I always thought the first Paolo Bacigalupi book I read would be The Windup Girl. I even have a copy of it on my bookshelf. But as these things usually work out, at least in my reading life, I was wrong. Windup Girl sits unread on my shelf still. After NerdCon in October and Bacigalupi mentioning several times his book The Water Knife, that is the one I ended up reading first.
You can’t really blame me. The book is all about water rights in the western United States; California versus Nevada and Arizona mostly. I wasn’t always a Minnesota girl. I was born and raised in southern California, the San Diego area to be precise. I went to college in Los Angeles. There were always droughts, though not as bad as the one going on right now, and there were always people arguing about water rights. And I remember wondering many times just how precarious the whole house of cards was and how long would it be before it all fell apart?
The scariest thing about The Water Knife is that Bacigalupi’s book is completely plausible. The story takes place in an undated but clearly not too distant future. Climate change has caused a series of huge weather disasters that have strained the resources of a federal government that now seems to be only nominally in charge in the western states. Between hurricanes and droughts and prolonged heatwaves Texas is entirely uninhabitable and refugees are streaming across the borders of neighboring states whose own resources are growing more and more scarce. Nevada and California have formed their own militias and closed their borders to anyone who does not have permits to cross. There is a kind of guerilla war going on between California, Nevada and Arizona over rights to the Colorado river. The war is being fought both in courtrooms and on the ground. Water pipelines to entire cities are shut off and hundreds of thousands of people are immediately turned into refugees with nowhere to go. The Red Cross sinks relief wells and tent cities spring up around it but the water is not free. Prices fluctuate daily and at one point in the book it costs $6.75 for a liter of water.
Meanwhile the Chinese are investing heavily in building arcologies in Las Vegas and Phoenix. An arcology is an almost self-contained living environment that recycles 95% of the water. And it isn’t just water that is recycled, pretty much everything is. In this way an arcology can be climate controlled, crops can be grown, the air can be filtered and kept clean and safe from the frequent dust storms outdoors, people living inside can almost pretend like life is normal. It is the poor and desperate who build the arcologies, the poor and desperate who never make enough from their work to live inside them. It is the wealthy and powerful who get to live in comfort and safety.
A Water Knife is one of those people only rumored to exist. A Water Knife is the one who does the dirty work for the people in charge of the water, the one who does what has to be done whether that is killing someone or blowing up an entire water processing facility. Angel is a Water Knife and he works for Catherine Case, the most powerful person in Nevada. She is in charge of the water and the existence of the state of Nevada, Las Vegas in particular, depends on her.
Arizona is pretty much a lost cause and the city of Phoenix will soon be drinking its last glass of water unless someone can find some water rights that trump those belonging to California or Nevada. Someone does. Digs them out of some old dusty files, documents well over 100 years old that trump every other right in existence. The person who has the rights in his possession can make billions from their sale and he plays buyers from California and Nevada off each other and pays with his life. But no one knows what happened to the documents.
It is a life and death race to see who can get the documents first. Angel is on the hunt and so is everyone else it seems with no one sure who is working for who. Lucy, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has been living in Phoenix for a number of years documenting its decline gets mixed up in all of it as she investigates who killed her friend, the guy who had originally found the water rights. Maria, seventeen, a Texas refugee and orphan living with her friend Sarah and forced to prostitute herself in order to not be fed to the hyenas of the local gang leader for being unable to pay her rent, also gets mixed up in the business.
The Water Knife is a fast-paced mystery/thriller but also more than that. It alternates between the point of view of Maria, Lucy and Angel until eventually all their individual story threads come together. It wasn’t so long ago that life was normal, that there was enough water to go around, but each one is forced in their own way to come to terms with the world as it is now not as it once was and not as it could be. And when it comes down to your own personal survival versus the potential survival of an entire city, what choices are you forced to make and who can really blame you for them?
Also running through the book is a refrain about how those who knew and could have done something long ago to make sure the present day of the story didn’t happen did absolutely nothing, or worse, precipitated the disaster and even profited from it. Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away. And while the ending provides a conclusion, it leaves much up in the air. I appreciated that because given everything that came before an ending that tied everything up nicely would have been false.
I am pleased with my first venture in reading Bacigalupi and looking forward to reading more of his work. Perhaps The Windup Girl will be next!