Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Water Knife: A Review

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife is a near future apocalyptic novel set in the drought ridden American Southwest, with the mostly out of water Phoenix getting most of the attention.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a very popular science fiction writer who specializes  in apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic settings that extrapolate current problems into future dire results.  His young adult novels  (reviewed here) have feature global warming and bioengineering, his far future adult novels (reviewed here) feature bioengineering fiascos mixed with peak oil energy problems, and now this very near future novel deals with our current drought in the Southwest. I have already written a fair amount on his biography at my other reviews, so we will move on.
The novel is set about 5 years after the continuing Southwestern United States drought has forced the cut off of water to various cities.  The collapse is recent enough that a technically underage young lady can remember anticipating her 8th grade prom. In this storyline the winners are California and Nevada, and the losers are Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  Mexico, is in even worse shape having already collapsed into an official government by drug cartels. 
I say technically underage because in Phoenix, Arizona, there is no law enforcement unless you are one of the few folks involved in self sustaining green-eco-tower or part of the truncated enforcement/government apparatus.  It is an odd hybrid economy that intentionally mimics a third world country at the edge of a war zone, complete with lawless refugee encampments.  The suburbs lay as ruins with their interiors gutted for the remnant copper in the plumbing and electrical lines.
So, as to the political winners and losers.  The winners are those who have managed to buy up, or already hold, senior water rights. They still do fracking, but now the fracking is for left over bits of underground water supply: A rather iffy, and temporary in any case, solution.  The water knife is one of the semi-mythical folks that works for the winners in insuring that their bosses get to keep the water that is their legally theirs.  Folks who would infringe on those rights are dealt with violently. As the story progresses the level of violence is starting to escalate to a higher level.
Against this background, we have a partially collapsed United States.  The drought in the Southwest and the hurricanes, and water levels rising along the coast have created huge refugee problems and under the threat of armed insurrection the United States has allowed States to set border controls to keep out the refugees.  This dynamic sets up an us against them mentality between fellow country men.  So, although we are seeing ground zero of one of the worst hit areas, you get a sense that there are a few areas (Vancouver is noted) that are still relatively happy and tranquil places to live.  There is some intimations that this tranquility is less stable than appearances indicate, but that is more hinted at than featured.
Against this background, the story revolves around a water knife, a journalist, and a young teenage refugee who stumble across a potentially very old, old in an areas where age rules, water rights.  Water rights with the apparent potential to completely turnover the current California-Vegas winners of the table.  People start dying, and it gets very violent.  Mr. Bacigalupi has never been shy about mixing in the sex and violence in his adult stories, and he is not here.  He has a very good sense of character, and his "heroes" are very flawed people, but none-the-less, a whole lot nicer than the really bad, bad guys. 
I did like the story.  It move very quickly, a page turner in a good way at times.  The characters are sympathetic, and you do find yourself rooting for them to make it through - much of the cast of characters does not. I have liked all three of the his novels that I have read, but I think this one is the most accessible to a general audience, and the one to have the most emotional impact.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
It is set in the near future and deals with extrapolations of current issues.  The issue of survivalism, and some of the problems with the current model, are noted.  How the bad guys of the future will likely operate (these aren't your stock motorcycle gangs for sure) is something that a good deal of folks should consider.  It's also noteworthy that simply being way out in the country may not be sufficient.  There are advantages (notably, charitable aid and access to the remnants of an economy) to being in the city.  Survival is helped by being able to recognize and having something to offer the winning side.  Luck helps too.  Although I didn't discuss it much, one of the main themes of the book is that being on the winning side trumps everything. Realism is a seven.
The novel is a relatively easy read.  It is thoughtful at times, and a page turner at others.  A six.


James M Dakin said...

Wind Up Girl was a well written book I enjoyed. Of course, it is dysfunction, not PA, so know what you are getting in to. In fact, years after I read WUG, I still remember it, which to me marks exceptionalism. Based on that, I won't hesitate to buy this latest one.

russell1200 said...

James: Interesting. I too tend to value books based on whether I can remember anything much about them a year after I read them. Maybe I should do a list of the books I reviewed ranking them on how well I remember them. LOL.