Monthly Archives: February 2013

Environmental Challenges, Inequality, and Family of Affinity in “Ship Breaker”


“Killing always costs.” (“Ship Breaker” 317)

This book review will be of an award-winning, young adult novel, “Ship Breaker,” by Paolo Bacigalupi.  At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught a social problems class. Usually, when I mentioned teaching the class to others, people would respond with comments like “that sounds like a depressing class.” However, I preferred to think of focusing on problems as a step towards finding solutions.  I often hear similar comments about dystopian science fiction books, especially in reference to young adult literature.  And I think a similar view is important.  Dystopian books allow for us to view our society in a new way.

One of my favorite topics in my social problems class  was on the environment and environmental racism.  The first of the videos that I found on the topic via Sociological Cinema, is from the Los Angeles Times on “The Challenge Ahead: Rising Numbers, Shrinking Resources”.  This video has some disturbing images, but it makes many important points about population growth, resource usage, and the future.  On the other hand, “Welcome to the Anthropocene” quickly relates the history of technology that led to the Industrial Revolution through today and also mentions the dangers we face.  Bacigalupi’s fiction is set in futures where we don’t solve all of these problems.

When I read “The Windup Girl” for a book club a couple of years ago, I was blown away.  Bacigalupi created a piece of fiction unlike anything I had ever read before.  The book was set a couple of centuries in the future.  It explored the consequences of social problems  relating to both technologies that we are using irresponsibly today, as well as technologies invented in the future.  For example, people have to deal with the consequences of global warming like massive flooding and huge corporations’ control of the world’s food supply.  Additionally, the windup girl of the title is a genetically modified person who is a slave. After being both delighted and horrified by “The Windup Girl,” I decided to read “Ship Breaker.”

The book is a dystopian young-adult book that won several awards like the Locus award.  The book is set in the future, although it seems much more close to our time than “The Windup Girl.”  The world seems more familiar in some ways, although this might be due to the fact that “The Windup Girl” is set in future Thailand, and “Ship Breaker” is set along the Gulf Coast.  (I grew up visiting parts of the Gulf Coast, so it is more familiar to me.)  The main character, Nailer Lopez, works on a crew that removes light valuables like copper from old, beached oil tankers.  It is extremely dangerous work, and the teams that do the work form tight bonds with the others in their team.  In-group and out-group dynamics are definitely at play here.

However, Nailer is betrayed by a team mate at the beginning of the book because competition for these incredibly low paying jobs is fierce.  Nailer isn’t just in danger from his work; he faces frequent beatings from his father, a ring fighter and drug user.  Eventually, after a hurricane rips through, Nailer and a friend go in search of food.  They find a damaged clipper ship with its young heiress on board. (These ships have impressive new technology that allows them to travel rapidly compared to our ships.)  Nailer decides to help the heiress get back to her family, which is difficult since enemies of her father are stalking her.  The book explores social class tensions, stereotypes in both directions, and other aspects of inequality.

One of my favorite concepts in sociology is family of affinity.  According to Macionis, “[p]eople without legal or blood ties who feel they belong together may identify themselves as families of affinity.”  Nailer realizes through the course of the book that the family that raises you isn’t necessarily “true” family.   For many teens (and adults for that matter) who may suffer abuse at the hands of the family they were raised in, it might give them hope that they can create a family with people who are similar to them.

Returning to my original point on social problems, “Ship Breaker” is an important work for both young adults and others in our society.  It allows us to think of the consequences of many of our unsustainable behaviors today.  If we think competition for resources is fierce now, what will life be like when we have torn through our finite supplies?  Food distribution is a problem now.  What will it be like when we truly outstrip the capacity to feed our people?  We may already be experiencing changes due to global warming.  What will life be like when entire cities are flooded due to the patterns of global climate change?  These are important questions and social problems that I hope that the generations of teens to come will spend time pondering as they further their educations and begin their jobs.  Speculative fiction like Bacigalupi’s can help socialize teens into thinking about how to change our social structures and cultures to help.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction, young adult

Immigration, Culture, and Disability in “Drown”

Immigration is one of my favorite topics in the social diversity class I teach.  Last fall, I listened to an interview with Junot Diaz on  “The New York Times” Book Review.  I found myself intrigued by both Diaz himself and his character Yunior.  I decided to pick up his first set of short stories called “Drown,” which primarily focus on Yunior.  Similar to Diaz’s experience, Yunior is an immigrant to the US from the Dominican Republic.   Although I’m generally more enthusiastic about reading novels, I sat down to read the first short story last Sunday.  Two or three hours later, I had read the entire book.  The book was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.  It explored tense family dynamics, immigration, working class struggles, relationships, sexual molestation, disability, and bullying, just to name a few.  This book would be wonderful to discuss in a sociology class, particularly in a class on social diversity.  Some of the topics might make students uncomfortable.

Diaz manages to convey different lifestyles and aspect of culture in the Dominican Republic and the United States by showing Yunior and his brother, Rafa’s, lives at home and as they visit relatives.  One of the aspects that I found the most gripping was the fact that Yunior’s family struggles in both places.  In the Dominican Republic, his mother works in a chocolate factory, and at times, she has to send her boys away to other relatives.  It is challenging for her because her husband left to live in the US years before and strings her along.  The stories trace the difficulties of their relationship.  Furthermore, the tales are haunting as you see Yunior at different ages, and it appears that he repeats some of his father’s abusive patterns on at least one of his girlfriends.

One of the most heart-breaking stories in the books is about a secondary character,  “Ysrael,” whose name is also the title of the first short story.  At this point, Yunior is still living in the Dominican Republic and is nine years old.  The boys in the neighborhood abuse Ysrael, because he supposedly had most of his face eaten off by a pig in his childhood.  The boy wore a mask to hide his face.  The other boys chase him, and even Yunior had hit him with a stone.  Rafa decides that they should go find Ysrael and pull his mask off.   The boys embark on an adventure on the bus.  (Distressingly, Yunior is molested on a bus by a man.) They spend time talking to Ysrael before Rafa hits him so that they boys can observe him without the mask.  Both boys are horrified by what they see. In a later story, abuse is implied when Ysrael’s mother tells him to “[go]…before your father comes out” (160).  These stories demonstrate how a person with a disability can face many types of abuse from various people.  I wondered when I read a later story about Ysrael if he had belonged to a more wealthy social class if the doctors would have been able to help him or not.  In the stories, North American doctors are seen with a sense of awe.   In addition to disability and bullying, Diaz looks closely at family ties.

Diaz weaves a complex tale of family tension.  Yunior’s father leaves the family after he gets caught having an affair.  He takes family money to get started and immigrates to the US.  The rest of the family believes that he will send for them. He eventually marries another woman to become a US citizen and has a child with her.  After many years, he brings the entire family up to New York, where he is living.  During the period of separation, he essentially abandons the family.  It reminded me of a powerful documentary that I watched about immigrants from Laos, although the reasons for immigrating were different.

Last semester, a student recommeneded that I watch a documentary on Laos called “The Betrayal-Nerakhoon.”  When I read Diaz’s discussion of Yunior’s family, it reminded me, in part, of this.  In the documentary, due to the impact of the Vietnam war on Laos, the father of the family is detained by the communists.  He had worked for the US during the war.  The other members of the family believed that it was likely that he was dead.  Part, but not all of, the remaining family escape to a refugee camp and eventually immigrate to the US.  When they arrive here, it isn’t the panacea they believed in.  In fact, they wind up living in an impoverished area in New York where gangs and violence are frequent.  Near the end of the documentary, they discover that the father had immigrated to the US as well, and had a new wife in Florida.  The break down of the family is tragic, and the video does a great job of showing culture and culture shock. To conclude, I highly recommend both “Drown” and “The Betrayal – Nerakhoon.”  They both explore culture, culture shock, immigration, and poverty in the US.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Documentaries, Short Stories, Sociology, Teaching