For someone who quite enjoys science fiction movies, I sure don’t like thinking about the future. It’s scary, it’s worrying, and in order to live my life without being cripplingly depressed I do have to become one of those head-in-sand people about some things. This is especially the case when it comes to near future climate change fiction, a genre I pointedly avoid. But it’s not just earth futures; it’s space as well, that unfathomably huge universe. Nothing against space personally, I just don’t need an existential crisis right now. Thanks.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, then, was a book I took up hesitantly for fear it would just upset me. Set in water-starved Arizona in a future where the United States has all but dissolved and swathes of people are fleeing death by dehydration, it is a grim view of the future indeed. The powers of Nevada, California and Arizona vie for drips of the Colorado river. Ruthless Angel, employed by Nevada, arrives in Arizona to chase up rumours that a new water source has been found. Lucy, a journalist, is chasing similar leads in her quest to uncover the truth behind Phoenix’s ever-increasing bodycount. Maria, a Texan refugee, tries to eke out a living selling water, fighting to survive Phoenix’s dangerous underworld. The plots of these three characters intertwine as they are all embroiled in the desparation and violence of a city in its death throes.
Hugo, Nebula and Locus award-winning Bacigalupi does an excellent job of creating an apocalytpic atmosphere, of depicting the savage dry heat that pervades Phoenix, relieved only in luxurious buildings and automobiles beyond the reach of the Phoenix resident. The emotional journey of the characters is similarly well portrayed. The action is pacy; the book is a fairly easy read, although it demands full attention as the plot twists and roles change rapidly. There is fortunately a minimum of preaching to readers about climate. Although some characters disparage the thinkers of the past, Bacigalupi mostly relies on illustration rather than cloying conversations about how we should have known better. The follies of the past, such as desert swimming pools and indeed the existence of Phoenix at all, are a good example. These also give a good indication of just how quickly the world has spiralled into catastrophe.
The story does not relish too much in its bleakness. Though the amorality of the times, people and corporations are important, and the human misery is ever present, somehow Bacigalupi avoids raking the readers too much over the coals. The same cannot be said for his characters, mind you. The fierce action, and the quality connections between characters, are a key feature. So in the end my fears were not realised. That said, I did avoid reading the acknowledgments about all the research that went into creating this vision of dystopic and drought-ridden times ahead. I do want to hope that we humans are not quite so bad as The Water Knife suggests.
Please do give The Water Knife a try. Fast-paced and intellectually engaging, it is a stark vision of what lies ahead for us all. I have not yet read Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, but I am eager to now.