Thinking Aloud: “The Water Knife”

July 31, 2015 by Darius 

California is currently in the midst of a three-year drought.  What if that drought stretched for decades and impacted the entire American Southwest?  That idea is the premise of Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent new science fiction novel The Water Knife.

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future.  Climate change has continued unabated from the present, and among its consequences are massive, frequent disruptions to weather and natural disasters.  Rising sea levels and hurricanes have devastated Florida other states in the east.  In the Southwest, rain no longer falls and the aquifers have been tapped dry.  An unknown tragedy of epic proportions has befallen Texas, turning that state’s population into refugees.  To the south, Mexico is no more, replaced by the narcotic gangs of the Cartel States.  North of the Mexican border, the federal government has proven unable to adequately respond to the myriad disasters and, effectively, makes each state independent.  State National Guards patrol the borders to keep out Texan refugees, and society is coming apart at the seams.  The wealthy have escaped into advanced high-rises known as arcologies, where water recycling and purification enable a lush, self-contained existence.  The arcologies are often built with Chinese money, and the yuan has supplanted the dollar as the currency of choice.

In the Southwest, the only remaining source of water, needed to sustain cities and farms, industry and agriculture, is the Colorado River and its tributaries.  Nevada, Arizona, and California fight over rights to the water.  The fight in the courts spills out into the real world: each state deploys “water knives,” operatives tasked with locating and exploiting sources of water and bribing, intimidating, or killing anyone who stands in their way.  Towns and cities simply disappear off the map when state authorities divert their water elsewhere.

Against this backdrop Bacigalupi spins the tales of several characters.  Angel Velasquez is a water knife working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, rescued from prison and sent into the field by Catherine Case, his tough-as-nails boss.  Lucy is an eastern journalist who came west to chronicle the death throes of Phoenix; she has basically gone native.  Maria is a Texan refugee simply struggling to stay alive.  When a rumor of a huge new water source circulates, the three storylines come together.

As in Bacigalupi’s similar book The Windup Girl, The Water Knife is full of gritty realism that lends the book strength and makes it more than a little bit scary.  His post-apocalyptic world is, unfortunately, eminently realistic, and his characters behave in ways that are, similarly unfortunately, entirely consistent with the best but more often the worst in human behavior.  The Water Knife would also make for a great movie or TV show. 🙂


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