'The Water Knife' by Paolo Bacigalupi
Several people recommended +Paolo Bacigalupi
's The Water Knife
to me, and I'm glad they did. Bacigalupi is probably best known for 2009's The Windup Girl
, and I was interested to see where he'd go with a sci-fi story chronicling the endgame for 21st century water politics
here in the U.S.
Those who've read the non-fiction book Cadillac Desert
(1986) by Marc Reisner might not be too shocked by the world Bacigalupi depicts. In fact, Cadillac Desert
is held up as a prophetic tome by several of the characters in The Water Knife
(TWK) -- and understandably so.The Water Knife
is at once entertaining, imaginative, and thought-provoking. It's clear Bacigalupi has done his research (and the acknowledgments reflect this). He paints a believable world where climate change and overuse of aquifers have combined to render much of the southern and western U.S. uninhabitable without the aid of advanced technologies (e.g. 'arcologies' -- sealed biomes that use natural symbiotic processes to recirculate water with great efficiency). However, technology costs money, and not everyone has money. In fact, once the bottom drops out on southern and western cities, there are a whole lot of people whose real estate becomes worthless and whose jobs dry up as well. The mass migration is on, and states begin to defend their borders against refugees. Regional civil order breaks down.
Could civil order really fray so rapidly? Well, here in the real world there's been a catastrophic drought in Syria for the past several years that resulted in widespread crop failures. The fast-rising cost of food sparked riots -- riots which in turn brought a draconian crack-down from Assad's government, which in turn led to civil war along tribal and sectarian lines, which in turn caused chaos that attracted ISIS, which in turn resulted in a flood of refugees.
So the dominoes can quickly fall unless plans are laid for a crisis we know is coming. Here in the southwest climate change isn't theoretical. We're in the middle of the worst drought in 1,200 years. We're already planning and building to accommodate these changes -- conservation, re-use, resilience. But are we doing it fast enough? I pondered this while reading TWK. It's partly what made the book so relevant to me.I also enjoyed Bacigalupi's world-building
-- his late 21st century Phoenix, Arizona feels gritty and real, cluttered with lurid products and services aimed at a slow-motion regional apocalypse (murder-mags, collapse porn, and REI designer gas masks and more). It's a world familiar to us but also alien in its cruelty. His world has popular TV shows depicting good vs evil heroes, while the book's actual characters navigate a complicated moral landscape where even the best intentions can result in the death of innocent people. Marauding street gangs bedevil the outer parking lots of malls and abandoned, strip-mined housing subdivisions. Sand storms lash Phoenix and everyone's looking for a way out. A way North. Metered public water pumps and refugee camps. A callousness toward death. A feeling of disdain for outsiders who 'don't belong' in an area. A ruthlessness as older people defend their outmoded ways of life, and young people reject the previous generation's insistence that things return to the way they were -- something that's no longer in the cards for humanity. Instead, young people seek to do what's necessary to thrive under new circumstances -- charting their own course. Adapting.
Again, I live near a big city in a desert climate, and I found the reality in TWK compelling -- just a few bad policy decisions from being possible. We experience Bacigalupi's world through several well-developed characters who are continually forced to make difficult choices. Both the lingo, technology, and organizations in this potential future are convincing -- with various watersheds in the southwest competing for access to life itself. Each one has its 'water knives' -- assassins and enforcers who 'convince' riparian rights holders to part with their future.
It's also interesting that the outside world appears only obliquely in The Water Knife
. Chinese engineers and executives appear with their money and advanced technology, but we have little idea what's going on around the globe. This is more a statement on the provincial mindset of the book's characters; they have no interest in the outside world because they are literally fighting for survival right where they are. They might want to escape to Shanghai or San Diego or 'up north', but the larger world is left to look after itself.
You can find links to all of Bacigalupi's work at his web site:http://windupstories.com/books/water-knife/ #TheWaterKnife #GreatRead #SciFi