The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Orbit, 2015, 379 p

The Water Knife cover

The south-western US states have run out of water. Federal authority has all but broken down; there are patrolled borders between states to cut down on refugees. Phoenix is a dust-bowl, any refugees that have made it from Texas face a life scraping on the margins, doing what they have to do. The South Nevada Water Authority under Catherine Case aggressively pursues its water rights over the Colorado River making Phoenix’s problems worse.

There are three narrative viewpoints; Angel, the water knife of the title, one of Catherine Case’s enforcers; Lucy, an investigative journalist; and Maria, a refugee from Texas scrabbling to survive. The plot centres round ancestral water rights which once belonged to Native Americans and which outweigh all others.

It is an almost relentlessly misanthropic endeavour. Only one character states a view approaching anything compassionate, “‘We’re all each other’s people…. When everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.’” Yet he then goes on to say what an immigrant from India had told him, “‘… people are alone here in America. And they don’t trust anyone except themselves, and they don’t rely on anyone except themselves….. India would survive all this apocalyptic shit but America wouldn’t. Because here, no one knew their neighbo(u)rs…. in America everyone had left their homes in other countries, so maybe that was why we’d forgotten what it was to have neighbo(u)rs.’”

More representative is when Angel describes “a view of the world that anticipated evil from people because people always delivered.” Contrast that to the essentially optimistic view of humanity in Naomi Mitchison’s The Bull Calves which I read just beforehand. If anything, The Water Knife actually shows the necessity for a resilient, well-ordered, balanced society, even in times of stress; but that is not an argument which Bacigalupi makes.

The back cover here reads (in part,) “One of the most exciting and original novels you will read this year.” I must disagree. It’s the same picture of degradation and selfishness peddled by too much recent SF. Only the details differ. Bacigalupi does it well though.

Pedant’s corner:- The copy I read was an uncorrected proof (ARC) riddled with “a”s or “the”s or “it”s or other words either missing or extraneously interpolated eg “His was face was puffy” and “just another of victim of”. There were so many I gave up noting them. I hope most of these were cleaned up before actual publication. Missing start quotes if a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “she wrapped her arms around her herself,” (no second “her” needed,) “The went after the Calies” (they went after.) “Do find that’s true?” (Do you find?) “out of Hell , he’d,” (out of Hell, he’d,) “Lucy’s sister was the kind of people who broke eas(il)y” (the kind of person.)

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