The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi


Reviewed by Jill

Water and its ownership are the themes of Paolo Bacigalupi’s speculative fiction, The Water Knife.  Powerful interests are competing for the remaining water rights to be wrung out of the Colorado.  Phoenix needs water to stave off disaster.  Las Vegas wants to maintain its water security.  Thousands of drought, economic and hurricane refugees simply seek survival.

Drought and climate change have dried up the rivers.  The aquifers and artesian reservoirs are under siege.  Government policies on managing the waterscape are revealed as misplaced.  Big business determines who enjoys the precious fluid.

Bacigalupi drops the reader straight into the horror of ramshackle settlements, ‘Huddled humanity, hoping for something better…’. There are farmers and urban dwellers who have lost their water.  Others are simply on the move from hurricane destruction, or hardship.  They form affiliations, and acquire names — Zoners, Texans, Merry Perries — that dehumanise them.  So do the ‘Coyotes’ who take payment for cross-border passage.  Those without the money remain, close to pay-as-you-go water pumps.  These settlements take on a life of their own: mobile pay toilets, snack bars, ‘tribal divisions’ and standover men demanding protection money.  The Chinese yuan is the preferred currency.  Simple events bring home the horror of water scarcity — people lining up in the sun to buy water, watching the price vary with availability.  A man drinks his own urine.

The Taiyang Arcology is a stark contrast — shops, offices, residential towers, waterfalls and ponds.  From its coffee shops, expats and other privileged groups observe flat-screen displays of financial data in English, Spanish and Chinese, as well as the time and temperature in Shanghai.  Everything is recycled.  This is environmentally responsible living for those who can afford it.

We follow four self-contained characters.  Bacigalupi reveals their stories through thoughts, recollections and brief conversations — how they have reached Arizona and this point in their lives.

Toomie had been a skilled house builder, with a business plan for a secure future.  His timing was bad.  He now earns a living selling snacks from a cart.  Its jaunty red umbrella confers brave optimism.

Alongside him, young Maria sells measures of water to earn a meagre living and to cover her threat insurance.  She has refused to follow the usual income opportunities for young girls.  She remembers air-conditioning, fresh clothes, and the friends and neighbours who fled interstate.  She thinks especially of her father who worked for the big builders, anticipating a life in China, where his skills would be valued.  And she realises that his naivety was simply his way of denying reality.

Angel is a ‘water knife’.  He troubleshoots for his employer, ensuring her plans succeed — getting the rights to water, knocking out the competitors.  He is ethical in his way — totally loyal.  Lucy is a journalist, hardnosed and fearless, and ethical in her way too.  She didn’t want to simply report body counts and details, but has been warned not to probe behind the events.  The threat to her family in faraway Canada tells her she has been living under an illusion, ‘… the idea that she could keep herself separate.’  Though from different worlds, these two detect a connection.  Angel’s brutal life has desensitised him, so he is not sure what it is.  Neither is Lucy.

The action unfolds in an atmosphere of unrest, violence, strategy and intrigue.  Greed for water divides humanity into two camps: the strong and the powerless.  Torture and death are the wages of deceit and failure.

Angel is following the scent of water rights documents that will guarantee a future for Las Vegas, but a trusted ‘colleague’ has gone freelance with them.  Unknowingly, Lucy too is on a connecting trail, but hers is a different motivation.  A friend has died a horrible death and she is trying to understand where his grand plans went bad.  Maria’s economic vulnerability enforces a moral change, which ultimately connects her and the protective Toomie with Lucy and Angel, two odd pairings, and opposing beliefs in what is right.  The reader starts to sense a future for Maria, despite her betrayal of her principles.

Bacigalupi creates a credible situation in several ways.  His writing is straightforward.  Conversations and recollections carry the action without heavy reliance on description.  The reader may struggle at first with the different groups — the Zoners, the Fivers, the Calies.  The text is peppered with slang and Spanish.  There are new concepts and terms: Arcology, Clearsac, data glasses, growth fluids, senior water rights versus junior.  Burgess used this ‘new language’ device to great effect in A Clockwork Orange.  Bacigalupi is more subtle.  His language is close enough to our own techno-speak to make it real, closer to our times.

There are other subtle touches.  Maria is offered a book as a gift, Reisner’s Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water.  It is a classic account of government water policies.  As the shanty-town burns, Angel remembers a tactic I originally read in Maclean’s Young Men and Fire – burn the ground ahead of you, and you will have sanctuary from the fire behind.  Angel explains to Lucy the brutality of people in terms of the Stanford experiment – ‘ … it’s the job that pulls people’s strings, not the other way around.’

A range of futures opens up.  Bacigalupi doesn’t spell them out.  They rest on choices: survival against ethical, morals versus life.  Angel, cut loose by his employer, might make one choice — take the documents to Vegas.  Lucy, a journalist with a lifeline, might elect to gift them to Phoenix.  What of the other two whose lives depend on the outcome?  Lucy realises she is now part of Phoenix; she is no different from the others.

Touches of tenderness and mercy can be found, but they are rare.  The story’s threads twist, unravel and intertwine.  Every now and then, there is a glimpse of where the action is leading, but I couldn’t predict the outcome.  This is excellent writing, drawing on the history of government water policies, current concerns with climate change and a possible shift in world power.  It is also addictively good reading.

The Water Knife


By Paolo Bacigalupi
ISBN: 9780356502120
369pp.; $29.99


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