Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

ARC cover art

Eau, Brother, Where Art Thou?


What happens in the near future when, in the face of Global Warming and impending permanent drought, the infertile lands of the American Southwest lose the use of  water pipelines from Lakes Meade and Havasu, and the Colorado River? I'm not too sure, but the novelist Paolo Bacigalupi has a handle on that harrowing question and has written a new Sci-Fi Thriller around it. The Water Knife, his latest, is a speculative semi-apocalyptic tale for adults (he has written a number of books for young adults and kids) in which the planet's carbon boot has tread all over its already dry regions leaving a permanent footprint of drought. In this new world water equals power and the powerful will not hesitate to carve their own arterial conduits, when necessary, to feed the heart of their influence.

Three main characters drive the narrative throughout the book: Angel Velasquez, the water knife of the title, whose boss, Catherine Case, quenches Las Vegas with her "arcologies", or water independent residential towers, unafraid of wetting her far reaching talons; Lucy Monroe, a "Journo", who reports on the corruption and machinations surrounding the Taiyang, a Chinese funded arcology in the middle of Arizona; and Maria Villarosa, a teenager refugee from Texas, who, along with her room-mate Sarah, struggles to survive on the incendiary streets of Phoenix (the symbolism of which is not lost on this reader). Bacigalupi eventually tosses the three together, stirs and turns up the heat. The recipe is tried and true; It's delicious to consume, but still, a burrito is just a burrito (refried beans and all).

Bacigalupi sets his cautionary tale against a template of greed; with California stealing water from Nevada (not a new concept. See John Houston's Chinatown), Nevada diverting and withholding water from Arizona and Texans becoming the Okies (or the Merry Perrys here) of the twenty-first century.  The recent prolonged drought in California lends credence to the author's admonitory tone. Global warming is a global warning. It is a real phenomenon. He drills it into the reader. When Lucy meets up with her doomed colleague, the cynical and desperate Jamie Sanderson, Bacigalupi uses their conversation to affirm his own thesis. About climate change, the water crisis, and ignorance, Jamie says: "We knew it was all going to go to hell and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway. There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity." Expounding on the theme of faith vs. fact, he continues:
"'This was never about believing. You think someone like Catherine Case up in Vegas believes things? This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don't believe data-- you test data,' he grimaced..." "'This should have been about testing and confirmation and we turned it into a question of faith. F***ing Merry Perrys praying for rain.' He snorted. 'No wonder the Chinese are kicking our ass.'"
Paolo Bacigalupi
Although The Water Knife's premise is intelligent and its dialogue well written, its plot tends to follow a familiar cinematic formula. Not that that is so terrible, it just does not allow the novel to break the bonds of genre. By focusing on multiple characters instead of just one, Bacigalupi attenuates the psychological intensity that the subject of his work deserves. By depicting exciting chases and bloody shoot-outs he allays much of the inner conflict that might have transcended stereotype. Unfortunately, the potential of this work, for me, eclipses the actual product. Though I enjoyed the ride, I only wish it moved me a little further upstream.

3.3 Stars (out of 5)

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