The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi science fiction book reviewsThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi science fiction book reviewsThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s official. I hereby dub Paolo Bacigalupi, Captain Grimdark of science fiction. Uncontent to swerve in and out of dystopia when telling his near-future stories of the Earth gone to hell, he rubs the reader’s face in the grime every step. Scenes of violence and human misery, both manipulative and informative, string along stories of good people stuck in bad times. Formula? Set in the near-future, mix in some stereotypical characters, use a few simple environmental destruction plot devices to build sympathy, make cutting, realistic, and informed comments about contemporary politics and corporate greed that allowed the situation to happen, and voila, Captain Grimdark. (Science fiction has captains, and fantasy has lords, natch.)

Yes, Bacigalupi has struck upon a blueprint, and his 2015 The Water Knife is more of the same — the sixth in a row by my counting. A mainstream corpus with science fiction blood, one can easily see Hollywood picking up the rights to The Water Knife and pushing the story of a drought-torn American southwest caught in water wars straight to the silver screen. (They should wait for the hype of Mad Max to fade, however.) Political fragmentation, human rights violations, greed and avarice, and tales of human suffering are front and center (with Keanu Reeves playing the lead role of Angel Valasquez, the titular corporate thug/secret agent/mercenary?).

The Colorado River basin is the trigger point for The Water Knife. When water reserves run low in Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and California, politics are taken to the street, or, more precisely, all the nice laws are thrown out and it’s every state, county, even city for itself. The hostilities — open attack to sabotage — that break out amongst the polities has a devastating effect on the population. Hundreds die daily due to lack of water, refugees trudge across the map trying to find a better life, dust storms ravage crops, and all the while the rich get richer, living in their air conditioned homes with a fresh supply of sparkling clean water under the protection of the water knives.

If it wasn’t obvious, The Water Knife targets the inability of American government and society to extract itself from the water crisis ongoing in the Colorado River basin — among other environmental crises. The underlying anger at this situation bald, Bacigalupi, thinly disguising himself as a character, observes:The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi science fiction book reviews

All of them talking acre-feet and reclamation guide-lines and cooperation, wastewater efficiency, recycling, water banking, evaporation reduction and river covers, tamarisk and cottonwood and willow elimination. All of them trying to rearrange deck chairs on a big old Titanic. All of them playing the game by the rules, believing there was a way for everyone to get by, pretending they could cooperate and share their way out of the situation if they just got real clever about the problem.

Cynical to say the least, the fact reality supports Bacigalupi’s fiction only makes the vision all the more scary. Rather than tailoring our technology and society to the environments we live in, we attempt the opposite, and as a result pay the price when demand outstrips supply — in the novel’s case, water. For as fluffy as the plotting and characters are, the underlying reality hits uneasily close to home and should make every reader stop and think.

Like the majority of Captain Grimdark’s fiction, The Water Knife features innocents just trying to make ends meet. The perfect setup for mass market appeal when combined with the ravaged setting, the book has characters with enough depth to avoid the description ‘cardboard’ but not enough to escape ‘stereotype.’ The book predictably features a heartless executive, a handful of lower class men and women trying to get by but constantly being kept from a life of ease and comfort by the executive and their cronies, and a middle man to balance the two sides. While Angel the water knife achieves some degree of complexity, the rest remain character types rather than characters. To quote Jeff VanderMeer: “Buying in to stereotype and cliché about your characters condemns them to act in ways that are based on false ideas about people in the real world.” The real world agenda of The Water Knife suffers accordingly.

About the only glimmer of light in The Water Knife is deference to the Chinese and their imagined ability to create new technology. Much like Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Bacigalupi makes the point that, while Western executives squabble for profits and the people’s living conditions get accordingly worse, there are other nations able to focus on the problems truly affecting society and come up with solutions. The Water Knife is not entirely nihilistic; Bacigalupi offers side visions to how water resources might be better managed, a handful of potential ideas balancing the bitterness and bleakness that permeates nearly every other aspect of the novel.

So, is The Water Knife better than The Windup Girl? I’m unsure. Despite being different in appearance, it’s very similar in tone and mode. It’s angry, it’s astute in its environmental and governmental observations, and it’s entertaining. But is it more subtle? Does it show a willingness to closer link realism and science fiction to thus give its message more impact? Are the characters people from the real world, not just stock to tell a story? I think no. The Water Knife is caught between being a commercial/mainstream product and a work of concerned sf; it has the same posture as The Windup Girl. It does not, for example, tackle its sub-text with the same relevancy as Kim Stanley Robinson imbues his environmental and political agendas in his SCIENCE IN THE CAPITOL trilogies. While many readers will find Bacigalupi’s story more “entertaining” than a Robinson offering, it comes at the expense of integrity; The Water Knife is closer to Hollywood thriller than literary environmental fiction.

While I would guess my opinion is in the minority, Bacigalupi’s formula is getting a little old. Ok, the setting is different and the characters have different names compared to other Bacigalupi offerings. But the end result is the same. Endless description of human misery, etc., good people having bad things done to them by megalomaniacs, etc., apocalypse, etc. — as important as the message is, the vehicle gets tiresome. Time to change things up, Paolo! Time to rise above the mainstream! Time to use that intelligence I see displayed in interviews in more ambitious fashion! Time to start creating more realistic characters, motivate them along more subtle lines, and integrate their struggles with constructive visions for the future. You’ve built a good following of readers, I guarantee they will follow.

The Water Knife — (2015) Publisher: WATER IS POWER. Paolo Bacigalupi, New York Times best-selling author of The Windup Girl and National Book Award finalist, delivers a near-future thriller that casts new light on how we live today—and what may be in store for us tomorrow. The American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona skirmish over dwindling shares of the Colorado River, while California watches, deciding if it should just take the whole river all for itself. Into the fray steps Las Vegas water knife Angel Velasquez. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her lush, luxurious arcology developments can bloom in the desert and that anyone who challenges her is left in the gutted-suburban dust. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent to investigate. With a wallet full of identities and a tricked-out Tesla, Angel arrows south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive. There, Angel encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist, who knows far more about Phoenix’s water secrets than she admits, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north to those places where water still falls from the sky. As bodies begin to pile up and bullets start flying, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger, more corrupt, and dirtier than any of them could have imagined. With Phoenix teetering on the verge of collapse and time running out for Angel, Lucy, and Maria, their only hope for survival rests in one another’s hands. But when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.


  • Jesse Hudson

    JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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