Book Review: The Water Knife

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is a near-future story set in the American Southwest where states and cities battle each other for pieces of the Colorado River. In this realistic future the “water knife” is the black op professional who makes sure sumptuous arcologies can bloom in the desert, so the rich can drink, while the poor get nothing but dust.

I love the concept, and the realism with which Bacigalupi paints this world is frightening. It is not hard to imagine a United States where water has become the prime resource people fight over since this is the current reality for many nations below the equator. Man made or not, the world is warming, and while here in New England that may just mean shorter winters, in the drought-prone Southwest the consequences could be tragic.

The overarching thematics of the novel are compelling, but Bacigalupi is at his best when he has his characters get introspective about their plight. In fact, some of his writing is downright prescient.

If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely f**ked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.

It is hard not to read this line without thinking of our current state of affairs. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with data. When it is used by managers to control professionals, it can create a tension between the managers who want to measure performance, and the ethos of the workers, who want to be treated as professionals.  Either way, data is a day-to-day reality of our jobs. Yet in the world of politics data has become fungible.

Bacigalupi’s water knife has his finger on the pulse of our current situation. This is realistic fiction at its strongest.

However, this realism also hurts the book. This is a tale of a broken world with very broken characters who think little of stabbing each other in the back to stay alive. “Some people had to bleed so other people could drink. Simple as that.” I get it, but it doesn’t make for very sympathetic characters. In the end I found it hard to root for any of them.

So I liked the book, but definitely had mixed feelings. As readers I think we are willing and able to imagine the worst of our world, but as individuals we need to believe our humanity won’t be entirely lost in the process.