Paolo Bacigalupi writes a near-future story concerning a drought that hits the western US. Due to the drought, there is a war over water along the Colorado River between Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada. This science-fiction thriller interchanges from one main character to the next in each chapter. Eventually, the three main characters, Angel, Lucy, and Maria, all interact with one another.
The first character we are introduced to is Angel Velasquez. He is a man employed by Catherine Case (corrupt runner of the Las Vegas power authority).
She hires Angel, a gangster assassin, as a “Water Knife”. Water Knives are people who work for Nevada that go out and give people offers of rights they can’t refuse while blowing up other people’s water treatment plants. Angel is sent to Phoenix on the hunt for water rights and finds out one of his colleague’s contacts was murdered. Eventually, he goes to the morgue to investigate, where he bumps into the second main character, Lucy Monroe who was at the morgue investigating the death as well.
Lucy Monroe is a journalist. She is in Phoenix as an outsider. She went to Phoenix once she discovered that her friend Jamie was murdered after becoming involved in a water scheme. She is there to cover the state’s destruction and corruption of the water department. Angel sees Monroe there and realizes she might have some information about Phoenix water rights, however, he decided to let her go.
Maria Villarosa is the third main character.
She is a young orphan ‘climate refugee’ who had evacuated Texas because of droughts and hurricanes. Due to the disastrous climate change, everyone is trying to flee out of the South to other states, but there are border laws set up to hold back the number of refugees trying to flee. Maria only made it to Phoenix, a state that is already falling apart. She is desperately trying to acquire enough money to pay a “coyote” (someone who could smuggle her to California) to have a better life. Maria lives with her friend/lover Sarah. Sarah is a prostitute. They become involved in a risky business involving water. This goes wrong and they wind up owing money to a gangster named the Vet. Maria and Sarah decide to have sex with a man named Michael Ratan for money to escape the Vet, but two men break into Ratan’s apartment and shoot Ratan and Sarah, while Maria hides.
Lucy figures out that Jamie was working with Ratan so when she goes to his apartment to figure it out, she arrives too late and encounters the men who shoot Ratan. They kidnap her. Angel arrives at Ratan’s house after the shooting and finds Maria. He asks her questions about what happened; finding out that Lucy had been kidnapped. He leaves Maria and lets her have a book that Ratan had. He recognized his colleague had betrayed him and had been behind the shooting, so he goes to save Lucy. Once he saves her, Lucy and Angel share a romance. However, Lucy winds up being blackmailed and forced to blow Angel’s cover. Angel almost dies but some Texans start a fire and Lucy winds up going back and saving Angel. Angel recognizes Catherine Case wants him dead because Case thought he was stealing water rights. He promises to bring them to her but realizes the water rights are in the book he let Maria have. Lucy and Angel find Maria and promise that they will take her to Vegas and help her escape the Vet if she gives Angel the water rights. Then, Lucy reads the water rights and learns that the rights could save the whole state of Phoenix. She tries to run away from them with the rights for the sake of Phoenix. To stop Lucy from running away, Maria shoots and wounds Lucy so that Maria’s chance of leaving Phoenix for Nevada wouldn’t be ruined. Angel takes the water rights back and the three of them head back to Nevada.
Paola Bacigalupi’s novel grounds an understanding of the environmental history of the American West. Environmental history is a very effective part of the book. Bacigalupi tends to write his books based on broken/accidental futures. He looks for trends and spectates what could happen if that trend became severe in the future. The notion he focuses on for this novel is drought concerns in the Southwest and how the Colorado River keeps getting lower and lower. He wants the reader to envision how desperate for water we can become. In the novel, water is visualized as something as valuable as gold or money. It is something rare that everybody wants and needs desperately for survival. He does a remarkable job showing how important water is and how catastrophic the future might look without it.
Understanding this novel allowed me to reflect on climate change today, and how alarming it is that climate change is only becoming worse. In the novel, Jamie (Lucy’s friend that died) talks about the downfall of the states saying “’ People only really when they’re about to die…you don’t appreciate how good it is until you’re really in the shit…we all knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway. There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity” (p. 30). Lucy responds by saying maybe they didn’t know how to believe and he argues that you don’t believe data, you test data and fix the problem before it will happen.
Bacigalupi explained in an interview that we “build a narrative tunnel and get locked into it”. Humans have a weakness of overlooking complications that could happen in the future since they never happened in the past. For example, Bacigalupi explained how he went to a Denver drought conference in 2012, learning how much prosperity water gives us, and how damaging life could become without it. It would affect industries, agriculture, forest fires, sewage plants causing poison, disaster coverage causing no tourism, etc. He talked to an individual from the drought conference and learned that; they would not release problems to the public unless they ‘had to’; that with bad droughts – a state would only last five years, and that they aren’t worried about that happening now because “it hadn’t happened in the past”. Bacigalupi used that plot for his story – what if it did happen?
In the Water Knife, you are seeing the power of technology. Not only water pumps that are impossible to break but technology gives us information, allowing us to see problems approaching before they happen. Bacigalupi explains that technology can cause power, destruction, and carelessness. This is only possible because of the way we use it. The problem with technology is caused by the person whose hands it is in. Technology can cause unintended consequences. Humans know possibilities that can arise regarding the natural world but don’t do anything until it is too late. Bacigalupi is successful when writing this book because it is a daunting example of what happens when you don’t fix the problem before it’s too late.
Bacigalupi paints a vivid picture of the future reflecting human morality and choice. I think that any audience would appreciate Bacigalupi’s work because not only does this novel keep you on the edge of your seat and cultivates outstanding character development, but it presents you with anxious energy concerning what could happen in the future (with our climate change) if we continue to wait for disaster to happen without doing anything about it.