After reading The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories, I was really looking forward to reading the next Paolo Bacigalupi book on my list. I am pleased to report that The Water Knife definitely lived up to my expectations.
The Water Knife is set in an all-too-believable dystopian future where global warming and overconsumption of water have lead to widespread water shortages in the American Southwest. “Widespread water shortages” is an understatement. The entire region is practically in a state of civil war. California, Nevada, and Arizona are fighting in the courts and sometimes in the streets to secure access to what little water remains. Politicians, businesspeople, organized crime networks, refugees, and other everyday citizens are all struggling in their own interrelated ways to survive and get ahead in the often violent and cruel circumstances of what’s left of human civilization.
This novel works on many levels — and works on all of those levels quite successfully.
The basic elements that I would expect of almost any good narrative are all strong here. The plot, characters, and setting are all complex and compelling. I often do my reading in fairly short bursts, and I found myself wanting to extend my reading time for as long as possible. Some narratives — even some really good narratives — rely heavily on one or two of these elements to carry the story. But the plot, characters, and setting all work together brilliantly, like complex parts of a well-oiled machine driving the narrative forward to its conclusion.
Bacigalupi is especially good at getting inside of each viewpoint character’s head, bringing the reader into their inner world, and using their perspective to reveal some very vivid and intense imagery. Anyone can tell the reader what the character is experiencing, but few authors can describe it so well that the reader feels like they’re right there along with the character, experiencing all of the joys and horrors (let’s be honest — mostly horrors in this case) that the character experiences. When I read the Water Knife, I feel like I’ve been transported into a very real apocalyptic future — a feeling that is terrifying on some level, but eminently rewarding as a reader.
The precise apocalyptic nature of the Water Knife is actually somewhat uncommon. This is what I’ve come to think of as a “mid-apocalyptic” or simply “apocalyptic” narrative rather than a “post-apocalyptic” one. In post-apocalyptic narratives, human society has collapsed entirely, leaving behind small to mid-sized bands of desperate individuals struggling to survive in the aftermath. Post-apocalyptic narratives are popular nowadays, and most stories I’ve come across lately are either post-apocalyptic or non-apocalyptic.
Water Knife is something in between. It offers a glimpse of an American society that is well on its way to complete collapse, but still not fully gone. To an extent, there is still a society similar to what exists today — a civil government with various government agencies, a market economy dominated various large corporations, information and communication technologies, etc. People in power are still trying to maintain the appearance that society has not, in fact, collapsed. But in a very real sense, it’s all either broken or falling apart. For large groups of people, it has already failed, leaving them in fringe situations that we would normally associate with a post-apocalyptic setting. This middle ground between today’s society and a future post-apocalyptic society is a very rich space for exploring the problems of today and the direction in which they may be taking us.
What I find most rewarding about this novel is the importance of its central themes of water scarcity and global warming. Bacigalupi doesn’t seem to be pushing any single solution or course of action here in the present day. However, presenting the potential horrors of where we’re headed in graphic detail is enough to inspire anyone with half a brain and half a heart to give some serious thought to what we can do in the here and now to avoid water wars and climate catastrophe. Bacigalupi takes some very important concerns facing the world today and turns them into a compelling narrative that will entertain (and perhaps even inspire) many people who otherwise might not give much thought to these concerns. Good fiction doesn’t always need a deep message about today’s society — but it doesn’t hurt, and those are some of my favorite narratives. Bacigalupi’s approach to the task of writing such narratives is among the best I’ve seen. I definitely recommend the Water Knife to other readers and look forward to reading more of his work!