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The International Writers Magazine: Book Review Archives

The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Orbit (28 May 2015)
ISBN-13: 978-0356501741
• Sam Hawksmoor review

Brilliant, frighteningly real scenario for the doomed 'Sunshine' States. A Chinatown for this generation.

The Water Knife

Sometimes events conspire against a science fiction writer.  You spend all your time building a credible future world based around an entirely plausible idea of the American states going to war against each other for water rights, with California being top dog and Texas being this dust bowl where all Texans are treated like unwanted scum - then in the exact month of publication you find Texas underwater, California rapidly approaching dust bowl status, the Artic one of the warmest places in North America with forests on fire in Alberta and British Columbia.   Enough to make a writer weep.

Luckily Paulo Bacigalupi’s novel 'The Water Knife' is set in the near future and rest assured all will return to his very real predictive trajectory once El Nino has had it’s way with the US weather.

The Water Knife is a brilliant return to form after the rather disappointing Doubt Factory and is a great companion to the amazing The Wind-Up Girl published some five years ago now.

Climate change warnings appear everywhere now but this is a very realistic approach to explaining the consequences.  It assumes that the law will still be applied, even though the whole continent is lawless.  Water rights are the ticket to ride, worth more than gold, and without them whole cities will die.  Angel Velasquez, the scarred Mexican is the ‘water knife’ who works for Catherine Case, the boss of water management in Vegas.  Nevada, if you didn’t know, is situated in a desert.  Like Phoenix, it shouldn’t exist.  The water knife’s job is to cut off the supply to rival cities and kill them.  Angel doesn’t feel anything for the all the people he forces to flee their homes and lives.  No one can live in a city without water and whoever holds the most senior water rights wins.  Illegal extraction will be met with extreme violence. Bacigalupi touched on this subject with his short story The Tamarisk Hunter in the Wastelands 2 short story compilation and it definitely was worth further examination.

His role as a writer is to examine the trends and extrapolate the most logical scenarios.  Stands to reason that water scarcity and rising populations will be one of the most lethal combinations.  Making desert’s bloom to grow food for cattle to eat or produce bio-fuels with ancient aquifers that will soon all run out makes no long-term sense.  And when it does, cities like Phoenix or Culver City and Vegas will die.  The Colorado River can only support so much life and as we have discovered this year, if the snow doesn’t come in winter, there’s nothing to feed the river with anyway.

Angel and his crew defend the right of Vegas to exist with extreme methods. Blowing up dams, cutting water pipelines.  What use is a five bedroom, three bathroom McMansion if you have no running water and if you have no water, the houses have no value and the banks that lent the money to build them have useless debts and the downward spiral to hell begins. And everyone is looking over their shoulders at California where they seem to be one step ahead of everyone in the procurement of water rights.

The Water knife is a nightmare vision of our very near future, written with confidence. Just as The Wind Up Girl presented us a grim future some 200 years hence, as did the amazing Shipbreaker, one reads his ‘fiction’ and you instinctively know that yes, this is how it will be, it is inevitable.  He has seen the real future and you won’t want to be living in it.  You certainly won’t want to be living in the ‘sunshine’ states. Put your retirement plans on hold now.

Maria and Sarah are two orphaned girls trying to get by in Phoenix. Sarah peddles her young ass hoping to hook a rich player who lives in the Arcology towers where they don’t have to breathe the dust and don’t ration water.  Maria sells water by the cup she buys from the Red Cross pumps to Chinese construction workers.  They live a mean existence, having to pay off pimps and Vets, who prey on the poor. If you don’t pay you get fed to the hyenas.  Maria Villarosa, the Texan once had a respectable family, a home, school, but the water was cut off and they had to flee.  She is a survivor in a harsh, cruel world.

Lucy is a journalist, was nominated for a Pulitzer once and she scrubs a living posting apocalyptic chronicles of daily life in Phoenix.  She is an outsider, here for the story, but could be back in Vancouver with her family where it still rains and people don’t get shot for no reason every day of the week.

Lucy and Angel collide when she is investigating the brutal murder of her source, the guy who thought he was going to make a major killing, but wouldn’t reveal exactly how.  Now his mutilated body is in the morgue with hundreds of dead Texans found in a mass grave.  Angel is there posing as a cop but Lucy knows the moment she sees him that he is something else – something evil and escapes his clutches.

Murder, starvation, desperate sex and bloody entrails litter this fast paced gripping thriller – a Chinatown for this generation.  No one trusts anyone and the violence is brutal but unsentimental, it all just business.  Water business.

Paulo Bacigalupi is a visionary writer who mines our future with a clarity that is bleak and depressing but addictively prescient.  He writes on our tombstones with flair and great style.
If you want to know your fate read The Water Knife now. Print, Kindle and iBooks

© Sam Hawksmoor
author of ‘Another Place to Die: The Endtime Chronicles’ +
GIRL with CAT (Blue) by Sam Hawksmoor

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