Review of The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
For people who like their thrillers with a heavy dose of depth.
Seriously, The Water Knife is a thriller for “the thinking person.” If you’ve read many of my reviews, you might have noticed that I rail against thrillers on a semi-regular basis. I like to say I’m a semi-reformed literature snob—that is, I don’t like partitioning books into genres, but sometimes they are convenient labels for discussion and critique. Now, I’ve read some good thrillers in my time. But The Water Knife is definitely one of the best I’ve read.
It’s the near future, and water shortages have devastated the American Southwest. Think Mad Max: Fury Road without the Max. Or the fury. But plenty of mad roads. Like, mad people … on dusty … never mind; I haven’t even seen that movie, so I’m not sure I’m really getting the comparison right. Next paragraph!
Paolo Bacigalupi’s other near-future eco-thriller The Windup Girl is notable for how he deals with the dominance of corporations that produce GMOs, and the way we are failing to manage the planet’s biosphere. For The Water Knife, Bacigalupi narrows the scope a little bit. This is less a global problem (although global warming is obviously behind it) and more a regional one. Mismanagement of the aquifers west of the Mississipi mean that entire states and millions of people are living in desert, third-world conditions. We get the sense that the eastern United States is, much like our glimpse of Vancouver, B.C., not as badly affected. This is a localized issue that has nevertheless torn the United States apart.
I want to emphasize that last part, and at the same time I want to highlight that this is not a post-apocalyptic book. No huge disaster wiped out those good ol’ United States. This is the prelude to the apocalypse, the long, slow rearranging of the deck chairs while everyone blames everyone else, tries to steal everyone else’s water, and generally continues to ignore the problem. Florida would be doing the same thing, except I imagine Florida is largely underwater in this book, as it will be in reality in decades.
It’s tempting for those of us who have led sheltered lives to believe that no matter how bad it gets elsewhere in the world, we are somehow safe. That these walls and the social niceties cushioning us can’t come crashing down. I’m not saying they necessarily will. But part of the reason The Water Knife works so well is because it feels true. It’s not what will happen, but it’s what could happen. Because it’s very similar to how our world is now: the rich use their money to insulate themselves from upheaval while the middle class become poor and the poor get dead.
In the midst of this, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like any of the main characters. Angel is technically a “bad guy” in the sense that he is a mercenary (albeit one who is “going soft” in his own words). Lucy seemed like a generic journalist at first. And while Maria’s story is heart-wrenching, I was so saddened by the string of bad fortune she experiences that I almost couldn’t keep reading. I thought to myself, “Bacigalupi is not going to let her off the hook here; this is not going to end well for her.”
This is a bleak book. My friend Rob over at Random Comments examines this from several angles. In particular, I agree that the ending—which is actually a “happy ending” from the perspective of at least some of our characters—betrays a deeper cynicism than it might otherwise appear to have. In particular, Bacigalupi seems to be saying that realism and self-interest is the only route towards survival in this wasteland. In that desert show-off, Angel is poised to be an angel—but he can only act as such after one of the characters gives him the opportunity by shooting another.
Bacigalupi also channels William Gibson in the way he weaves this possible near-future. He’s got the lingo down: “water knife” and “cutting” to talk about rerouting or otherwise obtaining water from another reservoir; “wet” and “Zoner” as pejorative terms. These are great from a narrative standpoint, because they make the world feel more authentic. But, like Gibson, Bacigalupi has the ability to make this world fit like a strange glove you never knew you owned. Catherine Case (who, in another life, might have become a Marvel superhero) is much like businesspeople who exist today. Gibson’s work is so powerful because he draws upon threads that already exist, plucks them from the quotidian, and rotates and remixes them until they become noticeable, troubling, and bizarre in how real they nevertheless feel.
Because even though cyberspace cowboys or water knives might never actually exist, the people who inhabit these roles already do. As we change our planet and our societies shift, crumble, and reform in response, we don’t see the emergence of new types of people, just new structures for them to inhabit. With Angel, Lucy, and Maria, Bacigalupi demonstrates how these structures oppress even those who appear to have some kind of power. At one point, Angel tells Lucy he believes people are basically the same, and that circumstances dictate who they become: grow up with a silver spoon and you’re a doctor; grow up in the hood, and you join a gang. Bacigalupi parallels this with Damien in Maria’s story, and how he seems to have more of a conscience than those higher up in the gang’s ranks—but that’s not enough to give him courage.
This self-reinforcing style of writing is powerful, and it’s why The Water Knife is a damn good thriller. You want action and shoot-em-up? It’s in here too. There’s politicking and conniving. Terrible situations where men and women are forced to compromise their ethics for the sake of survival. People driven the breaking point—and beyond. And man, it is depressing. But it’s also so very good.