The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published by Knopf
Publication date: May 26th 2015
Genres: Dystopian, Fiction, Mystery, Science Fiction, Suspense
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Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.
It can be dicey to open a review with a strong declarative sentence but I’m taking a chance with The Water Knife and stating that I have never read a book that provoked such a visceral response. At some point in the not-so-distant future water is going to become the greatest, most scarce commodity there is in the American West. The Colorado River is drying up and western states are doing anything they can to maintain their cities and lifestyles. At only 50 pages into the novel I was so immersed in life in future Phoenix that my eyes burned, I thought there was red dust on the pages, and I was thirsty. This feeling did not leave, thanks to author Paolo Bacigalupi’s remarkable ability to sustain a mood of parched desperation throughout the novel—to the point that I only read it with a water bottle nearby.
The Water Knife opens in lawless times when the only goal is to get out of the states without natural aquifers and rainfall and get to the safety of those that still have water. Despite being a desert Nevada is an oasis, ruled as it is by a developer who runs a ruthless network of water knifes—people who go and cut water rights from their owners using litigation, harassment, and if that doesn’t work, violence. Angel Velasquez is the best of the knives and when it comes time to bring Phoenix down, he is sent to do it. At the same time, a reporter named Lucy Monroe is chasing down a story about the original water rights to the Colorado—a document never seen but of incalculable value. When important people start dying and Velasquez shows up it seems there may be truth behind the myth.
Bacigalupi is cunning in his choices in The Water Knife. Not only does he use the standard dynamic of the haves vs. have-nots, but he layers in more tension by adding other favorite American demons like illegal immigrants, corrupt politicians, and foreign investors buying up American land. That he blends these with not just the standard thriller fare of car chases, explosions, guns, and violence but with the complex historical and political machinations behind water ownership means there is both a physical and social element to the suspense.
Throughout the novel Bacigalupi refers to a real 1986 non-fiction book about water rights in the West called Cadillac Desert. It is the Bible for most of the characters, good and bad, because its prescient words should have been followed when there was still time. It is interesting that Bacigalupi points to it in his fictional interpretation of what has happened to a country that did not listen. Are we listening now? Given the continued greening of the desert that is Las Vegas and the shrinking of the Colorado River it would seem we are not. Despite its fearsomely dystopian depiction of Western America and its over-the-top action the scariest part of The Water Knife is how plausible it feels.
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