The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

water knife

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC.

This one was more disturbing than I initially thought it would be. I read Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker duo and since that was fairly speculative I thought this one would follow suit. It was shockingly realistic though. From what I know of the Colorado River, it, and the states it supplies, are going to be in trouble in the near future. That, combined with the lack of futuristic technology in the book, make it seem very close to reality. This book is ultimately about water, and a future in which it has become dangerously scarce.

Set in the near future, three different characters try to navigate a water-starved Southwestern United States. The survival of different cities depends on their political clout  and ability to claim senior water rights. Las Vegas is one of the big players, with Catherine Case and her goons destroying nearby competitors by undermining their water supply. Angel is one of those goons, and when someone in the area starts claiming they have traced down a game changing water allocation document, Case send him to investigate. Lucy is a future Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is willing to risk her life to uncover the shady dealings and murders behind the ongoing legal battle for control of the Colorado. It is her friend who initially claimed possession of what might be the most valuable document in America, but when he is found murdered, she has the story of a lifetime in her hands. Maria is a refugee from the now ruined state of Texas who lives hand to mouth, trying to stay out of the way of local gangs and save up enough to escape to one of the more hydrated states.

I thought this book was going to read like a dystopian novel, but it actually had a lot of characteristics of a legal thriller. A lot of the action is around legal battles for water rights, since the United States has not quite dissolved and any state caught attacking another for water will face retaliation from the federal government. There are hidden dealings, gangs and murders, but it is not outright like it would be in a dystopia. The cities have to at least appear to be handling things legally and above board. The world is dystopian, but the plot is the type of action I would more expect to find in a John Grisham novel.

Maria’s viewpoint was probably the one I enjoyed reading about the most. Angel and Lucy both live fairly privileged lives within the world of the novel. Angel is employed by one of the most powerful women in America and Lucy has enough money to buy herself water. Lucy is also not native to the area, so she has the ability to relocate elsewhere (state borders were quickly shut down once the drought hit. Too many people were flooding into the states that had steady water supplies). It is from Maria that we get a good sense of what a prolonged drought and interstate tensions would do to the most vulnerable parts of the population and how it would potentially affect politics and companies. In Maria’s world, refugees from stricken states like Texas are taken care of by large companies like Dasani and Camelpack, who provide emergency water and other supplies to citizens who have no place else to go. Criminals can be bribed to sneak people across state borders, but since they are heavily policed by troops and local militias, that is a very dangerous option. Tensions against refugees even from other cities whose water has run dry makes moving around tricky, but when the water is turned off, people don’t have much of a choice. Local gangs prey on the desperate and those who cannot afford to live in technology rich, Chinese built condos often have to go to great lengths to buy the barest necessities. Maria’s best friend is a prostitute and Maria herself sells water to Chinese workers on their lunch breaks, all the while paying protection money to several dangerous men.

The plot is full of twists and turns as Angel and Lucy both try and find the truth behind the elusive document and the trail of bodies it seems to be leaving behind it. There are several torture scenes I found a bit intense, so while others on Goodreads have characterized this as a YA novel, I would probably recommend it more for adults. It would be a good thought-provoking read for older teens if they could stomach the violence, but I found it a bit of a hard read in places.

Bacigalupi built an insanely convincing world very close to our own. The most futuristic technologies are ones that are able to recycle water more effectively, and some medicines that are a bit more advanced. Nothing that could not reasonably come into being in the next 50 years or so though. Fighting is done with guns and cell phones and computers still look much the way they do now. That is what makes this book so scary. It is only a small step away from the present. Control of waterways is only going to become more important as the population continues to grow and average global temperatures rise. It is completely conceivable that battles over water rights in already drought stricken states will become more tense and water prices become more interesting than oil. It would be a great book for a book club that wants to tie speculative fiction closely in with world events.

This book was a quick read since I had trouble putting it down. Having a variety of characters occupying different layers of the social strata gives the reader a rounded view of the world the author has created, and fast paced action keeps you reading. This was definitely an attention-grabbing book by an author quickly making a big name for himself.


2 thoughts on “The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. THE WATER KNIFE: ‘cli fi’ or ‘sci fi’? The ‘debate’ goes on…

    Paolo Bacigalupi‏@paolobacigalupi

    ”We might come up with amazing technofixes for climate that will mature as technologies in xyz years, or we could just tax carbon now.” via TWITTER

    What happens in the near future when, in the face of global warming and impending permanent drought, the infertile lands of the U.S. Southwest lose the use of water pipelines from Lake Meade and Lake Havasu – and the Colorado River, pray tell?

    Cli-fi novelist Paolo Bacigalupi has done his homework and written a cli-fi thriller around it titled The Water Knife, his latest cli-fi, and yes, it is a speculative fiction semi-apocalyptic tale ”in which the planet’s carbon boot has tread all over its already dry regions leaving a permanent footprint of drought,” as one pundit puts it, adding: “In this new world that Bacigalupi conjures. water equals power and the powerful will not hesitate to carve their own arterial conduits, when necessary, to feed the heart of their influence.”

    So is THE WATER KNIFE cli-fi or sci-fi? Book reviewers are having a field day with this question, some taking the one road and calling it a sci fi thriller, even though there are no sci fi elements in the novel at all! And others are hailing this novel as Bacigalupi’s first full-throttle Cli-Fi, evn as THE WINDUP GIRL had early elements of cli fi in it as well. This time out, Paolo does the cli fi genre justice.

    So how to approach this novel, as cli fi or sci fi? Readers and book critics will all have their own POV on this and all POV are welcome.

    One book reviewer this blogger spoke with told me I can call the novel a cli fi if I want to, it doesn’t matter to him. So I will and I am, and I think many other literary critics will agree this novel is PB’s first major cli fi novel of his career. However, to see the other side of the watery coin, let’s give my reviewer friend his due. He tells me:

    ”The setting of Bacigalupi’s near-future ‘science fiction’ thriller feels like something ripped right from today’s daily newspaper and website headlines. It’s THAT current and THAT newsworthy! Is this novel really a sci fi novel? Let me explain. You might be right, Dan, that this time his novel is cli fi, but let me put in my vote for calling it sci fi.”

    “Near-future sci fi normally doesn’t involve science-fictiony technology — it takes what an author perceives as present-day trends and extends the trends into the future. So the ”arcologies” in THE WATER KNIFE (closed ecological structures/systems), solar power panels, personal water purification units (“Clearsacs”) and plasma construction tools (“Yokohama cutters”) of “The Water Knife” are things we see today or can easily imagine based on today’s technology. So is the biomedical healing infusion that saves a character at one point in the book.”

    “Click-based journalism and ‘collapse porn’ are other obvious trends that Bacigalupi pushes into the near future, and The Water Knife is hardly the first climate-change catastrophe novel out there.”

    ”The problem with this is that no trend advances linearly or especially, exponentially. So near-future fiction is always exaggerated in ways that in hindsight appear obvious. Imagine a story where something like connected watch plays a central role, but a future where connected watches were a total flop. Or a spaceship where the captain sends messages to the engine room via pneumatic tube, and in A. E. van Vogt’s “The Voyage of the Space Beagle.””

    ”As an elderly man and a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy, ”near future” is enough for me to see THE WATER KNIFE as book in the SF genre. Looking at “1984,” for example, there’s nothing there that wasn’t technologically plausible to a contemporary reader. I’d probably label it ‘dystopian near-future fiction.’ ”

    “Dan, take zombies or vampires are fantasy. Collapsarian adventures are apocalypse or post-apocalypse.”

    ”Labels like that help readers know where a book falls in the spectrum, and a big part of what I see as my job as a book reviewer is letting readers know what kind of story they’ll encounter. Coming-of-age novel? Thriller or mystery? Escapist adventure?”

    ”If an author like Bacigalupi sets a book in the future, or an alternate present, or an alternate past, or a made-up anywhere (e.g., Narnia), I want to call it sci fi. But in the case of THE WATER KNIFE, you might be right this time, maybe THE WATER KNIFE is cli fi, a powerul cli fi, and something that could very well change the reading public’s perception of Paolo, ”the so-called sci fi author.” Maybe they call him a sci fi author for marketing purposes since his fan base is largely sci fi? Ask his PR people and ask his publishers at Knopf. For me, it’s sci fi. For you, it’s cli fi. Let’s see what other book reviewers call it. Spec fic? Literary fiction? Or hey, forget the genre stuff and just call it A NOVEL.”

    NOTE: When I noted over at Amazon reviews that ”THE WATER KNIFE” should be called cli fi now rather than sci fi, one fellow reviewer agreed, posting:

    ”Yes, The Water Knife is definitely ‘cli-fi’, aka Climate-Change Fiction. But I guess it can be argued that that is still a sub-genre of Speculative or Sci-Fi; although maybe not for very much longer.”

    Another Amazon reviewer agreed, too, saying: “I suppose I agree, though I am not sure of the relevance to my review, since I did not use the term ”science fiction” — it is clearly a dystopian fiction and maybe “cli-fi” would be a neat term for the genre that seems to have become fashionable, even commonplace, yes.”

    A third Amazon reviewer wrote: ”I don’t read a lot of science fiction and I actually ordered THE WATER KNIFE under the impression it was a mystery. And while there is plenty of suspense in this well crafted novel its most appropriate genre in my opinion is dystopian science fiction. At any rate THE WATER KNIFE is a gritty well rendered novel set in the United States Southwest sometime in the relatively near future about human’s need and greed for water. The book is well paced and compelling and should appeal especially to those who like books set in the future.”

    She added: ”I guess I put dystopian novels in the science fiction category. Do you agree this is dystopian, Dan? Cli-fi for climate fiction is a new genre to me, and I admit I am probably not the best person to review it.”

    These three characters collide in a story that’s part mystery, part thriller, and part science fiction. I loved the characters and the story was riveting. And what I really liked was the politics and science around water management. We can see that someday soon, science will be able to solve some of our water problems. Just not all of them, and not for everyone.

    Of course this is fiction, but as someone who spent the first half of my life in the Southwest, there’s a ring of truth to it. If today’s news about California isn’t making you nervous yet, read this book. In this book, water and the desert are characters much more powerful than anyone else.


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