What is the religion in Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker?
Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel Ship Breaker is the quintessential post-apocalyptic scenario – in which the merging of ethnicities and cultures in overpopulated metropolises have created hybrid “Americans” noticeably distinct from those that existed prior to the events depicted in the books. Ship Breaker, however, presents a far more dystopian image of a post-apocalyptic society than the more evolutionary one presented by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In any event, the cultures, traditions and religious practices of the past no longer exist in their earlier form, replaced by belief systems more suited to the current circumstances. In Bacigalupi’s novel, the society he depicts is violent and crude, and the role of organized religion has been supplanted by less well-defined, but less divisive, denominations. In fact, religious denominations as they are understood today (circa 2014) are the providence of the wealthy and the demented. Take, for example, the case when Nita, survivor of a shipwreck and daughter of a wealthy, powerful shipping company owner, is rescued by the novel’s protagonist, Nailer, a twelve-year-old boy whose existence consists of scavenging the carcasses of old ships for valuable copper wiring and other potentially useful components. Bacigalupi’s description of the encounter between Nita and Nailer is as follows:
“She was praying. Soft begging words to Ganesha and the Buddha, to Kali-Mary Mercy and the Christian God...she was praying to anything at all, begging the Fates to let her walk from the shadow of death. Pleas spilled from her lips, a desperate trickle. She was broken, soon to die, but still the words slipped out in a steady whisper. Tum Karuna ke saagar Tum palankarta hail Mary full of grace Ajahn Chan Bodhisattva, release me from suffering...He drew away. Her fingers slipped from his cheek like orchid petals falling.”
Nita, from a wealthy background, can afford to retain her belief in a divine presence, although, her prayer clearly indicates an effort at securing the support of any and all possible deities, as she transitions from Christianity to Hindi. For most of humanity, the belief in such divinity has been subsumed under the devastation of the most series of city-killer hurricanes reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, now a regular feature along the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the story takes place. Now, the downtrodden are more apt to refer to “fate” as the only thing that matters. The discovery the shipwreck, with the opportunity for scavenging it provides, is a “lucky strike.” One relies only upon oneself for survival. As suggested well-into the story,
"The blood bond was nothing. It was the people that mattered. If they covered your back, and you covered theirs, then maybe that was worth calling family. Everything else was just so much smoke and lies."
Luck and fate are the sole consolations enjoyed by Nailer and his “friends” and coworkers, most of whom would easily kill him to secure potentially valuable scraps for themselves. So desperate are the figures who populate Ship Breaker that they see no point in prayer, only in hope that fate will be on their side, or, as Nailer’s friend Pima states,
“We waste all our money throwing dice, trying to get close to Luck, trying to get the big win... To help us find something we can keep for ourselves.”