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.