I recently moved from California, in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record, to Arizona, a desert state in perpetual drought. Water is on my mind. So Paolo Bacigalupi‘s new novel The Water Knife, released this week, hit home with me, as it takes place in a Phoenix post-“big daddy drought,” and the city is drowning in constant dust storms. Refugees from Texas live in shanties around Red Cross/China Friendship water pumps.
If you read one book this summer, let it be this one.
After big daddy drought, nothing matters as much as water rights. States are at each other’s throats, closing their own borders and seeking technology to cover rivers and prevent evaporation. The bureaucracies of water management are now militarized. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, led by the fierce boss Catherine Case, is an unapologetic power player, sacrificing suburban sprawl as she cuts off water to outlying areas to save the wealthy epicenter of her city. Rich Chinese and Vegas businessmen live in an enclosed, sustainable arcology that purifies and reuses water, a carefully created ecosystem full of green parks to walk through and lush moisture in the air, for those who can afford to get inside.
Angel Velasquez is Case’s right hand man, salvaged from the gang life and transformed into a water knife, a man who gets things done to keep his city drinking water. Amidst lawsuits and injunctions and national guard troops, Angel is the man you send to bomb out a treatment plant on the Arizona border, before the Zoners send in their own troops. He’s the man who makes sure rivers flow your way, leaving other states dry and thirsty.
And in Phoenix, people are thirsty. We meet reporter Lucy as she throws on her filter mask and grit goggles, and heads out in a blinding dust storm to find out more about the news of a murder she sees on the hashtag #phoenixdownthetubes. There’s Maria, a Texas refugee who’s trying to resist the pull of easy prostitution money for one more day.
Angel, Lucy, and Maria collide in their struggles for survival, and each is memorable, but none stands out more than their landscape. Severe drought brings third world conditions to America in a way that reads both haunting and close to home, with our current drought situations. Today, there is news that water related crimes in California are increasing. Everything we’ve taken for granted, Bacigalupi takes apart.
But Bacigalupi’s message in the book, and in interviews, is that current droughts shouldn’t be a surprise, as we should be planning for them. In The Water Knife, Marc Reisner’s 1986 non-fiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, is treasured and handed down as a sort of bible. All the characters marvel at how even in the eighties, people could have seen this coming, known about these limited resources, and not done anything.
I think I’d do a disservice not to mention cli-fi as a growing term, attached to this book and others that address our future as it relates to climate change. Is this a buzz term? I’m not sure. Bacigalupi wrote about this in his review of Welcome to the Greenhouse a few years ago, where he said that the term climate change in relation to fiction makes him squirm, but it is being dropped all over the place. So, think what you will about that. And really enjoy your next glass of cool water, on behalf of these characters!