The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi came to prominence with his novel The Windup Girl, a post-apocalyptic tale of post-oil environmental collapse in East Asia.  His latest novel, The Water Knife (published 21 May by Orbit, advance copy via NetGalley) returns to similar themes, setting a taut thriller in the drought-ridden Southern states of the USA.

In the world of the novel, water has become increasingly scarce and a highly valuable commodity.  The wealthy buy their way into ‘arcologies’: high-tech residential developments with carefully managed environments and recycling of resources.  But these developments are not the complete answer.  They still consume more water than they can produce, creating a culture of fierce competition for water resources, leading to legal battles over water rights and actions that are more and less legal.  Those who can’t afford to become residents are forced to live outside the arcologies in varying degrees of water poverty.  As always, the poor have to deal with the catastrophic consequences of these battles for water rights, while those with money can buy and escape into an arcology or a part of the world that isn’t suffering from such extreme drought.

The Water Knife acts as an allegory for scarcity in all its forms, but particularly how we deal with climate change.  There are clear parallels with the potential impact of the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and how society is responding to those threats now.

“We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway.  There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity.”

Of course, drought and water scarcity is a very real threat right now.  California is in its fourth year of drought and facing the very real prospect of significant water shortages unless drastic action is taken.  The differential impact of this situation on rich and poor is already beginning to show itself, with the rich using almost twice as much water per day than the average.

The novel is incredibly effective in chronicling social, economic and environmental collapse.  Corruption runs rampant, organised crime begins to take hold and relief agencies struggle to deal with the scale of the humanitarian disaster.  The Federal structure of the USA has started to break down, with individual states adopting protectionist measures.  In their desperation, people turn on each other, showing the worst aspects of human behaviour.

The maelstrom of fear could drive almost anyone to become less than they were.  To tear apart your neighbours, to string them up on fences.

This creates fertile ground for fiction, and Bacigalupi uses it as a setting for a slick and pacy thriller.that explores the potential impact of not addressing these environmental issues.  The novel follows three, inter-connected storylines:

  • Angel Velasquez, the titular ‘Water Knife’, a fixer who works for Catherine Case, the iconic head of one of the arcology developments in Nevada, which is competing with California for water rights to the Colorado River.
  • Lucy Monroe, a journalist chronicling the collapse of the city of Phoenix following the withdrawal of its water supply.
  • Maria Villarosa, a refugee from Texas, scraping an existence in Phoenix’s slums.

Ultimately, Bacigalupi asks us who has the right to decide who gets to survive, as well as reminding us that we all have the ability to seek to avert such a apocalyptic future.

Goodreads rating: 5*



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