Cover of book: The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi
The Water Knife

What will the West look like when it runs out of water? We’re probably on a good track to find out; for now, there’s The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose earlier work of grimy and speculative fiction, The Windup Girl, won the Hugo and the Nebula. 

Fifty years in the future, the United States is anything but. Under the shady State Independence and Sovereignty Act, local governments do everything possible to secure their water, short of starting a civil war. Texas and Vegas squabble viciously over the slightest drops, while both are quashed by the might of California. 

The McGuffin is an ancient deed that confers on the bearer “senior water rights”: ownership of the Colorado River, to divert as they see fit. The story moves between Phoenix’s resplendent Taiyang arcology – an advanced “biotectural” biome where people wear dust masks from Ralph Lauren – and the “disaster barrio” that swarms around it, where the same masks are from Walmart.

Vying for the deed are Angel, a ruthless Vegas enforcer; Lucy, a reporter with smarts and a death wish; and Maria, a young vendor who gets sucked into the whirlpool when she tries to rise above her station. Focusing on these street-level types keeps the plot neat, and lets the author explore the dehumanising effects of resource scarcity. As Lucy notes, “fear could drive almost anyone to be less than they were. To tear apart your neighbours, to string them up on fences.” 

In her job, reporting on the cultural implosion of Phoenix, Lucy often risks being called out for authoring “collapse porn”, as if Bacigalupi were anticipating his own critics. (Here, the “stringing up on fences” part is literal.) But in a crowded market of collapse porn, The Water Knife stands out for the richness of its characters, the delight of its world-building, the breakneck plot and the believable ontology. 

George Saunders, another fabulist, has called capitalism a “grace-eroding machine”, which “affect[s] your ability to rise to the occasion”. In a scenario where the machine has all but completed its program, the survivors find new ways of viewing things. Lucy decides, late in the book, not to run away from Phoenix: “If the whole world was burning, why not face it with a beer in your hand, unafraid?” In the spirit of this novel, which is both grim and oddly spirited, she downs the beer and switches to tequila.  CR

Hachette, 384pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2015 as "Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife".

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Reviewer: CR

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