Thursday, September 26, 2019

Book Reviews Reloaded: The Water Knife

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on November 17, 2015. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays or Fridays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

The Water Knife -- Paolo Bacigalupi
Knopf Publishing
379 Pages

This week’s book review explores a possibility of our own very near future. It should scare the heck out of you because this future really isn’t that much of a stretch. With The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a novel that explores humanity at the brink of disaster as it fights for supremacy over a fickle Mother Nature.

In a future that seems much closer than we would like to admit, severe drought in several western states, including California, Nevada, and Arizona, has changed the political landscape. States have closed their borders to residents of other states. With only so much water to go around, each governor is fiercely protective of their respective supplies. Armed guards at borders between the states ensure that “undesirables” don’t make it into their states to add to the water burden.

At the center of the fray is the Colorado River. While Nevada and Arizona prepare to skirmish over the river, California waits in the shadows ready to pounce. Meanwhile, rumors abound about ancient water rights that could completely change how the waters of the river are distributed, and give the “have nots” what they have been begging for. The existence of these mysterious papers could completely alter the social makeup of the American Southwest. 

These long-lost papers describing water rights take Angel Velasquez to Phoenix to hunt them down. Velasquez works for Catherine Case and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that Nevada gets all the water that it can, even if it means removing obstacles like people. In his travels, he encounters Lucy Monroe and Maria Villarosa. Monroe, a journalist, knows much about the murky underworld of Phoenix. Angel utilizes his new friends to uncover the secrets he’s been sent to find.

While there is a mutual distrust among the trio, they reluctantly discover that they need help from the others in order to survive the violence surrounding the lucrative and dangerous water business. Their combined forces will help to ensure their very survival, even after a betrayal by a close friend. Are they able to save themselves as well as the people who need help the most?

Bacigalupi writes his characters with a dark, mysterious edge. It takes the length of the novel before we get the full picture of the person. Just like new people we meet in real life, Angel, Lucy, and Maria only let us know bits and pieces of their personalities. This gives the reader a more natural introduction to each of the characters.

At the same time, Bacigalupi describes the bleakness and hopelessness of a people and a city desperate for basic needs. Familiar cities have fallen into darkened civilizations weakened and bent under a new paradigm. The stage is set where we get a glimpse of our own probable future if we continue to build into areas that cannot support our water and food needs.

Bacigalupi writes this novel like a typical thriller. There is danger lurking in all the shadows, and a group of people who have the power to control those around them. The water dealers have all the power and use that to extort those people who are trapped in their own communities. Those people left in the cold are often desperate to fend for themselves and protect their families. Survival sometimes can hinge solely on to what extent they are willing to push.

Paolo Bacigalupi has written an incredible novel that details how quickly humanity can revert to a savage state when deprived of the most basic of needs. As we ignore the signs of climate change, the probability of scenarios like Bacigalupi have written become more and more likely. That is probably the most frightening aspect of this book -- the fact that we are already heading there. 

Bacigalupi has already written a very successful novel with The Wind-Up Girl. His newest creation, The Water Knife continues his foray into social commentary on the plight of the Earth. This book is an interesting, thought-provoking look at our future. If we keep building in areas of the country not able to sustain settlement, at what point will the balance tip into a police state to protect the water of others? This book takes an intimate look at that scenario, and comes off frighteningly realistic.

Craig Bacon has four daughters, so he can at least understand a hot water shortage.