Study Guide

Ship Breaker Violence

By Paolo Bacigalupi


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?"

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