The Water Knife – Cuts Deep

There is not a whole lot of climate fiction out there yet, even though the niche seems to be growing more and more each year. But there has always been one author who has pervaded this small genre whenever people mentioned it: Paolo Bacigalupi. I had read one of his short stories a long while back, and it prompted me to pick up his famous book The Water Knife.  The book is a harbinger of doom outlining problems the southwestern states will encounter as its rivers dry up, and a compelling story that held my attention throughout.

The southwestern United States is a warzone, though not openly so. Texas has become uninhabitable while Phoenix, Las Vegas and California vie for the life giving waters of what’s left the Colorado River. Chinese companies are building arcologies, apartment buildings designed to house a very specific homeostasis, while maintaining a closed loop of water and food. Phoenix is on its last legs, and Angel Velasquez, a famed “water knife” has been dispatched by Las Vegas, to find an almost mythical amount of water. That’s if he can sniff it out before any number of other agents can, while trying to get past the city’s most hard-headed journalist, Lucy Monroe. But Lucy herself may be the only connection to this inconceivable amount of water, and she wants it for Phoenix. Can either of them find it and secure it before California gets its hungry hands on it?

The Water Knife has the bones of a noir thriller, without the more indulgent aspects the genre tends to lend itself to. Angel is a mercenary who is loyal to a fault. He knows he is cunning, and has the potential to be smart, but recognizes his place as the muscle and the bloodhound. His story plays out like a detective on the hunt, sussing out the various loyalties while searching for the treasure he’s been hired to find. Lucy has what folks might call an “overabundance of gumption,” and it makes her easily the most root forable of the characters. She has the principles, but also an attitude and resolve to fight for them, knowing it might get her killed. The third perspective, Maria, is a transplant from Texas, trying to make her way out of the brutal slums on the outskirts of Phoenix. Arizona, and the other border states did not take too kindly to the waves of people who could no longer call Texas their home. She too has resolve, but she is younger and a little more versed in the way the world tends to kneecap those who try to stand for something like “principles.”

The three characters revolve around each other in a dance that feels coordinated, but not overly convenient to the plot. Reveals between them are well paced, and Bacigalupi really nails the feeling of characters encountering strangers. There are so many moments where halfway through a conversation you realize you’re watching a character from the outside before you’re let in on the game Bacigalupi is playing. It’s something only a book can really capture, and the author plays it to great effect, heightening the mystery and pulling out the tension. These types of reveals made me hunch up and worry for protagonists as they started to deal with some particularly malicious folks. Even though it all starts to fall together, this hiding in plain site writing style keeps the mystery deep with multiple paths still open.

The writing in general is spot on. As I mentioned before, Bacigalupi avoids some of the more treacherous paths before him with the noir genre, but still dabbles in enough of the tropes to make it feel the part. Is there misogyny and violence against women? Sure, but it’s not over the top to satisfy the audience. Instead, it’s used to highlight the world in which the characters live. Water may be expensive, but life is cheap as hell, especially if you’re a Texan. It’s also balanced out by the strength of its female characters. They aren’t just femme fatales or spunky journalists on the side. They live and breathe in the world just as much as Angel, and know what they are up against in order to survive.

The world at Bacigalupi’s fingertips is a terrifying one. One that seems poised to start making its debut as the flow of water dries up in the southwest. The cut-throat ways in which Las Vegas uses both the law, and brute force to maintain its position in the desert feels all too real. Sure there are moments where it can feel a little over the top, but it’s not a far cry from what could start happening, especially if states are unwilling to start curbing use. The Water Knife goes to great lengths trying to paint a picture of a drying part of the country, citing historical research and skimming the surface of water law. It also seems to question its own lateness to the party, and that it may already be over. It’s a future where as long as open border warfare does not occur, the US federal government does not intervene. In fact, its only purpose seems to be to enforce the borders between states to shut down mass migrations to the north.

The Water Knife is compelling both narratively and thematically. The noir style narrative highlights the water problems of the region by turning them into clues. In order to understand the mystery, one has to understand the stakes, and Bacigalupi certainly knows how to put the stakes front and center. It’s a brutal and sad future, and it’s quite possibly unavoidable at this point. It’s a warning sure, but in the same way seeing a supernova with your naked eye is. So if you want a glimpse of the worst bits, buffered by an exciting narrative with enjoyable characters, I recommend The Water Knife.

Rating: The Water Knife 8.0/10

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