I recently finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s new book, a novel about a bone-dry dystopia that might fall into the genre of climate sci-fi, or cli-fi, as it’s now called; however, while climate change is at the center of the novel, it reads to me more like a near-future thriller than sci-fi.
The Water Knife is set at an undetermined point in the near future when, due to the ravages of climate change, the Southwestern US has become a land of ever rising heat and extreme water shortages. Water companies in Nevada, California and Arizona are waging battles over the even more depleted Colorado River, which, as anyone living in the west knows, serves as a lifeline for the region.
The southwest is now a world where unnamed water companies operate like rogue states with private militias guarding aqueducts and dams and working to keep out desperate refugees, especially Texans, whose state imploded after their water was cut off. These refugees and the residents of Las Vegas, Phoenix and other Western cities cling to life while dreaming of rain that never comes.
All, however, is not lost: for the powerful the Chinese have come to offer aid in the form of “arcologies,” self-contained cities that create lush mini-worlds using recycled water even as nearby reservoirs and Lake Mead drop dangerously low. Outside these highly guarded oases, “zoners” live in dark suburbs where electricity, running water and A/C are distant memories, “johnnysacs” provide the ultimate recycling and “water knifes,” mercenaries hired by the powerful make ‘cuts’ wherever they need to secure water supplies
The city of Phoenix is in particularly dire circumstances as it is squeezed in the power struggle between the more dominant cities in California and Nevada, and flooded by refugees fleeing south from Texas whose water supply has been cut off by corporate water knives.
Moving through this Mad Max world of abandoned subdivisions, dust storms and shifting allegiances we meet Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer-winning journalist who has been documenting the city’s collapse, Angel Velasquez, a Water Knife who is in Phoenix searching for information about rumors of ancient water rights, and a determined Texas refuge, Maria Villarosa, who is desperate to escape the militia-patrolled border of Arizona into the greener and wetter world of California. You know things are bad when long-term drought ridden California is the destination of hope.
This near future dystopia allows Bacigalupi to offer a warning about the dire consequences of ignoring climate change. As one of the novel’s gritty survivors notes
We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway. There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity.
The Water Knife is a highly readable, suspenseful novel, and one I had a difficult time putting down. But as good as the novel was, the ending was so abrupt that the story never reached the crescendo I was anticipating. Disappointing endings seem to be the theme of much of my summer reading thus far. More on that in another post.