starshipcat (starshipcat) wrote,

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Reading Ship Breaker

Recently I've been reading Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, largely because I picked up a copy when it was free on a promotional deal. It belongs in the same dystopian future as his earlier novel The Windup Girl, which I found grim and disturbing with its ineffectual protagonist who causes more harm than good when he tries to help the titular character.

And this one is even more grim, lying somewhere in the intersection between "when the world is running down, you make the best of what's still around" and "a boot stomping on a human face, forever." It's not just the horrible conditions of the kids in it -- there were kids toiling in Dickensian conditions in The Windup Girl too, and while I found it disturbing, it didn't upset me as viscerally as this novel is.

I think what really bothers me is the idea that this novel is being aimed at kids the age of the protagonist, or even a little younger. I would not just hand this novel to a seventh grader, any more than I would just hand them a copy of Orwell's 1984 and leave them to read it on their own. And I say this as someone who did read 1984 at that age.

This kind of dystopia really needs to be read with some adult guidance. Not necessarily a schoolmarmish "there will be a quiz" approach, nor something that leaves a young reader feeling as though they've read something they oughtn't, that they've been caught out. But taking the time to discuss the book with a young reader, to help them understand the idea of sf as Cautionary Tale, that this is not a tale of what will come to pass, but what might come to pass if changes are not made, even to delve into "what the author thinks ought to be done" vs "other options that might bring about a better future."

Unfortunately, most kid readers aren't going to get that sort of guided encounter with a book that has a very real potential to induce a fundamental despair about the future (as opposed to the merely ordinary nightmares so many parents worry about children having after encountering disturbing content in entertainment). At best, they'll get a stock set of questions to be answered, or a concerned parent may react with alarm about such dark content, in a way that leaves the teen reader feeling as if he or she has trespassed by choosing it -- and for young people at an age when they are developing an identity independent of their parents and more peer-focused, may actually end up leading to the young reader becoming secretive about reading books that he or she perceives as being disapproved of by Adult Authority.
Tags: reading

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