The Quest for Water Rights: A Review of The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of my favorite authors. His stories always focus on relevant issues. He takes problems that we are facing or seeing the beginnings of now and weaves tales of futures where they play out in interesting and horrifying ways. In The Windup Girl he wrote about a future where fuel had died out and companies fought to protect patents on genes for food. In Shipbreaker he explored issues of wealth inequality and showed a world that, for most people, was falling into poverty. And in his newest novel, The Water Knife, he writes about the West and Southwest of America after climate change and drought have left it ravaged.

The story mostly takes place in a future Phoenix that is slowly dying. California, Nevada, Arizona, and many other states are fighting each other over the few remaining water sources, each staking claims on the Colorado River in order to try to keep their states alive. Texas and Mexico have already fallen apart, sending waves of refugees to the north. The states have become even more independent, using their own National Guard units to shut down borders and keep these refugees from flowing north into areas with more water.

There are three protagonists in the story. The first is Angel, the water knife, an agent for Las Vegas who works in the shadows to make sure that water continues to flow into the city at the expense of surrounding settlements and cities. He perceives the world as a dog-eat-dog reality and wants to survive, even if it’s at the expense of others.

There is Lucy, a blogger journalist living in Phoenix and writing about the horrors she sees in the city. She sees herself as something apart from Phoenix, a kind of voyeur reporting on the downward spiral. But, after a friend she knows dies, she realizes that she’s being sucked into a plot that she can’t help but explore.

Then there is Maria, a Texan refugee living on the streets and just trying to get by and pay the rent for her hovel to the gangster that runs that part of town. She wants to get ahead in the world but doesn’t know how. All she sees around her are people who don’t understand how the world works. They talk about the past and offer solutions from the past, while she tries to figure out how to move forward and escape her circumstances.

Their stories come together around Angel’s quest to explore what has happened to other Vegas agents who have gone dark in Phoenix. Their different paths entwine and split apart before finally weaving together in a beautiful, if in many ways crushing, confluence of the characters’ motivations. And this is probably what I love most about Bacigalupi’s writing. While he explores relevant themes about modern day political and social issues, he isn’t didactic. His characters are real, and they drive all of the action and emotion of the story without becoming simple two-dimensional symbols meant to represent some ideological stance.

With more stories in the news this year about the water shortages in California, this novel is incredibly timely. And, to be honest, the future Bacigalupi portrays feels all too real. The instances of poverty sound like scenes you might find today in Mexico or even many parts of America like Baltimore or Detroit. Even tiny details like the Phoenix Rising campaign (which reminded me a lot of the Baltimore Believe campaign), add to the atmosphere and reality of the setting. To me this is a stark and very likely view of where the world is heading. I think in many places, the things described are already a reality.

If you’re going to read one book this year…you should re-examine your priorities and read more. But if you’re going to read any sci-fi book this year, it should be this one. Both relevant and compelling, The Water Knife is one of the best novels I’ve read recently, and I highly recommend it.


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