One of the great traditions in dystopian fiction is the “If this goes on …” story, in which an author plays out a current trend to its extreme conclusion as a kind of warning.
Author Paolo Bacigalupi, of Paonia, Colo., has made his well-earned reputation in that dark tradition. Reading his science-fiction short stories and novels for both adults and younger readers can feel like taking a punch to the belly. A very hard punch.
“The People of Sand and Slag” posits an environmentally devastated future in which humans have been genetically engineered to survive by eating minerals that leaves the reader wondering if such survival is worth it. Bacigalupi’s multiple-award-winning 2009 novel, “The Windup Girl,” takes place in an overheated world where global corporations have controlled agriculture and energy is stored in “springs” wound by hand (or elephant, in the case of Thailand, where it takes place).
In two novels for young adults, the National Book Award-nominated “Ship Breaker” (2010) and its 2012 semi-sequel, “The Drowned Cities,” young people are terrorized, enslaved and must fend for themselves in a mercenary world ruined by climate change. The latter is surely one of the most brutal YA novels ever written.
After six years away from writing for “adults” — the YA novels feature young protagonists, but are hardly kid stuff — the talented if gloomy Bacigalupi is back with a near-future enviro-thriller that is less science-fictional, more violent and more pessimistic than anything he has written before. And that’s saying something.
“The Water Knife” takes place in the future he first described in his strangely beautiful 2006 story “The Tamarisk Hunter,” in which “Big Daddy Drought” has pushed the American Southwest into chaos in the year 2030. But where the short story takes place in the haunting, sere regions along the Colorado River, the new novel portrays a nasty, brutish, decaying urban world where powerful interests — whether criminal gangs, state governments or Mafia-like “water districts” — stop at nothing to secure scarce water for the “haves” who live in enormous, densely populated high rises. Mexico has devolved into “cartel states”; in the U.S., states prevent American refugees from crossing their borders with extreme prejudice, and powerful China watches America’s collapse from an ocean away.
In Bacigalupi’s imagined Southwest, the problem is one that exists today, exacerbated by the ravages of climate change: The Colorado River simply cannot sustain the teeming masses of humans in the deserts of Nevada, Arizona and southern California.
The novel brings together three protagonists in a Phoenix that Mad Max would find familiar, brought together over rumors of a 150-year-old document that could alter the water-rights landscape forever: Angel Velasquez, the “water knife” who sniffs out water sources and shoots first for his boss, Las Vegas water queen Catherine Case; Phoenix journalist Lucy Monroe, who puts off escaping to verdant Vancouver so she can document the effects of water wars; and an “illegal” immigrant from Texas, Maria Villarosa, whose dream of getting to California is thwarted by a criminal kingpin.
The novel isn’t didactic, but it does constantly remind the reader how this world came to be: “Nothing lasted forever, so why should she (Lucy) try to fight her own end? Phoenix would fall as surely as New Orleans and Miami had done. Just as Houston and San Antonio and Austin had fallen. Just as the Jersey Shore had gone under for the last time.”
The novel’s constant violence and degradation is extreme but never descends into the pornographic. Scarcity, Bacigalupi knows, breeds violence.
As Velasquez says, in his world, “Somebody’s got to bleed, if anyone’s going to drink.”
Less dense than the brilliant “Windup Girl,” “The Water Knife” is also less inventive, trafficking in action and plot twists more than ideas and atmosphere. But despite one key plot hole — in such a ruthless world, would anyone really defer to a 19th century piece of paper? — it makes for thrilling and compulsive, if often uneasy, reading.