You better believe that when I went to conference that was all about storytelling I left with a couple of books. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi was one of them. It was particularly cool to read The Water Knife after I spent two days listening to Paolo speak on various panels about storytelling. I’d recommend that as a way of finding out about authors and books to everybody. Paolo was very interesting and thoughtful and this book mirrored that. Though The Water Knife was definitely more violent and scary than Paolo…but I suppose there is a chance I read him wrong.
It is fairly common knowledge at this point that California is experiencing a very serious drought. To the point that I’m actually really happy I live so close to the Great Lakes. From what I understand there’s a contract saying the water from the Great Lakes is to stay in this area and hydrate and wash us lovely midwesterners. I’ve also been led to believe that places that are suffering from droughts try pretty regularly to get us to change our minds about diverting water. Water rights and droughts are very relevant topics in our lives right now. The Water Knife explores a possible future if we continue in the direction that we’re going and it is not pretty. I think with California being so in the news about its drought at the moment, this book really hits home. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s grounded in just enough reality that I never once doubted what I read and that made it so much more frightening.
Of course this particular story could have come across very preachy but Paolo Bacigalupi avoided that by forming an exciting narrative for characters that I got very emotionally involved in. I spent a lot of the book wringing my hands wishing they’d make better decisions or just different decisions. The Water Knife follows three different people. There’s Angel, a former gangster that was recruited to be the muscle behind Las Vegas’s fight for more water rights, Lucy, a journalist that lives in and writes about Phoenix’s downfall, and Maria, a refugee from Texas trying to survive in Phoenix. They all cross each others paths in a rather bloody fight over water rights. Which, in this world, is a fight over whether you get to live or die. So often in disputes, like water rights disputes, that affect a large number of people, it becomes difficult to think about the people as anything other than numbers. Paolo does not let that happen in The Water Knife. The decisions being made by people in this book affect other people in a very real, and sometimes violent and horrible, way.
In this type of end of the world, high stakes story line, it’s really easy for the author to pick a bad guy and stick with the “bring the bad guy down and then everything will be ok” narrative. I’m so happy Paolo did not do this. We end up empathizing with all three characters in the story even when they can’t empathize for each other. California could be considered a “bad guy” but there are several moments when someone will mention that California is not any different than the other states, they’re just better at what everyone is trying to do. The bad guy ends up being all the people in history that didn’t plan for the inevitability of droughts. That’s us, actually.
Part of what’s terrifying about this book is that a lot of the solutions I came up with in my head for one character would ruin another characters life or, in some cases, a whole city of characters lives. The situation, as we read it, is impossibly tangled and messy and we’re the ones that tangled it. The Water Knife is scary because there are scary characters and situations in it but it’s mostly scary because while reading you’re struck with the painful knowledge that what we’re doing with our water now is the direct cause of the events in the book. It’s fiction, but that by no means means it’s impossible.