Study Guide

Ship Breaker Fate and Free Will

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Fate and Free Will

"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.

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