Many of us purists prefer post-apocalyptic stories the portray realistic nightmare scenarios, sparing no details when it comes to the harsh conditions we may encounter in our future. Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the best examples of a purist post-apocalyptic author. In The Water Knife, Bacigalulpi delivers another post-apocalyptic thriller where the world collapses due to catastrophic climate change. Falling in line with the graphic style of his earlier novels like The Windup Girl, The Water Knife spares none of the gritty details. Unfortunately, this novel comes up short due to some shotty world-building and a blatant political agenda that includes some unbecoming animosity towards certain Americans.
The novel has three POV characters trying to survive in the dying Southwest. Climate change has robbed the region of what little precipitation it received, forcing people out of the region. Those that remain live in a dusty, third world hell where water is the most precious commodity. Angel is an enforcer for Catherine Case, the unofficial ruler of Las Vegas. Lucy Monroe is a journalist from the east covering the violence in Phoenix. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas, desperate to survive in the slums of Phoenix. The three of them are pulled into a violent struggle for the legal rights to the waters of the Colorado River.
While some of the writing is strong, Bacigalupi relies on unoriginal post-apocalyptic tropes and cliché dialogue. Combined with some shotty world-building, the first third to one half of the book is a difficult trek. There are also several scenes where it feels like the characters are speaking to the reader, not to each other. Most of these issues clear up by the midway point and the second half of the book is actually pretty good. I finished the last 100 pages in one day.
The overbearing political agenda and partisan animosity is the biggest problem with this novel. Bacigalupi takes a one-sided approach to the issue of climate-change, where those on the right side are vindicated and those on the wrong side suffer horribly. Right or wrong, the author comes off as petty. Whether you call it global warming or climate change, most certainly agree it is an important issue. Fiction focused on the climate change issue, also called climate fiction, is a thriving subgenre and can provide the basis for some good stories. Problems arise when authors commit to the agenda more than the story. Also, global warming calamity is the theme of many of Bacigalupi’s books, further diluting the originality of this novel. For the most part, Water Knife is not all that different from The Windup Girl.
Bacigalupi goes out of his way to depict climate change skeptics as barbaric, greedy, and stupid. In the book, the two states hit hardest by climate change are Arizona and Texas, two of the most notorious red states. Oddly, blue California ends up on top, which is puzzling considering what has been in the news of late. California is already mismanaging its water supply now; how am I supposed to accept that they are the water superpower of the future? The story also portrays conservative Texans as maniacs who quickly abandon civilization for violence and brutality. They are the gangsters, killers, pimps, and whores of the future. The religious right is referred to as Merry Perrys, which may be a not so subtle jab at the former governor of Texas. I tried looking it up to see where it comes from but couldn’t find it.
This type of transparent propaganda is not persuasive, and only seeks to affirm the beliefs of readers that already strongly agree with the author. Appealing to the anger and vindictiveness of believers is not a way to advance discourse on the issue.
The world-building is decent and had some really fascinating parts that I wished were better developed. Bacigalupi seems to take the Joker’s worldview in this novel. As the famous Batman villain explains, people are only as good as the world allows them to be. Introduce chaos and anarchy and they will eat each other alive. Here, the Southwestern US devolves into a third world hell, with people turning on one another, widespread violence, subjugation, even slavery. Compassion, civility, and rule of law all vanish.
It seems the states closed their borders and the federal government allowed them to, turning 50 states into 50 semi-independent countries with their own armies. There is also the assumption that we failed to react to the changes in climate and simply sat back while things fell apart. This works if the cataclysm was abrupt. However, I have read no paper or article suggesting climate change would hit rapidly as portrayed in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. More often than not, the crisis is projected as a gradual one with conditions steadily worsening over time.
Okay, enough about climate change, on to other topics:
Those unaccustomed to graphic violence and sexuality will be shocked by certain scenes in the novel. If this were a movie, it would be rated R without hesitation. The action is exciting, especially towards the end. Bacigalupi isn’t the best at writing action, but I’d say he is above average. The emphasis on sexual violence was a little troubling. In one particular scene, it felt as if he was intentionally pushing boundaries, not for the story but to shock the reader. Many readers also will not appreciate the blatant sexist attitude of many of the characters, viewing women as objects. Even female characters like Maria, seem crass on the matter. Maria describes her friend’s job as a “bangbang girl” in the most graphic terms possible with the phrase “peddling her ass” is repeated constantly. It is hard for me to envision a teenage girl using such words of someone who is supposed to be her friend. This is partially explained later but not very convincingly.
Character development is pretty good but might leave many feeling unsatisfied. In particular, Lucy and Maria are difficult to relate to, especially as their personalities become twisted towards the end. Lucy seems to have a death wish and surprising comfort with the horrible violence around her. Maria, someone who has experienced a rough, traumatic upbringing, somehow has a naivety about the world that leads to her stunning loss of innocence. From the first part of the book, I assumed she lost it prior to the beginning of the story.
Best way to describe The Water Knife, is a graphic post-apocalyptic novel undermined by the author’s political agenda. Even without the ideological baggage, the story could’ve been better. I think it all comes down to the reader’s feelings on climate change. Those who feel strongly about the issue will like this book, but if you are neutral or a skeptic you will probably have trouble with it. Not his best work on the topic either. The Windup Girl is a better read IMO.