Review: The Water Knife is bleak, but uncomfortably possible

Water Knife cover
The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.

The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?

In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager.

Velasquez heads to Phoenix, a city of suburban dreams decayed into blowing dust as its water sources are cut off. He meets Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and blogger, who follows a trail of murders over the mother lode of water rights that could bring Phoenix back from the dead. Caught in the storms of dust, bullets, and despair is Maria Villarosa, a teenage refugee who makes choices based on her need for a steady supply of the life-giving liquid. The fight for water gets entangled with hostilities toward immigrants, not only from Mexico, but from neighboring states, replaying the resentments felt by Californians at the invasion by Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Velasquez is the archetypal anti-hero, a sadistic criminal given a chance to go straight by Case, who thinks nothing of cutting off water to whole cities that don’t fit her vision. His job as enforcer allows him to live in an arcology, a high-rise gated community with a recycled water and food supply that makes it a lush oasis in a sea of poverty. It’s income inequality cum water inequality. He clings to his new life, even when people whom he trusts betray him, because the only other choice is unthinkable.

The Water Knife is another dystopian vision of a future transformed by climate change. The noir-ish tone is darker than Chinatown, its nearest narrative cousin, and flavored with bits of Blade Runner. The novel is often relentlessly bleak and violent, with at least one minor character who serves only as shock value. The blight is relieved by brief visits to the cool and clean arcologies, which the main characters hold in awe, accepting them as private domains, instead of wondering why the technology that makes them possible isn’t available to everyone. The darkness extends to the creation of a permanent water underclass.

The Water Knife lacks the charm of Bacigalupi’s Hugo Award-winning The Windup Girl, with its genetically engineered elephants, spring-wound tech, and reverence for the Thai culture. The impact of Bacigalupi’s new novel comes from its uncomfortable closeness to the potential futures playing out in today’s headlines. It’s not hard to imagine the Southwest ten years hence in a kind of pre-Civil War crouch, with one or more sides waiting for the chance to take what they need, or risk drying up into nothing.

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