Study Guide

Ship Breaker Man and the Natural World

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Man and the Natural World

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.

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