The Water Knife

cover of 'The Water Knife'The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi, May 2015

The Water Knife is a vision of an imminent future well worth avoiding: water wars in a fragmented US as droughts get steadily worse. It may be the most brutal book I have ever finished and you really don’t want anyone you care about to live in a world like it.

That said, it is both an important, timely novel of ideas and a gritty thriller. SF at its best does thought-experiments really well, and this is one of them.

South-western USA is already arid and seems to be becoming more so. California is currently in the grip of an unprecedented drought. Inland cities are critically dependent on artesian water and rivers fed by snow-melt from the Rockies, especially the Colorado, but artesian basins are being depleted faster than they can replenish themselves and the snow pack on the Rockies is smaller every year. Fast forward a generation or two and what have we got? The world of The Water Knife.

As soon as I read it I knew I wanted to review it here on Green Path, adding it to previous posts about ‘greenie fiction‘ and movies. Other projects intervened, however, week after week, until last week I came across a review which said almost exactly what I would have said, and said it very well.

My planned review has therefore become a meta-review: this brief introduction from me, a few review snippets from the publisher’s page about the book, a link to that good review on NPR, and a longish excerpt from another major review. I’m not passing on anything which I don’t agree with, of course: my own review, had I found time, would have made the same points.

Here are a few brief comments from other reviewers, from the publisher’s page:

The book’s nervous energy recalls William Gibson at his cyberpunk best. Its visual imagery evokes Dust Bowl Okies in the Great Depression and the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam that killed 600 people and haunted its builder, Mulholland, into the grave. . . . Reading the novel in 93-degree March weather while L.A. newscasts warned of water rationing and extended drought, I felt the hot panting breath of the desert on my nape and I shivered, hoping that Bacigalupi’s vision of the future won’t be ours.” —Denise Hamilton, Los Angeles Times

“An intense thriller and a deeply insightful vision of the coming century, laid out in all its pain and glory. It’s a water knife indeed, right to the heart.” —Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Aurora

“Anyone can write about the future. Paolo Bacigalupi writes about the future that we’re making today, if we keep going the way we are. It makes his writing beautiful …  and terrifying.”—John Scalzi, author of Lock In

The longer (but still only one page) review I commend to everyone is this one by Jason Heller on NPR.

There is a far longer and more academic/literary one in the Los Angeles Review of Books of which I will quote the final section, guessing that many of my readers would not otherwise see it:

Eric Otto argues in Green Speculations that science fiction’s characteristic technique of cognitive estrangement — defamiliarizing our perception and understanding of the present and critically reflecting back on this reality — can lead to transformed ethical relationships, including our relationship to other species and to the environment as a whole. The dystopian strain in ecological SF prompts us to remember how present and future are interconnected and thus to recognize our responsibility or culpability for the futures our choices create. Otto quotes Bacigalupi from an interview in which Bacigalupi describes the connection he sees between his environmental politics and his role as an SF writer:

The speculative process, the process of going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report, oftentimes [gives us] the information we really need to know. And it seems like scientists are inherently conservative, and science journalists are inherently conservative, because you don’t want to be wrong. But that’s where I can get involved as a science fiction writer. I don’t have to be right, exactly, [but] I need to illustrate. I need to illustrate a feeling or experience so that people can say, “Does that seem like something we want to be going toward?”

The Water Knife takes these two or three steps down the road, asking us not merely if this world of water wars is a destination we desire, but more provocatively asking us to think about the kinds of people we might become if we continue down this road. The novel is filled with violence, but its most violent characters are not its most dangerous: the truly sinister actions come from those who calmly contemplate the destruction required to perpetuate their privilege and accept such “collateral damage” without qualm. …
Yet hope persists in the novel, faint as it may be, a hope that is amplified by the reader’s realization that we have perhaps not yet passed the tipping point, although we are surely very close to it. Although transformed practices vis-à-vis the environment and water management are an important part of this delicate optimism, more crucial is a transformed sense of community and interdependence. … we need to begin to choose “the right way instead of the easy way. Instead of the safe way” — to choose solidarity over individual survival. In these glimpsed moments of hope for another kind of future, for a more sustainable mode of living, The Water Knife is a book about how we are supposed to live now, so that we don’t find ourselves living in its future.


15 thoughts on “The Water Knife”

  1. A recent report in Ecowatch says, “A study released in Science Advances Wednesday finds strong evidence for severe, long-term droughts afflicting the American Southwest, driven by climate change. A megadrought lasting decades is 99 percent certain to hit the region this century,” and, later, “Historically, the Colorado emptied into the Gulf of California. Today, what little remains of the Colorado River when it reaches Mexico has been diverted to irrigate the farms of Mexicali Valley. The rest of the river exists mostly as a dry memory.”
    Bacigalupi is looking ever more prescient.

  2. More about Phoenix, which stars in The Water Knife:

    Phoenix gets less than eight inches of rainfall each year; most of the water supply for central and southern Arizona is pumped from Lake Mead, fed by the Colorado river over 300 miles away. [A satellite city’s] private developer paid a local Native American tribe to lease some of its historic water rights, and pipes its water from the nearby Lake Pleasant reservoir – also filled by the Colorado.
    That river is drying up. This winter, snow in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado, was 70% lower than average. Last month, the US government calculated that two thirds of Arizona is currently facing severe to extreme drought; last summer 50 flights were grounded at Phoenix airport because the heat – which hit 47C (116F) – made the air too thin to take off safely. The “heat island” effect keeps temperatures in Phoenix above 37C (98F) at night in summer.
    Phoenix and its surrounding area is known as the Valley of the Sun, and downtown Phoenix – which in 2017 overtook Philadelphia as America’s fifth-largest city – is easily walkable, with restaurants, bars and an evening buzz. But it is a modern shrine to towering concrete, and gives way to endless sprawl that stretches up to 35 miles away to places like Anthem. The area is still growing – and is dangerously overstretched, experts warn.
    “There are plans for substantial further growth and there just isn’t the water to support that,” says climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck.

    Bacigalupi’s book looks more prophetic every year.

    1. And the megadrought continues into 2021 –

      As people turn to air conditioners to survive heat waves, California and other states are warning people to conserve energy to avoid straining power grids.
      According to the US Drought Monitor, states across the west are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions. The conditions have been continuing for two decades, leading scientists to call it a “megadrought.”
      “The southwestern US is in a protracted drought period, or megadrought, of the likes we haven’t seen in the observational record in the last millennia,” explained John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of California researching climate and weather…

      1. And into 2022 –

        The American west has spent the last two decades in what scientists are now saying is the most extreme megadrought in at least 1,200 years. In a new study, published on Monday, researchers also noted that human-caused climate change is a significant driver of the destructive conditions and offered a grim prognosis: even drier decades lie ahead.
        “Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the west has been dry for most of the last couple decades,” says Park Williams, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and the study’s lead author. “We now know from these studies that is dry not only from the context of recent memory but in the context of the last millennium.”

  3. Business Insider says:

    New Mexico faces extreme water stress on par with the United Arab Emirates, the 10th most water-stressed country in the world.
    California, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska also have high levels of water stress, meaning industries and municipalities withdraw a large portion of the states’ available water each year.
    Water stress can turn droughts into disasters: Researchers expect climate change to bring more “day zeros,” when municipal taps run dry.

  4. People in Delhi are under increasing stress because the water is running out.

    Delhi is facing a water crisis. Ahead of day zero, the city’s residents have turned to the mafia and murder

    Delhi is one of 21 Indian cities that could run out of groundwater this summer, according to a 2018 government thinktank report.
    If and when this happens, it will be known as “day zero”.
    The water woes are a product of years of booming population growth, drought and mismanagement.
    The Delhi government has in recent years tried to supply water to unauthorised colonies by drilling water bores, but this is a short-term solution that exacerbates a bigger problem.
    Elsewhere, private enterprises — known locally as the “water mafia” — have been able to profit from the despair by building their own bores.
    The activity is illegal, but there has been little to nothing done to crack down on the practice.
    The ABC saw one such private enterprise drilling in a street, and the workers explained they were digging deeper than ever in an effort to find new water.

  5. Here’s a long and authoritative but quite readable paper on California’s water situation ten years ago – California Water Myths by Hanak et al, 2009.
    The myths it addresses start with “California is running out of water.” Unfortunately, the best it can do by way of dispelling that myth is “California has run out of abundant water and will need to adapt to increasing water scarcity.”
    Click on to download the pdf.

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