Book review: The Water Knife

Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting!  – often attributed to Mark Twain

Science Fiction is the literature of ideas”.

Many years ago, I took a Science Fiction (SciFi) literature course. The professor said the famous line above. A line I have not forgotten.

If fantasy literature is about world-building and immersing the reader in the world, then SciFi is about using fiction to explore concepts that have relevance today.

SciFi often mirrors society’s hopes, fears, and aspirations.

And a sub-genre of SciFi that especially mirrors society’s fears is dystopia based fiction.

There is a lot of dross out there in this subgenre.  Some only a step above a low-budget made-for-TV movie.

But there are some modern classics out there well worth perusing.

Among them:

  • The Forever War, written shortly after the close of the Vietnam War, postulates a seemingly endless war with the soldiers not adapting to mainstream society.
  • The movie Blade Runner, of course, is a genre defining classic of cinema that portrays almost total corporate control of society along with a central theme of “What is humanity?”

In this same vein of dystopian literature that is relevant to today’s world is The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The novel takes place on the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado River, and the scrambling for its dwindling resources  is the thread that ties the story together. Based on some information in the story, the novel is set around the late 2050s.

This world is a craptastic one.

Phoenix is dying. Texas is dead. Nevada and California fight like Cold War adversaries rather than states that are part of a union.  Eastern Colorado is hinted at to be doing well at the expense of the cities on the Western side of the Continental Divide.  Houston, New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast places have suffered through storms of at least Katrina size and are no longer viable places. And the Eastern seaboard is suffering from a similar, if less dramatic,  situation.

In the southwest, where the novel takes place, the world is hotter and drier. The dwindling Colorado River resources are fought over not only with lawyers but also with National Guard troops that are really state-run military.  California and Nevada (and presumably other states) keep refugees from crossing their borders by force of arms. The United States government keeps a loose control, at best, on the individual states. And Chinese funding is very evident in the construction of high rises that are  90% self-sustaining and separate the wealthy from the unwashed (literally) masses.

It is not a Mad Max-style apocalypse.  It is more of a slow decay. Society goes on.  Wealth is still generated. Television shows are still produced, bars are open and REI,  Aquafina, and CamelBak still sell merchandise while proudly stating that “Your purchase helps us mitigate the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people around the world” (including Texas refugees).  Some areas of the world are less affected than other parts.

The obvious inspiration for The Water Knife is the classic book on water politics in the American West: Cadillac Desert.

Cadillac Desert is mentioned multiple times in the novel and plays an important role in the plot. If there is any doubt about the importance of Cadillac Desert inspiring this novel, consider how one character refers to Cadillac Desert :

“Cadillac Desert? It’s about cars or something?”
“Water, actually. It’s kind of how we got where we are now. There are other books. Lots came later. You can read Fleck or Fishman or Jenkins or others online.” He nodded at the book in her hands. “But I always think people should start with this. It’s the bible when it comes to water.”
“The bible, huh?”
“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

The Water Knife postulates a future that is rather grim. Perhaps the extrapolation of our current water crisis into armed conflict among the states is a bit far-fetched. Maybe.

 But consider that there was a small skirmish between California and Arizona National Guard troops in the 1930s.    And California has a history of armed conflict within its own borders when it comes to water.

Who knows what the future will bring?

So far, I’ve only discussed the ideas of the novel.

What about the novel itself? How good is it?

In brief, the novel is a bit of a mash-up between Cadillac Desert with the atmospherics of the movie Blade Runner and a bit of Neil Stephenson’s novels.

I don’t know if the novel is “great literature” (whatever that means…), but it is an enjoyable read. If this book was a Hollywood movie, it would be an “intelligent blockbuster”.   There are explosions, scenes of graphic violence and sex. The plot is fast paced with lots of twist and turns.  But there is a lot of meat to the story..something that sneakily makes you think in between the action:

What kind world will we have in the next forty-plus years? Is the current water situation in the American West really the dire? What can be done now to prevent what is portrayed in the book?

The Water Knife is a very good read. If you have any interest in the problems facing the continued growth of the American West, I suspect you’ll enjoy the book, too.

Note: The Water Knife is a sequel of sorts to a short story called The Tamarisk Hunter that can be read online.

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8 years ago

Dude! I read The Forever War for the first time this past fall. Super crazy man. The thing I kept in mind as I read it was that it was written by a guy fresh out of ‘nam. It really gives you perspective on how much that war messed people up. Some of the battle narrations where disturbing to say the least. It hit the same themes as Ender’s Game but in a more jarring way. I have read the novella Blade Runner was based off of whilst aqua-blazing on the AT (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) It’s a… Read more »

Will Rutledge
Will Rutledge
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Hi, Paul. Thanks for the heads up about a great book. Have you read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood?