Tag Archives: jared diamond

Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife” revisited: Considering “Cadillac Desert” and “Collapse”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s a semi-apocalyptic view of water shortages in the not-too-distant future American west. Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t buy into the central crisis of the book—a water crisis severe enough to send states practically to war with one another. Then again, I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, New York, and Virginia; I knew nothing about water scarcity. After The Water Knife piqued my interest, I read two nonfiction books about societal collapse and the history of water rights: Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Water Knife is clearly a call to action. It begs the reader to read Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here). The 1986 Cadillac Desert (with a 1993 addendum) details water-related shenanigans too absurd for science fiction. It details the construction of the LA aqueduct using mules; it reveals the snail darter controversy as a boondoggle of an evil bureaucracy; it details the pissing contest between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you know that our largest desalination plant is far from any coast? The Yuma Desalination Plant on the Colorado River ensures that the water we send on to Mexico satisfies international treaty. Thousands of miles of irrigation makes the water almost toxically saline by the time it reaches the border. It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking farce detailed in Cadillac Desert—is it the river sent over a 2,000 foot mountain to reach southern California? Is it the Teton Dam, which collapsed immediately and eliminated several towns because the engineers chose not to worry about the caves in the rock next to the dam?

I read The Water Knife wondering all the while how plausible its central conflict was. The Water Knife provides none of the lurid water history that Cadillac Desert did, just a strong message to go read that book. Usually I resist exposition in fiction, but The Water Knife ended up feeling ungrounded to me without more education. Its insistent references to Cadillac Desert were an appeal to an authority I lacked any knowledge of. Most of the United States population lives in wet parts of the country without knowledge of water rationing. After reading Cadillac Desert, the lack of detail felt even more disappointing. Many of the tales of that book, especially of the CAP (Central Arizona Project), would have provided easy fodder. Books about Mars colonies explain how colonists find oxygen with some scientific exposition; The Water Knife should have included a little exposition to orient us naive easterners.

Cadillac Desert expounds upon the ecological damage, financial waste, and altogether pointlessness of many western water projects, but it doesn’t speak much of pending disaster. It showed me how absurd and illogical the western water structure is, a point that The Water Knife relies upon. The book I read next contained a vivid reminder of the fragility of the American west. That fragility has ruined lives and cities before.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse details why a variety of civilizations collapsed, including the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Diamond explains how deforestation in the fragile desert ecosystem combined with a drought eventually led to widespread collapse of the civilization. I visited Chaco Canyon three months ago. It’s a strange place—a dozen massive ruins in a remote desert canyon. One can’t help but wonder how or why anyone lived there. Again and again, Diamond details how civilizations over exploit their natural resources, face adversity, and often collapse in the face of that adversity.

I don’t know if I believe that the southwest will collapse into a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the nearish future. As a new transplant to the west, The Water Knife strikes a frightening tone. But like the book about colonists on Mars, it need not be literally possible or true, it tells a fun story and kindles the imagination about the future of the American west. I enjoyed The Water Knife. But I was better able to feel its message after  supplemental nonfiction reading. I think The Water Knife would have affected me more if it supplied more of that information within the book. And to any other reader of The Water Knife patient enough to add another 1000 pages of reading to their list, Cadillac Desert and Collapse are excellent supplementals to The Water Knife.



Guns, Germs and Steel: An Excellent Science Fiction Resource

For the last few weeks, I have been reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I would recommend it; there are over 1600 reviews on amazon that can tell you as much. Significantly for me, I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be an excellent science fiction resource.

I am often skeptical of social sciences. Unlike math or physics, the simplest, most beautiful solution is often not the correct one in sciences describing human behavior. Guns, Germs, and Steel does an excellent job arguing a difficult central thesis. It does this by approaching the question from a bevy of angles, and asks what we would expect to be true in alternate scenarios. I am not an expert in this field, so I wouldn’t know if the book is overlooking any key angles, but I found the arguments convincing and honestly laid-out.

“Guns, Germs, and Steel” is the author’s shorthand for why Eurasian societies ended up defeating Australian and American societies. The majority of the book discusses prehistory such as the acquisition of crops, domestic animals, societal structure, the means by which Eurasian societies obtained guns, germs and steel so disproportionately to other societies.

This book is a must read for any science fiction author. Especially during the first half, I was mesmerized at the possibilities posed by this book.

Take one simple argument: Eurasian societies had a built-in advantage over American societies because Eurasia is oriented in an east-west direction, while the Americas are north-south. Crops domesticated in one part of Eurasia, such as the Fertile Crescent, could easily spread to other areas with similar climates, such as Italy. In the Americas, corn domesticated in central America took millennia to reach north America, because the central American corn was not ideal for northern climates. Only when a hardier corn came about did the corn spread north.

In another example, the author suggests that most plants are not suited to domestication; by chance, some of the plants most suited to domestication were in the Fertile Crescent. Regions with less suitable plants took longer to convert to farming, which delayed other advances. Present-day hunter-gatherers are experts on the properties of local plants, so along with other evidence, we can infer the lack of plant domestication in some areas was due to the lack of suitable candidates. Even in modern times, the only Australian plant domesticated is the macadamia nut, suggesting that the lack of crop-ready plants kept aboriginals as hunter-gatherers, rather than any biological differences amongst peoples.

So why does this suggest sci-fi? Much of the book is concerned with how environment shapes peoples. How would a society marooned far from Earth either thrive or degenerate back to more primitive ways? Much of it would have to do with the available resources, which would be shaped by the planet. In an alien society, which sub-group would tend to have which advances? If the land-bridge to the Americas was at a lower latitude, how would history have proceeded? If American societies had large domesticated animals, would they have resisted western invasion more, with diseases and beasts of war of their own? If the Cape of Good Hope had had suitable crops for domestication and thus supported a more advanced society, would the Dutch have gained a base of operations with which to fight the Xhosa?

Many possibilities suggest themselves for alternate histories, alien histories, or arcs of human colonization. The best books are ones that inspire and stimulate the imagination– this one did for me, and thus I strongly recommend it.