Review- Bacigalupi, “The Water Knife”

Paolo Bacigalupi, “The Water Knife” (2015) – On the surface, this book is very much “my shit.” Set in a near-future where the Colorado River has largely dried up and the Southwest states fight underground wars to keep the water coming in and refugees out, it’s the sort of crime-scifi mix that I tend to enjoy.

It turned out pretty good. The titular “water knife” is Angel, a former gangster and now enforcer for Las Vegas’s water rights. Vegas is the second banana in all things western water-related, able to maintain its casino-arcologies but always in the shadow of the big daddy, California (the tune “California Uber Alles” came to mind several times while reading this). The big losers have been Texas, hit by both drought and hurricanes and the source of most of the refugees trying to cross over into California and Nevada, and Arizona, where Phoenix is in the process of dying a slow death. This book was first recommended to me by a friend on a post I made about how seeing Phoenix out of an airplane window freaked me out- all that perfectly geometrical green sprawl against that stark desert… this depicts that society in collapse once both nature and politics started restricting the water. Refugees, gangs, dust storms, bags for converting piss into drinking water, all in the shadow of arcology towers built by the Chinese.

But some Las Vegas agents are getting bumped off in Phoenix, in increasingly grotesque ways, and Angel has to go and find out why. Of course, he can’t trust anybody, and there’s a lot of running away from shadowy “Calies” and fights and the like. He gets embroiled with a reporter looking into the murders (they hook up, natch) and a Texan refugee looking for her ticket out, who gives us a grounds-eye view of refugee life. It turns out the whole thing revolves around “senior” water rights- water rights granted so far back that they would allow the holder (originally Arizona) priority over all the water in the basin. It’s worth billions of dollars, and of course, a good many betrayals and torture-murders.

The plot was basically fine from a crime fiction angle, not the best but good. There are some parts of it that make little sense. This novel depicts the states getting into all but open war with each other over water rights. California and Nevada National Guards routinely invade and blow up waterworks taking “their” water, including a bravura scene at the beginning where Angel leads a helicopter raid. The Constitution has been changed such that states can enforce state borders, generally with violence. Why would they care about a deal Arizona made with the Pima Indians that long ago if force seems to be what decides things? Why care about the letter of the law? I guess you need a McGuffin and this is a reasonably fun one.

The other thing is this… it’s hard to believe that US state origin would suddenly matter more than race. I know, I know, the Dust Bowl and the anti-Okie stuff, but still. I’d have difficulty believing this stuff wouldn’t be racialized, with Latino and black refugees treated the way they are in this book, and white refugees not nearly as bad. White people across the southwest seem to relate to each other more than people of color from their own state. It think that would structure how they deal with these crises. There’s a lot of people of color in the story, but beyond some cultural stuff it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, certainly much less than which state you come from. This rings untrue. That’d be less of a problem in a gauzier scifi novel, but the tone of this novel is so gritty and “real” that kind of thing sort of hurts the realism. All in all though, a decent read. ****

Review- Bacigalupi, “The Water Knife”

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