Book Review: The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi 2015)

Note: in this review, I avoid spoilers beyond the first few chapters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future American West. Water shortages have reached critical levels; states sabotage and fight one another for water rights. We have three main characters; Angel is a Las Vegas “water knife,” a shadowy figure that does the dirty ground work of securing water rights through any means necessary. Lucy is a high-minded journalist from the northeast that came west to cover the collapse of Phoenix and found herself unable to pull away. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas stuck in the wreckage of Phoenix who schemes to go north. Rumors send Angel to Phoenix, and we get a first row seat to the violence and desperation surrounding water in this dystopian future.

I finished reading The Water Knife over a week ago and I still can’t quite decide what I think of it. I felt the same way after I read Bacigalupi’s Wind-Up Girl, though I now find myself reflecting favorably on that book. Bacigalupi seems to have a knack for leaving some questions unanswered. This is probably a good thing, but it left me unresolved at the end. Both of his books leave you in consideration for a while. His writing style is easy and engaging; both books drew me in quickly with a good balance of action and character development.

My least favorite part of the book is the future dystopian southwest, although it is a critical element of the book. I usually dislike dystopias and find myself remembering an Ursula Le Guin quote from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. —Ursula Le Guin

Bacigalupi’s Water Knife is undeniably extrapolative. And that extrapolation is undeniably cancerous. In history, the path that unfolds always seems richer and more meandering, even when things worsen. I felt unconvinced by a corrupt future where states are nearly at war over water. The book makes numerous mentions of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 1993 nonfiction book about water shortages in the west. Perhaps reading that would provide some of the context I found lacking.

But as a New Mexican with a lawn and garden, and there’s no doubt Bacigalupi meant this work as a cautionary tale. Bacigalupi himself lives in western Colorado. It’s that intention that compensates for the gloomy dystopian aspect—it’s gloomy for a reason. In The Water Knife, Texas fundamentalists called “Merry Perrys” pray that water will simply return. In 20 years, readers may wonder why a Merry Perry, but today’s reader knows he means Rick Perry without any explanation. Until this year, I always lived in places with oppressive humidity and abundant water. The water landscape here is very different, but the attitudes toward water don’t seem much different. After I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary about the dust bowl, I was struck by how early settlers tended the land as they would have any last east or in Europe. The United States, with its European roots, is rooted in a culture that never considers water as a finite resource. In the west, even today, it must be considered as such, and you still see pushback to this rationing in protests against the Bureau of Land Management and in California’s current drought. The Water Knife is meant to be a cancerous extrapolation; it’s the doctor sitting down with the smoker and discussing the future.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, I would recommend The Water Knife to any sci-fi fan. Both books are thinking science fiction, enjoyable but challenging. In both books, the setting is a strong element in the plot. Much as I love distant future space operas, I also love science fiction set in concrete locations with real streets and climates. The commentary on problems in today’s world perhaps diminishes the escapism a bit, but cautionary science fiction is an old subset of the genre that deserves thoughtful revivals like this one.

 

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