Notes Reading Notes

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi, 2015

Goes deep into a violent and unjust world reminiscent of that from the film Sleep Dealer. The story is emphatically to do with the psyche of the South-Western desert states which aren’t usually taken seriously in American fiction—a disturbingly coherent vision of a future that seems very real and in some ways is already happening in many parts of the world right now. The Water Knife transposes situations of decimation and breakdown—permanent droughts, water wars, refugee crises, people smuggling, extreme inequality and neoliberal corporate controlled society—into modern-day America. Phoenix, Arizona has infamously been called “the world’s least sustainable city”, and here we visit Phoenix post-collapse where the sprawling suburbs of McMansions are abandoned and decaying; where Texan refugees congregate in squalid camps around UN and Red Cross water pumps; where the yuan has taken over the dollar and Chinese corporations are building giant fabricated ‘arcologies’—self-contained and largely closed systems which recycle their own water and energy, providing a comfortable standard of living for the few who can afford it.

People are arguing online over whether this should be labelled ‘sci-fi’ or ‘cli-fi’, but does it really matter? The climate fiction label makes more sense as a theme rather than a genre, and most contemporary readers have no doubt about the recent shift towards science fiction being an exploration of present conditions rather than exclusively imagined futures. Trying to enforce a normative boundary for what is and what isn’t science fiction seems like a foolish and pedantic waste of effort, but this is exactly the kind of book that will wind up those people who have problems with the tension between realist and speculative fiction.

For all that, The Water Knife is unambiguously a thriller. The fast-moving plot is no more complicated than it needs to be, propelled forward through the perspective of three strong characters. The narrative structure uses these contrasting viewpoints to cut through different layers of the social reality. Maria, a Texan refugee reflects the impact of forced migration and social breakdown; Lucy, an award winning journalist who critics slam as a ‘disaster pornographer’, is the outsider who becomes overly involved with what she’s observing; and Angel, the titular ‘water knife’ is a mercenary figure who works as a corporate assassin, fixer, manager and private investigator and whose work is based on insider knowledge and powerful connections. What all three share is the sense of having seen too much, a hardened perspective. The conflict between how the world really is and how it should be is a constant source of tension for all.

The politics within the story are absurd enough to be interesting and realistic enough to be compelling. I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years who are adamant that an overall collapse of the United States leading to conflict between States—lead by or leading to the secession of Texas or California for example—is utterly implausible. Bacigalupi has constructed a fiction which cleverly plays on this implausibility, where the South-Western States are fighting over water rights through covert military action and violent border policing but never to the extent of being an outright civil war. This is an interesting reflection of the paradoxical way the United States conducts itself worldwide—the country being in a state of permanent war, while never openly acknowledging itself as a colonial, occupying power.

This fractured setting is drawn, with its own unique vocabulary and logic that quickly becomes recognisable and relatable—much more clearly so than The Windup Girl where the unique vocabulary works in a much more heavyweight and overt way. Importantly, the idiolect helps to outline and evoke social boundaries and classes. As types of people, the ‘Merry Perrys’, ‘Zoners’, ‘Fivers’ and ‘Texas Bangbangs’ never really need to be explained or defined explicitly. The essential identities and distinctions between these groups quickly makes sense, blurring the distinction between our reality today and the fictitious world of the novel. What’s great about The Water Knife is how well it builds this setting without resorting to infodumping and arbitrary description. A lot of essential technical detail is conveyed fairly rapidly through dialogue and action in the first few chapters, and once this is out of the way, the story has everything it needs to develop with the minimum necessary exposition.

One thing I found interesting was the repeated references to a 1980s book Cadillac Desert. I hadn’t heard of this before, and am now quite interested to find out more about it.

Also—kind of appropriately for a novel set in the South-Western desert—a lot of the climactic points of action revolve around standoffs with guns, evoking images of the standoffs in old Westerns or hard-boiled cop dramas. Live by the gun; die by the gun. This trope is reflexively parodied through the fictional TV show Undaunted that hardass Angel is obsessed with, indulging himself in a bubble of naive sentimentality that’s eventually popped by cynical journalist Lucy who informs him that the show is UN funded propaganda to make the plight of Texan refugees more relatable to a global audience.

Aside from its skillful construction and style, one of the great achievements of this novel is the way it fucks with expectations of realism and science fiction in a far more subtle and insidious way than most dystopian novels do. Because the worldbuilding is so cleverly executed and taut, the barebones thriller format and clichéd gunfight plot points actually work surprisingly effectively. Underlying all this, I sense a deep commitment to environmentalism and sustainability that motivates the writing, without ever feeling circumscribed or heavy-handed. The whole thing comes together feeling remarkably insightful and plausible.