They were all looking at the water now. Hungry.
"You think they even know we're here?" Moon Girl asked.
Pima spat in the sand. "We're just flies on garbage to people like that." (5.69-71)
The three—Moon Girl, Pima, and Nailer—are looking at a clipper ship, which is a symbol of social class (no, really—check out the "Symbolism" section). They want to transcend social boundaries, but Pima believes it's not possible. Because she assumes that the swanks who own the clipper ship have disdain for her, she chooses to have disdain for them. It's hard to correct these preconceived notions of class.
"Just saying what we all know. Pima's worth ten of Bapi, but it don't matter." (5.105)
Moon Girl explains that just because Pima is a better person than Bapi, the ship breakers' crew boss, doesn't mean that Pima has more opportunities. Her opportunities are limited because of her life's circumstances, and she won't rise beyond where she was born because she doesn't have the money or the opportunity.
Some people were born lucky and sailed on clipper ships.
And then there were beach rats like him and Pima. (7.62-63)
Nailer thinks that the social level a person is born into determines a person's future. Do you agree with him? What makes you say that?
"That's what surge rats use. Combat squads. Half-men. It's for animals." She caught herself. "I mean…"
"Animals, huh?" Nailer exchanged a tired smile with Pima. "That's about rights. Just a bunch of animals here, making money for you big bosses." (12.29-30)
When Nita describes how her family uses genetically engineered "half-men" like Tool, she reveals the prejudices that she grew up with about class as she lessens Tool's humanity. But even more significantly, Nailer lumps himself in with the "animals," which shows us that he thinks he has more in common with Tool, a half-man, than with Nita, a swank.
"I'll tell you, a swank like her always means trouble for people like us. They don't give a copper yard about us, but they sure like their own. Maybe they pay us for her and then maybe they come back with guns and clear us out like a snake nest, instead of saying thank you." (13.87)
Richard Lopez, Nailer's dad, applies his own mercenary world-view to the swanks who might be after Nita; he thinks they'll live by the code he lives by. As we read, we realize that this perspective applies to some swanks but not to others, which just goes to show that there are good—and bad—people at all social levels.
"Pyce's people would have killed them all anyway. He wouldn't have wanted witnesses."
Pima grinned. "Damn, the swanks and the rust rats are all the same at the end of the day. Everyone's looking to get a little blood on their hands."
"Yes." Nita nodded seriously. "Just the same." (13.138-140)
Pima realizes that even though the swanks may have more money and opportunities, they're still just as corrupt and selfish as the "rust rats." Morality—and immorality—transcend class boundaries. It's a revelation that pops up again and again throughout the novel.
"Why don't they just use boats?"
"For these people?" Tool looked around at their fellow waders. "They are not worth it."
"Still, someone could make a boardwalk. It wouldn't even cost that much."
"Spending money on the poor is like throwing money into a fire. They'll just consume it and never thank you," Tool said. (17.58-61)
As Nita, Nailer, and Tool cross the river in Orleans with the rest of the poor, Nita wonders why people who are wealthy don't try to make life better for the poor. And Tool has some pretty harsh words for the poor: They'll take and never give back. Is this an accurate world view in this novel? What about in real life? Is Nita's view too naïve?
Nailer had expected Nita's prissy distaste for the slums of the Orleans to continue, but she adapted quickly, with a fierce attention to whatever Tool and Nailer taught…she also showed a determination to carry her weight that Nailer was forced to respect. (18.3)
Although class is a huge divider in the novel, Nita proves that she, a swank, can cross class lines and adjust to what life throws at her. How is it significant, though, that a person from the upper classes (Nita) is adjusting to life in poverty and not the other way around? Would Nailer be able to act like a swank as easily as Nita's acting like a ship breaker?
The captain saw a ship breaker, tattooed with work stamps and scarred with hard labor. A kid with his ribs showing through. That was all. A bit of beach trash.
Nailer stared at him. "Lucky Girl used to look at me the same way you're looking at me. And now she doesn't. That's why I'm going with you." (19.117-118)
Here's where we see some positives coming from the experiences Nailer and Nita have shared. Even though they come from two different social strata, their common experiences have caused them to overcome their prejudices about the other class.
The half-man made a face of contempt. "You can't read?" (20.86)
It's not just money that spawn discrimination—a person's education level and intelligence are also ways to divide society. In this case, it is significant that a genetically engineered half-man is the one scorning Nailer's illiteracy because it shows hierarchy even amongst those at the bottom of the social spectrum.
"I know you, Nailer. You'll tell Pima no matter what, and then I'm off crew and someone else buys in." Another pause and then she said, "It's all Fates now. If you got a way out, I'll see you on the outside. You get your revenge then." (3.13)
As Sloth considers whether or not to rescue Nailer, she understands the repercussions for her betrayal of both the spoken crew loyalties and the unspoken code of conduct for ship breakers. The ease with which she betrays Nailer is pitted against Nailer's loyalty to his crew and his friends.
Bapi had put his knife through her light crew tattoos himself, disowning her completely. She'd never work as a ship breaker again. And probably nowhere else, either. Not after breaking blood oaths. She'd proven that no one could trust her. (5.19)
Here, because of Sloth's actions, we see how valued trust and loyalty are. Nailer and Sloth took blood oaths to become crew, so Sloth's betrayal of the oath means that her life is pretty much over. With no trust, she's got no way to survive. Loyalty can be the only thing keeping someone alive.
"Dog DNA would be a step up for her," Pearly said. "At least dogs are loyal."
Every animal they considered was an improvement over the creature who had betrayed them. Ship breaking was too dangerous not to have trust. (5.97-98)
Here we see a little more social hierarchy. As the crew discusses Sloth's disloyalty, they think that she might sell her eggs to help create half-men. Not only does betrayal mean a life of unbearable hardship for Sloth, it means that she becomes less than human in the eyes of those she betrayed.
"My dad will never forget this. No matter what anyone says, he'll never forget." (14.113)
Nailer has just killed Blue Eyes to help Nita and Pima escape and to save Sadna, Pima's mom. He's betrayed his blood, and his dad, Richard, will see the betrayal much like Nailer saw Sloth's betrayal. Blood doesn't inspire loyalty in Richard Lopez; loyalty has to be earned.
"I'm sorry," Nita said. "I didn't want to leave him, either."
Nailer gave her a withering look. "He was helping us."
"There are some fights you can't win." She looked away. (18.93-95)
When Tool is attacked by the half-men working for Pyce, Nailer and Nita want to help, but Nita pulls Nailer away. This, too, is a betrayal of sorts: Nailer considers Tool part of his crew and therefore deserving of the same loyalty his other crewmembers get. Nita is a little more mercenary than Nailer; she's willing to give up Tool to survive. Strangely enough, we think that Tool would probably agree with Nita, as he says, "'I do not lunge into battles that cannot be won'" (19.26).
As he did, the captain raised his gun and shot the man in the back […]
"He was my minder," the captain said simply. (18.158, 161)
When the lieutenant turns, no doubt to rat the captain to Pyce, Captain Candless shoots him. It becomes clear to us that loyalty and betrayal is just as complicated among swanks as it is among ship breakers.
An entire team mobilized instantly at the invocation of Lucky Girl's name. Astonishing to see the value these people placed on her. Until recently, Nailer had mostly though of her as just a rich girl who bought the muscle she needed, but here was something else, this clustered tribe of weaponry and purpose. Total loyalty. More intense even than crew loyalty in the ship-breaking yards. (19.3)
What is it about Nita and her father's company that can inspire this kind of loyalty? Has she become a symbol, and if so, what does she symbolize?
Knot's eyes hardened. His nostrils flared and his teeth showed slightly behind curling lips. "I do not wish it," the half-man growled. (21.20)
Nailer asks Knot if he would ever, could ever work for someone else, and Knot responds with this comment. We know that half-men are engineered to be loyal to their masters, though, so we have to think about how much of Knot's loyalty is genetically manipulated and how much is due to Captain Candless's actions and character.
"You wouldn't ever work for Pyce?"
Sharp teeth showed. A low growl issued. "He is nothing. He turned against us." (21.35)
Nailer pursues the issue of loyalty and betrayal with Knot, and Knot indicates that loyalty can't be bought or sold. Think about how this is similar to the loyalty among Nailer's crew and so different from Richard's crew. Plus, Knot responds to betrayal with the threat of violence. How are loyalty and betrayal tied to violence?
"There were always safer options than crewing with an old loyalist like me." (23.67)
For Candless, and really for all the characters, loyalty comes with a certain amount of danger. Why might loyalty be dangerous for the characters? What about beyond the world of the book?
Here, fear and tension fell away in the presence of Sadna's strength. (5.8)
Nailer doesn't really have a family. His mom is dead and his dad's a violent drug addict, so he tries to find the qualities of a family in Pima and her mother, Sadna. Family should imply safety, but Nailer only feels this kind of security with his non-family.
Silent stretched between them. "Lost it, huh?" was all his father said, but Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father's bouts of frenzied work and brutality… Richard Lopez was thinking. And now Nailer needed to know what—or he'd never escape the shack without a beating. (5.144)
It's pretty clear that Nailer has to physically and mentally tiptoe around his dad because his dad is both physically and mentally abusive. This challenges the concept that family is important because, well, what if the only family you have doesn't give you what family should—safety, security, and love?
The man was a drunk and a bastard, but still, they were blood. They shared the same eyes, the same memories of his mother… family, as much as he had. (6.19)
What makes someone family? Is it blood? Shared experiences? Or something else?
"I don't know why you saved his ass," Pima said. "All he does is hit you."
Nailer shrugged…"He didn't used to. He used to be different. Before all the drugs and before my mom died."
"He wasn't that great before. He's just worse now."
Nailer grimaced. "Yeah, well…" He shrugged, stymied by conflicted emotions. "I probably wouldn't have made it out of the oil room if it weren't for him. He's the one who taught me to swim." (8.70-73)
This is the hard part for Nailer. His dad wasn't always a jerk—there are some good times that he remembers, too—so Nailer has to weigh who is dad was against who he is when he considers what he owes his father. That's some terrible math right there, Shmoopers.
People said family was important. Pearly said it. Pima's mom said it. Everyone said it. And Richard Lopez, whatever else he was, was the only family Nailer had left. (7.75)
In Ship Breaker, Nailer and other characters feel heavy social pressure to value family. Is it fair to ask Nailer to value family in the same way that Pima and Sadna do? Why or why not?
His pale eyes looked as bright and crazed as Nailer felt his own must be.
"I won't let you die, son. Don't you worry. We'll get you taken care of. You're my blood and I'll take good care of you." (12.119-120)
When Nailer's wound from the oil chamber gets infected, Richard takes care of his son. How is this at odds with what we know about Richard Lopez and his relationship with Nailer? And is Richard taking care of Nailer because Nailer is his son, or is it for some other reason?
"A good kill," he said. "As fast as your father."
"I'm not my father."
"Not as skilled." Tool shrugged. "But the potential is there…Blood tells. You have good potential."
Nailer shuddered at the thought of mirroring his father. "I'm not like him," he said again. (14.64-67)
Tool often serves as the philosopher of the novel, and here he talks about how blood "tells." Genes are important and can influence a person's life (which Tool knows well because he's a genetic mutant), but intentions also matter, especially when Nailer tries so hard not to be his father.
Tool studied him. "So. You bite like a mastiff and never let go. Just like your father, then." Nailer started to retort, but Tool waved him silent. "Don't argue the obvious. Lopez never let anything stand in his way, either." (19.79)
Even though Nailer wants to reject his ties to his father, Tool reminds him that even the worst parents can have good qualities. Nailer is tenacious and ambitious like his father, neither of which are necessarily bad qualities to have. It's what Nailer does with them that matters.
"Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." Tool's eyes flicked to the captain, and his sharp teeth gleamed in a brief smile. "When the fighting comes, don't deny your slaughter nature. You are no more Richard Lopez than I am obedient hound. Blood is not destiny, no matter what others believe." (19.79)
Tool is making the point that we are more than where we come from. Nailer isn't his father—he exhibits compassion and empathy—just like Tool is more than what the scientists created him to be. We can rise above the lowly roots we have. (Bonus: Tie this to the theme of Society and Class.)
Nailer laughed. "My dad doesn't give anyone a chance for second thoughts. He cuts you first. He talks about family sticking together, but what he really means is that I give him money… Lucky Girl's more of a family than he is." (19.107)
When the captain asks why Nailer's setting up a conflict with his dad, Nailer tells him what family really means: Loyalty, trust, and having one another's back. And he hasn't gotten that with his father since his mother died, if ever.
The old-world wrecks still lay black on the sand like mangled bodies, still leaking oil and chemicals, still swarming with workers. But he wasn't one of them. And not Pima. And not Sadna, either. He wasn't able to save everybody, but he could at least save family. (25.38)
At the end of the novel, when Nailer watches the ship breakers work, we realize that he's come to some resolutions about what family means to him: Family is made, not born into. This is not necessarily true for Nita, but that has more to do with class differences. Definitions of family are personal for the characters in the book.
Nailer could barely breathe. He knew now that his father was mapping out the violence, planning to catch Nailer, to teach him some respect. Nailer's eyes went to the door. (5.151)
It's strange how Richard Lopez plans to beat respect into his son, because physical violence doesn't instill respect at all. It instills fear, which is about as different from respect as you can get.
Lucky Strike had been collecting real power ever since his first bit of luck freed him from heavy crew. Now he smuggled everything from antibiotics to crystal slide into Bright Sands Beach […]
He was smiling and looked confident, but he had a line of hired goons standing behind him to back up his authority. (7.17-18)
Lucky Strike made his fortune by stumbling upon a cache of oil, so what lends him real power is not his ability to smuggle, but the "hired goons" who support him. Violence and the threat of violence give Lucky Strike the legitimacy he needs to stay on top of the micro society of ship breakers.
"She's not crew. She's just a boss girl with a lot of gold… if we pigstick her, we're rich. No more crew for life, right?"
[…] Nailer struggled with his conflicting emotions. It was more wealth than he had ever seen. (9.32-33)
Pima explains that it's easier to kill Nita than it is to help her survive, but Nailer struggles with deciding whether killing an unknown swank is worth having the guilt and the wealth. In this case, violence is a means to an end. But is the end (wealth) worth the immoral means to get there?
Richard took her ring finger. Pima's breath came in ragged gasps. He smiled, getting his head down so they were eye to eye again. "Now you know better, don't you?'
Pima nodded frantically, but still he wrenched her finger. (12.97-98)
After Pima tries to kill Richard, he decides to spare her life, but he breaks her fingers to teach her a lesson. Pima's frightened beyond belief because of Richard's unpredictable nature, and he feeds off this fear. Her fear gives him power—that's why he smiles. And even when Pima indicates that she's learned her lesson, he continues to hurt her, so this is more than violent; it's cruel. We have to wonder how Nailer turned out so different from his father.
She was hard and deadly and Nailer had no doubt that if his father asked her to do it, she would kill him and Pima and Lucky Girl, and sleep well afterward.
He didn't feel guilty.
And yet, still, as he stole close, his heart pounded in his chest and the blood thudded in his ears like beach drums. (14.6-8)
Even though Nailer says he doesn't feel guilty about approaching Blue Eyes to kill her, do you believe him? Why or why not? And how are guilt and violence connected for Nailer? For Richard and his crew?
"Killing in one place or killing in another; it makes no difference." (14.151)
As Tool departs to take Nita and Nailer to Orleans, he tells this to Sadna. What might he mean by these words? Does it matter where one commits violence? Does the context of the violence matter? Why or why not?
Tool blinked once, slowly. "Richard Lopez had many half-men, well armed. I do not lunge into battles that cannot be won."
Knot and Vine curled their lips at Tool's answer and growled guttural contempt. Tool didn't flinch, just looked at the pair. (19.26-27)
There's tension between unthinking violence and calculated risk. Tool views his intelligence as more valuable than his genetic tendencies toward violence, but Knot and Vine, two other half-men, scorn him for viewing his survival as more important than the honor of battle. Which point of view is right, and why do you think this?
Pole Star was a trading vessel but also a warship, accustomed to fighting Siberian and Inuit pirates as it made the icy Pole Run to Nippon. The pirates were bitter enemies of the trading fleets and perfectly willing to kill or sink an entire cargo as revenge for the drowning of their own ancestral lands. (20.5)
Violence permeates the entire society in Ship Breaker, and if characters aren't initially violent, they often have to respond to violence with violence. But there are also more abstract references to violence as a justified means to an end. The pirates use violence to extract revenge on the people who destroyed their homes. In fact, because destruction is more important than goods or cargo, we have to wonder what the story is behind the enmity.
"Don't worry about a killing blow and don't go for the head. It will extend you. Go low and hit them in the belly, the knees, behind the legs. If they're down…"
"Cut their throat."
"Good boy! Bloodthirsty little bastard, aren't you?" (20.60-62)
Captain Candless is giving Nailer tips about how to handle himself in the battle to come. The captain is rather flippant about taking human life, praising Nailer for the method of killing almost as one would praise a dog. And it's clear that despite the differences in social level—swank and ship breaker—the two classes can share the same disregard for human life. This makes Nailer's moral reactions against violence all the more important.
Knot smiled and his sharp teeth showed. "It is my nature to fight." He paused. "But this time it is also a pleasure." (21.27)
Knot, a half-man, has been bred to violence. It's in his genes, in the same way that it's in Tool's genes and Nailer's genes. But all three characters also have a choice about whether to be violent or not. And we can see that Tool and Nailer both rise above the genetic tendency to kill.
"Richard never felt a thing when he hurt people. Just didn't give a damn. It's good that you feel something. Trust me. Even if it hurts, it's good." […]
"Maybe in a year you'll have mostly forgotten. But it will still be there. You've got blood on your hands." She shrugged. "It always costs. It never goes away." (25.12, 22)
After Nailer kills his father, who would have killed Nailer, he feels incredibly guilty. Sadna tries to talk him through how he might deal with his actions and guilt. What kind of cost does killing—and other violence—have on Nailer? How does his reaction to killing set him apart from his father, and why is this, as Sadna says, "good?"
"She could sell off a kidney. Maybe tap out a couple pints of blood for the Harvesters. They're always buying."
"Sure. She's got those pretty eyes," Pearly said. "Harvesters would take those in a second." (5.92-93)
One of the first times we see humanity monetized is when Sloth betrays Nailer and gets kicked off of light crew. Sloth has the option of selling parts of herself to survive; her whole person isn't valued, but pieces of her are. It's kind of a hint of what is to come.
"Maybe Sloth was an oath breaker, but she was smart enough to know you don't deserve things, you gotta take them."
"I don't buy that." Pearly shook his head. "What have you got without your promises? You're nothing. Less than nothing." (5.109-110)
It's inevitable that after Sloth's betrayal, the rest of the crew talks about why she did it, and if they would do the same. And even though they're ship rats, they understand the intricacies of morality—what's right and wrong and what makes a person moral.
He'd been so desperate to get Sloth to care.
But he hadn't been able to find the lever. Or maybe the lever hadn't been there after all. Some people couldn't see any farther than themselves. People like Sloth.
People like his dad. (9.40-42)
Nailer was searching for a lever that would cause Sloth to feel empathy for him, for her to care. Do you think that Nailer's dad and Sloth are capable of empathy? Why or why not? And what was Sloth's motivation for leaving Nailer behind?
A few days ago, he would have cut her […] but now, after his time in the oil room, all he could think of was how much he'd wanted Sloth to believe that his life was just as important as hers. (9.38, 43)
Nailer has the chance to either cut off Nita's finger or save her life. He's starting to think that perhaps each life should be weighed the same, whether it's his, Nita's, or Sloth's. It's very different from his father's view of humanity.
He'd killed things before. Chickens. That goat. But this was different. He threw up. Pima and Lucky Girl backed off, exchanging glances.
"What's his problem?" Pima asked.
Sadna shook her head. "Killing isn't free. It takes something out of you every time you do it. You get their life; they get a piece of your soul. It's always a trade." (14. 56-58)
After killing Blue Eyes to save Sadna, Nailer pukes, physically overwhelmed with what he's done. Even though Blue Eyes would have killed Nailer if he hadn't killed her, he seems to have a different reaction than she might have had. Perhaps, following Sadna's logic, this is because Blue Eyes has killed too many times and, in doing so, traded out too many pieces of her soul.
"It's human nature to tear one another apart. Be glad you come from such a successful line of killers." (14. 68)
Tool says this after Nailer kills Blue Eyes. Keep in mind that this phrase is coming from a genetically engineered creature who—arguably—isn't fully "human." Is what Tool says true? And what does this mean about the general morality of society?
"It's a lot of damn money," he said. "The only reason you think you've got morals is because you don't need money the way regular people do." (16.27)
When Nita tells him how much she is worth and the situation with her father, Nailer sort of reconsiders his choice to save her. There are ways in which morality is a luxury.
"That woman is worth ten times whatever your wealthy father is worth. […]
"The wealthy measure everything with the weight of their money." Tool leaned close. "Sadna once risked herself and the rest of her crew to help me escape from an oil fire. She did not have to return, and she did not have to help lift an iron girder that I could not lift alone. Others urged her not to. It was foolhardy. And I, after all, was only half of a man." Tool regarded Nita steadily. "Your father commands fleets. And thousands of half-men, I am sure. But would he risk himself to save a single one?" (16.47-49)
Tool provides an example of how actions, not wealth, demonstrate the worth of a human. How should a person's worth be decided? Is life inherently worthy?
"Scientists created me from the genes of dogs and tigers and men and hyenas, but people always believe I am only their dog." (19.79)
Tools words imply that those who have created him—along with others in society—think that they own him. Despite being half human, they focus on the dog part instead.
But still, it didn't feel right. His dad had been crazy and destructive and if he was honest, downright evil. But now that he was dead, Nailer couldn't help remembering other times as well. (25.4)
After Nailer kills his father to save himself and Nita, he's almost overcome with guilt. As Sadna says, killing costs; even though Richard Lopez might not have been worth much as a human, Nailer still wonders if he did the right thing in taking his life.
"Tool said I was just like my dad when I pigstuck Blue Eyes—"
"Maybe I am, right? I don't feel a thing. Not a damn thing. I was glad when I did it. And now I don't feel anything at all. I'm empty. Just empty."
"And that scares you."
"You said my dad didn't feel anything when he hurt people." (25.15-19)
As Nailer grapples with the fallout after killing his father, he worries that he, like his dad, lacks empathy for others, which can affect what he views as moral. He questions whether his means (killing his father) justify the end (survival.)
"I know you, Nailer. You'll tell Pima no matter what, and then I'm off crew and someone else buys in." Another pause and then she said, "It's all Fates now. If you got a way out, I'll see you on the outside. You get your revenge then." (3.13)
As Sloth leaves Nailer in the oil chamber, she understands that there might be repercussions for betrayal. Though she attributes her future to fate, her words imply that Nailer's choices are what will ultimately affect her future. So very early on, there's a complex relationship between fate and choice, between what's out of characters' control and what's in it.
Nailer balanced on the ledge, on the edge of decision.
Live or die, he thought. Live or die.
He dove. (3.93-95)
If Nailer really believed in fate and that everything is predetermined, he would probably never make the choice to try to survive. So he chooses to take his survival in his own hands.
"You're lucky. The Fates were holding you close today. Should have been another Jackson Boy." She offered him the rusty shiv. "Keep that for a talisman. It wanted you. It was going for your lung." (5.3)
Many ship breakers treat fate as almost a religion and world view, and they accept that many of life's circumstances are beyond their control. So it makes sense that Nailer keeps the thing that might have killed him as a token of his luck.
Nailer shook his head. "I don't believe in Fates." But he said it quietly, low enough that she wouldn't hear. If Fates existed, they'd put him with his dad, and that meant they were bad news. Better to think life was random than to think the world was out to get you. (5.6)
As Nailer and his crew talk about Sloth's choice to leave him, he considers what fate means: If his life is dictated by fate (or the Fates as religious beings), then what has he done to deserve being saddled with his nutso father? Believing in fate means that he's saddled with his father for a reason, and he has a hard time believing this.
Nailer had been surprised that Sloth hadn't protested. He wasn't about to forgive, but he respected that she hadn't begged or tried to apologize when Bapi got out his knife. Everyone knew the score. What was done was done. She'd gambled and lost. Life was like that. (5.20)
Sloth's actions imply that life doesn't follow a set path; she made a choice, and now she's living with the consequences; she could have chosen to help Nailer, but she didn't. Fate seems to apply when it's convenient for characters to explain things away, but choice seems far more important.
The captain hadn't been lucky. And now Nailer and Pima were flush because of it. (7.68)
When Nailer and Pima scavenge the downed clipper ship, they stumble across the body of the captain. Nailer realizes that the captain's bad luck is really good luck to him and Pima. Is there always this trade off when we consider luck? That is, is someone's good luck always someone else's bad luck? And, if this is the case, how does this change how we view luck in the novel?
He could see those roads spinning away from him in different directions. He was standing at their hub, looking down each of them in turn, but he could see only so far, one or two steps ahead at best. (10.18)
When Nailer saves Nita, he closes off one path and opens others, which you could argue contradicts the dominant ideas about fate in this novel.
"Smart enough to know that I can choose who I serve and who I betray, which is more than can be said of the rest of my… people." (17.78)
Tool says that scientists engineered him to be too smart, and the other half-men are supposed to be predictable and have fairly determined lives. How does Tool's intelligence affect his future? And what might Tool's words imply about the other half-men and their fates?
"You're supposed to die with your master. That's what ours always say. That they'll die when we do, that they will die for us."
"Some of us are astonishingly loyal," Tool observed.
"But your genes—"
"If genes are destiny, then Nailer should have sold you to your enemies and spent the bounty on red rippers and Black Ling whiskey" (17.81-84)
Tool recognizes that for all the talk of luck and fate from ship breakers and swanks, people own their own futures. Despite the importance genes might have in Tool and Nailer and Nita's lives, their choices are far more important influence on their futures.
"My people. Yeah, ship breakers like the lucky eye. Not much else to hang on to when you're on the wrecks."
"Skill? Hard work?"
Nailer laughed. "They're nice. But they only get you so far. Look at you… Still born swank,"
Nailer pointed out. "Pima's mom works a thousand times harder than you and she's never going to have a life as nice as what you got on this boat." (19.122-125)
As Captain Candless asks Nailer why he wants to stay, the convo turns to class differences and why ship breakers are more likely to believe in luck than swanks, and we realize that the belief in a predetermined future is a way for the lower classes to cope with everything that they will never have. Can't have hope if the course of your life is already determined.
"If you were your dad, you'd be down on the beach, drinking with your friends, looking for a girl to keep you company tonight, and feeling pleased with yourself. You wouldn't be up here worrying about why you don't feel worse." (25.20)
Nailer continues to worry that his dad's genes will pop up at the most inopportune times. But Sadna sets him straight; Nailer is far more compassionate and empathic than his father. So in some way, who Richard Lopez is has affected Nailer's fate and future, just not in the ways Nailer's expected.
The storm looked worse than just a blow, maybe a city killer even, the way the clouds swirled and scattered lightning across the wrecks offshore […]
His father claimed that the storms were worse every year, but Nailer had never seen anything like the monster bearing down on them. (6.4-5)
It's just like an adult to harken back to the good ol' days when everything was better. But when we read about the destruction the storm causes in the novel, we have to wonder if there's some truth to what Richard says.
The beach was empty. Not a sign of human habitation. Out in the blue water, the shadows of the tankers still loomed, randomly scattered like toys, but nothing else remained. The soot was gone, the oil in the waters, everything shone brightly under the blaze of morning tropic sun.
"It's so blue," Pima murmured. "I don't think I've ever seen the water so blue." (7.4-5)
Even though the storm has destroyed buildings, lives, and livelihoods, Nailer and Pima are awed by the beauty of nature as well. In fact, nature has the ability to wipe clean the literal and metaphorical dirt of industrialization. And if that's not power, we don't know what is.
Nita looked at him with disgust. "Don't we already have enough drowned cities? Enough people dying from drought? My family is a clean company. Just because a market exists doesn't mean we have to serve it." (16.22)
There's a whole lotta backstory in this statement. Nita implies that her father, the head of a huge corporation, has a moral obligation to preserve what's left of the natural world, and in doing so, will preserve the rest of humanity. It's morality and nature and humanity all knotted together.
They sped above the mossy broke-back structures of a dead city. A whole waterlogged world of optimism, torn down by the patient work of changing nature. (16.53)
As Nailer, Nita, and Tool approach Orleans, they see the wreckage of nature; the city is "dead." And the optimism once felt has been "torn down." Nature takes on a much more sinister tone here, even though we know that nature isn't good or bad in the novel—it just is.
She waved at the drowned ruins, and a flash of ocean. "They used to drill out there, too, in the Gulf. Cut up the islands. It's why the city killers are so bad. There used to be barrier islands, but they cut them up for their gas drilling." (16.60)
Bacigalupi is imagining that human greed has caused the destruction that created the drowned cities. Although this is a sci-fi novel, there's enough truth in what Nita says that this serves as a warning against human greed.
The merchants and traders had had enough of the river mouth and the storms, and so left the drowned city to docks and deep-sea loading platforms and slums, while they migrated their wealth and homes and children to land that lay more comfortably above sea level. (17.10)
Natural events don't just wreak havoc on the terrain, they inflict harm on the people, too, and not everyone is equipped to deal with the volatility of the coast. So, like we see today, those with money move to safer places, and those without money must make a life for themselves where they can. And this means that, oddly, nature's actions increase socio-economic division.
Tool shrugged. "No one expected Category Six hurricanes. They didn't have city killers then. The climate changed. The weather shifted. They did not anticipate well." (17.20)
Having expectations of nature seems to be a bad idea in the novel, as Tool puts baldly; just take a look at the relationship between nature and human response. Despite human development, nature took its own course, and humans paid the price. Here, nature is almost an antagonist in the novel.
The pirates were bitter enemies of the trading fleets and perfectly willing to kill or sink an entire cargo as revenge for the drowning of their ancestral lands. There were no polar bears now, and seals were few and far between [...] and with the disappearance of the ice, the Siberians and the Inuit became sea people. (20.5)
This scenario implies that industrialists and capitalists share the blame in the effects of the melting. So nature not only destroys cities, it also pits humans against one another based on how they value (or devalue) nature.
"Actually, you're right. The real numbers are all deeper than when the maps were made, but the ratios are the same, even with the rising sea levels. So everything will be deeper than what you see on the map."
Nature isn't just the backdrop for the novel; natural events play a huge role in moving the plot forward. Because of the warming and rising sea levels, Nailer has the chance to help rescue Nita from the Pole Star by steering it past the Teeth.
Nailer watched in awe as the crew fought to do their work. Rain slashed them. The seas rose and tried to drown them with huge surging waves, but still they grimly wrestled the ship to their will. (23.47)
Take a look at the language used to describe the storm—"fought" and "slashed" are pretty violent words. The seas have a will of their own to "drown" the crew. The conflict here is clearly man against nature.
But he knew the calculations she was making, her clever mind working the angles, sensing the great pool of wealth, the secret stash that she might pillage later, if Fates and the Rust Saint worked in her favor. (3.63)
As Nailer is stuck in the pool of oil, Sloth doesn't immediately rescue him; in fact, she doesn't rescue him at all. She weighs her options and decides to sacrifice Nailer for the chance that she might be able to use the oil to change her fortunes from rust rat to something like Lucky Strike. So in Sloth's case, her greed causes her to betray Nailer.
"You weren't just lucky," she said. "You were smart. And Lucky Strike, he was smart, too. Half the crews out here find some cache of oil or copper or whatever and none of them figure out what to do with it. Crew boss grabs it in the end, and they get bumped off the wrecks… Luck isn't what you need out here," Pima said. "Smarts is what you need." (5.86)
Combined with intelligence, greed can give someone a boost to a better life. But this way of thinking sounds really similar to Pyce and his betrayal. What makes Lucky Strike's actions more acceptable than Pyce's actions? Why is greed okay in some situations and not in others?
"That's enough to pay off all our work debts. With that much cash you could set up scavenge on your own. Even buy Bapi's light crew slot." (8.81)
Nailer and Pima realize that the scavenge from the clipper ship is enough to help them get out of the terrible jobs they have. Money can give them opportunities not previously available to them, so their greed here is all about possibility and hope for the future.
"Don't be stupid. This is only scavenge if she's not standing on it saying it's hers. All that silver we found? All this gold on her fingers?... She's no servant, that's for sure. She's a damn swank. We let her out, we lose everything." (9.28)
Pima is letting greed cloud her moral judgment, and she wouldn't be talking about killing a defenseless person if so much money weren't at stake. Pima has to weigh her future against her moral code. Not an easy decision to make.
He knew about gold, though. Gold bought security, salvation from the ships and the breaking and light crew. Lucky Strike had gone down that road. Nailer would have been smarter to simply let Pima pigstick the girl and be done with it. (10.19)
Are there only these two options for him—either kill the girl or save her?
"I never really thought about how bad it is here. Not until yesterday. Not until her." He paused. "But you got to think, if she's that rich, there's other swanks out there. There's money out there. And it ain't here. Even Lucky Strike's a joke, in comparison to what she's got." (11.45)
Nailer doesn't really think about the potential for riches until he sees Nita and her wealth. It's this comparison between the haves and the have nots that make him realize just how big the gap is between swanks and rust rats. And this realization makes him even more determined to leave ship breaking for good.
Nailer's father smiled, feral and pleased. "But you just bought your guts back, girlie." He showed her his knife. "And if your dad won't pay enough, we'll pig-open you and see how you squeal." He turned to his crew. "All right, boys and girls. Let's get the scavenge off. I don't want to share too much with Lucky Strike." (12.110-111)
The greed that Nailer and Pima experience is different from Nailer's father's greed. Richard Lopez is willing to use violence in morally suspect ways; Nailer isn't. And while Nailer and Pima recognize that if Nita is alive, the ship is hers, Richard is more than happy to cheat his boss Lucky Strike out of whatever scavenge he can. So greed is connected to morality and ethics.
Pima's mother studied Nailer. "You run and Richard Lopez will hunt you forever. You can never come back […] Broker a deal and sell the girl to those people down there, and Richard will forget. You don't think so, but money will make him forget plenty." (14.119)
After Nailer kills Blue Eyes, Sadna assures him that satiating his father's greed will allow Nailer to stay at Bright Sands Beach. And Nailer has to weigh this wish for peace against the awfulness that is his dad. For Nailer, morality wins out.
"Pyce is avoiding carbon taxation because of territory disputes in the Arctic, and then when it goes to China, it's easy to sell it untraceably. It's risky and it's illegal, and my father found out about it. He was going to force Pyce out of the family, but Pyce moved against him first."
"Billions in Chinese red cash," Nailer said. "It's worth that much?" (16.18-19)
As Nita explains why she's being chased, we see very little difference in the greed of Richard Lopez and Pyce's greed. Both men are willing to break written and unwritten laws to increase their profits, and neither man cares about the morality of their actions.
You want to be like Sloth? he asked himself. Do anything just to make a little more cash?
[…] Nailer couldn't help thinking the Fates had handed him the biggest Lucky Strike in the world and he'd thrown it away. (16.28-29)
When Nailer finds out how rich Nita actually is, he questions whether he should have turned her loss into his gain. He questions whether he's improved his possibilities or limited them because of his greed, though we know that he never would have forgiven himself if he had given Nita up for cash.