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Literature / Ship Breaker

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Ship Breaker is a Science Fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. Set after the polar icecaps have melted, it tells a story of a world where oil is rarer than gold, scavenging is a way of life, and a few rich people (or "swanks") have all the power.

Nailer, our protagonist, is a light crew member, who makes his living scavenging ships and oil rigs, supporting his drug-addicted father, and dreaming of his "Lucky Strike". When he and his friend Pima find a shipwrecked clipper that no one else knows about, they think they've struck it rich. The situation is complicated though, by the presence of Nita, a swank girl who was the only survivor of the wreck. Nailer hopes to ransom the girl, but before he can put his plan in motion, his father, Richard Lopez, arrives with a crew of thugs who plan to take the ship—and Nita—for themselves. Nailer and Nita are forced to make a run for it, with Richard, and diverse others, in hot pursuit.

See also The Drowned Cities, which takes place in the same world.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Abusive Dad: Nailer's father, Richard, who regularly beats him and threatens to kill him.
  • Action Mom: Sadna, Pima's mother, who stands up to Richard, and takes on the machete-armed Blue Eyes using only her hands.
  • After the End: The global warming version, with melting icecaps, sunken coastal cities, Post-Peak Oil and a Divided States of America.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Richard, who seems to revert to who he once was before rattling out his final breath.
  • The Alcoholic: Richard is this, among other things.
  • Ambiguously Brown: A good portion of the cast.
  • Animal Motifs: Richard's is a dragon. Not only does he have dragon tattoos coiling up his arms, but Tool flat out compares him to a Komodo Dragon later in the story.
  • Archnemesis Dad: Richard Lopez is a drug-addicted ex-pit fighter, who uses and abuses his son at every turn, long before he takes over as the main antagonist. He displays no empathy for anyone, and while Nailer repeatedly states that he used to be a better person, we're never really shown any hints of it; in the end, Nailer is forced to kill him.
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  • Ax-Crazy: Richard and the even more insane Blue Eyes.
  • Badass in Charge: Richard is the undisputed leader of his crew and undoubtably the most powerful.
  • Bald of Evil: Moby, a member of Richard's crew.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Nita ordered her ship's captain to sail into a city-killer hurricane rather than be captured by the Pole Star.
  • Boarding Party: In climax, Nailer and the crew of the Dauntless board the Pole-Star to rescue Nita.
  • The Brute: Subverted by Tool, who is set up to be this first to Lucky Strike, and then to Richard, but turns out to be The Unfettered, abandoning them to help Nailer before going on his own way.
  • The Captain/The Good Captain: Captain Candless, who is both a badass and a Reasonable Authority Figure. According to he and Nita, his predecessor, Kim Sung was the same.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Teeth, later used to sink the Pole Star. And a crewman on the Dauntless shows Nailer how the hydraulics can trap a man if you push the wrong button; he later uses this knowledge to trap his father.
  • China Takes Over the World: China (along with Seascape Boston) is the most powerful and influential nation in the setting.
  • Combat Sadomasochist: Richard demonstrates some aspects of this, with his bloodlust and love of battlescars.
  • Convection Schmonvection: Early in the story Nailer ends up taking a dive in a room/tank that has been full of ship fuel for decades, where he spends several minutes talking to another character and musing about what to do to save himself. Instead of, y'know, suffocating due to fuel vapors and lack of oxygen.
  • Conveniently Placed Sharp Thing: Nailer loses his knife during his fight with his dad. He later bumps into Nita who's freed herself from her bonds. "Thanks for the knife."
  • Cool Ship: The Dauntless, a sail-powered hydrofoil. The Pole Star is an evil example, having been designed to battle Inuit and Siberian pirates.
  • Corporate Warfare: Downplayed as it's more along the lines of a corporate power struggle. Nevertheless by the end of the novel the two factions have engaged in open combat on the sea.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Nita's Uncle Pyce.
  • The Cynic: Nailer, Pima, and most other ship breakers.
  • Damsel in Distress: Nita for most of the book. She pulls her weight outside of the action sequences, though.
  • Dark Action Girl: The homicidal Blue Eyes, who's able to take on Nailer and Sadna at once.
  • Dark Chick: Blue Eyes is this to Richard's crew, being the only female member, the only one to also be a part of the Life cult, and an utter loon, even when compared to Richard.
  • Determinator: Captain Candless, who takes a bullet in the shoulder, but still sails the Dauntless home after the battle. His Number Two insists that the only reason he's still alive is because he isn't smart enough to know he's dead.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Nailer's final confrontation with his father.
  • The Dreaded: Most of Richard's crew, including, Blue Eyes, Steel Liu, Tool, and of course, Richard himself. Pretty much everyone from the beaches is terrified of him, Tool himself admits the man is a perfect killer, and in the end, the only way Nailer can defeat him is to trap him in the Pole Star's gears. His abilities stem from his days as a pit fighter, when he had a reputation for fighting multiple opponents at once.
  • Drugs Are Bad: There are a lot of addicts in-series, due to the miserable conditions that people live in. Richard is the worst of them, being almost constantly high on crystal slide (aka bleeder aka red ripper), an amphetamine blend intended for use by combat squads, that heightens reflexes and senses at a cost to mental faculties. One of his henchmen, Moby, is an even more frequent abuser, and is nearly skeletal as a result.
  • Dying as Yourself: Richard whom Nailer believes reverted to who he used to be as he died.
  • Evil Mentor: Richard taught Nailer how to swim and how to fight, both skill sets of which come in very useful during the novel. That doesn't make Richard's teaching of it altruistic, and Nailer (who is fully aware of how bad his dad is) knows it.
  • Evil Uncle: Nita's Uncle Pyce, who wants to use her as a bargaining chip against her father.
  • Eye Scream: Narrowly averted. Blue Eyes is plotting to cut out one of Nailer's when Sadna intervenes. Richard frequently talks about his plans to cut out Nita's eyes and sell them to the Harvesters and the Life Cult.
    • Tool loses an eye in a fight with other halfmen.
  • The Fettered: Most halfmen, courtesy of their canine instincts.
  • Fingore: Richard breaks two of Pima's fingers when she draws blood on him, and sets them so they'll heal crooked. He also rips Nita's rings off of her bloodied swollen fingers.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Nailer and Nita, who shift from captor and captive to this by partway through the book.
  • Freudian Excuse: Life with Richard, coupled with the brutality of ship breaking leaves Nailer with a pretty ruthless streak. Richard himself has one in the form of the death of his wife and inability to work light or heavy crew.
  • Functional Addict: Richard is this in the sense that he can still be an effective criminal and antagonist. That's about as functional as he gets though.
  • Ghost City: The flooded wreckage of New Orleans I and II.
  • Gladiator Games: Pit/ring fighting, in which Richard Lopez was a champion.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Most crew are scarred in one way or another. Sloth has Evil Scars through her crew tattoos, showing her for an oath-breaker, Richard has thirteen Eviler Scars on his chest from his ring fights, and Blue Eyes has a very Evil Scar down her side, where she cut out an organ and sacrificed it to the Life Cult.
  • Ground by Gears: Richard is pulled halfway into the gears of the ship's hydraulics system losing both legs and an arm — he's so high he can barely understand the horror of what's happened to him.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The halfmen, who are created by injecting a cocktail of canine, tiger and hyena DNA into an egg prior to fertilization.
  • Heel Realization: Nailer has this revelation not about himself, but about his father. After an entire book of making excuses for the man, Nailer is finally forced to confront the fact that Richard is bone-deep evil and is never going to change.
  • Hidden Depths: Nita (more resourceful and stubborn than one would expect from a Rich Bitch Damsel in Distress) and Tool (far smarter and more independent than a Dumb Muscle Half-Human Hybrid has a right to be).
  • Hired Guns: Richard Lopez, Blue Eyes, Steel Liu, Moby, and the others who work for Lucky Strike as hired muscle whenever the occasion requires it.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Nita's father, who refuses to break international laws regarding oil shipments, believing firmly that there are enough drowned cities out there. Nita gives every indication of following in his footsteps.
  • In the Back: Captain Candless shooting his 'handler'.
  • I Owe You My Life: Indirectly. Richard is persuaded to spare Pima's life when Nailer points out that her mom, Sanda, helped save him during a city-killer hurricane.
  • In-Series Nickname: Nita, whom Nailer and Pima dub "Lucky Girl". Nailer himself is referred to as "Lucky Boy" by his father after surviving being drowned in oil.
  • Knife Fight: One involving Nailer & Sadna vs. Blue Eyes, and later Nailer vs. Richard.
  • Knife Nut: Many, with Richard being the craziest.
  • Lack of Empathy: There's not a lot of it to around, given the setting, but Richard, Blue Eyes, Steel Liu, and the rest of the villains display shockingly little by even those standards.
  • Lean and Mean: Almost all the crew are skinny, but Richard adds an addict's decaying physique and a naturally whippy build to the mix. Blue Eyes is also described as being very stringy, and is perhaps the only character whose evil exceeds Richard's. Moby, another member of Richard's crew, is a near skeleton, due to the amount of time he spends on crystal slide.
  • Machete Mayhem: The most common weapon in story after the knife. Blue Eyes uses one against Nailer and Sadna, and Richard has one during his Knife Fight with Nailer.
  • The Magic Poker Equation: When Nailer escapes death from drowning in oil, earning the nickname Lucky Boy, people send him gifts because they want to get close to the Fates, who are prayed to like gods. Everyone is looking for the Lucky Strike which will earn them enough money to buy out of indentured servitude.
  • Meaningful Name: Richard dubbed his son "Nailer" due to his toughness.
  • Missing Mom: Nailer's mom, who died of an infection.
  • Mood-Swinger: Richard, who can switch from genuinely cheerful to menacing to enraged at the drop of a hat. The drugs do not help in this regard.
  • Morality Chain: Nailer believes his mother was this to his father, saying that while Richard was never a nice guy, he's been getting steadily worse ever since she passed.
  • Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters: Lucky Strike has this kind of vibe to him. It's averted by most of his henchmen though, especially Blue Eyes and Richard.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Tool has some aspects of this.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Nailer is moved by compassion and saves his abusive dad during the city-killer hurricane. This one merciful action causes most of the trouble he and Nita go through in the rest of the story. The moral: if people are bad to you you should let them die if the occasion presents itself, or you'll be sorry. Wait, what?
    • On the other hand, helping Nita instead of cutting her throat and stealing the gold off her fingers turns out to be the smart move, so maybe the aesop is you should be careful who you save.
  • Non-Idle Rich: It's made clear to Nailer that even the better life offered by Nita involves a lot of hard work and risk to ensure you stay on top.
  • Number Two: Lieutenant Reynolds to Captain Candless.
  • Odd Couple: Nailer and Nita.
  • Offing the Offspring: Richard repeatedly threatens Nailer with this, and actually tries it during the climax.
  • The One Who Made It Out: Nailer would love to be that guy, and by the end has been given a chance.
  • Path of Inspiration/Religion of Evil: The Life Cult is clearly one or the other, though which is never made clear.
  • Patricide: Committed by Nailer, not that we can blame him.
  • Pet the Dog: Richard does this once at the end of his first scene, when he tells Nailer he's done a good job, and after the storm, when (sober for once) he hugs his son in relief.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: When Nita mentions how Pyce was selling oil with high carbon levels, Nailer scoffs at her father's stupidity for trying to stop him instead of demanding a cut of the profits.
  • The Political Officer: Captain Candless describes his First Mate as his "handler" (courtesy of Pyce). The man in question is quickly replaced by Reynolds.
  • Post-Peak Oil: Oil still exists and is used for fuel; it's just incredibly rare and valuable. At the start of the novel, Nailer is left to die by Sloth when he falls into a pool of oil in the ship they're breaking up, because Sloth wants to sell off the oil herself as her ticket out of there.
  • Psycho for Hire: Richard and his crew (Blue Eyes, Steel Liu, Moby) are all examples. With the possible exception of Tool they all enjoy violence and drugs far more than they care about getting paid, and in the case of Richard and Blue Eyes have a deep-seated need to hurt people.
  • Ruthless Modern Pirates: Heavily implied about the Inuit and Siberian pirates roaming the pole.
  • Sanity Slippage: Nailer's father, Richard, has been spiraling down for a long while now. "The man had become more unpredictable as he worked less on the crews and worked more in the shadow world of the beaches, as his drugs whittled him down to a burning core of violence and hungers."
  • Scavenger World: Old pre-catastrophe tankers and big ships are taken apart bit by bit by the ship breakers with meticulous determination. The poor people make essentially everything with junk left over from shipbreaking and whatever bits and pieces are found around.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Nailer after he kills Richard.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Tool doesn't hesitate to walk away when he finds that Candless is prepared to take on the Pole Star to get Nita back. Later several of the Dauntless crew do the same when they realise the Pole Star is pursuing them.
  • A Shared Suffering: Nailer is left to drown in a pool of oil by Sloth despite his pleas; were it not for this, he admits he would have let Nita die in the wreckage of her ship.
  • Ship Tease: Between Nailer and Nita.
  • Standard Hero Reward: At the end of the novel Prima tells Nailer he's got no chance with Nita. Nailer agrees but hey, he's been lucky so far...
  • Sunken City: The Teeth, the forgotten buildings that eventually sink the Pole Star.
  • The Sociopath: Richard: he's a drug-addicted liar who displays a clear Lack of Empathy and believes It's All About Me. One could also make the case for Blue Eyes.
  • Tattooed Crook: Richard, who sports a very lengthy dragon tattoo across his upper arms.
  • Tempting Fate: Nailer is thinking that they've successfully taken the Pole Star when its halfmen erupt from a hatch and gun down Candless.
  • Thicker Than Water: Deconstructed — Nailer concludes that True Companions are your family, not blood relations.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Both Nita and Nailer over the course of the novel.
  • Train Escape: Done by Nailer, Nita and Tool to reach New Orleans, which is quite dangerous when it's a high speed train you're jumping onto.
  • True Companions: The question of loyalty (who you owe it to, and to what lengths you should go for them) is an ongoing theme of the novel. Nailer's include Pima, Sadna, and by the end, Nita.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Nailer warns Captain Candless not to do this to Richard. "He may look like me, all skinny and cut up, but he's deadly."
  • Undying Loyalty:
    • Captain Candless and the crew of the Dauntless towards Nita.
    • All halfmen are supposed to be this, frequently committing suicide after their master's deaths; Tool averts it by being The Unfettered.
  • The Unfought: Nita's Uncle Pyce, who never even puts in an appearance.
  • Uptown Girl: There are some elements of this in Nailer and Nita's friendship. They share one kiss, have a fair amount of Ship Tease, and both Captain Candless and Pima accuse Nailer of being interested. Since she's the daughter of one of the richest people on the planet, and Nailer's a light crew ship breaker with no prospects beyond dying young, this trope is in full effect.
  • Villain Team-Up: Richard makes contact with Pyce at some point in the series and is thus aboard the Pole Star during the final confrontation.
  • Walking Transplant: The life Cult and Harvesters collect body parts from people for money. When Sloth is kicked off the light crew, it's said that one of her options for survival is selling her body parts to them.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Nailer has some aspects of this, as demonstrated by his joy when his father gives him his approval. His relationship with Richard is equal parts a desire for his love and a fear of his wrath.
  • A World Half Full: Maybe. If Nita keeps her promise to Nailer the Wretched Hive he lives in just might change for the better.
  • Wretched Hive: Nailer's home, where the only thing approaching authority is provided by Lucky Strike.


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