We read the news; we hear of the drought in California, the suggested restrictions rarely enforced, the warnings that it won’t be enough to stave off disaster. We hear of defiant affluents who feel their net worth exempts them from constraints, of towns fearing they will run out of water in a week and then receiving a reprieve but only for a few months; “water rights” has suddenly become a buzz phrase. Yet most of us hear all of this and say, “So what?”
Paolo Bacigalupi’s speculative fiction novel The Water Knife is so what.
Mr. Bacigalupi is not afraid to take on non-glamorous social issues and put them at the forefront of his exquisitely crafted novels. He is the author who showed us a gritty future where genetic modification had unexpectedly brought blight and disease to most of the world’s crops triggering wide spread famine and political upheaval in his Nebula and Hugo Award winning novel The Windup Girl. He is the author who took on PR spin doctors who deflect corporate pharmaceutical greed at the expense of a trusting public in the YA novel The Doubt Factory. The author who took a fun and freaky middle school aged book about zombies and seamlessly wove in themes of diversity and illegal immigration in Zombie Baseball Beatdown. Each of these books employ corporate greed as part of the classic conflict, and personal ethics (or lack thereof) as a plot device. And each one is a whopping good tale.
Now he takes on the politics of water in The Water Knife. Set in the near future, Carver City, Arizona is in dire straits. Due to a political loophole, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has been given about fourteen hours to enforce a “cease and desist” order at the water treatment plant that serves over 100,000 people, suddenly severing their access to water from the Colorado River. By the time Arizona is able to file any appeals to stop the action, it will be too late. (“Vegas in the house! Grab your ankles, boys and girls!”)
Heading up the strike force is Angel Velasquez, favorite fist of SNWA’s water rights titan, Catherine Case. By the time Angel and his squadron of gunships, backed up by helicopters from the Nevada National Guard, is done, the water treatment plant in Carver City will be a smoldering ruin. (“Clear out! All of you! You got thirty minutes to evacuate this facility. After that you’re obstructing!”) Never mind that suddenly thousands of people will be without water – any water. (“Judges say we got senior rights. You should be glad we’re letting you keep what you already got in your pipes. If your people are careful, they can live on buckets for a couple of days, till they clear out.”)
And Carver City is not an anomaly. Due to the drought and the political clout of those holding water rights, America is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave, at least not in the Southwest. Texas has been jettisoned, unable to sustain itself with too many bridges burned to garner any real sympathy; in social strata, Texans are the new Mexicans. Borders have been closed. Arizona is slipping away due to political maneuverings from Las Vegas and California; Phoenix is barely holding on through largesse shown to it from aid agencies and wily corporations, such as Chinese conglomerate Taiyang International, who have swooped in to pick its bones.
The people of Phoenix aren’t going out without a fight, though. They somehow find a way to keep going, even if life has changed drastically – and almost without exception, for the worse. But folks such as journalist Lucy Monroe are determined to get the story of what is going on in Phoenix out into the world, even though it often seems like the rest of the world just doesn’t care; people who still get rain, who still function under the illusion that their underground aquifers can be managed, are willing to sit and watch as the Southwest slowly succumbs to political manipulation and corporate opportunism.
But then a rumor starts to gain purchase, hinting that a way has been found to trump the Catherine Cases of the world, the Taiyang Internationals, the Colorado River Compacts, who care nothing for the Zoners, and the ranchers, and the people who have lived on the land for generations. If true, this would be the Holy Grail of water rights:
What if I gave you senior rights that you could take right up to the Supreme Court? Rights that you could count on the feds enforcing. No bullshit. No he-said, she-said; no Vegas did-or-didn’t pump how much water; no farmer did-or-didn’t divert how many acre-feet into his field. None of that. The kind of water rights that could get the f***ing Marines posted on every dam on the Colorado River and would make sure the water spilled straight down to you. The kind of rights that would let you do what California does to towns all the time… What would you think of that? How much would you pay?
The problem is that everyone is hearing those rumors, and the shadowy forces that shift behind the powers that be have been set in motion, not to determine the veracity of the rumors but to secure the rights, or bury them where they will never be a threat. And suddenly, people start dying. Gruesomely.
One of those people happened to be someone who had been close to Lucy. So now, what used to be a activist crusade for her becomes intensely personal. But she has to be incredibly careful, because there are people like Angel Velasquez out there, also looking for answers.
Of course, this is Paolo Bascigalupi, which means that nothing is quite so clear cut. Angel, while clear of focus, is not the villain that so many other, lesser novelists might make him out to be. As with Anderson Lake in Windup Girl, a cutthroat purpose does not preclude a man of conscience as filtered through his own reality – which is just as valid as a character who may be deemed more sympathetic. And all of Mr. Bascipalupi’s characters’ motivations and internal ramblings are seamlessly layered (not obtuse – layered), whether they be Angel’s, Lucy’s, or Maria’s (the young Texas migrant who unknowingly gets caught up in the drama). No cookie cutter characters here. No clichéd situations, nor outlandish fare for the sake of ratcheting up the drama.
But what is most compelling about The Water Knife is that it lays open a frighteningly plausible future. A future not of sweeping plague and almost romantic dystopia, but one of dirt and numbness and corporate avarice. We’ve already seen the whispers of this future in the disenchantment of our inner cities, in the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United rulings, in our penchant for hoping if we ignore problems such as climate change and dwindling resources, they’ll just go away.
Read this book – and for goodness sake, stop watering your lawn, take shorter showers, and don’t leave the faucet running when you brush your teeth. None of these things may help that much, but at least you’ll be more aware. And that’s the first step towards meeting the future, rather than letting it just happen.
Don’t say Paolo Bascigalupi didn’t warn you!