The Water Knife

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

In his first novel, The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi created a bleak future world with which to highlight issues around sustainability and genetic modification. Continuing the theme of big issues, in his latest book, The Water Knife, he turns his attention to water scarcity and how America would cope without a plentiful supply of H2O. Another bleak, alternative world, where drought is the norm and individual States battle to maintain their grip on the few sources of water still remaining, it’s a powerful and scarily believable concept.

Set largely in water-starved Phoenix, Arizona, the story is told through the eyes of three people from wildly different social statuses – a journalist choosing to live through the city’s death throes, searching for the real story in its downfall; a young woman scraping a living on the barely-tolerated fringes of society, dreaming of a way out; and a Water Knife – equal parts assassin, spy and hired thug – sent by his Las Vegas overlord to investigate rumours of trouble in the dying city. Each sees the world in a different light, but over the course of the story they find their perspectives changing as they find themselves caught up in an increasingly dangerous set of events.

Bacigalupi conjures up a grim world of dust and desert and thirst, where the rich live in oases of luxury while everyone else slogs through the dirt and fights for scraps. It’s revealed slowly over the course of the book, asking the reader to be patient instead of spoon-feeding them; not everyone will like that approach but for those willing to be patient the reward is a detailed, dystopian world that feels familiar enough to be totally believable. It makes for a dark, grim read in places, and asks big questions of morality and power, looking at how people react when under severe pressure, whether they are at the bottom of the food chain or the top. Despite the violence and the darkness, however, the characters are so well drawn as to provide a strong sense of humanity, balancing the story with a little hope, however small.

Plot-wise Bacigalupi keeps things close to his chest for much of the book, holding off revealing exactly what’s happening until the last possible moment. It’s paced well for the most part, starting off slowly before ramping up as the story continues, rotating through the characters and keeping the reader’s interest throughout. Crucially, the whole thing – setting, plot, characters – ties together really well and feels absolutely relevant to how we live today. Like much of the best science fiction, what makes this book is not the fact that it’s set in the future, but that it’s relatable to us now, and encourages us to ask questions of ourselves. It’s not necessarily the easiest read, but it’s absolutely worthwhile. 

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