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The Water Knife
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Knopf, Hardcover, $25.95, 376 pp
Published May 2014

“In her own mind she imagined Phoenix as a sinkhole, sucking everything down—buildings, lives, streets, history—all of it tipping and spilling into the gaping maw of disaster—sand, slumped saguaros, subdivisions—all of it going down.”

Paolo Bacigalupi’s new novel, his first adult novel since the multi award-winning The Windup Girl, is terrifying.

Terrifying because I remember the vibrant monsoon storms of my youth and lived in Flagstaff during record snowfalls. And now I’ve read the stories from California, watched the water levels of Lake Mead and Lake Havasu decrease, seen the mile-high dust storms blow across the Valley.

And I’ve seen our government’s inability (or unwillingness) to do anything about it.

The Water Knife takes all these environmental clues and plays them out to an extreme conclusion. The Southwest is decimated by drought, the Gulf Coast is underwater. Texas is a wasteland, its former residents now viewed with the disdain of dust-bowl Okies, called Merry Perry’s after the former governor (now presidential candidate), who when faced with drought turned to prayer circles rather than science. Mexico has fallen into anarchy, with separate states controlled by drug cartels, and the National Guard is now active, preventing migration between states.

In the middle of this environmental dystopia is Phoenix, a dried-out husk of its former glory, filled with desperate, poverty-stricken refugees. The Central Arizona Project has been destroyed and the residents are trying to survive on the feeble amount of water they are able to glean from Red Cross wells and their Clearsac waste retrieval bags.

But across the Colorado is Las Vegas, the shining city where the residents live in self-contained arcologies with all the water a person could desire. Of course Vegas didn’t get where it was by playing nice. The city, run by the ruthless technocrat Catherine Case, has brutally asserted its water rights, often by force at the hands of “water knifes” like Angel Velasquez.

Meanwhile, Lucy, a journalist in Phoenix has stumbled on hints of a water rights discovery that could permanently tip the balance of power. A “collapse pornographer”, she’d originally travelled from the East to document life in Phoenix for clickbait websites, using hashtags like #PhoenixDownTheTubes. 

“But then she’d met a few of the Zoners. Set down roots in the city. She helped her friend Timo gut his house, ripping pipes and wires out of the walls, like popping the bones out of a corpse.”

So she starts looking for a way to save the dead-eyed “Zoners” and bring life to Phoenix again.

And finally there is Maria, a migrant Texan trying to survive by selling water to the construction workers at the Chinese-built arcology in Phoenix, all the while trying to avoid falling hopelessly in debt to local gangsters.

Three people who will become inextricably linked by mysterious water rights that might save Phoenix. Lucy’s friends are willing to die for them, Angel’s friends are willing to kill for them and Maria is caught in the middle, just trying to find a way out of the Hell that is Phoenix.

The novel is classic noir, filled with all the usual tropes, from the McGuffin (the water rights) to the hard-boiled anti-hero (Angel), with plenty of crosses, double crosses and damsels in distress.

Lucy and Angel quickly team up as they realize that a third party is looking to eliminate the competition for these mythic water rights, quickly finding each other a kindred spirit of survival in the dying Southwest.

And Maria, well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but what she goes through is even more horrifying. The Water Knife is not a book for the squeamish. It’s brutal, uncompromising and, as I said, terrifying.

It’s Chinatown meets Mad Max with less desert car chases.

But it’s also tragic, watching these three characters wrestle between idealism and realism, planning for the future and hoping to restore the past.

And it should serve as a wake-up call to those of us living in the Valley. ~~ Michael Senft
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