Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife will cut into your life

Paolo Bacigalupi is a mystery to me. He is a writer that I don’t really know anything about. One thing I do know about him is that he wrote a book called The Windup Girl. I also know that I absolutely loved it. So when I saw The Water Knife it became an instant buy for me. The only question I had at the time was whether it would live up to my lofty expectations following The Windup Girl.

I bought this book new release. Anyone who is savvy on sci-fi fiction will know that was last year. So why didn’t I read it? Life got in the way, and I have a tendency to buy stacks of books and then move off on other literary whims. I’m always looking for new books to read, buying books and putting books into a ‘to read’ stack. It gets pretty damn big. Sometimes great books sit around my apartment biding their time. The Water Knife is one of them.

Is it as good as The Windup Girl? It’s hard to say, especially given that it’s been a few years since I last read it. I’ve only just finished it, but I’m confident in saying that it is a fantastic book. It’s a book that deserves to be looked at on it’s own merits, so I’ll just focus on it now, instead of rose-tinted comparisons between Bacigalupi’s other work.

The namesake of the novel is a man named Angel Velasquez. He is The Water Knife. This is the secretive title bestowed upon the elite who are trained and conditioned as an amalgamation of soldiers, detectives, thugs and spies. They operate as agents of the ‘boss’ of Nevada, Catherine Case. The US has been devastated by drought, falling into a dystopian state, and water is now a commodity both rare and exceedingly expensive. Ultimate power lies in the control and distribution of water. Scarcity of water and resources has led to states closing their borders and creating state-based fiefdoms.

Angel belongs to Nevada, based in Las Vegas, and Case is a self-made woman who rules over the water supply and covets that of others. So as a water knife it’s his task to go out there and rain mayhem upon anyone he is pointed toward. I love this concept. It’s speculative fiction, but a legitimate and valid theoretical hypothesis. The transformation that has taken place, and the world formed through drought and catastrophic climate change is an easy one to believe, and one that is eerily relevant; all it takes is a scarcity of the essentials of life to bring the whole edifice down, and the world you once knew, the rules you held to, are gone. The book has no trouble reminding the reader that this world saw it coming, and elected to do nothing to change it.

The book starts slow. The first hundred pages or so are all world building, introductions and exposition. It is necessary, but I found it slow reading. The book begins to accelerate as soon as the two additional point of view characters are introduced; Lucy, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, living in the collapsing waste that is Phoenix after the water supply dwindles, and Mary, a girl down on her luck and trapped in this city where the streets are ruled and beset by gangs. There is an appreciable increase in pace and intensity throughout the plot whenever these three characters interact, and I found myself enjoying the interwoven points of view in a very different way than I’m used to. Bacigalupi uses the shifting perspectives to colour, ground and breathe life into his characters as they interact. They notice things about each other that we cannot. Bacigalupi doesn’t play around with clunky or awkward exposition in this respect, no omnipotent narrator, or characters looking into mirrors. It is natural and organic and I found it to be incredibly compelling, I was looking forward to each new view of the emerging crisis, and fresh perspectives on our characters.

A great example of this method is Angel himself. We are aware at the start of the book of what he is, what he is capable of, but we don’t quite appreciate just how ominous and oppressive a presence he can be until Lucy meets him. I wasn’t even aware that it was Angel that Lucy was observing and interacting with in this particular scene until well into it. If that was Bacigalupi’s intention, then that is genius. We get a description and impression of Angel, and it was only at this point that I realised I hadn’t had any of that yet. It simply added to my imagination, it augmented and channelled they way I perceived him. And he is a badass. Right after I read this section I was sold. I dug in and churned through it. The slow start, at this point, made complete sense. Without it, these little pings of recognition and the organic growth of these characters wouldn’t have happened. It’s alchemy, and it was necessary to produce this kind of impact.

The trouble and conflict in the novel surrounds the emergence of an ancient legal document that pertains to ownership of the Colorado river which has the potential to change everything for the city-state holding it, and death for those relying on the Colorado river water source who don’t. People get greedy, violent and very dead. Angel, Lucy and Maria are in the thick of it, trying to stay alive. I was wondering what the full implications of their connection would be and I was not disappointed as they are drawn together again and again. In a lot of ways this is Angel’s story, and Lucy and Maria are supports, necessary to fully realise the complexity that Bacigalupi wished to attain. Now that I read that though, that sounds a little simplistic as an explanation. They are all necessary pieces, parts that make the story whole. They collectively cover a varied and complex range of emotions and motivations. They are well realised, easy to understand and to empathise with.

I found myself very taken with the notion that every state had become what is essentially a country unto itself. They push things as far as they can, but draw short of attracting the attention of the federal government and the aggressive eye of their military. It’s a balancing act of posturing, skirmishes and legal battles interspersed with moments of unbound destruction when opportune. The book is set between Nevada and Arizona, but more and more, I found myself wanting more information on the whole, the state of the nation and the world. I wanted to know which states were dead and which still thrived, how the government deals with it, how states like California came to be a superpower; it is all so tantalising and I wanted Bacigalupi to expound upon it. It is a heady construction of speculative fiction and I want more. I want to know how it works, how the pieces fit and how far the drought reaches. I want to know more about the states and country that lay beyond the calamity of the drought and sun blotting dust storms. If I had one major complaint about the book it would be that. I simply want more. I’m invested in this world now, and I am intensely curious about it’s inner workings.

So should you read the Water Knife? Absolutely you should. It shares The Windup Girl’s musings on the value of life in the face of progress, industry and greed, as well as the evolution and corruption of socially normative behaviour. I wonder if Bacigalupi’s proclivity to pick hot climates for violence, murder and corruption in his books are linked to his personal definition of hell, or at least a hellish environment; maybe he believes that it brings out the worst in people, or that it is a perpetual punishment in and of itself. Both books are dark, sophisticated and realistic speculations on the future of our society and civilisation. There is nothing outlandish here; it is all a plausible realistic and gritty consideration of our future. If you enjoy sci-fi and the darker side to human nature, without the complete absence of hope, Bacigalupi is just as good as ever and has what you need.

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