Fiction Science Fiction

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of the dystopian science fiction novel The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of the dystopian science fiction novel The Water Knife

Into The Water Knife

By Bryan Alexander

NOTE: This blog post on The Water Knife is cross-posted from Bryan Alexander’s blog. It was Bryan’s idea that whoever wanted to of our loosely linked affiliation of online nerds should all read and discuss the same science fiction book. People threw out a fine list of possibilities, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife won the toss. I also read it, and I added my thoughts both on Alexander’s blog and at the bottom of this one.

I added the product links to for your convenience, but obviously, I recommend you take your business to your local independent bookseller.

Okay, this is Bryan writing now:

I’m 52% of the way into Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction novel The Water Knife, and wanted to share some notes for our online reading/book club. (Relevant posts on this blog are tagged waterknife)

First, quick and general reactions with an eye on futurism.  Second, notes from a lit crit perspective.  Third, onward.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

I: General reactions

Quick summary: Water Knife takes place in the American Southwest, principally the Las Vegas-Phoenix area, in a near future devastated by drought.  We follow three main characters: Angel, the titular water knife, a former thug and current fixer for a Las Vegas water baroness; Lucy, a journalist covering water and crime; Maria, a Texan climate refugee.

It’s a detailed and grim world.  “Big Daddy Drought” (8) has knocked America down from its superpower perch, as social collapse to varying degrees gnaws at major states and cities, and China looms ever-larger as an advanced and philanthropic power.  Violence, disease (60, 178), inequality, and corruption are rife as American lurches towards becoming a narcostate (104).  Militias (79) and crooked cops ride herd over climate refugees, including faith-based Merry Perrys (a reference to former Texas governor Perry, I bet).

Some is based solidly on today’s world, like the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the “third straw” to Las Vegas (thanks to Alan Levine).

The world continues to provide advanced technologies.  On the digital front we see phones with multiple and hidden operating systems (100), cryptocurrency (68, 113), augmented reality (“military glass” 51), and social media that seems to have swallowed up journalism.  Other technologies appear, including just-in-time building construction, effective solar power (69), and a cheap plastic bag for recycling urine into drinkable water, the ClearSac (73).

Bacigalupi knits those characters and the world to hit several major themes.  Ecosystems, unsurprisingly, appear everywhere, from detailed descriptions of water systems (183, for example) to the human predator-prey arrangement. Belief is a big one, between the worship of La Santa Muerte and faith-based climate denialism.  Gender and sexuality appear, but in a retrograde fashion for 2016 readers, with men largely brutes and women all too often either victims or prostitutes.  History looms large for a book about the future, as characters remind us that people could have avoided this situation (Cadillac Desert appears twice so far), or compare the plot’s present to their past – i.e., our present.

Background info of Paolo Bacigalupi is the author The Water Knife

II: A lit prof’s notes

Details that catch my lit prof’s eye:

The first page crams in a ton of hints for the book to come.  It hits us with labor, violence, Latino culture (both the Spanish language and Santa Muerte), and migration.  Leading with sweat brings to mind exertion and ecology.

The style is fast paced, with some interesting features.  We get neologisms and new slang, as is classic with science fiction: icy (for cool), wet (for ignorant; ironically applied to American migrants), fivers (wealthy people).  Dollops of Spanish and, to a lesser degree, Chinese show the impact of two social changes.  There’s a good amount of noir bitterness:

“Somebody’s got to bleed if anybody’s going to drink.”

“You sound like a Catholic”(162).

Or: “Thick mud walls and personal solar panels heavily chained to the roof, looking like mental patients in danger of escape” (152).

And some nice syntactic moments, where you have to read between the lines:

“Just because you’re Case’s pet doesn’t mean I can’t make your life miserable.”

Angel didn’t look up from the injunctions. “Just because you’re Case’s dog don’t mean I can’t toss you off this bridge.”

The seals and stamps on the injunctions all looked like they were in order.

“What have you got on Case that makes you so untouchable?” Braxton asked. (4)

Imagine Braxton’s face while Angel focuses on those seals and stamps, and as he changes tack.

More on names: “water knife” recalls “blade runner,” at least for me, with the full range of Phil Dick (inhuman humans, powerful religion) and William S. Burroughs (drugs, bad cops, violence, scary authorities).

The other names are pretty programmatic.  “Angel” is a bit on the nose for a protagonist, not helped by seeing himself as a devil (18) and having Saint Death tattooed on his back.  Lucy made me think of Dracula‘s Lucy Westenra, with “Lucy” drawing from “light,” and the threat of the light going out of the West.  I was correct, as we get this a few paragraphs after meeting her:

The light going out of the world. Lucy thought she’d read that somewhere— some old Christian thing. The death of Jesus, maybe. The light going out, forever.

Jesus blows out, and La Santa Muerte blows in. (20)

And Maria, well, gets to be Mary.  She’s a refugee and the major victim so far.  I expect to see her acting as mother or redeemer.

Is this novel a dystopia?  I don’t think so.  It’s semi-apocalyptic, that word appearing at least ten times, plus serving as a popular brand.

I was surprised at the amount of horror.  We get body parts, animals attacking people, people trapped under dead bodies (ex: 188).  It’s mostly drawn from crime, but Bacigalupi isn’t shy about touching some horror tropes.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi is the author The Water Knife

III: Onwards!

While reading I paid more attention to certain news stories, like this National Geographic article about global trends in water depletion.  I also drank more water, I think.

The publisher has a discussion page (thanks to Joe Murphy).

Overall, I’m fascinated and caught up.  Can’t wait to read more.

How are you all doing with the reading so far?

In this short video, PaoloBacigalupi is interviewed by amazon and covers some good basics about the book plus communicating a sense of who he is as a person and where the inspiration for the novel came from.

Okay, this is me writing now.

The Water Knife: A Blade with No Handle

Reaction by Sandy Brown Jensen

I won’t be putting a “like” or a “love” on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife any time soon, but that doesn’t mean I’m not glad I read it. After all, I made it through Joan Didion’s brilliant “Holy Water” (in her White Album), Frank Herbert’s Dune, and still think Chinatown is one of the best films ever, but I don’t have to like any of them. My favorite science fiction novels are Molly Gloss’s Dazzle of Day and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest. Oh, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, yes and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’m a shameless romantic and techy. I don’t read thrillers if I can avoid them, and lately they’ve been unavoidable, viz Lloyd Meeker’s Blood and Dirt.

However, I can get into a book and look around at its world and find it worthy whether or not I would want to live there, and Bacigalupi’s neo-noir vision of a water-starved future is one of them. Balcigalupi spares no detail from the high tech to the horrific, and that’s how great world building is done.

I think it’s gutsy that his three protagonists are all anti-heroes (without the hero part). I didn’t leave the book liking or cheering for any one of them–they could all go shoot each other over the last glass of water as far as I was concerned. Yet they are not the villains of the piece; that would be the corporate Big Brothers from California (plus a Big Sister in this book, Catherine Case, Queen of the Colorado) controlling every drop of water flow left in the Southwest.

My husband tells the story of doing support for an oil refinery worker’s strike in Richmond, CA back in the day. A young Latino worker jumped up and yelled to the crowd, “Let’s face it. You either work for the motherfuucker or you own it.”

The same Catch-22 is at play in this imagined future: there can be no good people because all are under the thumb of corrupt owners, worker bees for the Queen of the Colorado who herself is a shadowy front for the Califonians–it’s “holy Water” all over again.

Angel Velasquez, so called because he is a self-proclaimed “devil,” is an assassin and the eponymous “water knife,” who cuts access to water in a variety of imaginatively brutal ways. NThere’s not much about him to like, but like most assassins moving through a story at a blistering pace, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

Lucy, the Nobel-winning “journo,” who comes to document the collapse of the Southwest as a kind of photo pornographer of ruin, is not better than Angel by the end of the book. She gets graphically tortured and lives to have so-called life-affirming and invigorating erotic choking sex (272-3) with Angel. I’ll admit the scene is terrifyingly well told from Lucy’s point of view, although I don’t like what I’m seeing.

“She’d come to Phoenix to see a place dying, but she’d stayed for the living. Trying to divine something meaningful from this place’s suffering. What does a place that falls apart look like? What did it mean?


It doesn’t mean anything.

It just tells me how badly I want to live.”

Maria is the third character, a feisty teen who is stuck in a dying city looking for a way out and desperate enough to get to a place with water that she’ll shoot to kill.

Okay, I get it. Nobody is innocent. None escape. There is no balm and no water in Gilead.

Scary stuff.

But that’s Chinatown, Jake.

Cover of The Water Knife
Cover of The Water Knife

About the author

Sandy Brown Jensen

All my life, the ultimate vacation was unstructured reading time. It was absolutely the best part of being a kid. I am now a newly retired college writing teacher, and suddenly I have long, luxurious afternoons to do nothing but read. The name of this website, "Books my Friends have Written" came to me in a dream, although I write about any book I want to. I am also an arts reviewer on KLCC, NPR for Oregonians.

1 Comment

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  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Agreed that they’re antiheroes, or just not heroic (although they do struggle mightily, each in their own way).

    And agreed about the realization of a very plausible world.

    Now I’ll finish the last 50 pages before saying more.

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