I’ve been hearing about Paolo Bacigalupi for years, but The Water Knife was the first of his books that I had a chance to read. So I was really excited to dig in. In fact, the only thing that had delayed me until seeing the book as a potential Hugo contender was the fact that the title sounds like fantasy and, with some notable exceptions, fantasy is not my thing.
Well, it’s not fantasy. “The Water Knife” is the nickname of an ex-con turned undercover government wetworks man working for the Nevada state government in an ugly state-against-state competition for water rights in the midst of a near-future mega-drought. That’s Angel Velazquez. The book’s other central figures are Lucy Munroe (a journalist from Connecticut who can’t stop reporting on Arizona’s total collapse) and Maria Villarosa (a refugee who fled Texas when that state collapsed).
The writing is taut and the setting is fantastic. The degree of military conflict between the states is a little bit of a stretch (the Nevada National Guard uses Apache attack helicopters1 to blow up a water treatment facility in Arizona in the opening chapter), but nods to the slow collapse of federal oversight and an attempt on the part of the warring states to avoid open military warfare that would drag federal troops into the fray are enough to sustain one book’s worth of adventure.
The political backdrop is a little on-the-nose and also not quite credible. The idea is that instead of illegal immigrants coming into the US from S. and Central American via Mexico, you’ve got illegal immigrants from Texas (instead of S. / C. America) who have made it to Arizona (instead of Mexico), but who dream of making it all the way to California (the US). Meanwhile, the states that are doing better—like California and Nevada—have citizen militias manning the borders and executing any illegal immigrants they can find trying to cross the border. (Setting up those militias is one of Angel’s jobs.)
Why are “immigrants” from Texas “illegal” when they are simply traveling within the United States? There’s a law (I don’t remember the name, like a “State Sovereignty Act” or something) that cedes authority to the states to police their own borders. Such a law is not remotely plausible, nor—for me—does the idea of Nevadans gunning down desperate Texans ring true.2 It seems so foreign to American values that I actually went and looked to see where Bacigalupi was born: Colorado. Anyway, I can see this bugging a lot of people, but I actually didn’t mind much. I’m drawing all of the political implications out of the backstory and the setting, but the actual plot and the interests of the characters have nothing to do with simplistic politics. And that’s all I really want: well-written characters doing cool things in cool places. And Bacigalupi has all of that.
But the one thing that did bug me a little bit was, similar to my thoughts on The Fifth Season, the relentless pessimism. In this book there is exactly one character who unambiguously qualifies as a good guy. This is an older street vendor who befriends Maria (the Texan refugee). When things go downhill for Maria she tries—more than once—to trade sex for protection, but he turns her down gently every time. Instead, when he sees how desperate her plight is, he takes her in out of the goodness of his heart with out any expectation of repayment (of any kind). Why? Because Maria reminds him of his daughter, and he wants to help.
So, naturally, he ends up getting kneecapped in the next scene 3 and provides basically zero effective assistance to Maria, who is captured by the local neighborhood gangster and (partially) feed to his hyenas.
There is one other character who, towards the end, qualifies as a good guy and who tries to do the right, honorable, idealistic thing. He or she is shot basically immediate for his/her trouble and, while he/she survives, his/her attempt to do the right thing fails completely, utterly, miserably.
This is all related. The idea that it’s trivial to get Americans from one state to treat Americans from another state as human refuse is a commentary on the selfish, tribal instincts of all human beings everywhere, and the consistent dominance of powerful, amoral characters in The Water Knife compounds this dark vision of humanity. It’s not really in the service of some particular theory or philosophy—as with a novel like Brave New World or 1984—it’s just a statement: people suck. You get to take your pick of idealistic and utterly impotent or you can trade your soul and take a shot at eating before you get eaten. I don’t like it when Dashiell Hammett does it, and I don’t like it when Paolo Bacigalupi does it, either. Although I recognize the skill and influence that both have, these novels represent what is dark in human nature without giving credit to the desire for light. I don’t for a moment deny the darkness, but in any book I read, I’m looking for the people who are fighting for the light, as they see it. Typically the good guy fits the bill, but I actually like stories a lot when all the players–even the villains–are trying to live by ideals they believe in. But when everyone in the main cast has completely abdicated any serious ideals, I feel like the worst thing that could happen has already happened. After that, whatever happens in the book is–in a sense–just the aftershocks.