Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Speculative fiction that's too close to home

The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi


Publisher:  Knopf 

Pub. Date: May 26, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the best writers of speculative fiction alive. He specializes in the dystopic novel often dealing with issues of bio-engineering and technological advances that changes the world and humans, usually not for the better. But what I like about his writing is the solid grounding he has in the human spirit which remains constant over the most harrowing alternate reality leaving both the good and bad aspects in plain view. The author’s humans are resilient and admirable in their courage and drive if not always noble in their values and morality.

The first thing that hits you about his new novel The Water Knife is that this time he is not envisioning a future that is in the distance but one that is just around the corner for many people. To use a line from the TV series Max Headroom, the plot of The Water Knife is “20 minutes into the future” and, to quote a more mundane saying from hundreds of P.R. agents “straight out of today's headlines”. The author’s not-so-future world is the Southwest United States when the drought we are experiencing has become permanent, drying up most of the water in the Southwest. Phoenix is collapsing. Refugees from Texas are coming north looking for a better life but finding despair and corruption. Arizona, California, and Nevada fight furiously to maintain water rights in a way that is barely legal and, under the surface, full of violence and betrayal. Important to this battle is the water knife, the label for men who do the dirty stuff; sabotaging water pipes, removing people from their territory who are using up water that don’t belong to them, and occasionally hurting and killing. One water knife, Angel Velasquez, works for Catherine Case, a prime player in the fight to secure water for Las Vegas and an enemy of the “Calies”, the chief water enforcers for still powerful California. Arizona, primarily Phoenix, is a distant third with its population all but abandoned and left to fend for themselves through crime and corruption. Angel is ruthless but extremely loyal and is sent to Phoenix to find out why Case’s operatives are missing.

In the meantime Lucy, a reporter in Phoenix, is onto a story involving the killing of a water lawyer who may have gotten greedy. There is also Maria, a teenager growing up fast in the world that uses, abuses and discards young girls. She is a refugee from Texas and is trying to make her way north. These three characters come together in the alternating narratives, sometimes working together but mostly working against. The way that Bacigalupi weaves these narratives together is as skillful as any writer you will find.

As is often true about dystopic novels with complex setups, the first few chapters moves a little ponderously to acclimate you to this world. Fortunately the author is very good at that and we are soon transported not just into his world but into the life and emotions of the characters. What I like about the protagonists of The Water Knife is that they are very real, which means in this case that they are liable to be bending their values, fighting and betraying in a second if survival is the goal. In Bacigalupi’s world, survival is very often the goal. I was ready to hate Angel but his perverse sense of loyalty becomes a virtue. Lucy is married to her job and despite the constant dangers, finds Phoenix a place that speaks to her. Maria is also a fighter but her fight is to just make it through each day. If you are looking for knights in white armor, a Bacigalupi novel is not the place to find them. But if you want real characters that make each twist and turn believable then you are in the right book.

The Water Knife can easily be read for its entertainment value alone but there are always serious themes lying in plain view in a story by Bacigalupi. There are as many themes here as plot twists and character turns. The author has a good grasp at future slang which pops up often giving the story an understandable but separate worldview. One of these terms that just might make it into our own mainstream is “Collapse Pornography”. It is the term coined to describe the kind of news story that delves on the deterioration and misery of peoples and society and is devoured by the mainstream audience just as some in our reality devour tabloid gossip. When Lucy hears that hundreds of corpses are being dug up in the city she is more interested in what the story will do for her career than in the tragedy of it. Yet it also changes her life when she finds that the body of the water lawyer is one of them and leads her to the many decisions she will need to make.

Pacigalupi does everything well; characterization, world structure, action sequences. They are all meticulous. The Water Knife may appeal to the imagination of a population that is still struggling with the undeniable idea of global warming. Yet it is the human struggles that make this book work. This is a novel that should appeal to more than the science fiction audience. I would not be surprised if it breaks into the mainstream and becomes the book of 2015 that everyone talks about.

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