Paolo Bacigalupi’s drought saga, ‘The Water Knife’ hits frighteningly close to home

Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

The Water Knife By Paolo Bacigalupi, $26.

Not so long ago, when we’d hear people say that the conflicts of the 21st century will be fought over water, not oil, it seemed a little extreme. Surely, if we got to that point, we’d work something out—at least acknowledge a fundamental right of access to water, however we cared to dole it out. Paolo Bacigalupi’s second novel, The Water Knife, underscores the naivety of that assurance.

It’s tempting to refer to the Southwest of The Water Knife as “post-apocalyptic,” but there’s nothing post- about it. In Bacigalupi’s near future, the United States still exists, but the states are anything but united. The Southwest drought has sparked vicious conflicts over water, and by the time of the premonitory thriller’s opening, Texas has lost, Arizona is losing and the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated the doctrine of open borders among states. Millions migrate West, halted by the heavily defended borders of water-winners Nevada and California. Thousands die at the hands of “coyotes” paid to smuggle them into lands that still pull water from the Colorado River. We might generate electricity through photovoltaic veneers and build water-recycling eco-towers, but of course we have not learned to share.

Unseen at the center of the novel’s machinations is Catherine Case, “Queen of the Colorado,” head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and modeled, let’s hope only loosely, on Pat Mulroy, the SNWA general manager from 1993 until she retired last year. Bacigalupi has Angel, Case’s “water knife,” launch a paramilitary attack from “Mulroy Airbase.” Angel does the nasty work of severing people in Phoenix and elsewhere from what they thought was their water.

There’s plenty of nastiness in The Water Knife, including torture and gruesome murders, as a bloody scrimmage for missing water rights envelops Angel, plucky Tejana refugee Maria and “journo” Lucy, whose high-minded chronicles of water-rights deceit and violence skim above the Web’s currents of “collapse pornography.” (That one might make a future living doing this is as encouraging as the prospect of energy-generating car skins.)

Bacigalupi’s contemporary hardboiled style pulls you along, and his sense of how things might work a few years from now seems clearheaded, but the violence sometimes is disturbing and occasionally clunkier phrases intrude. “I trust that everyone is out for themselves these days,” Case tells Angel near the end, which—and I doubt I am spoiling it—seems to confirm her point.

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