Sunday, July 12, 2015

Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WATER KNIFE

This is maybe going to sound funny, but it was with a queer sense of relief that I learned the existence of, and then quickly read, The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi's dystopian look at the future of the American West when the water crisis its been denying for centuries finally can't be ignored anymore. I was relieved because this is a book I've long thought I was going to have to write (for reasons I'll get into in a bit) but wasn't sure I was ever going to be emotionally ready to write, or publish, or become known for having written it, etc. So I'm very glad Bacigalupi did. And hey, he probably did a better job than I would, anyway.

But so, I'm a fifth generation Wyomingite and a former elected official, yo. I've spent half my life dealing with the Western United States' deeply weird relationship with its most scarce and precious resource in one way or another. I've grown up canoeing and failing to water ski on gigantic reservoirs formed by dams meant to divert mighty rivers to feed thirsty cities states away. I've struggled to meet the needs of a small town whose water rights on the North Platte River are a cobbled-together mess, some senior to, some junior to those of surrounding ranches, and some of the "town's" rights were actually borrowed from an impossibly swanky nearby country club that currently owns more water than it needs but has the right to yank back that water at any time. Sometime after my tenure in office, the town decided to, as we say, take its hose out of the North Platte River (which joins up with the South Platte River to form the Platte, which flows into the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that actually I'm not on the watershed affected by the strife of this story, but we've got our own problems, I assure you. Read up on Nebraska vs Wyoming sometime. Hoo dogie.). I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water at least once a year, if not twice, just to keep the knowledge and history it imparts ever-fresh in my mind. Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. Etc.

What I'm saying is, this story is pretty much a telling of half of the recurring nightmares that have plagued my life since the first time I asked the wrong guy why he hated Jimmy Carter so much in the 1970s (hint: nothing at all to do with the Iran hostage crisis). You don't want to know about the other half. But anyway.

The book's title refers to one of its main characters, as well as to a general way of life that has come to prevail in the American West of the not too distant future, a West that is destroying itself not because of any sudden cataclysm that abruptly undermined its grip on civilization, but because nobody ever took warnings like Cadillac Desert (a book referenced more than a few times in this novel) seriously. Meanwhile, every problem it detailed or predicted has come to pass. Aquifers that were being mined at the rate of five feet a year but nature could only recharge at the rate of maybe a half-inch a year have run dry. Dams are silting up. Cyclical drought and climate change have stricken the land HARD. And water has started to follow money, as it ever has, but now at an aggressive and highly accelerated rate, and usually at gunpoint.

Las Vegas is holding on no matter what, largely thanks to the efforts of an omnicompetent ice queen, one Catherine Case, the Queen of the Colorado, a warlord disguised as a water commissioner, who directs armies of engineers, lawyers, politicians, various flavors of military and paramilitary groups, and any other resource she needs, really, all in service of keeping the Belagio fountains foaming. Water that can't be bought or stolen by bureaucratic methods is taken by force even unto, as our story opens, a full-scale apache helicopter-and-missile attack on a municipal water treatment plant in Arizona.

The guy in charge of that operation, Angel, is her number one Water Knife, a guy who goes wherever she bids cutting off other people's water supplies with ruthless efficiency, by any means necessary. Coming off the success of the water plant destruction, he's sent to, where else, Phoenix, in this book a scene of disaster porn that exceeds even our own decade's weird fixation on the urban decay of Detroit. Phoenix should never have been there in the first place. This was known before it was established and allowed to grow. And grow. And grow. And now, aside from California, which is in a water war league of its very own, it is the last rival to Las Vegas, but it has no Catherine Case to run its show. It is thus doomed even if Case and Angel do not succeed in hastening its destruction.

Enter the novel's second protagonist, muckracking journalist Lucy, who has "gone native" in Phoenix despite being a daughter of the water-rich East Coast. A source of hers indicated to her that he was onto something that was going to change everything for Phoenix. An original and impossibly senior water right that couldn't be denied? An untapped aquifer? Who knows? Certainly not Lucy, because of course somebody tortures her contact to death.

A third strand in the novel's braid is a young girl, Maria, living a desperate life in a madman's walled fiefdom in what's left of suburban Phoenix. She, too, has had an encounter with someone suggesting that things are about to change in a big, big way. But what can she do about it? She's just a little water seller who is under constant pressure to give everything up for a career as a "bangbang girl" and earn her living on her back like all the other desperate refugees from Texas do. At least while they're young and pretty. I don't even want to think about the options left to middle aged or elderly women in this world. Especially since, of course, that is left to my imagination.

Maria, despite her status as cliche plucky survivor-victim, actually winds up being the most interesting character in the book, because she is the only one who is truly looking forward (well, except maybe Case, but she's not a character so much as a figurant or force, the power looming in the background). She has vivid memories of her father and his delusions that somehow, somewhere, matters can be returned to "normal", meaning to how they were (or how he believed they were, but of course Maria's present gives lie to a lot of her father's -- and our -- delusions about his past), has seen such fixations as detrimental to her survival, and so is focused every moment on adapting to what is. Angel is the title character, but he's the tool of people trying to preserve the old world for a new 1% at the expense of the new 99% (geographical rather than economic). Lucy is documenting what she can only see as collapse, and trying to make the rest of the world care enough to try to stop it. But Maria, Maria sees that change has already done changed stuff, is still changing stuff, and we'd best just get used to that since it's always been that way.

And thank goodness for that, because otherwise the message of this book is even more hopeless than that of Reisner's, for all of its having cloaked that message in big showy ACKSHUN scenes and large scale disaster porn. Conspiracy theorists and fighters of The Power have it all wrong. The people on top of the pyramid cracking the whips have no more idea of what they're doing than the rest of us. They can't be relied on to fix what's broken anymore than they could have been relief on to maintain it when it wasn't. Hierarchy is not the answer.

Random little people running around having ideas and sharing them probably is. The good ideas get copied and spread. Sometimes the bad ones do, too, but eventually we stop spreading magic salve on the blade that cut us and start spreading bread mold on the wound instead.

Maybe eventually we won't need Queens either.

Meanwhile, this novel. it's exciting enough not to feel like just a thinly disguised think piece. It's not too preachy. It's full of surprises. And it's got great characters. So I think even if you couldn't care less about its premise, you're going to enjoy the book. Warren Ellis is right to compare it to John Brunner. I'd throw in more than a few nods to J.G. Ballard, too. It'll make a great movie in a few years, if it stays out of certain hands.

Meanwhile, well, I'm thirsty. Time for a nice cold glass of slightly radioactive groundwater as filtered through my brand name pitcher. My dog could use some, too. Slurp.

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