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

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