The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

So, the Hugo-possible-nominee-a-thon begins. It will be intermittent, as I also have a huge pile of books to read to get through. But it begins.

We’re basing this on this list, which seems to me entirely legitimate in its predictions – https://chaoshorizon.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/2016-hugo-prediction-1-0/ – but if we’re still going (which we totally will be) when the actual nominations come out, I will make the appropriate adjustments to my reading to try to get everything in and posted about. Of this list, I’ve already read The Just City and The Shepherd’s Crown, and I’ve read books by Naomi Novik, Paolo Bacigalupi, Neal Stephenson and Ann Leckie before. I think this is a pretty promising place from which to begin.

First up, the one on the list where I’d previously read something by the author, not read the book previously and it was short enough that Entourage was willing to read it (Entourage does not want to read Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, because he’s a wuss. Yeah, you heard me*). So The Water Knife it is. I read The Wind-Up Girl a while ago and loved it, so this seemed like a great place to start.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, The Water Knife is near-future realistic dystopia. Alarmingly realistic dystopia. It’s set, as far as I can tell, a little nearer than TW-UG, though neither are keen on dates. But the extent to which the world is different is much less… and yet much more dramatic in some ways. The world of TWK is one of intense drought, and a southern USA fighting to keep itself supplied with water – a scenario no one can be desperately surprised by, who has even seen Las Vegas on television and wondered “how the heck does that city survive in the middle of the damned desert?”. There exist technologies to cope with the drought, which are casually dropped in without much in the way of explanation anywhere (for instance “clearsacs” which seem to be used for rapid filtering of unsafe water to drink), but nothing on a large enough scale to actually fix the problem or cope on a large enough scale to retain even the semblance of normality. Much of the action of the books takes place where people no longer have access to running water, and are forced to use paid pumps to collect what they need, at variable prices. Refugees try to flee north, where water is more plentiful, but are often stopped, leaving them stuck in their campsites close to the water pumps. It’s a pretty grim world, made all the grimmer by not knowing just how close Bacigalupi has set it to now – there are no dates, and much of the world feels the same as the current one, with just the odd technological change indicating it’s in the future. It feels both imminent and unreal.

We follow three characters, a journalist, a refugee and the eponymous water knife, each with their different agendas and different experiences of the world changed by drought. Two of them start off incredibly sympathetic, Lucy the journalist and Maria the refugee, with Angel, the water knife, coming across as an anti-hero without much in the “hero” column. Over the course of the book, I found myself sympathising more and more with Angel, even as he carried on being not all that nice. But something about the way you get into his head, about his inability to be upset by anything, about his determination to do his job, they all get to you and you end up caring about him possibly more than either of the others. He’s definitely one of the more successful anti-heroes I’ve read. Maria is someone for whom life has been unremittingly awful, but who absolutely refuses to give up. She was m favourite at the start, and while I don’t always like her and what she does in the book, I do always respect her, because she’s just completely compelling. Lucy… I dither over Lucy. Sometimes, she’s wonderful. She has a terrible dilemma a lot of the time where her identity as a journalist is clashing with her identity as a resident of Phoenix. Her best and worst moments come when these two clash, and she’s forced to make decisions even she doesn’t like. She’s difficult to make a decision about, because she’s constantly changing, and even she doesn’t always know who she is. But put them all together, and they bounce off each other wonderfully. It is a very strongly character driven novel, and Bacigalupi has done a fantastic job of that side of things.

What that does mean though is that the SF parts have slightly suffered. It sort of feels like a novel for which the science fiction is incidental at best. And I’m torn about how much I care about that. Because it is a very well written book… but it feels like more could have been done with what it had. I don’t want to spend too much time comparing this to TW-UG, because I don’t think it’s entirely helpful, but what that did do that TWK doesn’t so much is really immerse you in the strange but familiar world of his future. It doesn’t at all detract from the plot or the characters, but it makes you really feel just how real this is and could be. And for all the imminence you get from the theoretical reality of TWK‘s world, it doesn’t have that palpable sense of doom that I think TW-UG manages by really getting those details in of exactly what has to happen for people to survive in that world.

Like the setting, the plot suffers slightly for the novel being quite so character focussed. It’s good, and interesting. But it gets predictable at times (there’s one particular twist both I and Entourage saw coming way before it was revealed), and it almost feels like what happens to the characters just exists to make them better characters, not to drive the book forward itself… it’s an odd feeling.

That all being said, I did enjoy the book. The characters are wonderful. But it definitely feels like it could have been better, especially given that I’ve read stuff of Bacigalupi’s that is. And that’s a really the unsatisfying feeling.
*I admit, I may, just may, have had a drink or two this evening**. And I know Entourage reads my ‘blog. To be honest, I probably would have done this sober too, but the quince gin gives me a slightly plausible excuse. Also yay, quince gin.
** This is now two evenings ago, but I left it in because it amused me when I opened up the draft today to carry on writing.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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