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  • TITLE: The Water Knife
  • AUTHOR: Paolo Bacigalupi
  • GENRE: Sci Fi Thriller



This is what Phoenix looked like on March 25th, 2014

Locals call it a "haboob".


This book posits a Southwest without water. The residents wonder if the sky will ever be blue again, or if anything will grow in the parched land. It follows a logical line unspooling from oncoming actions of global warming; that is, what happens when drought becomes endless and people are forced into a calamitous survival mode that pits them against oneanother to stay alive.


Some people had to bleed so other people could drink. Simple as that.



But The Water Knife is not this simple. Its story oscillates between three characters, all third person, limited. They represent different striations from America's rank and file: Lucy Monroe, a Pulitzer-winning journalist telling the stories of Phoenix as it shrinks from abandonment and into a pandemonium roughshodded by ruthless gangs, home-grown militias, governmental agencies gone rogue, and anyone with a gun and desperate persistence; Maria Villarosa is a teenaged refugee from Texas who has lost her family to the violence and is selling water by the cup or canteen until forced to prostitution under the brutal bridle of Sinola cartel-like adjudication, but she has a focused determination to get out of the madness; Angel Velasquez, the water knife himself(1), who, as a child witnessed his family slaughtered, and is now working as an enforcer for the upper-ended power mongers living in arcologies, and using any force necessary to finagle all water rights up and down the Colorado river to divert the water for its Las Vegas stronghold.

This is Science Fiction sub-genred to Near Future Fiction. Unlike the apocalyptic novels that engender a world of complete stagnation, brilliantly exampled by McCarthy's The Road, this is a study in putrefaction, an ongoing derangement in the complexity of humanity's variegated personalities under ultimate pressure. It is a very noir-ish study in its conclusions that de Sade's survival of the fittest prevails over Rousseau's noble savage. Moral highground or tacit, social agreements ultimately avalanche under any individual's iceaxed tenacity to remain breathing. It is Hawkeye clutching Cora, insisting, "you stay alive, no matter what occurs!" in The Last of the Mohicans (1826).

But, again, this book doesn't let you off that easy. It is bursting in vision of this world, nailing details like Jonnytrucksportable toilets on wheels because sewage flows unabated in the dusty streetsor Clearsacs, baggy depositories that filter urine back into potable water. The "sloshing sea of social media"(p.25) runs hashtags like #PhoenixDowntheTubes or #CollapsePorn, while the Red Cross sees masses standing in '30s Depression-like breadlines for spigoted water at a hefty price. The city has cut off the water to their surrounding suburbs, leaving Scottsdale's mcmansions gutted of pipes and wiring. Empty swimming pools become gravesites for murdered women, left naked for the rampant, feeding coyotes. Mass graves of 100s are found in the desert; people who paid human coyotes for extrication and got extinction instead. It is life in unrelenting dust, where everyone wears mask filters and goggles in 120 degree heat. "If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around", says one character who ends up miserably tortured to death for believing he could escape being just "human spackle, filling the cracks of disaster"(p.31).

There is escape from this scourge, but it is solely for those with proper provisions, specifically billionaire-level bundles of yuans.(2) Called arcologies, these massive structures are self-contained environments where the anointed few called "fivers" live in a community of "jungle greenery and koi ponds"(p.52), drinking re-cycled water, powered by re-filtered sewage and solar panels, and protected by mercenaries in black Escalades with "bulletproof vests and mirrored military glass"(p.50). Phoenix has one built by the Chinese, and Angel's bossCatherine Casehas already entrepreneurially sold out her 4thcalled Cypress towerswith 3 already constructed in Las Vegas. Their existence teases the wasteland outside, reflecting back images of a population condemned to futility, despair, righteous anger, and personal demise. They are "just meat with a mouth"(p.240).

In the end, when all these trappings are blown away, a survival systeman adaptive philosophy of livingemerges. People outside the arcologies will die without water, while the "fivers" inside will forge a brave, new world. Are they America's talented, or its bane? Loyalty, then, is subverted to only be extended to those insulated enough from a fatally-wounded ecology that they probably created in the first place.

So, get onboard. This future is lookin' mighty close.


1) The term "water knife" comes from the action of "cutting a deal" for valuable water rights, or, more heinously, a callous cabrón who cuts off your water supply.

2) This story is confined to the Southwest, and there is escape to less effected areas; however, it is precarious as it comes for most hopeful escapees. The States have formed solidarity pacssealing themselves offand most illegal crossers are shot, and, as in New Mexico, their bodies strung into the concertina wire declaring their borders. Vancouver B. C. is nirvanaisn't that where William Gibson lives?but WA and OR are possibly close heavens, if the bark beetles have left any trees still alive.

text only © copyright 02/02/2016 by Silver Lynx LLC

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