Intersection: Here’s What Happens When You Read The Water Knife and The Peripheral At The Same Time

While traveling this summer, I read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (Knopf, 2015) in hardback and William Gibson’s The Peripheral (Penguin, 2014) on my e-reader… synchronously.

Why read both together? On the road, screen-reading is sometimes more convenient, but at other times, what I desire most is a real book in my hands, all deckled pages and shiny dust-jacket. Not having either in both formats, I read back-and-forth between the two.

If not wholly advisable, the results of reading in this manner are at least interesting: I’m fairly certain one of these books is taking place within the other’s universe.

The problem is, I’m not entirely sure which one.

So, work this through with me:

Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife begins after drought decimates the southwestern U.S. The titular Water Knife, Angel Velazquez (see also: assassin, detective, and spy), “cuts” water from competing cities so that his boss can keep Las Vegas green and thriving. When Angel crosses paths with Phoenix reporter Lucy Monroe over potential new water rights, things become complicated and a layered struggle for survival ensues.

Gibson’s The Peripheral takes place in two different timelines, where one universe—the one closer to our own—is a nested “stub” routed through a supercomputer by insanely wealthy speculators. The other universe—a far future that “stub” universe may or may not ever reach—contains those insanely wealthy speculators, as well as all of their gadgets and methods for surviving after a slow-moving event called “The Jackpot.” During the Jackpot, the world as we know it basically ground down to disaster, then started up again, much reduced, but also much enriched. Gibson’s universes intersect when pre-Jackpot-stub main character Flynne, her brother, and their friends must work with the post-Jackpot crew to solve a gruesome murder and foil socio-political intrigue. In order to bring the worlds together, post-Jackpot peripheral bodies are hacked and connected to the brains of Flynne and her friends in the stub. What’s initially deemed to be a one-way connection becomes a binary dataflow when the post-Jackpot universe’s influence overcomes that of the stub, and Flynne, along with Wilf, whose former girlfriend and client was the murder victim that began the story, must work together across both realities. This is a trash-gyre future, convoluted to Escheresque proportions, wrapped around and intersecting with a post-military Southern-gothic past that is, in itself, one way our future could present.

So, how do these two seemingly disparate books intersect?

At first glance, The Water Knife could be among the series of environmental and economic crises that drive The Peripheral’s “Jackpot” disaster, thereby suggesting that Gibson’s book takes place in Bagicalupi’s universe. Toward that end, the increasingly intrusive behavior of certain multinational corporations in The Water Knife and the search for ancient legal records to support future gains is something The Peripheral’s readers will find familiar.

With another, closer, look, The Water Knife might be a stub universe of The Peripheral, one being tapped for resources and wealth by the speculators in Gibson’s London. While we’re focused on Angel and Lucy, the machinations of corporate speculators seems at once otherworldly and without care for the human cost to those on the ground, because in the speculators’ minds, those costs are incidental to the ultimate goal: wealth and power.

Heightening the possible connections, both authors adjust our settings regarding which characters deserve attention, and which deserve each other’s attention.

What Gibson manages to do in The Peripheral is tell readers flat out that Flynne’s world is merely a construct, a moment of possibility within the larger world of post-Jackpot London… and then make the characters in that stub—Flynne and Connor and Burton—the ones readers care about the most. The efforts of post-Jackpot officials to reach through and save the occupants of the stub become more important than the original point of the story—solving the murder of a post-Jackpot citizen, as witnessed by Flynne.

What Bagicalupi does in The Water Knife is tell readers immediately that the southwest is not only doomed, that it is, in fact, hell on earth. The residents of the southwest are brutal to one another and many of the characters actively engage in not caring (because caring is dangerous) and distancing themselves from noticing the horror. And yet Bagicalupi somehow convinces us to care about them—about Angel the ruthless murderer and water-thief; about Lucy the witness and disaster-chaser-turned-local, and about others who must suffer greatly in order to gain our attention amidst what amounts to a Hieronymous Bosch + Salvador Dali + Dorothea Lange landscape of suffering.

Gibson achieves this in The Peripheral in part by shattering the membrane between worlds—by using peripheral bodies in post-Jackpot London to allow us to re-envision the stub characters as central rather than adjacent to the story. The moment one of those characters wakes up in a new body is so particularly joy-infused, in part because we see it through Flynne’s perceptions, as filtered through the peripheral’s eyes, that we become a part of the larger peripheral body that makes Gibson’s layering and membranes all the more present.

Meantime, Bagicalupi achieves similar connections by allowing characters from different worlds to recognize each other, and to experience a searing connection in two vastly different ways. When Angel sees Lucy, he’s hit by attraction or love, even though he knows he should probably kill her. When Lucy sees Angel, she’s overwhelmed by the feeling of danger. Both experience this as if someone’s walked across their future graves.

Could The Water Knife’s water battles actually be happening a few pages to the south and west of where Flynne and her friends track a murderer in The Peripheral? Are the speculators of The Peripheral bringing economic and technological force to bear on The Water Knife?

Thoughts like these are very good reasons not to read both books together, unless you want to bend your brain a bit.

But when one ignores all safety instructions and reads The Peripheral and The Water Knife together it does feel as if potentially the two books are gears, acting upon each other, to propel a series of changes, and generate the same kinds of questions: What are we willing to do to change things, to save ourselves, to begin to care about past iterations and those versions of us at the edge of things, before we, too, become subsidiary, peripheral, and capable of being cut away?

Fran Wilde’s first novel, Updraft, debuted from Tor Books in September 2015, her novella “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” will appear from Tor.com Publishing in May 2016, with her next novel, Cloudbound following in fall 2016. Her short stories have also appeared at Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and in Asimov’s and Nature. Fran interviews authors about food in fiction at Cooking the Books, and blogs for GeekMom and SFSignal. You can find Fran online, on Twitter, and Facebook.

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