Any neo-noir story worth a damn is haunted by some large and invisible system whose presence is a struggle enough to comprehend, let alone try to fight against. That looming entity can vary from politicized drug wars (The Cartel and The Power Of The Dog) to ambient ’70s malaise (Inherent Vice) to predatory government (Chinatown), so long as the plot’s climactic moment reveals the malice within. What makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife particularly affecting is that its Big Bad is so viscerally real: the drought.
Water Knife is set in a near-future version of the Southwest where the current drought that has already drained reservoirs and scorched through forests is only intensifying. Technology has advanced to the point where living in hyper-sustainable Arcologies is about the only way to ensure continued access to water, while narcos, refugees, and paramilitary state militias fight for control over a dwindling supply outside of them. Chinese companies have moved in to cash in on new infrastructure contracts and mine for aquifers, and the yuan is taking over for the dollar. The Red Cross is everywhere to deal with the humanitarian crisis.
Because water rights on trans-state rivers are meted out on a state-by-state basis and there’s not enough to support the oversized regional population, something quickly approaching a civil war is brewing. Texas is already dead, Las Vegas is playing dirty, and the region’s biggest (and least environmentally sensible) city, Phoenix, is dying. Meanwhile, California has been aggressively scaling up the violence necessary to protect its own meager water supply.
The narrative follows protagonists from each of the three tiers of the new society: Angel Velasquez, the titular “water knife” (a hired assassin) who works for Las Vegas and helped arm the Nevada radicals tasked with shooting any Arizonans or Texans that try to swim across the Colorado River; Lucy Monroe, a journalist too stubborn to leave Phoenix despite the high risk and likelihood that she may become one of the dead bodies she usually reports on; and Maria Villarosa, a Texas refugee trying to eke out an impossible existence under the thumb of local gangsters, and just about the only person prepared for the brutality and harshness of the new world.
The universe of The Water Knife is a crime writer’s dream. Nobody knows quite what the new rules of the Southwest will be, so every person’s allegiances and motivations are constantly shifting, and whatever rules exist are only pegged to how much water is left. It’s like the inverse of Snowpiercer: This dystopia is expansive, realistic, and, primarily, hot, yet it has a similarly on-the-nose class allegory at its core.
Futuristic technology peppers the book, but Bacigaupi never beats you over the head with it, instead using it accentuate the gap between those with water and those dying of thirst. He is at heart a sci-fi writer (he’s received a National Book Award for his young-adult sci-fi novel Ship Breaker), but he never lets the futurism get in the way of the narrative. Characters drive Teslas and shoot guns. The readily recognizable (yet slightly alien) future makes the world richer, the same way the plausibility of such a drought makes it scarier. Bacigalupi is right about our expansionist hubris in the face of global warming. When he writes, “Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed,” it doesn’t feel like science fiction.
A geological digression, if you will. The Colorado River Compact was signed almost 100 years ago, to dole out the water of the Colorado Basin between seven states, from the source up in Wyoming to the outlet in California. I asked one of my old geography professors, Dr. Laurel Larsen, about the wonky Compact, who explained further:
Allocations within the Colorado River Compact were based on a set of observational discharge data (from around 1900 to 1922), during which the river was running higher than its long-term mean (ascertained from tree ring data). Thus, allocations for water that typically doesn’t exist in the river were made.
California took advantage of this and shrewdly negotiated for roughly twice the amount of water Arizona got. This nearly led to a war between Arizona and California. Water rights in the American West are a labyrinthine clusterfuck of prior appropriation agreements, deals with Native American tribes, and overlapping claims on the same segments of river between multiple parties. The Southwest was never supposed to be populated to this degree, and a dodgy bit of science led to misplaced optimism that the region could support the type of population it has today. It’s not difficult to extrapolate a version of Bacigalupi’s new Southwest from the megadrought currently plaguing the region.
The narrative of the Water Knife touches on these real-life agreements, and revolves around rumors about the existence of some water rights “senior to God” that would ensure Phoenix’s survival right as it’s circling the drain. California and Nevada are hunting the rights just as eagerly as Phoenix and the Cartel States (in a stereotypical bit of projection, Mexico is now the sole property of narco cartels) and whoever comes out with them, if they exist, will control the fate of the Colorado, and choose who lives and who dies.
Angel is sent down to Phoenix to sniff around, cut what needs cutting, and deliver the rights back to Nevada so they can snuff out any chance of Phoenix stealing back their water. He thrives in the desert landscape, and sees himself in its stubborn survival:
The desert was different. It had always been a gaunt and feral thing. Always hunting for its next sip. The desert never forgot itself. A thin fall of rain was all that kept yucca and creosote blooming. If there was other life, it cowered along the banks of the few capillary rivers that braved the blazing lands and never strayed far.
Yet, for all his hard-heartedness, Angel isn’t cruel, and he occasionally lets his commitment to fairness get in the way. Predictably, people are crossed and double-crossed, and most everyone who comes in contact with the mythic water rights ends up dead (often horrifically so). Bacigalupi doesn’t rely on violence as a crutch, and Phoenix’s eventual descent into a literal hell isn’t played for shock, which, conversely makes it all the more sinister. This isn’t the glossy destruction of New York in a superhero movie. It’s a brutal, gradual unraveling of a city as it disintegrates back into the desert as vultures (hydrology corporations, cartels, coyotes) pick at its corpse.
This might make the book sound like a Revenant-esque growling contest. It’s not! For all the Hobbesian machinations of the world at large, all the characters we spend significant time with are sympathetic, sometimes to their detriment. (I would make the case that the book could have even benefitted from more tonal congruity and kept Angel mean for the last third of the book, when he lets his overactive sense of justice occasionally get the better of him).
If I read this book in the summer, when all around me drought restrictions were considered on every liter of publicly available water, I’d be a lot more terrified. Thankfully, El Niño is here to delude all of us West Coasters into believing our reckoning is put off for a while longer. Bacigalupi’s look into a hypothetical future is plausible enough to scare the shit out of you, but still rich enough to enioy. For now.
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