The Water Knife

Novel * Paolo Bacigalupi * Post-Climate Change * 2015


This is a book about water rights in the American Southwest. It follows an employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority as he travels to Arizona in search of senior water rights that would allow Las Vegas to continue using water from the Colorado River. Most of these rights belong to California, whoever these newly discovered rights are up for grabs, so there are employees of various local governments trying to obtain them. And if all that sounds super boring, you would be correct, except for a few details.

First of all, this is a near-future story that takes place after some of the more catastrophic effects of global warming have begun occurring. There is no year given, but there’s a reference made to Fallout 9, which means the book takes place five Fallouts from now, or 25-30 years (hopefully Bethesda changes up the formula a little bit, or even I’ll get bored of the series). Anyway, stories that happen during the violent throes of climate change seem to be Bacigalupi’s whole deal, and he is very good at them. He wrote The Windup Girl, which was cool as shit, and so is this. Yeah, it’s about water rights, but only because in this future water is extremely scarce and is therefore extremely valuable.

Climate change is going to affect a lot of things, but what The Water Knife is mostly concerned with is drought. For those of you paying attention, California is still in the midst of a major drought which shows no real signs of abating, and rainfall totals and snowpack elsewhere have been shrinking. Even in a “normal” year, I can look up to the mountains here in Central Oregon and see the snow that fell last winter is melting faster than it should. Bacigalupi extrapolates a dire future from current events. In his story, the entire southern Unites States is in turmoil. The Southeast is chaos because of persistent, destructive hurricanes. Texas has straight up collapsed, due to the twin pressures of massive storm and flood damage in half the state and severe drought in the other. Refugees have flooded into the rest of the United States, leading to the State Sovereignty Act, which allows places like California and Nevada to refuse entry. Violently, if necessary. The bulk of the novel takes place in Phoenix, Arizona, which is in the midst of collapsing.

The reason is simple, really. There’s not enough water for everyone, and California has senior rights to most of the water from the Colorado River. Vegas is number two, and commands most of what’s left. Since there’s not really enough left, Phoenix has been left to wither on the vine. Also, they’re inundated with Texas refugees, who have set up vast squatter camps around Red Cross water pumps. Crime is rampant, and the rich few live in arcologies which are able to thrive with fancy recycling technology. Angel Velasquez, said employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is a man who is sent to enforce water rights in other places. He’s known informally as a “water knife,” in that he’s a weapon brandished by Las Vegas to make sure the water flows. Explosions, bodies, and dried-up, dead towns follow in his wake.

The other players in this story are a journalist named Lucy and a Texan refugee named Maria. The story bounces around between viewpoints, and there is a fair amount of crossover. Each character has their own specific motivation. Angel is in Phoenix in order to figure out why things seem to be getting wiggy around the edges of Nevada’s covert operation. Lucy has “gone native” and is documenting Arizona’s collapse, making powerful enemies in the process. Maria just wants out. Make no mistake, this is a brutal novel. All three characters get profoundly fucked up over the course of the story, and nobody escapes unscathed. The ending, when it comes, is incredibly abrupt. And it works, even if a few scenes are tough to read. Everything feels very real in this story of an America unraveling, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


When it comes to documenting the apocalypse, it’s fun to keep track of how various eras imagine their own demise. For a long time the end was going to be strictly religious. Then it was war. Sometimes a plague would pop up and ruin our shit. From the 1950s through the 80s it was probably going to be nukes. Then plagues again. Or a comet. Zombies? Now we can look around and realize, oh, no, it’s probably going to be climate change. The trouble with that from a storytelling point of view is that as a concept, climate change is a rather sprawling, amorphous idea. Yet the effects can (and will) be visceral and deadly, and Bacigalupi takes the threat very seriously. He has taken a specific effect of the changing climate and applied it to our current social structure. The result is a long, difficult look at social collapse as it’s happening.

Lucy, the intrepid reporter, is tasked with the examination of the slow-motion death of a major American city. Or, in the hashtag parlance of the novel, #PhoenixDowntheTubes. I’m not sure hashtaggery is going to still be a thing thirty years from now, but whatever. The point is, Lucy is conflicted in her mission:

“Her critics said she was just another collapse pornographer, and on her bad days she agreed: just another journo hunting for salacious imagery, like the vultures who descended on Houston after a Cat 6, or the sensationalized imagery of a fallen Detroit being swallowed by nature. But on other days Lucy had the feeling that she wasn’t so much eroticizing a city’s death as excavating a future as it yawned below them. As if she were saying, This is us. This is how we all end. There’s only one door out, and we all use it.

This sentiment pretty much encapsulates the fascination with apocalyptic collapse. It’s riveting, because it’s inevitable and we all need to know how it’s going to happen. Because it’s going to happen. If there’s one truism to history, it’s that no human empire lasts. That’s terrifying for those of us who live in the ascendant civilization of the time, and it is this general dread that shows up in fiction like this. Of course, in the year 2016 this vaporous apprehension has manifested in the anxiety/rage/confusion that has surrounded the presidential campaign, which is being described in more and more hyperbolic terms. It seems that the general public has decided that collapse is imminent, whether or not that is true remains to be seen.

As for The Water Knife, this story seems pretty certain how the collapse of a civilization is going to play out, which is to say just like it always has. Whatever the initial cause, the weight of society eventually drags down the underlying sense of community, which is what allows civilization to work in the first place. Here, Texas has already been effectively destroyed. When the refugees flee into neighboring states, they are immediately relegated to second-class citizens. In New Mexico, they are hunted and killed, their bodies strung up on barbed wire fences as warnings to other refugees. Government-funded militias patrol the borders of California and Nevada, and are instructed to shoot on sight in order to keep people out. The Southwest is covered in refugee camps, where the worst kind of human degradation occurs daily, and we are given a reason as to why the collapse seems to be hitting so hard, and is so brutal. From the cool guy named Toomie, who is Maria’s only real friend:

“I used to know this Indian guy. Skinny dude, came over from India. Didn’t have a wife or family anymore. Maybe they were back there in India, I can’t remember. Anyway, the thing he said that stuck with me was that people are alone here in America. They’re all alone. And they don’t trust anyone except themselves, and they don’t rely on anyone except themselves. He said that was why he thought India would survive all this apocalyptic shit, but America wouldn’t. Because here, no one knew their neighbors.”

That’s uncomfortably accurate. When we’re on top, and people can make a decent living and can afford a decent living space and enough food and enough time to chill out and watch Game of Thrones or whatever, there’s no real need to know the neighbors. What are they going to give me, other than a poor night’s sleep if they decide to have a party? We certainly don’t need to share resources to survive. Americans are actively encouraged to achieve this relative isolation (I’m not talking about a social circle here, either, but rather a community based in mutual need and centered on a particular location). Even while striving towards that fabled suburban house, we don’t really have any need or desire to engage locally with our neighbors. This is all well and good when things are okay, but what happens when the bottom falls out of the civilization at large? It seems we can’t repair those broken connections overnight.

The essential backdrop of The Water Knife is this greater disconnection between individuals. There is no trust. Texans have been ostracized from the greater American civilization, and are thus treated as disposable non-people. The Texans, who have been independent-minded since their inception, do not really help each other out very much. Finally, towards the end of the book, there are signs that the Texans realize this and begin to push back against abuses. If things get bad enough, the repressed groups will eventually band together and resist ill treatment, right? Maybe? The ending of the novel has its doubts, which is what makes the abruptness work so well. We’re left with many questions and an extremely cynical viewpoint on how the world works, which I certainly appreciate. Moreover, The Water Knife isn’t interested in soothing your concerns over the future of The United States. The aim of the book is to scare the shit out of you, and well, mission accomplished.

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