Study Guide

Ship Breaker Setting

By Paolo Bacigalupi


Futuristic Gulf Coast

Like any good action story, the setting is the backdrop for adventure and can move the plot forward. But movement from one setting to another also implies a more metaphoric movement in the characters, so we want to keep our eyes open as Nailer and Nita change up where they are to see how they change as they go along.

Bright Sands Beach

This is where Nailer grows up. It's full of junk—"a tarred expanse of sand and puddled sea water, littered with the savaged bodies of other oil tankers and freighters" (1.29)—and the people on the beach are ship breakers, who are pretty low on the socio-economic pyramid. They live in huts that they have built from scavenged wood and metals, and they work the tankers and freighters that are brought to the beach. It's a poor life, but it's the only life that Nailer knows.

Everything else is contrasted to Bright Sands Beach—the downed clipper ship, Orleans, and Dauntless, the functioning clipper ship that Nailer boards—to highlight Nailer's humble origins and Nita's wealthy ones.

An Island or an Isthmus?

After the storm, Nailer and Pima find the wrecked clipper ship on an island accessible by a small spit of land at low tide. The location of the clipper ship is key; it has to be hidden from other scavengers, but available for Nailer and Pima to stumble across. Even more importantly, finding the clipper away from home serves as a way for Nailer to begin leaving his old life as a rust rat on the coast behind.

Midnight Train to Orleans

To get to Orleans and find Nita's people, Nailer, Nita, and Tool hop a train. Sure, the train is a metaphor for a more figurative journey (for a discussion of this, check out the "Symbolism" section), but it also gives the trio a little down time so Nita can explain why she's fleeing Pyce.

In the safety on the moving train, Nailer and Nita let their guards down a little bit and learn more about one another. The train, because of the view it affords its passengers of the countryside, also opens doors to discussion of why the world is the way it is: Why there are killer storms, why the cities have drowned, and the changing natural forces in the world. Tool does most of the explaining here, though Nita chimes in, and we realize that this future that Bacigalupi imagines could theoretically happen. It's scary stuff indeed.


The Orleans we see is a slum of a city, raw and gritty, with little to soften it. Orleans is a good place to hide, but it's also a good place for Nailer and Nita to figure out that trust can transcend the boundaries that divide them, since danger lurks all over. It's also Nita's first experience mingling with the lower classes, and though she starts off prissy, she learns to adapt. Plus, it's in Orleans that Nailer makes one of the biggest choices of his life: Stay with Candless and search for Nita, or leave with Tool?

In short, even though Orleans is only one stop on the journey, it's an eye-opening one for both Nailer and Nita.

Candless's Clipper Ship

Once Nailer decides to throw his fortune in with Captain Candless, he finds himself aboard a clipper ship, which is a dream come true. Or at least it seems that way. Check it out:

He looked around at the bustling crew, all of them working at jobs he didn't understand, all of them crew all of them knowing one another and familiar with one another's work. He felt terribly out of place. (20.84)

Nailer is out of his element. Not only has he left his roots behind in search of something better, but he has no one he can trust now that Tool has left and Nita has been captured. The clipper ship embodies his dreams and high society, and Nailer feels a deep otherness because of his meager background.

Despite his discomfort, though, Nailer tries to fit in. He starts working in the mechanical room with Knot, he learns to read, and he begs Candless to stay on when Nita is rescued. He knows that there is no life for him back on Bright Sands Beach, so much like the clipper ship, Nailer can only move forward now; there's no sense in looking back.

Back on the Beach

It's not enough that Nailer has won against his father and helped rescue Nita. He (okay, and we) needs closure. So it's back to Bright Sands Beach. Although Nailer's not able to reconcile how he actually feels with how he should feel, he begins the process with Sadna, at least. And this time, the beach is hopeful place instead of a hopeless one. Nailer's never going to be a ship breaker again, and neither will Pima or Sadna. Instead, they'll continue their journey aboard Dauntless.

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