It’s a terribly short imaginative leap from this reality to Paolo Bacigalupi’s nightmare vision of a crumbling, dust storm-plagued U.S. where much of the Southwest is teetering on collapse. Texas is completely dry and uninhabitable. States east of Texas are blocked off by rising oceans and severe storm damage. (Adios, New Orleans!) A flood of refugees has swept across New Mexico and is swamping Arizona. Local governments are left to their own grossly inadequate devices by functionally non-existent federal forces. California and Nevada are fighting over water rights like unchecked organized crime syndicates.
Regardless of circumstances, The Water Knife is a story about society set on the edge of a very sharp knife. It is a story about what happens to the people who end up in the collateral damage bucket. Our main characters, Angel, Lucy, and Maria, are representative of the basic responses to the end of the world. Angel is accepting of the new, amoral order of business. This is how the world works; it’s just business, people have no choice but to become what their new, horrific environment makes them. Lucy retains an unshakeable, if initially unacknowledged, sense of moral responsibility. Personal circumstances be damned, we need to shape the world into what we want it to be.
Maria is squeezed between these opposing forces and reminds us that ideology doesn’t make much difference to the masses being trampled underfoot. She is the representative of the powerless multitudes, so easily affected by even the smallest of social changes. Of course, in The Water Knife, the social changes are anything but small. This is a world of refugees. State borders are closed, immigrants are lynched, and gang rule is the law of the land and affects all economic strata. For a girl like Maria, there are no good choices. Even her final acceptance of the most undesirable option doesn’t result in any forward movement to her situation.
In the end, it’s this desperation of the powerless that holds sway over the fates of all our characters.
This is a gritty (literally and figuratively), noir-tinged story. The violence is raw, bloody, and jaw clinching. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from showing us all the possibilities of evil swarming the crumbling neighborhoods of Phoenix. Sociopaths move freely about the streets, gang warlords battle for territory, and the value of a life is, well, significantly less than a cup of water.
The interaction between characters is predatory, consumed with the self-interest of basic survival. Even at their most intimate, these relationships are rough. The Water Knife is decidedly adult in both its violence and sexual content. (Trigger warnings for abuse, torture, etc. are very appropriate.) All of the characters are motivated more by temporarily soothing emotional scars than any expectation of lasting connection with other people. But, that’s to be expected in such extreme circumstances, and, frankly, a truly romantic connection would have felt grossly out of place in this maelstrom.
I spent much of this book in a state of utter disbelief that anyone was going to survive. For Maria especially, there were nearly impossible hurdles to overcome from chapter to chapter. And, every successfully maneuvered hurdle seemed to land her in an even more precarious position than she had previously occupied. I did get a bit frustrated at the level of naivety on display in some of her choices. She’s been a refugee for a considerable period of time at the start of the story and should demonstrate a higher level of understanding about operating in a gang-controlled society than she does.
I enjoyed The Water Knife as much as I was disturbed by it, which is saying quite a lot. The plot was unrelenting and maintained a nice balance between realism and Hollywood action. I’d love to see this adapted into a feature film, except I’d feel too sorry for the actors who would be subjected to so much sweat, dust, and blood. Of course, they wouldn’t have to go too far these days to find the right location to film.