Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Last Updated on June 25, 2024

An advanced-reader copy of The Water Knife was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

According to William Gibson, the future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed. According to Paolo Bacigalupi, the future is right around the corner, and there’s very little left to distribute at all.

The Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiIn the future portrayed in The Water Knife (2015), there’s only one form of currency that really matters: water. The American Southwest is parched dry, the bickering states of Nevada, California and Arizona all fighting for the dwindling commodity that is the Colorado River. The federal government still exists, but is unable to control the feuding states from tearing each other’s throats out. It’s a harsh landscape of dust and grime and blood, where the poor will do anything to scoop up a tiny sip of muddy water and the rich lounge next to their water fountains and sit in air-conditioned coffee shops. When you dig deep enough to the core, it’s possible to sum up The Water Knife in a single chilling sentence: “Some people had to bleed so other people could drink.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Bacigalupi’s bleak future has a strong environmental bent, filtered through the lens of a very plausible future. His masterpiece of a debut, The Windup Girl (2010), revolved around similar topics, focusing on genebanks and GMOs in a 23rd century Thailand where corruption, greed and violence ran through the city like the Chao Phraya River, bleeding into everyone’s lives as they struggled to stay afloat.

But unlike The WindUp Girl, The Water Knife takes a sharp left and slowly rolls away from science-fiction territory. The novel takes place in the near future, and there are a smattering of gadgets and gizmos like military glass, but otherwise The Water Knife leans away from the science-fictional block and more into the realism zone. Or perhaps this is Bacigalupi’s intent to demonstrate just how close we are to this parched and waterless future. Realism and science-fiction are by no means mutually exclusive, as noted in almost all of his novels and short stories, including The Tamarisk Hunter (2006) where he first started building this universe. But it would be entirely possible to read The Water Knife and call it a near future analysis, and it certainly wouldn’t be unfair to classify the novel as a science thriller. I read this book while in the south-western United States, and a good chunk of it was consumed while driving from Los Angles to Las Vegas. I only needed to glance up from the page and peer out the window to see how plausible Bacigalupi’s waterless future really is. And that’s what makes it so terrifying.

In sketching up a future based on contemporary concerns, it’s easy to slide into the pit of polemic fiction. Bacigalupi did this in The Doubt Factory (2014), and he hasn’t managed to crawl out of it just yet. It’s easy to view The Water Knife as holding one big plaque of this is what we’ll become, especially when characters start referencing a real life nonfiction book titled Cadillac Desert (1986). Interestingly, they call it the Bible of water rights and how it served as a danger sign to us all those decades ago. This book and others like it pop up several times, even serving as a rather ironic and pivotal plot point that’s severely lacking subtly. Fiction has always been an excellent way of utilizing contemporary concerns and themes and finding new ways to address them, but Bacigalupi doesn’t employ the same nuance and tact in discussing these ideas as he did with The WindUp Girl and Ship Breaker (2010), and it comes across as very blunt and even didactic. I was hoping that Bacigalupi would hit the bullseye on the ending, but instead he performs rather poorly and left me scrambling ahead to the next chapter, only to find that the novel had ended.

But Bacigalupi makes up for this in his trio of characters. Angel Velasquez is the water knife after who the novel is named, protecting his boss, Catherine Case and making sure all water diverts to her and her interests. If you have money, you’ll have enough to drink. Otherwise you’ll get nothing but dust. The other two POVs characters include Lucy, a journalist intent on sticking her head into the hornet’s nest, and Maria, a farm girl who does a deal with the devil.

These three characters live in a land of dust and violence, and they’ll do just about anything to not slip through the cracks, and this desperation inevitably comes back to bite them in ways that’ll make your skin crawl. But while none of them are sort of people you’d want to spend time with, Bacigalupi sculpts them with ingenuity and care, giving us a slow drip of a backstory as we slice our way through the novel. The time spent with the story and action is carefully balanced with the time spent inside their heads, allowing us to draw closer to their thoughts even when might not want to. Summoning sympathy for characters such as these is tough work, and Bacigalupi nails it perfectly. They are certainly not above questioning their own morality and gazing at the guilt that slowly gnaws away at them, something only the best grimdark novels are capable of achieving.

Credit must also be given to the superb writing. His depictions of a draught-ravaged south west will leave your throat parched and your skin itchy. A lot of liquid had to be consumed in order to keep reading, which is feat in itself. His clipped sentences and tight dialogue allow for an intense and thrilling read, every sentence teetering on a knife’s edge. His writing can’t be described as minimalist, but for the most part there are no lavish or long descriptions of anything other than the desert and its unforgiving Dust-Bowl state. In all fairness there’s not much that he can describe, a complete contrast to The WindUp Girl with the colours and spices and flavours of a rich-imagined Thailand simply oozing from the page. He’s not playing with the same tools, so he’s decided to switch tactics, and he’s fairly successful in doing so.

There’s a constant sense on impending doom on almost every paragraph, and you’re just waiting for the hammer to fall with every chapter. Unlike The WindUp Girl which jumped straight into the action and didn’t slow down from there, The Water Knife starts with a (literal) bang, but takes a while to really pick up the pace again. But when it does you’ll be hard pressed to put it down.

Bacigalupi is an exceptional writer of smart and science-based science-fiction, which is why The Water Knife comes across as a mild disappointment. It’s a razor sharp novel set twenty minutes in the future with raw intensity, but when it comes to discussing the themes within it’s sometimes more likened to a brick through a window. Thankfully, Bacigalupi is skilled enough to give us fantastic character and tight dialogue to carry his story forward. It’s nowhere near the lofty heights of his debut masterpiece, but The Water Knife is still a good novel that’s equal parts intriguing and terrifying, partly because one day we might not even regard it as fiction anymore.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.

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