The Water Knife is first and foremost two things: it’s a warning, and it’s a thriller. Its science fiction elements only play a supporting role, but that’s not to be taken as an objection. I hadn’t read anything by Bacigalupi, and I’m surely reading more of him in the future – good thing The Windup Girl was a Christmas gift last year.
The book is set in the American Southwest, in a not so distant future – Britney Spears is still alive! – where climate change and the current Californian drought have worsened to apocalyptic proportions. The population has decimated and states fight over dwindling shares of the Colorado River. It focuses on three characters: Lucy Monroe, an East Coast Pulitzer winning journalist, Maria Villarosa, a poor Texan refugee and Angel Velazquez, a former gang member and current “water knife” – hired muscle doing all kinds of covert dirty work for Southern Nevada to ensure its water rights. The point of view changes between these characters, and sooner than later they run into each other.
The first half of the 369-page novel is mainly used to set mood. The part of the USA it’s set in has devolved to a violent dust world. Not Mad Max, but still. The USA is in political tatters, climate refugees from other states are lynched, psychotic drug lords rule over their territory and the law as we know it is hardly enforced anymore. Water obviously is scarce and valuable, with almost Dune-like consequences, and Chinese companies build high-tech closed ecosystem resorts with excellent climate control, for the wealthy only, of course.
So, this book is a warning. A warning about human hubris: the hubris of building cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix in a desert, and the hubris of doing too little, too late about pollution and climate change: a warning about the human hubris at the dawn of the Anthropocene. On top of that, it is also a warning about growing inequality and the emerging new Gilded Age.
On the back Kim Stanley Robinson is quoted: “A deeply insightful vision of the coming century, laid out in all its pain and glory.” That might be true, and the picture it paints is not a pretty one. There’s lots of pain in The Water Knife: lots of people with no hope left, two gruesome torture scenes, helicopters spitting Hellfire missiles, and girls being fed to hyenas – food for the “collapse porn” the book often mentions. The glory isn’t found as easily. It’s hidden in the technical prowess of the resorts mentioned, the Tesla cars that are the new norm, the rivers covered to fight evaporation. As I said, these technical elements only play a supporting role, and sadly isn’t glorious for everybody: a person’s cashflow determines his or her access to clean air and running water.
I’m not so sure about that “deeply insightful” though… not because I necessarily disagree with it, but because I don’t want to believe such a bleak, desolate, grim future vision. I strikes me as odd that Robinson said this, as he tends to be more optimistic in his interviews. But then again, KSR’s optimism is an optimism with the long run in mind. The coming century might very well become a hell for certain parts of the Western world – today it’s hell already in lots of other places and empires don’t last, so I guess the pendulum of history will have its due.
Only after about the halfway mark the story fully starts taking shape. In that respect The Water Knife made me think of William Gibson: mood first, story second. The story is a pretty hard-boiled thriller, with a corporate conspiracy angle, a love story, and even a few subdued horrorish parts. It starts with the murder of someone who tried to sell newly discovered and mysterious rights to old water sources, and both the journalist and the water knife investigating. The characters spring to life easily, but maybe Angel is a bit too much of the typical semi-invincible hard guy hero. It’s not that he’s flat (not at all even), but he’s just so good in what he does. Then again, a lot of action packed books are about guys that have all the luck in the world: if the hero dies, the story is over. And this book is action packed for sure. Not that it’s of the overblown testosterone blockbuster type: it’s all pretty realistic and believable, and it’s thrilling. The mystery part of the thriller isn’t unimportant, but – again as in Gibson’s Virtual Light – it ultimately boils down to the hunt for some artifact. It’s not a puzzle for the reader to solve: Bacigalupi simply takes the reader along for a wild ride, and in the end all is clear, with the story’s threads finished neatly.
Aside from a warning and a thriller, this book is about the reality of life, disillusion and the escape from the powerful illusion of free will too – quite explicitly and repeatedly.
He’d seen the same eyes in other people. Some cops. Some hookers. Doctors and EMTs. Narcos. Soldiers. Even the sicario who had scared him to death when he’d just been a little kid. It was the same look every time. A tribe of people who had seen too much and had given up on pretending that the world was anything other than a wreck.
“Those people are vicious”. He frowned, then shook his head. “No. Just frightened.” “They scalp people,” Lucy pointed out. Angel shrugged. “They get out of hand sometimes. It’s not their fault. (…) You give some people something to do, and that’s what they are. People. (…) It’s the job that pulls people’s strings, not the other way around. Put them on the border, tell them to keep the refugees out, they turn into a border patrol. Put them on the other side – they beg for mercy and get themselves scalped and take it in the ass just like the Merry Perrys. None of them choose their jobs. They just end up in them. Some people got born in Nevada, so they play Desert Dogs; other people, they’re born in Texas, they learn to crawl on their bellies and beg. (…)”
I should go. I should run. And yet she remained frozen, unable to resist the journalist urge to find out where this story led. What do you want? What are you about? She’d been hooked ever since Jamie had told her about his scheme. However much she might lie to herself that she could still walk – or even run – away, she had to know.
Bacigalupi understands that even if we at times do have a choice, that ultimately boils down to luck as well, not merit. Having choices doesn’t equal freedom, and the basis for our current moral system is shaky at best.
You didn’t judge people for caving under pressure; you judged them for those few times when they were lucky enough to have any choice at all.
The Water Knife‘s language is top-notch. Smooth, contemporary, clear. Poetic at times. A joy to read.
They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans – vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming. The desert was different. It had always been a gaunt and feral thing. Always hunting for its next sip. The desert never forgot itself.
Bacigalupi manages to evoke the desperation – and other emotions – of the characters pretty well. That’s no small feat: writing emotions is hard. This book gripped me. Seen in this light, the stress on mood does pay off.
Despite the slow start of the story – a bit too much description and setting up at first – and despite that luck of a Latino John McClane tough guy as one of the main characters, I can’t but recommend The Water Knife.