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'The Water Knife' Pictures a Drought-Ravaged Future That Cuts Too Close to Home

And it has a lot to teach us about the present.
May 26, 2015, 10:00am

What disturbs me about Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife isn't that it's another broken future. It's that this thirsty tomorrow feels prophetic.

"There were stories in sweat," Bacigalupi writes. "Sweat was a body's history, compressed into jewels… It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day."

In a parched Southwest set about 10 minutes into the future, water is the holy currency that binds the world together. It's water that gives ruthless kingpins their power, drives states to militarize their borders, and leaves the western US teetering on the brink of civil war. But this frenzied political landscape is merely the backdrop for Bacigalupi's latest science fiction thriller. The Water Knife is essentially a survival story, a tale of men and women fighting by any means possible to live another day and drink another drop.


"We're a visceral species," Bacigalupi told me when I spoke with him over the phone about his new novel. "We react to the thing that's right in front of us. The ideal in my mind is creating a world that feels so real in the future that it contextualizes the present."

Bacigalupi is no stranger to giving humanity's existential crises flesh and blood. His Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel The Windup Girl takes the reader to a future Thailand on an Earth ravaged by centuries of climate change, famine and genetically engineered disease. The Windup future is terrifying, but human-animal chimeras and geisha-like sexbots make the world alien enough that readers can divorce it from the here and now—a future that some clever person will figure out how to undo.

Image via Penguin Random House

The Water Knife is the world of tomorrow. It's a world filled with familiar elements—Tesla cars, drone surveillance, cryptocurrency, hashtags. And, of course, brutal, devastating drought, a notion that feels more congruous with the present every passing day.

Indeed, we've all heard the words recently: Exceptional drought. Water rights. Climate change. We've seen pictures of dustbowl communities where the taps have already run dry. We've pointed outraged fingers at corporations for continuing to bottle water in the midst of a crisis, and at the wealthy for taking more than their fair share. And as soon as the worst drought in 1,200 years is over, we'll forget these troubles and continue about our lives.


But what if it doesn't end? What if this is the new tomorrow? Bacigalupi, who lives in rural western Colorado, has been troubled by that question his entire life.

"Growing up where I grew up, water is something that's always on your mind," he told me. "You see that chain of the higher water cycle really starkly. You see the snow on the mountains, and you know how much there will be in the reservoirs. Anywhere you can spread water around turns green, anywhere that you can't spread water is brown. Visually, water is in your life."

Bacigalupi has also been professionally immersed in water issues for years. As an editor for the natural resources magazine High Country News in the early 2000s, he worked closely with journalists reporting on all aspects of climate change and water security in and around the Colorado River. He began exploring drought in a story called "The Tamarisk Hunter," which he describes as the conceptual seed for The Water Knife. But it was a trip down to Austin, Texas during the 2011 drought that convinced Bacigalupi his dystopian future might have already arrived.

"It was devastating and terrifying," he said. "You had ranchers killing their cattle because the land couldn't support the herds and you're getting heat stroke just standing in the sun. Being in a drought like that, the thing that struck me was, if we look at climate models, and this is what the Southwest looks like in those models, then this moment that we call drought isn't drought. We're time traveling. We're being flown into the future. And now that we're standing in the future, how does it look? The answer is, it looks pretty scary."


"For me, that was the jumping off point for the book, making that statistically likely future feel real and visceral," he said.

The novel opens through the eyes of Angel Velasquez, a hardened assassin and spy infamous for "cutting" the water to towns and cities throughout the Southwest and rerouting it to Nevada so that his boss's lush arcology developments can blossom in the desert. Following an assignment to the derelict city of Phoenix, Velasquez encounters Lucy Monroe, an Pulitzer-winning journalist who risks her life documenting corruption and collapse, and Maria Villarosa, a Texan refugee desperate to escape her gang-controlled shantytown.

Toss in some legendary water rights that states and corporations alike are willing to kill for, and soon, the three are struggling—sometimes together, sometimes at odds—to make it out of Phoenix alive.

"If there's any villain in the story, it's actually us, who handed them their shitty future"

Wedged between cinematic, Mad Max-worthy action sequences are towering arcologies: self-sustaining biospheres where the rich and privileged bubble themselves off, breathing clean air and enjoying long, hot showers.

"I've always been interested in these big, integrated living environments and living machines," Bacigalupi told me. "I love the idea of deliberate efficiency, of closed systems that actually work. On the other hand, arcologies are troubling because they're really the acknowledgement that we've given up—that our environment is no longer safe and supportive."


Outside paradise's glass walls, Bacigalupi shows us how a climate that's only a bit harsher than today's might exact chaos. City officials are hopelessly corrupt, interested only in buying their families into an arcology or a wetter state. Texan prostitutes, or "bangbang girls," refugees, and narcos are ubiquitous; tabloids have morphed into "bloodrags" that chronicle the daily litany of murders.

Much of the social and political climate of The Water Knife comes filtered through the eyes of Lucy, who, through years of reporting on water corruption in Phoenix, has become strangely attached to the broken city. Her drought-hardened character, Bacigalupi tells me, riffs off the many journalists who lent knowledge and inspiration to the novel.

"I have a huge admiration for science and environmental journalists, who spent all of their time digging up stories that nobody wants to read and that are so important," Bacigalupi said. "If there are any unsung heroes, it's the journalists trying to write these complex stories that illuminate our world."

Angel and Maria's characters offer different angles on the experience of a drought-stricken future. Angel, a Mexican expat whose family was murdered when he was a child, thrives within the system by muscling water away from the weak for his arcology tycoon boss. Maria, who was likewise separated from her family during their flight out of Texas—a state that imploded after its water was cut—risks everything to escape the virtual enslavement of life in a utility-free slum. It's difficult to paint any of the main characters as villains or heroes. Each of them, rather, offers the reader points of identification and empathy.


"I tend to view characters as an opportunity to explore different layers of worlds," Bacigalupi told me. "Lucy, Maria and Angel all provide a perspective on the world they're trying to navigate. When they come into conflict, it's less of a 'here's the good guy, here's the bad guy'—it's more 'here are a bunch of people living their lives who all kinda got dealt a bad hand a long time ago.' If there's any villain in the story, it's actually us, who handed them their shitty future."

Some would argue the apocalypse has gone stale. On the one hand, we're more saturated with depictions of the end times—from zombie hordes and nuclear holocausts to engineered plagues and natural disasters—than ever before. But while popularity of apocalyptica has never been greater, the parable that underlays these destroyed tomorrows is surprisingly predictable: When society goes to shit, so does human decency.

Apocalypse survivors are portrayed as selfish, dangerous, and loyal to no one—often, a reflection of the faceless monsters that ruined their world. At best, this social Darwinist depiction of humanity is simplistic, at worst, it's downright toxic.

"There's a lack of intentionality in some of these broken futures, where it's basically a good excuse for mayhem to happen," Bacigalupi said. "It's not about ideas, it's not about us learning something about our future our ourselves, it's about more stupid explosions, it's about how bad we can be to each other."

But The Water Knife reminds us that dystopian futures can amount to something more than gratuitous collapse porn. Apocalyptic worlds, Bacigalupi believes, can be an opportunity to reflect on the most basic elements of human nature, to explore how people survive, how societies crumble and rebuild. Above all, they allow science fiction writers to illuminate the ramifications of the present in a way that matters deeply and personally to each of us.

"I think that the value of writing a broken future, of writing a future where things go wrong or people fail to plan, is that storytelling and fiction are those paths to empathy, connection and visceral experience that are lacking from a policy discussion, that are lacking from a scientific paper or a science journalism story," Bacigalupi said. "By bringing that visceral experience into a person's living room, does that change the way they think about something that looks like a passing problem? Does it make it feel, instead, like a key problem that needs to be addressed?"

Let's hope so, because as we're so often reminded, the wisdom of science can only carry us so far. Still, whether or not you like your fiction with a dose of bitter medicine, Bacigalupi's new novel is worth a read. Above all else, The Water Knife is a hauntingly brutal, wild west thriller that'll get under your skin and stay there. A story in sweat.