The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi has a compelling and believable premise. Set in the near future, water shortages in the west have reached critical levels. In many places, it no longer rains. The states are fighting for what water is available; Texans have become refugees that struggle to cross state borders (often ending up dead and strung up as a warning to others). Catherine Case is a powerful woman who controls much of the water in the west, ensuring that Nevada drinks while other states thirst.
Case employs many people to help her retain her power and her water. One of them is Angel, a former gang member she rescued from prison. He looks like a scary tough guy, scarred and tattooed, but he is a complex and loyal individual. He goes on a mission to Arizona, in its death throes but still hanging on, and gets mixed up in subterfuge over water rights that date back two hundred years. He crosses paths with Lucy, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist in Phoenix to report on the crisis, and Maria, a Texas refugee determined to survive on her own terms.
The world building is all too easy to believe. Americans have been wasting fresh water for decades in ways that are completely unsustainable. As Angel observes:
“Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the ice age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans – vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.” (p. 80 of the advance reader copy)
In Bacigalupi’s world, the Red Cross provides water, and refugee camps spring up around them. The tension between Texans and Arizona natives is palpable. The Chinese build oases for those with money and power. Young women sell their bodies to survive and take drugs to provide false courage.
While the characters are not particularly original types, they are well drawn. They have depth. The intrigue was twisty but not so complicated that it was hard to follow.
Bacigalupi hit only a few false notes for me. For example, Angel thinks about Lucy: “He wanted her. He wanted her like he’d never wanted another woman.” (p. 231 of the ARC). Really? Time to slip into the overblown language of a genre romance? There are descriptions of graphic torture and violence. Angel survives gunshots and trauma that would kill anyone else except maybe Indiana Jones.
Still, I found the book gripping and the future world realistic. If you enjoy dystopian fiction and don’t mind veering off into Hollywood movie territory occasionally, I recommend The Water Knife.
I read an advance reader copy. The Water Knife will be published on May 26. It will be available in the Galesburg Public Library’s New Fiction area after that date.