Finishing _The Water Knife_: the end of the world and what comes next

Bacigalupi_The Water KnifeIn July we launched our near-future science fiction reading project with The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s dark vision of a desertified American southwest.  Last week I posted notes on the first half of the book.  Alan Levine wrote a fantastic post about the some materials, which I recommend.

Since then I’ve finished it, and am sharing thoughts in this post.

I’d like to resist spoiling the plot here.   I liked these chapters, if not as much as those in the first hald.  However, I think the ending – actually the last few pages – radically changes the story and the book’s meaning.  So let’s try this in two parts: a spoiler-free discussion, followed by the ending.  I’ll separate the two so you can avert your gaze if you haven’t finished.

1: The book’s second half, without spoilers

Now the novel becomes a full-on thriller, with chases, escapes, sex, betrayals, shoot-outs, encryption and decryption, torture, a macguffin.  Angel, Lucy, and Maria remain the main characters.

I have to admit to losing my engagement with the book for some of this.  The world-building and politics dwindled here.  Some of the action became implausible (one character admits as much on 304), which reduced my investment.

World-building slows down, although we learn some more details, like the fact that at some point between our time and the novel’s “the Cartel States too control [of Mexico] completely” (199)  Wearable computing makes more appearances (“data glasses”: 200, 286).   We get a clearer sense of Johnnytrucks as mobile composting stations (261).  Medical science allows consumer-grade organ grafts (320) and portable tissue regrowth (341). And there’s a hilarious image of an ancient Britney Spears (320).

There are some nicely condensed, even cinematic glimpses:

A night market had sprung up around the pump.  Tiny solar lanterns dangled like fireflies over men and women as they wrapped burritos and pupusas and soft tacos in the newsprint of the blood rags. (255)

Lit prof notes:

Some of the over-the-top symbolism continues, as “Angel” muses about being “the Devil” (201, for example).  The city of Phoenix as the mythic bird also returns.  Other names matter even more (see below).

Gender roles remain in traditional forms, with men acting as gunfighters and women as hostages or nurses or torture victims, all too often.  One wounded male sees a helping women (and sexual partner) as his mother (317).   The end tweaks this in a noir direction, though (see below).

Themes and tropes signaled on the first page (labor, violence, Latino culture (both the Spanish language and Santa Muerte), migration) continue right through the end.

Plata o plomo (silver or lead; payment or bullets) returns as a theme (185).

Other themes: ecosystems, both ecological and human, persist.  History increases in importance, from Cadillac Desert to, well, the end.

Phoenix by moominsean

Now, if you haven’t finished the book, but would like to comment, just scroll to the end of this post and go ahead.

2: The end! with spoilers

Seriously, if you don’t want to know about the second half, stop here.





OK: in this part of the novel Bacigalupi ratchets up the tension with news disasters, as dams break, cities burn, and civil disorders break out.  California emerges as the most powerful villain, as Steven Kaye notes.  But the final move, a far quieter act of violence, is the real kicker.  It’s not a surprise ending per se, but an ultimate twist that reframes the book’s themes and implications, especially for readers thinking about the future.

dead end

The climax is a standoff between Angel and Lucy over the control and use of crucial documents.  Lucy wants to give them to the city of Phoenix, in order to restore its water and therefore communal life.  Angel wants to take them to his estranged boss, in order to get back into her good graces.  If Lucy wins, the world could take a step forward, warding off disaster and spreading a spirit of communalism.

And then Maria blows it up.

While Angel and Lucy argue and scheme, Maria weighs her options… then shoots Lucy.  Now she is in charge, and solves the crisis, and shapes the future.  Maria, the mother, will mother the future.

Is that an exaggeration, a lit prof’s overreading?  No.  The crucial bit, and maybe the most important passage of the book, is about how Maria sees the other characters.  Listen closely as she describes Lucy by way of explanation to Angel:

“She had old eyes,” Maria said.  “My dad had that problem, too…

“She thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it’s not.  It’s already changed.  And she can’t see it, ’cause she only sees how it used to be. Before.  When things were old.” (369)

For Maria Lucy is the past.  Lucy’s plans are therefore unrealistic.  Lucy represents the novel’s recent history (our near future), while forward-looking and much younger Maria is the novel’s future.  For badly-suffering Maria, Lucy’s desires are useless to both herself and the world.

Instead of saving the world, Lucy and Angel will head to Las Vegas, the city of crime, power, and betrayal, to link up with a powerful player, instead of turning to Phoenix and redemption for both themselves and society.  Lucy’s light (remember her name’s meaning) dims. Angel is neither a saving angel nor destroying devil; they have both been superceded.  The last lines of the book reflect this, being about Maria feeling good, seeing the future she shaped “becoming real.”

This is a stark condemnation of older generations and their ability to grasp the future – a point hopefully not lost on contemporary readers.  Perhaps this chimes in with the negative view of writing in the book.

Maria’s action as a futures move has been hinted at earlier, when Lucy wonders about the future.  She fantasizes about future archaeologists looking at her time, then leaps ahead:

Maybe in a thousand years everyone would be living underground or in arcologies, with only their greenhouses touching the surface, all their moisture carefully collected and held.  Maybe in a thousand years humanity would become a burrowing species, safely tucked underground for survival –

“There’s out man.”  Angel pointed. (347)

Lucy here lives up to her name as illuminator.  But Lucy is at best a creature of the present, not the future.  She can imagine, but not act.   She recedes into the past, leaving the next world to Maria.

Because of this final scene, Water Knife has interesting status as a work of near-future science fiction.  It takes us from our present (book published in 2015) to sometime roughly a generation hence (recall Britney Spears as a grandmother), then concludes by pointing to the next generation.  That’s a generation marked not by a sense of crisis and decay (that’s Lucy and Angel), but by collapse and savagery (Maria; recall her repeated traumas and mutilations).

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 Bacigalupi’s world is heading into a darker dystopia, mothering a Mad Max future.

I admire this as a work of fiction. Instead of freezing its frame, the novel is now set into the full arc of time, transmitting from past through its present and into another future.  This conclusion also messes with some readers, as the text positioned Lucy and Angel as powerful actors, while Maria has been largely a victim.

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 Seeing the latter assert herself is a narrative surprise.

It also gives us much to think about in terms of near-future events.  Not only does it ask us to imagine what happens next, but what follows after that as a result.  We have to imagine the people involved, *then* their children and successors.

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 Wise and powerful advice for futurists.

Let me conclude with a few notes on gender roles.  The final standoff ends in noir fashion, with one heroine acting decisively, egotistically, and betraying other people for her own benefit.  Maria uses Angel, and badly hurts Lucy.  We get a straight-up gender reversal when Angel “cradle[s]” Lucy, “making shushing noises to her, as if she were a little baby.” (367)

One male character (Toomie) acts against the macho stereotype, first by shunning violence, then by offering a “we’re all in this together” speech, urging self-sacrifice and communal awareness (248).  Interestingly, this ultimately fails.  So does the book end with traditional gender roles reversed or destabilized?

3. Next up

What did you make of the book?

I’ll be posting about our next reading soon.

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(Dead End photo by Cogdog); Phoenix image by moominsean)

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14 Responses to Finishing _The Water Knife_: the end of the world and what comes next

  1. Steve Kaye says:

    I think there’s a recurring theme of destabilization, not only of gender but of hierarchies and social relations generally. Catherine Case (call-out to Necromancer and other visions of the future?) thinks of herself as being on top, but her position is unstable. Angel thinks of himself as bigger than he is, because he works for Catherine. California’s role as big dog is unstable. Maria’s role, without going into spoilers, changes dramatically.

    I don’t see Maria and her decision as her play for the world’s future in a broader sense, but not sure how to discuss without spoiling.

  2. CogDog says:

    This discussion is fun, I’m getting much more out of the story now. I like Steve’s idea of destabilization; it’s a case though of overlapping or competing destabilization, and a near future where almost everything is destabilized, an inverse to the present (maybe). I’d suggest Angel is very aware of the limits of his role, he knows he is a cog. And I’d also suggest for as much as she thinks she is on top, Catherine Case know how… unstable that is. She’s fighting, scrapping every way (and perhaps an alternative female role, Bryan?).

    My take after reaching the end of the book is that it is both and homage to and a playing out of the scenario so clearly laid out in the 1980s in Cadillac Desert. The book makes numerous overt appearances in the book and more by suggestion, and plays a key role in the end of the story.

    It’s ironic too that the powerful thing that everybody was chasing, the thing that could destabilize these quasi empires, was a piece of old paper, an ancient agreement. And the agreement was based on faulty assumptions of water supply in the 1920, and might even question the idea that a life giving resource like water could be split into shares.

    Maria’s rejection of the hopes of the past is not a rejection of the past (remember her longing in her first chapter for the experience of folded fresh laundry placed by her Mom), but more, that to her, people like Lucy, Ratan, Sanderson and everybody who read Cadillac Desert, had everything to prevent their future / her present… and they failed to do so. They had their chance. And it her it is too late, because even if Phoenix had gotten those water rights, the escalations, the fighting, the water knifing would continue.

    And while Angel and Maria fly off to Vegas towards Catherine Case, do we really know what happened? That leaves an interesting side door for speculation.

  3. CogDog says:

    One quibble kind host- your page number references are device or maybe edition dependent so I could not find them in the paperback edition I read

  4. Paul says:

    I like that you highlighted the same line I did (
    This line also stood out to me:

    “Do I get a say in any of this?” Maria asked dryly.

    Angel had rifled through what few possessions Maria had, ignoring her objection, and he and Lucy were arguing over what to do with a piece of paper to which they had no real claim. The paper reminds me of the Maltese Falcon – “I don’t see how you can honestly grant anyone else a clear title to it … except by right of possession.” Maria didn’t know she had it, and wouldn’t have known what to do with it, but at that point she knew it was important, potentially life-changing, and she knew Angel and Lucy had taken it from her without a thought. I didn’t have any sympathy for Lucy at that point. The ending was grim, but it would have been grim in any case.

  5. Joe Murphy says:

    Regarding the ending… did anyone else find the very last sentence of the book ambiguous and somewhat unsettling?

  6. jason k says:

    I like how unsettling that ending was and was and realized how planned it had been by the mentioning of that person who did the thing was mentioned to being like another cold character and then went… oh yes that should have been seen.

  7. Pingback: Which near future science fiction book should we read next? Polls are open | Bryan Alexander

  8. Joe Murphy says:

    FYI, since part of my interest in this is in how realistic fiction book clubs might be for faculty development – I brought up The Water Knife very briefly in our Sustainability Across the Curriculum workshop yesterday. Mostly as an aside, but I saw a lot of pencils scribbling the title down. And it turns out one of our profs was Bacigalupi’s neighbor in childhood, which was a neat little coincidence.

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