Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife is Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel length work for adults since his breakthrough novel The Windup Girl (2009). He has written four other novels in between those too, aimed at younger audiences. The Windup Girl was hugely successful, winning Bacigalupi a Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and Locus First Novel Award. Although the Windup universe provides more than enough space for further stories, Bacigalupi opts to expand another future in The Water Knife. The novel is linked to his short story The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). The main theme is environmental. Which given Bacigaulpi's track record will not surprise the reader. He has managed to produce a novel that is very will timed though. His vision of extreme water shortages in the American South West will make for uncomfortable reading for many people living in the area.

Several decades into the future the American South West is a parched wasteland. The states in the area are involved in a deadly game for water rights to support the desperate remains of their population. The region is swamped with refugees as well and local authority has largely collapsed. Among the ruins of Phoenix, Arizona, we follow three people trying to survive. The journalist Lucy Monroe gets in over her head covering the brutal murder of one of her contacts. The Water Knife Angel, a problem solver for Catherine Case, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, heads to the city when their agent there shows signs of cracking under the strain of the chaotic events in the city. The Texan refugee Maria has other concerns. She has lost her family and is trying to keep from ending up prostituting herself by selling water. One misstep gets her in serious problems with the local gang. She needs money quickly.

The water situation in the region has always been something of a mess. It has been known for a long time that the current use of water is unsustainable but so far this hasn't stopped cities expanding in the region. Bacigalupi names the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, first published in 1986 and updated in 1993, as one of his inspirations. It is probably a good place to start if you are interested in the problem as it gives a comprehensive overview of the situation. It is clear that there was a lot more research involved in writing this book however. Lots of little details in the book, mostly mitigation strategies, point in that direction anyway.

The drought that has been going on in California in particular in recent years is making this a very relevant book at the moment. After several years with below average rainfall the state is beginning to feel the shortage. I get the feeling that as long as the discussion focusses on who can keep their lawn and who can't, and whether an outdoor pool or a green lawn evaporates more water, the sheer scale of the disaster has not really sunk in yet. In this novel Bacigalupi drives home the importance of good water management. He doesn't focus on the environmental impact as much as I had expected though. The social impact is much more the focus of the novel. The way he goes about portraying that, is probably the book's greatest weakness.

The American government in this novel seems to have lost the ability to combat natural disasters at a federal level. The pressure put on the system by drought, tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes (all of which are becoming more frequent as a consequence of climate change) has stretched it too far and is now limited to feeble attempts at humanitarian aid. Since the role of the central government is limited, the states have stepped in and wage a kind of undeclared war against each other. The water authorities are armed, local militias guard state borders to keep refugees out, and fierce battles in court over water rights rage. All of this frequently turns very bloody and Bacigalupi describes the horror in detail.

What surprised me about this situation is that there is no effort whatsoever being made at making the situation more sustainable. There are plenty of mitigation strategies in place of course, but the real problem is that there are simply too many people, needing too much water for the region to support. What the authorities appear to be busy with, is trying to take water away from somebody else. The overriding motivation of just about all of the characters is greed. The few people who think America might still pull itself together tend to end up dead for their trouble. It is so horribly cynical that at some points in the novel I began to wonder if the wilful ignorance the world is displaying at the moment isn't better. Yes, people are greedy, and corporations perhaps even more so, but is the world in such a bad shape that nobody in the whole wide world wants to do anything constructive any more?

Greed is a theme in just about any of Bacigalupi's other works as well, of course and he often goes into detail on the horrific consequences it can have. In each of his novels there tends to be a bit more hope though. Someone pushing back, trying to get society going again, somehow build a life that is worth living. In this novel there is just violence and corruption. Even the finale of the novel is very cynical. Characters getting out of their personal hell but at the expense of other people. I fear that by injecting so much post-apocalyptic violence into the novel, Bacigalupi has drowned out his message a bit. A terrible shame because it is one that needs to be heard.

That is not to say it is a bad novel. Just a terribly depressing one. The Water Knife is something of a thriller. A treasure hunt if you will, a race against the clock with the players doubting each other at every step. Bacigalupi knows how to build the tension and as an eco-thriller it works well enough. I had hoped Bacigalupi would manage to do a bit more with the environmental and social themes he picks for the novel than just showing us in gory detail where we're heading. In a way he has written the disasterporn his journalist characters report about in the novel. All things considered it was a decent read but not all it could have been.

Book Details
Title: The Water Knife
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 371
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-385-35287-1
First published: 2015