The great book publicist in the sky has been working his magic on behalf of Paolo Bacigalupi. His new book, a novel about a bone-dry dystopia, arrives just weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown declared that California was facing the worst drought emergency in memory. Residents in the southwestern United States enduring that water crisis will appreciate the precision with which Bacigalupi imagines our thirsty future.
In “The Water Knife,” politicians and their private armies fight one another using drones, attack helicopters and lawyers to take control of the precious life-giving liquid still flowing, fitfully, from the Colorado River. The residents of Las Vegas, Phoenix and other Western cities cling to life, dreaming of rain that never comes. A gallon of water costs more than a gallon of gasoline does today.
“What if I told you I’d found a way to break the Colorado River Compact?” one of Bacigalupi’s characters says, referring to the 1922 treaty by which seven states divvied up rights to that river’s water. The compact is still on the books in “The Water Knife,” and there’s still a U.S. Supreme Court to enforce it, even though much of the social and political life of this future America is shaped by the kind of disorder, law-breaking and violence one finds in present-day South Sudan and Syria. Texas is already a goner, with its refugees streaming into Phoenix.
“We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway,” says one of the novel’s many gritty survivors, referring to global warming. “There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity.”
Bacigalupi has tackled these themes before, most notably in his 2009 bestseller, “The Windup Girl,” which is set in a future Thailand that’s just barely keeping dry above the rising waters of the Indian Ocean. Its cast of characters included a “calorie man” who scours Southeast Asia in search of new food sources to replace crops ravaged by bad weather and plant mutations.
The analogous fixer in this novel is Angel Velasquez, the “water knife.” It’s his job to find water using a combination of legal and thuggish tactics. Velasquez is as tough and cunning as a noir detective. He’s outfitted with assorted futuristic accouterments, some of which are taken from the tech trends of the present — a tricked-out Tesla, for instance.
Bacigalupi is a grim, efficient and polished narrator as Angel chases down rumors of a new water source somewhere underneath Arizona. The water barely flows, but the blood runs free. “It wasn’t the bodies, and it wasn’t the blood — he’d seen plenty of both,” Bacigalupi writes of Angel’s quest. “It was that everywhere he went, killers had gone before him, wrapping up the people who might give him answers.” That might sound like Philip Marlowe boilerplate, but Bacigalupi makes up for a lack of originality in tone by creating a twisted fictional landscape. It’s a vision of the near-future that borrows heavily from the strangeness and conflicts of the present.
The part of the U.S. Constitution that allows free commerce and travel between the states has been suspended, forcing citizens who want to enter sealed-off California to sneak past border control like illegal immigrants. The Chinese have come to offer aid and to build big projects. Las Vegas thrives thanks to the water knife and “arcologies,” self-contained cities that create lush mini-worlds using recycled water even as nearby Lake Mead drops dangerously low.
Some of Bacigalupi’s inventions reek of stereotypes: Mexico, for example, has devolved into a series of political entities called “the Cartel States.” But a powerful journalist named Lucy Monroe and a refugee from Texas named María Villarosa provide feminine wiles and a much-needed antidote to the book’s relentless bursts of testosterone-driven prose.
Fans of “The Windup Girl” are sure to enjoy losing themselves in these nearly 400 pages of climate sci-fi, or cli-fi, as it’s now called. But parents whose kids have enjoyed Bacigalupi’s popular young-adult fiction should be advised that “The Water Knife” is definitely a grown-up book: Among other things, it includes the occasional sex scene.
Our waterless future looks hot — and filled with conflict.
Hector Tobar is a Los Angeles-based writer whose most recent book is “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.”
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THE WATER KNIFE
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Knopf. 371 pp. 25.95