Laura M. Gibson reviews THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi

November 7, 2015 Book Review 5831 Views
Laura M. Gibson reviews THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book Cover from Publisher Website.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Review by Laura M Gibson

New York: Knopf, 2015. pp. 384 (Hardcover), ISBN 9780385352871. $25.95


For those of us who live out West, water security is a constant source of anxiety. Drought is in our blood here, is evident in our landscape and our lexicon, in the cadence of our recreation and in our daily habits. In summer we hope the heat will come but not last too long, that we’ll be able to grow gardens we can water until harvest time from wells and irrigation ditches. We hope we’ll be able to contain the fires and, when they come, to still breathe and safeguard lives and wilderness. In winter, we hope our mountain ranges will accumulate enough snow pack to begin to turn back years of ravaging drought.

Depending upon what sort of citizen you ask, there’s too much hope for precipitation and not enough action. Soon, some say, we’ll get caught short and wish we’d consumed less and conserved more, and by then it’ll be too late. Look at California, they say. It’s coming for the rest of us, too.

Into this anxious climate Paolo Bacigalupi’s latest novel The Water Knife casts a look at one terrifying possible future of an America without water security.

Bacigalupi’s thriller plants us into a futuristic Wild West, where “water knives” like the protagonist Angel spy on, assassinate the leaders of, and ultimately cut water from communities who disobey the Southern Nevada Water Authority, lorded over by Angel’s boss, Catherine Case. Case’s Las Vegas is the new, thriving capital of a ruined American Southwest. Perpetual dust storms sweep the land, where the average temperature holds steady at around 125 degrees. Those with means or clout, then, have moved indoors into arcologies, and these resemble pieces of what we know about the current Vegas: They are vast complexes, self-contained indoor cities where citizens live and work, and where water pulled from the Colorado River is filtrated, recycled, plentiful. Arcologies have fountains and wall-hung farms that provide abundant food. With such water security, arcology dwellers need never go outside, and in this way their luxury insulates them from real climate, and from the way Catherine Case is systematically shutting down communities, especially those that defy her, by taking away their water.

Outside arcologies, in the land of the water scarce, the world resembles the vast desolation of Mad Max. Survivors live in makeshift housing close to water pumps. Suburbs are ghost towns. Going outside into the relentless gritty wind means wearing goggles and masks.

Inside arcologies and out, Las Vegas is a hungry beast of a town, and it needs more water to secure its prominence. Catherine Case wants more power than leaders in California and Arizona, and to get it, she needs more water.

On Case’s command, water knife Angel leaves Vegas bound for Phoenix, where something fishy’s going on with a new, mysterious water right. Worth more than gold, water rights are a thing to kill for and a thing to steal in this world, and the chase for a new water source is the heart of the novel’s quest. This source is a senior right, over a hundred years old, old enough that it’s still on paper in a world where paper products are ancient history.

Angel’s quest, once he meets Lucy, the conscience of the novel, is complicated by his desire for this small, fierce woman obsessed with saving Phoenix from dying. A “blood rag journo,” Lucy photographs and writes about abuses against the Phoenix downtrodden, who are mostly refugees from Texas. Her work has made her a target because she’s dangerous, an instigator, and she’s willing to die trying to save the town she loves from water knives like Angel. When her friend Jamie, who’s confessed to Lucy he knows of a secret water source, dies violently, Lucy joins Angel in his mission to find the lost water right that means death for anyone with information about it.

Their adventures are punctuated by flight: from exploding cars, buildings engulfed in flames, and helicopters firing missiles at them; by chase scenes where Angel’s mysterious doppelganger, a similarly rough and tattooed fellow, keeps showing up, trying to kill them.

The body count’s high – between Lucy’s beat to record brutal killings and Angel’s zeal for dispatching anyone in his way, the two hunt and are hunted. Their fragile, lusty, on-the-run alliance is an old action adventure trick. You know the shtick: two determined people who couldn’t be more different fall for each other, don’t entirely trust each other, and can’t help themselves. Between stints of running for their lives, Angel and Lucy engage in campy, barbed dialogue and half-dressed intimacy, despite wounds that would send most of us to intensive care.

The third voice of Texan Maria represents the disenfranchised. Scrappy and resilient in the way so many immigrants are, Maria tries to sell water she’s figured out how to pump from her local pumping station for less than it’s worth. But abuse and extortion occur on every level in this world, and so Maria’s earnings are taken from her, exacted as a tax on her safety. Thus begins her quest to survive, to head north to where the rain still falls from the sky, and ultimately, to escape Phoenix which, as the novel careens on, is beset by violence and fires.

As they must, the lives of the three characters intersect on the shores of the Colorado River, this gun-wielding vortex driven by the ancient water right that determines the fate of each. I won’t tell you how it ends, though I will say the final scene is both a surprise and inevitable in the way it leaves all three characters holding the bag of their convictions. There’s a smoking gun of a resolution, to be sure. But it’s only sketchily hopeful, and this seems right. After all, the whole of The Water Knife is built upon what happens when human folly and power-mongering meet a diminishing natural resource.

Bacigalupi’s story is fiction, but it’s close enough to a potential future to be downright scary.


About the Author

Photo from author’s website. Photo credit JT Thomas Photography.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI is the author of The Windup Girl, as well as the YA novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. A National Book Award Finalist, and winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, John W. Campbell Award, and a three-time winner of the Locus Award, he lives in Colorado with his wife and son.

About the Reviewer

Laura M Gibson is a reader for Kudzu House Quarterly and works as an editor, writer, and college admissions counselor in Idaho. She lives in a log cabin on a tiny farm with her family and wrangles a garden larger than the house. Her fiction and essays have appeared in FlywayCarve, and The Sun, among other places. She blogs about stories, mostly,


Paolo Bacigalupi’s Author Website

Interview with Bacigalupi about writing The Water Knife, after the success of The Windup Girl

Interview with Bacigalupi at Wired

Jason Heller’s NPR Review of The Water Knife

About author

Related articles