I read Paolo Bacigalupi‘s Ship Breaker as part of my never-ending quest to find good science-fiction books for my sociology classes. I have to go with young adult materials as my students’ reading skills vary widely (from absolutely college-ready to students who are not regular readers and might need some developmental reading). Right now, I am using The Hunger Games but the shelf life of this book is fast expiring so, I need a replacement or replacements. Hence Ship Breaker.
The setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.
In addition, the opening of new maritime shipping routes creates social changes and new conflicts:
“Pole Star was a trading vessel but also a warship, accustomed to fighting Siberian and Inuit pirates as it made the icy Pole Run to Nippon. The pirates were bitter enemies of the trading fleets and perfectly willing to kill or sink an entire cargo as revenge for the drowning of their own ancestral lands. There were no polar bears now, and seals were few and far between, but with the opening of the northern passage a new fat animal had appeared in the polar regions: the northern traders, making the short hop to Europe and Russia, or over to Nippon and the wide Pacific via the top of the melted pole.
With the disappearance of the ice, the Siberians and the Inuit became sea people. They pursued their new prey the way they had once hunted seals and bears in the frozen north, and they hunted with an implacable appetite.” (Loc. 3321)
The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.
Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.
“They all looked down the beach to where Sloth had been dumped. She’d be hungry soon, and needing someone to protect her. Someone to share scavenge with, to cover her back when she couldn’t work. The beach was a hard place to survive without crew.” (Loc. 534)
This ship breaking world is composed of motley crews of half-men (genetically modified mix of men and dogs), smelter clans, life cults, organ harvesters, and medical buyers all at the bottom of the social ladder (of whatever is left of it). This is a society based on accumulation by dispossession that looks a lot like the core / periphery of Wallerstein’s theory. After a “city killer” storm passes through Nailer’s beach, the entire economic ecosystem gets disrupted:
“All the scrap and rust buyers who contracted with Lawson & Carlson had fled inland to wait out the storm. With no companies like GE buying scrap for their manufacturing operations, or shipping companies like Patel Global Transit looking to buy scavenge to sell overseas, the ship-breaking yards were idle. The accountants and assayers and corporate guards who weighed and purchased the raw materials that came off the wrecks had left, and with no one around to buy their product, the ship breakers used their days cutting and renewing their shacks, scavenging the jungle, and fishing for food in the ocean. Until things got organized, people were on their own.” (Loc. 904)
Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.
This book has a loose companion volume: The Drowned Cities (which I have not read). I may have to check it out because, unfortunately, Ship Breaker does not have enough social content to be of use in my class. I liked the story. Nailer and Pima are attaching and interesting characters and unlikely heroes. But, and this is not the first time, I wish the author had provided more background in terms of history (what exactly happened) and the current social structure of the society as a whole beyond Bright Sands Beach and Orleans II.
It does not mean that book is not good and not worth reading but for college students, several things might not work: even though the reading level would be fine but the characters are a bit too young and there is too much action and not enough society.
I might actually try The Wind Up Girl as well. Since Bacigalupi writes pretty clearly (something that prevents me from ever using China Mieville’s work), it might be a book that would work.