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Dust to Dust: Review of Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife

Book coverIt’s not some lame, off-the-shelf, one-apocalypse-fits-all dystopia that sci-fi novelist Paolo Bacigalupi has contrived for his new yarn, The Water Knife (Knopf, $25.95). Requiring a drought-shriveled near future for his three protagonists — Angel, a Vegas water thug; Lucy, a Phoenix journalist; Maria, a Texas refugee — to flee across, scrabble through and lose their illusions in, Bacigalupi has extrapolated, broadly and deeply, what would happen if the American Southwest dried up. They feel right, too, the interlocking ecological, human, social and moral catastrophes he came up with, from dust storms and crooked politics to tides of doomed refugees and baroque criminality. So right, in fact, that his scenario works not only as the setting for the book’s hurtling, beach-ready plot, but as scarily plausible clairvoyance about the shitstorm that’s coming here in real life along a dying river generally acknowledged to be the nation’s most imperiled.

The Water Knife opens with the all-powerful head of the Las Vegas Water Authority — a Pat Mulroy stand-in named Catherine Case — using a corrupt court order as a pretext to unleash her private military force (you read that right) to drop some flaming law of the river on a water plant in rival Arizona. Note: If that summary suggests any satiric intent, know that nothing in The Water Knife is played with a wink or hint of ironic knowingness.

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With that slam-bang opener establishing the stakes, the plot is simple enough: Everyone’s pursuing a set of previously unknown, very old, incalculably valuable Native American water rights that could tip the region’s balance of power: consolidating Vegas’ already lavish water wealth (Mulroy/Case being ruthlessly good at her job), or rendering California the ultimate Colorado River power, or rescuing poor Phoenix, where the book unfolds, currently choking on its own dust. Amid the masses relentlessly struggling for water or trying to escape to the still-verdant north, the dire gravity of those rights eventually pull the three main characters into orbit. Along the way, there are enough breakneck chases, betrayals, shootings, stabbings, bombings, beatings, sex scenes, torture scenes and, yes, hyena maulings to keep the beach reader locked in until the twisted ending, when, emblematic of all our lost wars, a chopper appears to pluck the fortunate out of the feral madness.

But Bacigalupi is interested in more than the action. He wants us to think about what all will crack when catastrophe amplifies the Southwest’s already Darwinian competition for scarce water. What cracks, of course, is our pretense of civilization, from the macro (the federal government allows northern states to secure their borders against Southwestern refugees, i.e. fellow Americans) to the micro (you can’t trust anyone). There’s no polity left, no sense that everyone’s in this together — there’s only a hyperferal and morally disfiguring strain of capitalism that infects every level of society, from the disaster opportunists who roll into gasping Phoenix to leverage a payday from all the misery, to the water agents who’ll kill you over a sheet of paper, to over-the-top criminals whose gaudy cruelty is just good branding in a freewheeling marketplace of commodified desperation. Everyone knows the score and everyone looks the other way.

In such a setting, all alliances are temporary, longtime friends will turn on you and your layers of cultivated illusion are pitilessly peeled away. You might think you have principles. But you also have a family:

He reached into his jacket and laid a handful of photos on the table.

“But this is your sister, is it not?”

Lucy gasped. Anna, up in Vancouver. Photos of her picking up Ant from day care, buckling her son into their little blue Tesla, the day damp with gray clouds and verdant green trees behind them. …

Lucy stared at the photos, feeling sick.

And just like that, someone who trusts her has his death warrant sealed.

Amid his troubling vision of a depleted Southwest, where the gap between the haves and have-nots is literalized by the vast, water-rich “arcologies” that are home to the wealthy; where coyotes live in once-thriving suburbs; where urine-reprocessing technology is the only thing keeping many people alive, it’s Bacigalupi’s view of human nature — like the New Mexicans who nail the corpses of Texas refugees to border fences as a warning to stay out — that’s genuinely parched and bleak.