Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is a science fiction story written for a young adult audience. Ship Breaker follows the story of Nailer, an impoverished child laborer who lives in a world where oil has all but run out. The icecaps have melted and the coastal cities of the twentieth century are lost beneath the water. Nailer’s life changes when he rescues Nita, the daughter of a rich, powerful family. Bacigalupi explores poverty, class differences, and the conflict between loyalty and survival.
Nailer was born into poverty on America’s southern coast. Nailer is scrawny, which is an asset because it makes him ideal for “light crew” ship breaking, which means that he crawls through the dark interior of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge supplies for his employer. As he begins to grow, Nailer hopes to become large enough to work “heavy crew,” which involves tearing the ship apart. Although life as a scavenger is difficult, it is even harder for people without a crew at Bright Sands Beach. People who cannot find work ship breaking often resort to selling body parts; as Nailer’s crewmen point out, there are only so many parts to sell.
As he crawls through the ducts and forgotten tunnels of shipwrecks, Nailer wears LED paint to provide him with light, though it itches. There are petroleum fumes in the bowels of the ship so Nailer wears an old, outdated filter to offer his lungs a measure of protection. Although the fumes are harmful, light crew members who find oil may be able to find a way out of hard labor. Nailer and his friends call this a “Lucky Strike,” a phrase that draws its name from a man who smuggled oil out of a ship for weeks before selling it independently and buying his way out of hard labor.
Every day, Nailer and his crew desperately work to make quota. Although every member of the crew has sworn a blood oath of loyalty to the others, they know they are expendable because there are so many people on Bright Sands Beach hoping to gain work, however difficult. Unfortunately, a hurricane is about to strike the Gulf Coast. Because Nailer’s crew is about to lose its claim on the ship, Nailer and his companions are sent back into the shipwreck even after making quota to draw out as much scavenge as possible. Frustrated, Nailer forgets to apply more LED paint and ends up in a dark pipe. As he turns around to leave, the duct breaks and he falls into a reservoir of petroleum. This would be a Lucky Strike if Nailer were not drowning in oil without a way to escape. Nailer manages to reach the wall of the basin and calls for help.
Nailer’s crewmate, Sloth, finds him. After considering Nailer’s problem, Sloth decides to break her blood oath and abandons Nailer to die in the oil. Once he dies, the petroleum will become her Lucky Strike. Abandoned and betrayed, Nailer reasons that there may be a door out of the basin. He finds one and escapes, only to fall out of the side of the ship and into the high tide. Although he is impaled on a scrap of iron, he is alive. Things do not go as well for Sloth. For breaking her oaths, Sloth’s tattoos are removed so that everyone will know that she cannot be trusted. It is likely that she will be forced to sell body parts to live.
After a night of celebrating his good luck with his crew, Nailer returns home to his father’s shack. Nailer’s father, Richard Lopez, is a widower and a drug user. He is also exceptionally dangerous. Fast and skilled with a knife, Richard Lopez has thirteen scars on his chest that represent the number of men he has killed in knife fights. Richard Lopez often beats his son, though Nailer has gotten...
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