a splash in the last couple of years, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards with his science fiction novel, The Windup Girl, which I haven't read yet, but intend to at some point. In that book, I understand, he also depicts a post carbon future, but couched at a more adult level. When I get around to reading it, I'll let you all know what I think. Until then if you're looking for a good story set in a post carbon world with strong characters and cool world-building, you can't go wrong taking a look at Ship Breaker.


  1. Nice review, thanks! Just started reading it, and now I'm even more intrigued by your descriptions of the clipper ships and the implications of ecotechnic societies in the Far North.

    One of my unfulfilled ambitions for blogging here is to do some world-building -- scenarios for a future post-carbon society that turns out to be reasonably prosperous and just. I did write one overview scenario, for the previous blog, have been wanting to flesh it out a bit. But world-building takes a huge amount of time and energy. Urgh.

    At least I can read Bacigalupi's worlds instead.

  2. You know, speaking of world building, you and I should co-write a GURPS supplement and submit it to Steve Jackson Games.

    Coming soon --

    GURPS: Ecotechnic Age. Or, GURPS: Eco-apocalypse. Or, GURPS: Dark Green. Or, GURPS: Anthropocene.

    On a related note, I would like to read a New York Review of Books style review essay on how science fiction is coming to terms with the realization that there almost certainly will not be a high-tech, space opera future for at least the next 1000 years or so. I know our co-blogger, Steve, feels that such a future may eventually happen, after human societies re-establish themselves on a more ecologically sound footing.

    One of Stephen Baxter's characters in the novel "Flood" makes reference to the failure of science fiction to anticipate the actual future we face. The character in question is a former NASA climatologist, looking around at a 2040s world inundated by hundreds of meters of sea level rise. He remarks, towards the end of the novel, that when the flooding began in the 2010s, the human race was perhaps 50 years away from permanent human settlements in the Earth-Moon-Mars-asteroid region. But then came the blind-side impact of the newly discovered mega-oceans of water being released from the Earth's mantle to drown civilization.

    I think Baxter's novel serves as a parable of global warming in general. In extreme, fanciful form, Baxter illustrates how the human race might be forced to confront a future very different from what the techno-optimists of the twentieth century imagined. Bacigalupi seems to be doing the same thing. Sorry, kids, no transhumanism or space colonies for you. Just hell and high water water.