Study Guide

Ship Breaker Society and Class

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Society and Class

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.

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