California has been in a state of drought for approximately six consecutive years. The drought has also affected other states: Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas. Therefore it is hard to imagine a more timely novel than The water knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.
In this novel the fluctuations of water have wreaked havoc on the eastern seaboard: New York and Miami have disappeared under the waves as ocean levels rise. In the southwest, the lack of water is destroying cities just as thorougly, and water has become one of the most valuable commodities in the area. The Colorado River has become a touchstone for conflict, whether legal, military, personal or business. Everyone wants and needs a piece of the Colorado River. While areas of the mid-west and east coast are still humid and green, the southwest has become another dustbowl. People fleeing Texas, New Mexico and Utah often make it as far as Arizona where they are met with armed state and/or corporate militias, lining the borders, not allowing anyone to enter.
Phoenix has become a focal point where water is scarce, but can be found, mostly in the arcologies (multi-level bio-dome structures with strictly balanced ecologies and 90% water reclamation rates). Those with money can live inside where the temperature is controlled, and food and water are plentiful. Those without enough money must deal with the destructive elements outside, from dust storms and heat to the mafias and gangs, all the while attempting to eke out a living in the dead and dying neighborhoods of what was once the sixth most populous city of the United States.
Angel Velasquez is a “water knife.” A hired hand who will do everything: spy and assassinate, run errands, "enforce" water right claims for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SWNA) before a legal ruling can be made. He works for Catherine Case, “The Queen of the Colorado,” head of the SNWA. A person with a keen eye and an unfeeling heart. She has repeatedly and quickly destroyed entire towns to get the water she wants and needs so as to keep her interests in Las Vegas intact and viable.
Lucy Monroe is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who came to Phoenix to witness the destruction of the city as it unfolded. She also strives to understand and document the forces that come into play as civilization bleeds away. Having stayed much longer than planned, she has seen and experienced more than she ever bargained for. Even though she knows leaving and going back to the east coast would be the best move, she can’t take her eyes away from the city as it figuratively circles a drain that dried up before she got there
Maria Villarosa fled Texas with her father. They made it as far as Phoenix before realizing they were not going to be allowed to travel any farther. And since her father died, Maria has been struggling to stay alive while also trying to figure out how she can get out of Phoenix and go somewhere, anywhere else.
These three people are about to find out how dangerous Phoenix can be. There is word of a new water source that might alter the shifting sands of power and control over water in the region. The search will be fierce and ruthless. And even when they think they know how it will play out, the only thing that will become clear is that they are pawns in a game so large, that each one will have to take care of themselves, because they will not be able to trust anyone else to do it, not even each other.
The water knife is a gripping science fiction thriller made all the more immediate because it is so frighteningly believable. Bacigalupi explores the ethical debates about humanity's responsibilities to itself and to the planet it calls home: how far one should be exploited or spared, for the welfare of the other. He also explores how our world, in the current culture of deregulation, privatization, and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very small percentage of the population, could play out when truly cataclysmic events occur. As portrayed by Bacigalupi, advances in technology and how our society makes use of them does not require any great suspension of disbelief from the reader.
All of these themes are part of a top-notch thriller, where the threats are real and imminent, and the stakes are incredibly high. The water knife is a novel that readers, especially in Southern California, will not soon forget.