Nor any drop to drink
At the start of a new year, the Beamers turned resolutely toward the Future. Not a cheery Future, alas, but a realistic one of wars over water rights, right here in the US. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife depicts the struggles to survive in a drying Southwest, where states launch military raids to prevent other states from getting a drop to drink, and refugees mass at borders, desperate to migrate away from the perpetual deserts that used to be Texas and New Mexico. But, would the Beamers be willing to accept any of them?
Sharper than a serpent’s tooth
The “water knife” of the title is not a high-tech blade (despite Nick’s hopes), but an agent of the state of Nevada, Angel Velasquez, who enforces Nevada’s rights to the water of the Colorado River, any way necessary. Including, in the opening chapters, launching a raid with the Apache helicopters of the Nevada National Guard (“the Camel Corps”) on the water treatment plant of Carver City, Arizona, after Carver City loses a judgement on its right to river water, and before the paperwork for an appeal can be filed. Bacigalupi’s near-future US is not too different from our present-day litigious and contentious society, but the restraints are wearing thin. Angel still needs some legal justification, as the weakened Federal government will not permit outright civil war. But, they do collude with powerful states against the weaker ones. Not a coincidence that Arizona’s National Guard units are deployed up in Canada, guarding tar sand fields, and not home, guarding against Nevada.
Reality, what a concept!
The realism of the book was a plus and a minus for the Beamers. Some of us, like Chris, were not sure that there was much, or any, true science fictional elements in the book. Most of us, though, appreciated the sense of how the US could be inching slowly into a collapse, without even noticing it. Donna applauded the author’s ability to depict a near-future US that could simply evolve into being on the edge without needing to invoke a cinematic disaster, instead just by extrapolating current trends and saying “If this goes on …” (to borrow a Robert Heinlein phrase). Not every Beamer was as impressed, particularly with the political changes implied by the book’s interstate refugee battles, something that Alan thought would flagrantly violate the US Constitution, despite the author inserting a piece of state border policing Federal law. The writing in the book is very strong, a trait that Beamers, who highly rated The Wind-up Girl, have come to expect from Bacigalupi. Liz noted that both books share a morally ambiguous male central character and several very strong female characters involved in his activities.
Still, that sense of realism and moral ambiguity was not to Kathy’s liking, as it denied her a feeling of escaping into a world. The grittiness of the characters and their world left her unengaged with them and their problems. To her, it seemed that nothing changed over the course of the book, leaving all the struggle and conflict for naught. For me, it was a return to the science fiction that I read while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, where ecological themes were of paramount importance and the specter of eco-collapse was prevalent. No, it was not a happy literature, with happy endings, but it did seem relevant and important back then, and maybe again now.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Somewhat like those New Wave books, The Water Knife does not compromise with its readers. Several of us had difficulty in the early parts of the novel, when the author is laying out the pieces of his puzzle in a very parsimonious fashion. Nick reflected that the various strands of the narrative, moving from character to character, chapter by chapter, resembled the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson. But Bacigalupi was also adding in a noir detective theme, too, which many Beamers compared to the movie Chinatown. The need for maintaining suspense, however, also leads Bacigalupi to refrain from adding much, if any, identifying details to his characters, sometimes even denying names if the point-of-view character is not familiar with the other figures in a scene. A third of the way through the book, the various clues and hints begin to coalesce, and the reader is rewarded with a feeling of being able to fit pieces together, like knowing who the blonde and the Latina dancing in the nightclub are, as they are glimpsed by the reporter passing through. But it does take a while, which some of us, like Fran, found to be a bit drawn out.
Another comparison that Beamers discussed was The Maltese Falcon, as an example of a noir plot that is centered around a Macguffin, an object of supreme interest to the characters but which has little effect on the plot. Here, the senior water rights (“senior to God”) of the Pima nation are chased, lost, found, and smuggled to Nevada, but the fact that they seem to appear and disappear at plot-convenient times did not please Beamers like Alan who want a bit more attention paid to a piece of parchment reputed to be worth billions but which could simply be stuck into a book offered to a casual acquaintance. The book is very action-packed, so readers like Chris who appreciate a fast read may not be as concerned by the cavalier handling of a supposedly society-altering document.
Do Unto Others, before They Do Unto You
The moral philosophy of the book was another point of debate for us. Maria, the Texan refugee who winds up with the water rights treaty paper, shoots another sympathetic character, Lucy the reporter, when Lucy tries to take the treaty document back to Phoenix, which desperately needs the water rights. “She had old eyes”, Maria explains, “she thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it’s not. It’s already changed.” A very utilitarian ethic, one that the book cannot deny, but one that did not necessarily win any fans among the Beamers. Still, it is hard to ignore that almost every character has a lot of moral grey areas, and that even the villains, like the Nevada politico calling Angel’s shots, could be seen as heroic figures from a different perspective, like Maria’s.
Overall, the Beamers awarded high marks (8s were a common value when we totaled up our judgements) to The Water Knife, and even those Beamers not as sure about recommending the book would like to read more of Mr. Bacigalupi’s work for future meetings. Perhaps we were a bit spoiled by the creatively imaginative world of The Wind-up Girl to get as excited by a more close-to-home pre-apocalypse like The Water Knife. And the book contains many rough passages, as Bacigalupi is not using noir merely for atmosphere or flavor. Like Chinatown, characters in this book get hurt and hurt hard. So, we may have started off 2017 with a bit of a downer, a future not to anticipate but to fear. Still, without the ability to feel pain, a person can be a lot more vulnerable and liable to greater dangers. Similarly, without cautionary science fiction like The Water Knife, the future we get may be a lot worse than the one we imagine.