In 1986, Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” predicted the disappearance of water in the American West.
In March 2015 the UN World Water Development Report predicted a 40% shortfall of water globally by 2030, with the US badly affected.
In May 2015, Paolo Bacigalupi brought to life the consequences of this foreseen catastrophic change in his novel “The Water Knife”.
Set in Phoenix Arizona in the near future, after most of the water in the American West has disappeared and the rest is being fought over by California and Las Vegas, “The Water Knife” explores the brutal reality of a shift in power that means most people will have the lives they knew ripped away and those who see clearly and act ruthlessly will reshape the world to their benefit.
Those who loved Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” will not be surprised by the violent, brutal, desperation that permeates “The Water Knife” but, for me, “The Water Knife” cut deeper. “The Wind Up Girl” was set in the far future, in Bangkok, a city I’m unfamiliar with, so it gave me the luxury of distance. “The Water Knife” is set a few decades away, close enough that I might live to see it, and it happens in places that I’ve been to many times, so, to me, “The Water Knife” reads not as science fiction but as a chillingly plausible forecast of the near future. I finished reading this book as I arrived in Palo Alto, where even my taxi driver was talking about whether El Nino would bring enough rain to end California’s record drought. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the estimates I’ve seen would require the existing record for rain to be exceeded by twenty percent for that to happen.
“The Water Knife” is a gripping thriller, not a dry political commentary. The book hooked me because Paolo Bacigalupi is a “show, don’t tell” kind of writer. He doesn’t use the authorial voice to lecture or even to explain. He lets us experience the new reality of a water-starved Phoenix through the eyes of a broad cast of characters caught up in different ways in the consequences of a struggle over water rights that is edging its way towards civil war.
We see Lucy, an out-of-state, Pulitzer-winning journalist, covering Phoenix as if it were a war zone; pushing her way relentlessly through the victims of torture, murder and exploitation made up mostly of Texan refugees and people who have spoken too loudly about the misdeeds of the powerful, as she slowly realises that she cannot stand outside of what she is seeing, that she has “gone native” and must now live with the consequences.
We see Maria, a young Texan refugee who, despite being brave, intelligent, and resourceful cannot escape Pheonix and is constantly being beaten down and chewed up by the people around her.
We see calm, clever, ruthless Catherine Case, head of the South West Nevada Water Authority, who understood the new reality early:
“Some people had to bleed so other people could drink.”
She set about ensuring that Las Vegas would not die of thirst: creating the arcologies that, in the hands of another writer, might rescue the world but which Bacigalupi sees as being havens of luxury for the rich, and she recruits “Water Knives”, covert agents who use any means necessary to get more water rights for Nevada and protect its borders from the dust storm of thirst-driven refugees from Texas and Arizona.
Finally, we see Angel Velasquez, the Water Knife of the title, who Catherine Case sends to Pheonix to find out what is going wrong with her covert operations there and who ends up chasing game-changing water rights. Angel is a fascinating character, a fatalistic man, capable being ruthlessly violent to get the job done, but who is also capable of acts of kindness to strangers and loyalty to those he admires.
Bacigalupi brings these characters together in tense, hard-hitting thriller, that works independently of the broader political and ecological themes of the novel because he keeps the focus on how people under severe threat make their choices.
Maria, the youngest character, has truly terrible things happen to her, yet she persists in trying to make it through because she accepts that she has to see the world clearly and deal with it as it is. She is disdainful of the adults around her who are blinded by their desire for the world to return to the way it used to be.
Lucy, the journalist, is forced to confront first her own immersion in the events she set out to record and comment on and second her own vulnerability in the face of the right threats
Angel, the Water Knife, has long-since accepted the likelihood of his own violent death yet moves through the world, doing what needs to be done with neither animosity nor hesitation, striving to live to enjoy whatever he can.
Paulo Bacigalupi writes with wonderful clarity and an emotional impact that comes from truthfulness. The truth about the world he is describing in “The Water Knife” is almost unbearably brutal and cruel. No one escapes undamaged and the damage is described with a degree of detail that is nauseating at times. We see torture, murder, enforced prostitution, mutilation, and ritualised punishment up so close that it seemed the stink of it was on my skin and in my hair. There were points where I wondered if I could persist with this journey through gore, despair and betrayal. I kept waiting for redemption and it kept not arriving.
Then the penny dropped. What I was seeing wasn’t gratuitous, it was simply honest. Everything that was described is being done regularly somewhere in the world today. My repugnance and revulsion were a necessary part of understanding the grim realities of this place. My desire for redemption, my hope that the author would somehow raise his characters up above their situation, was an analogue of the adults in Maria’s world not being able to see reality clearly enough to make valid decisions.
“The Water Knife” is a grim, difficult, disturbing book because that is the nature of the world being described. There are no heroes, just people trying to do what they can with what they have in a world that doesn’t care about them or what they want.
I listened to the audiobook version of “The Water Knife” and I was deeply impressed by Almarie Guerra’s performance. She has an incredible range and hit each scene perfectly. She’s now on my list of must-listen-to narrators.
If you’d like to hear how she reads “The Water Knife”, click on the SoundCloud link below