Tag Archives: scifi books

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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My Top 20 Best Science Fiction Novels

Following my post last week about my top 5 science fiction novels, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on search engines. I too scour the web for good scifi lists, so I thought I’d add my top 20 science fiction novels to the mix. I weighed a little towards including some less-common mentions, so while I enjoyed both “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Hothouse”, two incredibly different books, nobody needs help in hearing about “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. So without further ado, my top 20 science fiction novels in no particular order.

Top Five (see last  week for longer descriptions of each)

The Rest

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein 1966)- The inhabitants of the moon attempt to revolt from the oppressive Earth with the help of a supercomputer named Mycroft. Mycroft is an awesome central character. The best of the grown-up Heinlein novels. 1967 Hugo Award winner.
  • The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester 1953)- How does one get away with murder when telepathy is common place? Fast moving and surprisingly modern, the winner of the first Hugo award.
  • The Absolute at Large (Karel Čapek 1922)- See a longer review I did here. The author hypothesizes that when the atom is split (a new concept at the time) that energy is released, as well as a pervasive religious fervor. As the atom-splitter spreads due to its phenomenal energy production, so too does the side effect of religiosity.
  • The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin 1971)- When one man dreams, his dreams can become reality. He fears this awesome power; when he enters therapy, his therapist begins to use his gift, imagining he will fix the world.
  • Mathematicians in Love (Rudy Rucker 2006)- Totally awesome and wacky. Mathematics grads students compete to find the equation of everything, and win the affections of a cute girl. And there are enormous sentient venomous conch shells, intergalactic mathematicians, and parallel universes.
  • Worlds (Joe Haldeman 1981)- A woman from a communist orbiting asteroid visits New York City on a scholarship. I love everything by Haldeman, but this is my favorite after “Forever War”. Very heartfelt and emotionally gripping. The rare female protagonist, and done phenomenally. This is the first of a trilogy, but I think it’s the best and stands alone just fine.
  • The Door into Summer (Robert Heinlein 1957)- My favorite of Heinlein’s “children’s” books, which are all very intelligent, but have less of some of Heinlein’s more alarming interests like incest. A man is duped by his business partner, who steals the company and puts him into cold sleep. He awakens after 30 years, and tries to figure out how to get his life back. One of the main characters is the protagonist’s cat, always a plus.
  • Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)- cyberpunk done properly with a sense of humor. A pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, and a 15-year-old girl start investigate the propagation of a mysterious internet drug, snow crash. The plot line of this one gripped me less than the excellent fun had with a future world.
  • Tau Zero (Poul Anderson 1970)- A crew on a near light speed ship is on a five-year journey to another planet. During the voyage, the deceleration mechanism is damaged. As they continue to go faster and faster, the time dilation grows and they travel farther. The best hard scifi book I’ve read.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge 1992)- The best and most intelligent space opera I’ve read. Different laws of physics exist in different parts of the galaxy. People create a malevolent higher intelligence near the rim of the galaxy and must flee into the galaxy where the laws of physics preclude such an entity. They get stuck on a planet of sentient creatures composed of several animals in constant communication with one another. They are called the Tines, and they are hands-down the best alien I’ve read in scifi. Also read anything by Vernor Vinge. 1993 Hugo Award winner.
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner 1968)- At first I found this book a bit confusing; the chapters jump around to relatively random people doing random things as part of the world building. But after 50 pages or so you get your bearings. The world is over-populated, and child-limits have been instituted. The plot is complex and rich. The style is grimly funny. Hard to describe, and requires some effort to read, but one of the greats. 1969 Hugo Award winner.
  • Hothouse (Brian W. Aldiss 1962)- Also called “The Long Afternoon of Earth”. In the distant future, the sun is bigger and hotter, and one side of the earth always faces the sun. Plant life, with so much energy available, has evolved in many ways, and all but overruns this half of the earth. There are plant birds, plant predators, and plant just about everything. A small group of humans tries to survive in this near-apocalypse Earth. Chock full of great imaginings. Aldiss doesn’t have the most sparkling characters, but he has engaging concepts, somewhat like Asimov. “Helliconia Spring” is another worthy read by Aldiss, but it is somewhat longer.
  • The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov 1954)- My favorite Asimov book, partially because it is self-contained and relatively succinct. People of an overcrowded Earth live under steel domes, and never go outside. The story is set around the investigation of a murder.
  • The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi 2009)- The 2010 Hugo Award winner. A biopunk story set in Bangkok. After the world has been devastated by engineered illnesses and crop-plagues, society is finally mostly recovered. Carbon emissions are strictly limited, so energy-efficient methods are desirable. The main character is an employee working at a start-up energy company as a front, but for one of the bio-engineering firms that creates genetically modified species actually. A rich world that incorporates biology well.
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson 1993)- A group of 100 brilliant hand-picked scientists is selected and sent to Mars to live there and begin terraforming it. These scientists are strong-minded, and don’t always agree how to go about things; political fractures form. The first book follows the political developments of the first 100 martians. “Red Mars” is followed by “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” which occur over the course of a couple of centuries. Mars itself is the main character of the whole trilogy, and is described in the best scientific detail available at the time. Sometimes a bit long-winded, but very realistic, and an interesting exploration of terraforming.

Happy reading!!