by Bethany Benkert, Ball State University
Our society is obsessed with luck. We fantasize about winning the lottery and wish each other good luck before important events. However, we are reluctant to give luck its due credit when it is at work in our own lives, at which point it should be called “privilege.” In his novel Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi explores both luck and privilege in a post-apocalyptic society. Environmental disaster has reduced the world to one of extreme disparity. There are the rich or “swank” that live in cities and control the economy. The swank can afford to hire genetically engineered mixes of tiger, dog and human, or “half-men” as guards. Such guards are the best combination of violence, loyalty, and intelligence that money can buy. On the other side of the coin are the poor. They work in dangerous conditions where one misstep could mean death. This post-apocalyptic society magnifies issues of inequality and privilege, with most everything coming down to luck. Many of the poor dream of a lucky break or pray to “the lucky eye” as a deity to protect them.
For while they are struggling to survive, they also aspire for their luck to change. In Ship Breaker the protagonist, Nailer, is one of the poor. He scavenges the remains of old wrecked ships off the coast of New Orleans. His life is plagued with hunger and with the fear of being kicked off his crew. However, everything changes when he comes across a newly wrecked ship with a swank girl aboard named Nita. Nailer learns that because of a rivalry in her father’s company, the girl is being hunted. He and Tool, a genetically engineered half-man, agree to take to her safety in New Orleans.
Throughout their journey, Nita learns a lot about her privilege compared to Nailer. Nita’s world view has been informed by how she grew up. She can’t imagine lacking the knowledge that she gained through school and calls city locals “savages,” missing their similarities to Nailer. She is privileged in her assumption of her company’s benevolence as she is unaware of her company’s ties to the exploitative beaches, like where Nailer works, and just blindly assumes that her company is moral.
Nailer’s beliefs, on the other hand, are also informed by his circumstances. He grew up with half-men being part of his life, grown and trained to work as protection. Only when he meets Tool, a half-man who does not serve anyone, does he realize that half-men may be serving without a choice.
This representation of privilege in the novel mirrors how privilege works in our society. People are informed by how they grow up, by the people who surround them, and by what they learn. Merriam-Webster defines privilege as “a right or liberty granted as a favor or benefit, especially to some and not others.” The problem comes when people do not realize that they have that advantage over others. In the novel, Nailer takes his freedom for granted, and Nita does not realize how much she gains by being rich.
This is an example of a concept called the “just-world.” Stephen Rice and David Trafimow explain this concept as the belief that others get what they deserve (231). Therefore, if something good happens to someone, or if they have “good luck,” people will assume that the individual is a good person. Similarly, if something bad happens to someone, or “bad luck,” people are more likely to assume that the individual is a bad person who somehow deserved whatever happened. Rice and Trafimow also discuss research about stigmatized groups that are “blamed” for their position because people believe that they must have deserved it somehow (231). Lee Quinby points to the example of the AIDs epidemic as a time where stigmatized, homosexual men were blamed for what happened to them. She also points out how the spread of AIDs was decreed by many to be an apocalyptic event (11-12). Whether believing that rewards are always proportionate to effort or blaming victims for what happens to them, people want to believe that the world is fair and that luck follows logical progressions.
Luck is a common theme in the novel. All those working with Nailer hope to catch a lucky break, and Nita is nicknamed “Lucky Girl” because she survives the shipwreck. The captain of the boat who ultimately rescues Nita laughs at the nickname and dismisses the scavengers’ belief in luck. He doesn’t realize his position of privilege, but Nailer attempts to explain:
“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. You got yourself a swank ship and a swank life.”
“I’ve worked very hard for what I have.”
“Still born swank” (Bacigalupi 252).
This excerpt really sums up the problem with privilege. As a whole, post-apocalyptic narratives are great for discussing issues such as inequality and privilege because, as James Berger puts it, “they put forward a total critique of any existing social order” (7). In Ship Breaker, the social orders of swank and poor, and slave and free, are critiqued through the lens of Nailer and Nita’s experiences. Berger also argues that trauma, such as that which results from economic inequality, “show(s) the inadequacy of a society’s stories about itself” (25). Society believes in a just-world, that people get what they deserve, but reality does not line up with this ideology.
Post-apocalyptic novels like Ship Breaker attempt to come to terms with the discord between people’s ideas about justice and the reality of privilege. In the novel, both Nailer and Nita learn to recognize their privilege, and Nita ultimately is able to help with Nailer’s situation of poverty. Through examining the critique present in the post-apocalyptic novel, we can work to do the same in today’s society. We can realize how lucky we are to have been born with whatever privileges we might have. We can recognize that people do not necessarily get what they deserve. As Nita learns through her ability to help Nailer, privilege is not something to be ashamed of, but something to be recognized and then used to provide help to others. By recognizing the give-and-take of luck and privilege, we can start to make the world a better place.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
Berger, James. After the End Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
“privilege.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2017. Web. 11 Dec. 2017.
Quinby, Lee. Millennial Seduction A Skeptic Confronts Apocalyptic Culture. Cornell University Press, 1999
Rice, Stephen and David Trafimow. “It’s a Just World No Matter Which Way You Look at It.” The Journal of General Psychology, vol. 138, no. 3, 2011, pp. 229–242, EBSCOhost, 21842625.