The Water Knife is a great summer book — and an invitation to worry about the future
It’s not some lame, 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 and be wounded 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 what might happen in real life along a dying river widely 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.
With that slam-bang opener setting 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. 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 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.
But Bacigalupi is interested in more than action. He wants us to think about what will crack when catastrophe amplifies the Southwest’s already Darwinian competition for scarce water. What cracks, of course, is our pretense of civilization. There’s no polity left, no sense that everyone’s in this together — there’s only a feral 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 and your layers of cultivated illusion are pitilessly peeled away. You 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 …
Lucy stared at the photos, feeling sick.
And just like that, someone who trusts her will be sold out.
Amid his troubling vision of a depleted Southwest, it’s Bacigalupi’s view of human nature that’s genuinely parched and bleak.