Dystopian fiction that breaks the mold

dystopian fictionThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Dystopian fiction too often aims to sketch out a possible future, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps on the canvas. The characters seem to exist merely to take predictable actions that cast a spotlight on just how bad things have gotten. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is different. Very different.

The late-21st-century reality portrayed in The Water Knife brings into high relief the consequences of climate change and the resulting water scarcity on the American Southwest. This sad, violence-ridden world is fully realized through the seemingly bottomless imagination of the author. In contrast to the bleak desert landscapes that dominate the story, this future reality abounds with colorful detail.

Prolonged drought, the draining of the aquifers, and climate change have combined to make most of the Southwest into a desert, while the states of the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf, and the Midwest are succumbing to the rising level of the seas and monster storms that dwarf anything previously known in human history. A weakened federal government has acquiesced to demands from the states to allow them to close off their borders. Now the states use the National Guard and local militias to block and often slaughter refugees from other states. In the Southwest, where The Water Knife is set, hordes of people displaced from Texas are taking the brunt of the violence.

The “water knife” of the title — a hit man employed to cut off water to farmers and sometimes to towns and cities — is a tough and extremely clever Mexican immigrant named Angel. His boss, Catherine Case, rules the powerful Southern Nevada Water District. Using Angel and a small army of other thugs, she has channeled much of the water of the Colorado River into Las Vegas, when she has built three arcologies — massive vertical towns that are virtually self-contained — and is building a fourth and planning a fifth; in these privileged communities, thousands of wealthy and well-connected people live in luxury unknown to the rest of the population. Angel, who is Case’s right-hand man, is one of those privileged people.

In the course of his ongoing dirty work, Angel’s path intersects with those of Maria, a teenage refugee from Texas, and Lucy, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative reporter originally from Connecticut who is pursuing the story behind the water politics of Arizona at great risk to her life. The intertwined stories of these three remarkable characters form the core of this extremely well written novel.

Warning for squeamish readers: violence is a dominant theme in The Water Knife. The book teems with scenes of violence so explicit that it will disturb all but the most hardened reader. There’s explicit sex, too. This is a book for adults. Period.

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the most gifted of the current crop of younger science fiction writers. His best-known work, The Windup Girl, is a masterpiece of the imagination, painting a picture of a grim, far-future reality that illuminates the world we live in now. The Water Knife is equally compelling.

This book is one of 18 excellent recent sci-fi novels. For other important dystopian novels, see my posts, A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenariosMy 6 favorite dystopian novels, and 24 compelling dystopian novels in series.


Mal Warwick