Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

It’s official.  I hereby dub Paolo Bacigalupi, Captain Grimdark of science fiction.  Uncontent to swerve in and out of dystopia when telling his near-future stories of the Earth gone to hell, he rubs the reader’s face in the grime every step.  Scenes of violence and human misery, both manipulative and informative, string along stories of good people stuck in bad times.  Formula?  Set in the near-future, mix in some stereotypical characters, use a few simple environmental destruction plot devices to build sympathy, make cutting, realistic, and informed comments about contemporary politics and corporate greed that allowed the situation to happen, and voila, Captain Grimdark.  (Science fiction has captains, and fantasy has lords, natch.) 

Yes, Bacigalupi has struck upon a blueprint, and his 2015 The Water Knife is more of the same—the sixth in a row by my counting.  A mainstream corpus with science fiction blood, one can easily see Hollywood picking up the rights to The Water Knife and pushing the story of a drought-torn American southwest caught in water wars straight to the silver screen.  (They should wait for the hype of Mad Max to fade, however.)  Political fragmentation, human rights violations, greed and avarice, and tales of human suffering are front and center (with Keanu Reeves playing the lead role of Angel Valasquez, the titular corporate thug/secret agent/mercenary?).

The Colorado River basin is the trigger point for The Water Knife.  When water reserves run low in Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and California, politics are taken to the street, or, more precisely, all the nice laws are thrown out and it’s every state, county, even city for itself.  The hostilities—open attack to sabotage—that break out amongst the polities has a devastating effect on the population. Hundreds die daily due to lack of water, refugees trudge across the map trying to find a better life, dust storms ravage crops, and all the while the rich get richer, living in their air conditioned homes with a fresh supply of sparkling clean water under the protection of the water knives.

If it wasn’t obvious, The Water Knife targets the inability of American government and society to extract itself from the water crisis ongoing in the Colorado River basin—among other environmental crises.  The underlying anger at this situation bald, Bacigalupi, thinly disguising himself as a character, observes:

“All of them talking acre-feet and reclamation guide-lines and cooperation, wastewater efficiency, recycling, water banking, evaporation reduction and river covers, tamarisk and cottonwood and willow elimination. All of them trying to rearrange deck chairs on a big old Titanic. All of them playing the game by the rules, believing there was a way for everyone to get by, pretending they could cooperate and share their way out of the situation if they just got real clever about the problem.”

Cynical to say the least, the fact reality supports Bacigalupi’s fiction only makes the vision all the more scary.  Rather than tailoring our technology and society to the environments we live in, we attempt the opposite, and as a result pay the price when demand outstrips supply—in the novel’s case, water.  For as fluffy as the plotting and characters are, the underlying reality hits uneasily close to home and should make every reader stop and think. 

Like the majority of Captain Grimdark’s fiction, The Water Knife features innocents just trying to make ends meet.  The perfect setup for mass market appeal when combined with the ravaged setting, the book has characters with enough depth to avoid the description ‘cardboard’ but not enough to escape ‘stereotype.’ The book predictably features a heartless executive, a handful of lower class men and women trying to get by but constantly being kept from a life of ease and comfort by the executive and their cronies, and a middle man to balance the two sides.  While Angel the water knife achieves some degree of complexity, the rest remain character types rather than characters.  To quote Jeff VanderMeer:“Buying in to stereotype and cliché about your characters condemns them to act in ways that are based on false ideas about people in the real world.”.  The real world agenda of The Water Knife suffers accordingly. 

About the only glimmer of light in The Water Knife is deference to the Chinese and their imagined ability to create new technology.  Much like Ken Macleod’s The Execution Channel, Bacigalupi makes the point that, while Western executives squabble for profits and the people’s living conditions get accordingly worse, there are other nations able to focus on the problems truly affecting society and come up with solutions.  The Water Knife not entirely nihilistic, Bacigalupi offers side visions to how water resources might be better managed, a handful of potential ideas balancing the bitterness and bleakness that permeates nearly every other aspect of the novel.

So, is The Water Knife better than The Windup Girl?  I’m unsure.  Despite being different in appearance, it’s very similar in tone and mode.  It’s angry, it’s astute in its environmental and governmental observations, and it’s entertaining.  But is it more subtle?  Does it show a willingness to closer link realism and science fiction to thus give its message more impact?  Are the characters people people from the real world, not just stock to tell a story?  I think no.  The Water Knife caught between being a commercial/mainstream product and a work of concerned sf, it has the same posture as The Windup Girl.  It does not, for example, tackle its sub-text with the same relevancy as Kim Stanley Robinson imbues his environmental and political agendas in the Orange County or Science in the Capitol trilogies.  While many readers will find Bacigalupi’s story more “entertaining” than a Robinson offering, it comes at the expense of integrity; The Water Knife is closer to Hollywood thriller than literary environmental fiction.

While I would guess my opinion is in the minority, Bacigalupi’s formula is getting a little old.  Ok, the setting is different and the characters have different names compared to other Bacigalupi offerings.  But the end result is the same.  Endless description of human misery, etc., good people having bad things done to them by megalomaniacs, etc., apocalypse, etc.—as important as the message is, the vehicle gets tiresome.  Time to change things up, Paolo!  Time to rise above the mainstream!  Time to use that intelligence I see displayed in interviews in more ambitious fashion! Time to start creating more realistic characters, motivate them along more subtle lines, and integrate their struggles with constructive visions for the future.  You’ve built a good following of readers, I guarantee they will follow.


  1. "Science fiction has captains, and fantasy has lords, natch." Ha!

    I have yet to read him because to date I haven't actually heard anyone praising him. Didn't realize that was likely a minority opinion. Interesting.

    1. I've read a fair amount of praise for Bacigalupi, his books sells relatively well, and his novel The Windup Girl took home three, possibly four, major awards when it was published. They are imaginative, entertaining sf that work with some very important topics. But as I mention, the focus remains sensationalism... Anyway, it's worth reading one of his books - pick one, they're all pretty much the same. :)