The city of Phoenix in The Water Knife is a grim place. Paolo Bacigalupi’s second novel for adults takes us to a Phoenix that is derelict, poverty-ridden and lawless, a place where most of the population have to get by surviving the dust storms and relentless heat with no constant access to electricity or water. Those who are lucky—or ruthless—get to live in the Chinese-built high rise arcologies, where ‘zoners’ aren’t allowed access, unless they’re the Texas ‘bangbang girls’ escorting richer men for the price of a meal and a shower.
The situation outside the arcologies is dire, with mafias controlling society by brute force. With water rights under corporate control, entire neighbourhoods have been rendered desolate with water being been cut off. ‘The Queen of the Colorado had slaughtered the hell out of these neighbourhoods: her first graveyards, created in seconds when she shut off the water in their pipes.’ The Queen of course, is well beyond the reach of these gangs, though everyone else must eke out a living around them, often by paying them taxes on all earnings just to stay alive. Water is more than just currency here, it’s the most valuable commodity around.
The Queen in this case is Catherine Case, the creator of both graveyards and of water knifes. She’s a formidable character—one who knows what it takes to survive and one who isn’t afraid do to what it takes. That’s one of the really enjoyable things about The Water Knife—none of the antagonists are pure villains—they’re all just people making the best of a bad situation. Selfishly and with no moral fibre but ultimately human in their sole instinct to survive.
Angel Velasquez is one of Catherine’s water knifes, a hired henchman/assassin/manager/spy who she saved from a life of endless gang violence and probable early death, to create into one of the people who does her dirty work, mercilessly protecting Las Vegas’ water rights and in doing so, destroying Phoenix, amongst other cities. Angel knows exactly what he’s doing, but he also knows that he must survive by the law of the jungle and that his is not a personal grudge against anyone he ruins. ‘We’re just cogs in a big old machine, right?’, he tells a man whose water he has just cut off, ‘This is bigger than you and me. We’re both just doing our jobs.’ Angel’s job leads him to Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer winning journalist who has stayed in Phoenix years longer than she intended to, hoping to understand the water wars that are rapidly changing the landscape around her, hoping for that one big story. Both Angel and Lucy find themselves searching for rumoured 19th century water rights that could tip the scales and in doing so they meet Maria Villarosa, a young Texan woman who will do anything to get out alive.
The narrative switches between the POVs of Angel, Lucy and Maria, each equally determined but not equally equipped to deal with the decay around them. Each of them is a well drawn, complicated character, each with vastly different motivations, each compelling and each neither just good or bad. ‘We’re all the same monsters,’ Angel says ‘and it’s just accidents that turn us one way or another, but once we turn bad, it takes a long time for us to try to be something different’. Of course, not everyone can be something different.
As far as the science fictional elements are concerned, Bacigalupi casually throws them in, just enough for us to know that this isn’t entirely familiar territory. These elements are quick, clever and effective. There are Clearsacs that filter urine into drinkable water, intravenous medical growth stimulants to heal wounds fast, and of course the arcologies—insular compounds that exist like mini-planets, with their own ecosystem to generate water and filter air, where ‘with A/C and industrial air filters and 90 percent water recycling, life could still be good, even in Hell.’
The Water Knife is a sharp, smart and tense near-future thriller that began life as the 2006 story “The Tamarisk Hunter.” Set in the same drought ridden world, it’s well written, paced and plotted so expertly that it doesn’t feel didactic even though (as always) Bacigalupi has a great deal to say on the situation of climate change and drought and while he says it all, but he never forgets that he’s also here to entertain—he’s not a journalist, he’s a writer of fiction, a storyteller with eyes very wide open. Not everyone is going to share his vision, or like it, though. This is going to be very brutal reading for a lot of people. Many readers will find it bleak, many will find it going just too far with gruesome violence used to prove how quickly society can descend into chaos and corruption. ‘I already made it out of one apocalypse. I don’t need another,’ says one of the characters, but what’s left behind isn’t ever going to be easy to survive either.
I’ll warily venture a personal comment here: most of the people who find this bleak will be those who have never turned on the tap and found it dry, those who have never run out of water mid-shower, those who have never run out of the expensive drinking water that lets them live because they can’t get out to buy more, those who have never dealt with a water tanker mafia that decides to hike up water prices because they have been wronged by some sector of the local government, those who had to pay off local thugs to be left alone to run their business, those who have never been held up at a traffic light or been robbed. For those who live in criminalised societies in cities armed to the teeth and rife with civil violence, those who with constant fear and no sense of safety, the world of The Water Knife is already so familiar that we can not afford to look away just because it’s depressing. We can only learn and hope that we somehow stop things from going that far. When you live in a dystopia, fictional ones don’t worry you enough to not read about them, no matter how bad they may be.
Bacigalupi’s Phoenix sounds a lot like the city I live in, the world many know, fear and love. It’s a place that ‘made people crazy… Sometimes it turned people into devils so bad they weren’t recognisable as human. And other times it turned them into goddamn saints.’ Here’s hoping we’ll let the saints survive.
The Water Knife is available now from Knopf Doubleday.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time onTwitter.