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The Water Knife

May 16, 2016

It’s been raining here for more than a week. There are puddles in the yard, and muddy tracks through the grass where the neighbors tried to mow. Everything is green, which is a nice backdrop for the azaleas, in full bloom. During our nightly thunderstorm, we worry about the storm drains backing up into our basement, as they did once before, a few years ago. We have tickets to a baseball game on Sunday, and hope they will get to play. When I walk into the Kroger or the dry cleaners, everyone I meet wonders aloud whether it will ever stop raining.

If you live in central Ohio, you don’t tend to worry about water. We have too much of it. So listening to Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Water Knife as I drove around town was something new. I had an inkling of what it’s like to live in the American desert, having visited Tucson three times in the past year, but this novel, set in a Phoenix of the future, paints a picture of what will happen when water is more scarce.

An imaginary friend of mine (someone I know through the internet) said the other day that she knows people who throw away water bottles with water still in them, and pointed out that this takes the water out of the earth’s cycle. Then I read an article about bottled water, giving good arguments about why we shouldn’t drink it. These kinds of arguments make more sense to me than the ones that say I shouldn’t take long showers in Ohio because we’re running out of water in California. Californians complain about drought, I say let them move out here and deal with the damp.

That’s what people have done in Angel’s world—his job as a Nevada Water Knife is to cut off the water to whole cities along the Colorado river whose water rights have not been upheld in court. Nevada and California own most of the water rights now, so Phoenix is a ghost town full of refugees from Texas. The two other main characters in the novel are Lucy, a journalist from Phoenix, and Maria, a young Texas refugee living in Phoenix.

Early in the novel, a friend of Lucy’s tries to identify the moment this future water crisis began, and he says “you don’t believe data—you test data….If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.” So, in other words, the future crisis has already begun.

Maria is the product of a world without enough water to go around. She doesn’t long for how it used to be, as Lucy does, but faces the world with few illusions. She is characterized, early on, by how she thinks about her friend Sarah, who
“reminded Maria of a kitten that she’d found mewling inside a banged-up trash can. The kitten hadn’t had a mother, probably because some needleboy had caught and cooked her, and there this little kitten was, curled up and begging for something it would never get.
Maria had petted the tiny creature, understanding its need—the wishing for milk that would never come, the desperate desire to have someone come back and take care of you—but you couldn’t just lie there praying for rescue.
Sarah, though….Sarah acted hard, but the girl was soft. Even when she peddled ass, she expected someone to be taking care of her. Kept thinking the world gave a damn about her worthless life.
Sarah. That kitten. Maria’s father. They were all the same.”

Maria believes she is tough, but her friend Toomie has to warn her “you keep worrying about right and wrong, you’ll end up just as dead as your daddy. He liked to lawyer things, too. Kept talking about how the Supreme Court was going to open up interstate travel again.”

The action of the novel centers around some almost-mystical-sounding water rights so senior that they would take precedence over everyone else’s claims to the Colorado River. Angel and Lucy are trying to figure out why people are dying, and it turns out to be because they’ve heard about these rights.

As the novel comes to its climax, Lucy became less of a fully-realized character and more the representative of the old order. She believes she has ideals, and yet even her own faith in them is shaken when she is tortured and then her family is threatened. The first time she betrays Angel, it seems unnecessary. I think she could have told him her family had been threatened and asked him to go to the place she’d been told to deliver him to, but instead she tricks him and then later saves his life. The second time she betrays him it is no big surprise, and then no big deal. Like the past she represents, Lucy’s part in the story has dragged on too long.

There’s a reversal at the end that might delight Europeans, or any American who thinks the country should still be called Turtle Island. Maria and Angel, who don’t completely trust anyone except themselves, end up on top, with an old copy of Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Angel says “that guy Reisner, now. That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They’re the ones who stood by and let it all happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren’t listening back then.” Back then, of course, meaning now.

When I looked for a copy of Cadillac Desert to link to, I saw that the first reviewer says he read the book after seeing it mentioned in The Water Knife. So I’m not the only one who came to some of the facts from fiction.

Has other fiction made you more aware of things that were wrong with the world in fact?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. pdlyons permalink
    May 16, 2016 5:51 am

    thanks. i will be looking up both books after reading this. nice one.

    • May 17, 2016 8:03 am

      I’ve been skimming through a few parts of Cadillac Desert, but it’s well-written.

  2. May 16, 2016 9:20 am

    Me too. My parents lived in the desert and my brother is a hydrologist, so these are issues of great interest. As for fiction that made me more aware, Richard Powers The Time of Our Singing is the first thing to come to mind. It’s not that I didn’t know about the issues dealt with (WWII into the Civil Rights era — the book is centered on events at Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial), but it gave me a different view of them, one that tapped into things I am deeply familiar with (music-making), so it was able to hit home in a way that nonfiction hadn’t quite. And it did send me to history books afterwards. But even more, I read this book 2-3 years ago and I still find myself thinking about it frequently.

    • May 17, 2016 8:10 am

      You have the background for reading The Water Knife that I didn’t.
      I often find that fiction gives me a view of the facts that nonfiction can’t, and it hits home in a way that lasts longer…especially when it sends me to reading more nonfiction afterwards, as you describe.
      The Time of Our Singing…it may not affect me as much, but I may have to look it up.

  3. May 16, 2016 7:07 pm

    The obvious Orwell books. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison show lots of injustices perpetrated by individuals to maintain a power structure. I’m currently reading Only Ever Yours, which is about women who are designed for men (the men are all natural) and forced to diet, restrain themselves, and vie for the attention of these guys who are sexist, piggish, disgusting, “flawed,” etc.

    • May 17, 2016 8:13 am

      Yes, Orwell was probably my introduction to this kind of book–more powerful than non-fiction! Wright and Ellison seem to me to reproduce more of an individual point of view, although it does apply to more than the narrator.
      Only Ever Yours sounds like it needs little exaggeration, especially as post-Stepford-Wives fiction.

      • May 17, 2016 8:23 am

        In Ellison’s book, the are many characters who suggest they are meant to represent a real life civil rights leader, like Marcus Garvey, so I took it as a larger tridentine of society, but I see what you mean with Bigger’s story!

  4. May 16, 2016 8:36 pm

    I never read dystopian fiction with water catastrophes, because it seems too real. Like if the human race dies within the next few generations, I have to assume it’s going to be because of water reasons. I never drink bottled water and I try really hard to take shorter showers.

    Did I tell you about Namibia? And how their capital city of Windhoek is one of the first places to have a major sewage reclamation plant, which is what we’re all going to have to do for water eventually even if nobody wants to admit it.

    • May 17, 2016 8:16 am

      How did you get so tuned in to water catastrophes? You live in a place with as much or more flooding as I do. But maybe the big flooding that hit you at an impressionable age also destroyed a lot of local access to potable water?
      I don’t remember being told about Namibia. Did you go there, or read about it?

  5. May 18, 2016 3:20 pm

    Isn’t it a good book? Having grown up in San Diego (my parents still live there and my sister is in Los Angeles and in-laws in Las Vegas) the things that happen in the book are all too easy for me to imagine happening. At first I thought Cadillac Desert was a made up book so was surprised to discover on a research foray it wasn’t. I am tempted to read it.

    • May 19, 2016 8:29 am

      I thought it was a made up book at first, too, but looked it up just to be sure. Even if something isn’t real, it’s often amusing to look it up, like Brakebills Academy. This one turned out to be an actual book I can read, and it is pretty well-written.

      • May 19, 2016 9:32 am

        I might have to see if I can get a copy to read if it is so well written. You’d think since I grew up in California I might have heard about it at some point but until the huge drought no one ever really talked much about water.

  6. June 13, 2016 8:23 pm

    With a sister-in-law (and her family) in San Diego, I pay more attention to water crises than I would on the basis of my life in PA/OH/NY. These books both sound fascinating, and disturbing. Maybe these should be the start of my July reading list. Interlibrary loan, here I come.

    • June 14, 2016 8:52 pm

      They are disturbing. I’ll be interested to hear what you think, especially if you read the novel.

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