I’m 52% of the way into Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction novel The Water Knife, and wanted to share some notes for our online reading/book club. (Relevant posts on this blog are tagged waterknife)
First, quick and general reactions with an eye on futurism. Second, notes from a lit crit perspective. Third, onward. I’ll try to avoid spoilers.
I: General reactions
Quick summary: Water Knife takes place in the American southwest, principally the Las Vegas-Phoenix area, in a near future devastated by drought. We follow three main characters: Angel, the titular water knife, a former thug and current fixer for a Las Vegas water baroness; Lucy, a journalist covering water and crime; Maria, a Texan climate refugee.
It’s a detailed and grim world. “Big Daddy Drought” (8) has knocked America down from its superpower perch, as social collapse to varying degrees gnaws at major states and cities and China looms ever-larger as an advanced and philanthropic power. Violence, disease (60, 178), inequality, and corruption are rife as American lurches towards becoming a narcostate (104). Militias (79) and crooked cops ride herd over climate refugees, including faith-based Merry Perrys (a reference to former Texas governor Perry, I bet).
The world continues to provide advanced technologies. On the digital front we see phones with multiple and hidden operating systems (100), cryptocurrency (68, 113), augmented reality (“military glass”, 51), and social media that seems to have swallowed up journalism. Other technologies appear, including just-in-time building construction, effective solar power (69), and a cheap plastic bag for recycling urine into drinkable water, the ClearSac (73).
Bacigalupi knits those characters and the world to hit several major themes. Ecosystems, unsurprisingly, appear everywhere, from detailed descriptions of water systems (183, for example) to the human predator-prey arrangement. Belief is a big one, between the worship of La Santa Muerte and faith-based climate denialism. Gender and sexuality appear, but in a retrograde fashion for 2016 readers, with men largely brutes and women all too often either victims or prostitutes. History looms large for a book about the future, as characters remind us that people could have avoided this situation (Cadillac Desert appears twice so far), or compare the plot’s present to their past – i.e., our present.
II: A lit prof’s notes
Details that catch my lit prof’s eye:
The first page crams in a ton of hints for the book to come. It hits us with labor, violence, Latino culture (both the Spanish language and Santa Muerte), and migration. Leading with sweat brings to mind exertion and ecology.
The style is fast paced, with some interesting features. We get neologisms and new slang, as is classic with science fiction: icy (for cool), wet (for ignorant; ironically applied to American migrants), fivers (wealthy people). Dollops of Spanish and, to a lesser degree, Chinese show the impact of two social changes. There’s a good amount of noir bitterness:
“Somebody’s got to bleed if anybody’s going to drink.”
“You sound like a Catholic.”(162)
Or: “Thick mud walls and personal solar panels heavily chained to the roof, looking like mental patients in danger of escape.” (152)
And some nice syntactic moments, where you have to read between the lines:
“Just because you’re Case’s pet doesn’t mean I can’t make your life miserable.”
Angel didn’t look up from the injunctions. “Just because you’re Case’s dog don’t mean I can’t toss you off this bridge.”
The seals and stamps on the injunctions all looked like they were in order.
“What have you got on Case that makes you so untouchable?” Braxton asked.(4)
Imagine Braxton’s face while Angel focuses on those seals and stamps, and as he changes tack.
More on names: “water knife” recalls “blade runner”, at least for me, with the full range of Phil Dick (inhuman humans, powerful religion) and William S. Burroughs (drugs, bad cops, violence, scary authorities).
The other names are pretty programmatic. “Angel” is a bit on the nose for a protagonist, not helped by seeing himself as a devil (18) and having Saint Death tattooed on his back. Lucy made me think of Dracula‘s Lucy Westenra, with “Lucy” drawing from “light”, and the threat of the light going out of the West. I was correct, as we get this a few paragraphs after meeting her:
The light going out of the world. Lucy thought she’d read that somewhere— some old Christian thing. The death of Jesus, maybe. The light going out, forever.
Jesus blows out, and La Santa Muerte blows in. (20)
And Maria, well, gets to be Mary. She’s a refugee and the major victim so far. I expect to see her acting as mother or redeemer.
Is this novel a dystopia? I don’t think so. It’s semi-apocalyptic, that word appearing at least ten times, plus serving as a popular brand.
I was surprised at the amount of horror. We get body parts, animals attacking people, people trapped under dead bodies (ex: 188). It’s mostly drawn from crime, but Bacigalupi isn’t shy about touching some horror tropes.
While reading I paid more attention to certain news stories, like this National Geographic article about global trends in water depletion. I also drank more water, I think.
The publisher has a discussion page (thanks to Joe Murphy).
Overall, I’m fascinated and caught up. Can’t wait to read more.
How are you all doing with the reading so far?