THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.
This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations.
In a future hammered by climate change and drought, mountain snows have turned to rain, and rain evaporates before it hits the ground. In a fragmenting United States, the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas skirmish for a dwindling share of the Colorado River. But it is the Las Vegas water knives – assassins, terrorists and spies – who are legendary for protecting Las Vegas’ water supplies, and for ensuring Phoenix’s ruin.
When rumours of a game-changing water source surface, Las Vegas dispatches elite water knife Angel Velasquez to Phoenix to investigate. There, he discovers hardened journalist Lucy Monroe, who holds the secret to the water source Angel seeks. But Angel isn’t the only one hunting for water, Lucy is no pushover, and the death of a despised water knife is a small price to pay in return for the life-giving flow of a river.
The Water Knife is an entertaining crime thriller set predominantly in an arid near future Arizona where climate change has reduced the availability of water from the great Colorado river and generated political and physical infighting over the remaining water rights. Although published in 2015, Bacigalupi was inspired by evidence of water shortages he had seen back in 2005, a theme he explored also in the short story The Tamarisk Hunter. Given recent headlines about the ongoing issues with the Colorado river The Water Knife is – if not totally prescient – very much rooted in credible contemporary facts (Lustgarten, 2022).
Bacigalupi is an author with a commitment to address social and environmental issues, especially around climate change (Urry, 2015). However, he also appreciates the need to tell a good story.
“You’re always conscious of wanting to tell a good, ripping story, and I think that has to drive everything else. It dictates how much room you have at any given time to spend on explication. You have to serve your reader’s interest.” (Brown, 2015)
The Water Knife is certainly “a good, ripping story” full of action, intrigue and peril with three very different but equally compelling protagonists pursuing very different agendas. There is Angel, the titular Water Knife, an enforcer for the ferocious Las Vegas businesswoman Catherine Case – helping to strip other cities of their access to water in order to enhance Las Vegas’s water security and Case’s wealth. There is Maria, the young Texan refugee stranded in the dry gangster ruled slums towns of Phoenix and trying to put together enough money to buy passage North into safer and wetter lands. And there is Lucy – the prize winning journalist flirting with danger as she pursues the story of how an associate of hers came to be brutally murdered (“Jamie was too smart to stay stuck. And too clever to stay alive.” (p. 70)) while her sister pleads with her to come North and desert the Arizona desert.
Bacigalupi’s elegant world building is full of eye-catching lines and deftly drawn images, with Angel flying over the hermetically sealed tower block Arcologies that recycle water for farming and habitation
Domes and condensation-misted vertical farms, leafy with hydroponic greenery and blazing with full spectrum illumination. (p. 10)
Or Anna in tense video conference with Lucy
“Anna’s smile was bright with everything she wasn’t allowing herself to say.” (p. 66)
Or Maria waking up to another day of scraping a living
“Beams of desert sun cut the dimness of the basement, revealing lazy dust motes, concrete floors, and cracked plastic pipes for water and sewer overhead. The arteries and veins of a house that had died years before.” (p. 73)
The protagonists’ initially separate storylines are drawn and tangled together by the gravity of events creating some fun first meeting moments when we see one close third person protagonist through another’s eyes; Angel and Lucy in the morgue over a dismembered body, Maria and Angel, in a bloodied apartment the site of two murders and one kidnapping, or Lucy and Maria by the banks of the Colorado facing up to a final betrayal.
All three at different times are victims of brutal malicious violence such that Bacigalupi keeps the reader in a constant state of agitation as to how they can possibly survive their respective predicaments. There is the central mystery of what Lucy’s friend died for and who killed him, but as the body count rises and different players and factions enter the fray, it is less a whodunnit mystery, and more a what is about to be done, who by and to whom thriller.
Angel, Lucy and Maria are all distinct and engaging characters struggling with the baggage of their different pasts and seeking their own kind of survival. Angel is not the obvious hero – we first meet him destroying the futures of an entire city’s population, but he has the tough grizzled appeal of a Rooster Coburn kind of character who might at times and in the end, be trusted to do the right thing. Lucy is stubborn, idealistic and reckless. Maria desperate, resourceful but also credulous. The reader never feels quite safe with any of them.
Of course, this is a novel about climate change. Bacigalupi throws some pithy observations, with weighty contemporary relevance, into the mouths of his characters.
He grimaced. “If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.” (p. 31)
“Just can’t figure out how rich people always come out good, and poor people always get nothing” (p. 92)
Bacigalupi recognises the difficulty of generating narratives about climate change that might appeal to the sceptical rather than preach to the choir.
For someone who either thinks that global warming is a farce or who doesn’t like political writing generally, or thinks that cli-fi indicates political agenda writing, and therefore didacticism, and therefore stupidity, you’re in a different space. (Urry, 2015)
Aspects of the world building in The Water Knife appear designed specifically to target those sceptic viewpoints. The trope of Mexican refugees fleeing over the Rio Grande and allegedly inundating a fearful southern USA is subverted with now Texan refugees fleeing the dustbowl that their state has become and running for Arizona. Those refugees are presented as desperate victims of often multipally murderous people traffickers. Bacigalupi’s explicit aim is to generate empathy for people who are in desperate circumstances while also showing the invidious othering that goes on with refugees. Maria’s friend Sarah is described as rejecting her own Texan heritage
“Sarah was schooling away her Dallas drawl, scraping away Texas talk and Texas dirt scrubbing and scraping as hard as her pale white skin could take the burn.” (p. 39)
Bacigalupi also appeals to an American fear of Chinese economic might, by presenting a world where the Yuan is the primary currency (“all the workers got paid in yuan” (p. 36), and where Chinese construction companies are dominant in erecting the new arcologies infrastructure.
“One of the biotects at Taiyang International had told Lucy about it. Used it to illustrate how China knew how to see the world clearly and planned ahead. And because of it, China was resilient in comparison to the broke back version of America where he’d been stationed.” (p. 22)
A similar theme is seen in Oereskes and Conways The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the Future, (Oreskes & Conway, 2014) with a future historian from the new Chinese Hegemony writing an essay about how the west crumbled under its own contradictions and mismanagement. In Twenty-Five to Life (2021) R.W.W.Greene envisages a USA portioned by debt with an Western seaboard wholly owned by China. These implicit appeals to proud American nationalism, by portraying a potential fall from world dominance may touch a nerve in some reader’s minds in ways which more planetwide issues do not.
Bacigalupi is aware of the difficulties traditional analytical reportage faces with the climate crisis, having observed of environmental news stories
They tend to be dry they tend to be fill of facts, they tend to be about abstractions – and those aren’t things that human beings naturally connect to… so abstract that people almost can’t get a grip on them. It’s very difficult for a journalist to write about a water management task force and convey that in a way that’s going to generate ad revenue or clicks or attention, or any level of viral focus. (Urry, 2015)
Lucy as the representative (and indeed Pulitzer winning) journalist gets to wrestle with that dilemma between detailed rational explanations and appeals to emotive reporting.
“Esoteric stuff. Articles that are drier than desert, when you’re digging through travel schedules and cash transfers…Nobody reads stories about paperwork the way they look at pictures in the blood rags, right? (p. 168)
“For all the statistics of people displaced by tornadoes and hurricanes and swamped coastlines, these piled corpses who had tried to buy their way north to places with water and jobs and hope struck Lucy more forcefully.” (p. 110)
As George Marshall noted in Don’t Even Think About It: Why are Brains are Hardwired to Ignore Climate Change (2014), there is a distinction between our rational and emotional minds. Those fossil fuel corporations and their lobbyists and paid politicians, all with vested interests in downplaying the climate crisis and insisting that we can – indeed should – continue pretty much as usual, are past masters at appealing to emotions over rationality. For example in threatening people that their actions and policies have already kept in poverty, with the idea that pursuing net zero will make them “poorer and colder” (Wood & Chapman, 2021) and “destroy their way of life”. (Heath, 2023)
Where abstruse science and journalistic integrity struggles to find the simple clear messaging that will shift minds and attitudes, climate change fiction has more freedom to engage readers at the emotional level. As Bacigalupi observes,
“As a fiction writer, you actually have an opportunity to go at the same ideas, but you can make them engaging… the reader gets to live viscerally in that world… in the skin of a climate refugee.” (Urry, 2015)
This ability to engender empathy is often cited as a key attribute of fiction, but the emotional response to stories is not always as the author intended. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson has conducted several surveys looking at the impact of climate fiction on reader attitudes. The Water Knife and its precursor short story The Tamarisk Hunter have featured in a number of Schneider-Mayerson’s studies.
In interview Schneider-Mayerson highlighted a number of key findings from his studies, particularly in relation to The Water Knife
“On one hand, the novel was effective in getting a diverse range of American readers to identify with climate migrants.
On the other hand, we found that the Hobbesian violence of The Water Knife is potentially counterproductive. Authors and critics might hope that portraying a dystopic cautionary future will scare readers into engaging in progressive politics today, but it might not work out that way.
It’s possible that narratives like The Water Knife might not motivate progressive environmental politics, as authors and critics often hope, but support for climate barbarism – callously allowing the less fortunate to suffer – or even ecofascism” (Brady, 2020)
Schneider Mayerson did find some readers felt sympathy for Maria’s plight and resourcefulness, and admiration for Angel’s badass characteristics (Schneider-Mayerson, 2020, p. 351) but characters’ solutions to their dilemmas led others to conclude that we can “trust people to behave in their own self interests.” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2020, p. 354). At the ending of The Waterknife, Maria shoots Lucy in order to stop her giving the valuable water rights documents that will save the city of Phoenix to the city. Maria instead intends using the document to bargain with Catherine Case for her own safe future. Schneider-Mayerson asserts that “Maria’s final turn affirms a central refrain of the book: that starry-eyed do-gooders who do not acknowledge basic truths about the world will pay the price.” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2020, p. 354). An alternative reading would be that the ending illustrates how the everyday struggles for survival of an impoverished underclass prevent them from prioritising anything other than individual day to day survival, against which the wider concerns of more affluent and secure middle-class liberals are an irrelevance. This is a theme I would also identify in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. (Kingsolver, 2012). The role played by toxic inequality in hampering effective climate action is evident in the emotive appeals made by the anti-net-zero lobby. Indeed, one could argue that inequality and poverty is a deliberate policy precisely because people reliant on insecure zero-hours contracts and low paid wages are more susceptible to emotive messages of fear and desperation and preoccupied with everyday urgencies.
Nonetheless, whatever Bacigalupi’s intent, Schneider-Mayerson has identified some surely unintended consequences amongst the reader reactions. The pacey thriller style narrative following vulnerable individuals through life changing events does make for an engaging story with a reach beyond the climate change converted readership. However, the book offers little hope or guidance about how to avoid this future or how to respond in ways other than a focus on individual survival.
As Schneider-Mayerson notes.
“At this point, we do not only need more narratives that include and centre climate change, but narratives that are more likely to inspire, guide, and support a just response to climate change in the years and decades to come.” (Schneider-Mayerson, 2020, p. 357)
The climate crisis has thrown up a challenge for fiction which exposes some inadequacies in these portrayals of individual moral journeys, indeed one of Admussen’s proposals for fiction in an era of climate change is that it should “abandon the individual moral journey” (Admussen, 2016). It is a strange habit – maybe even a failing of humanity – that we struggle to see in collectives. As Stalin notoriously put it “one death is a tragedy a million is a statistic.” UK News stories have forever qualified some distant foreign disaster with a note of how many “Britons were involved.” We crave the focus given by an image of one poor drowned child positioned as if sleeping on a beach, but camps filled with thousands of the desperate do not move us so.
The way fiction, as exemplified in The Water Knife, aims to instil empathy for less than a handful of key characters can mean the form neglects other emotions and wider foci. Ada Palmer and Jo Walton described it as The Protagonist Problem (Palmer & Walton, 2021) the way the narrative success or failure rests on the shoulders of a few key individuals. This is a feature also of the great men approach to the teaching of history, and indeed educational policy in the UK where the notion of hero school leaders who can be parachuted into any school ignores the massive contribution made by layers of staff and specific contexts within their successful schools. As Palmer and Walton note,
“Believing that real life has protagonists, but that you yourself are not one, leads to impostor syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunts, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.”
As we face the climate crisis we need fiction that engages more emotions than simple empathy, in particular we need the anger to energise action, and the hope that such action can make a difference. We also need fiction that teaches us not to rely on some small Seventh Cavalry of protagonists riding to our climate rescue, but to see all of us collectively as having agency and impact and inspiring us to exert it. Brilliant a story as The Water Knife may be, present times demand a different kind of fiction. Schneider-Mayerson has identified From Here (2012) by Daniel Kamb as a potential exemplar of this new, hopeful and energising kind of cli-fi. However, he does acknowledge that is narratively imperfect and, judging by the paucity of its Goodreads reviews, somewhat obscure. Nonetheless, that it is a focus of another of my Unseen Academic Posts seen here.
Admussen, N. (2016, May-June). Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Era of Climate Change. Retrieved July 23, 2022, from criticalflame.org: http://criticalflame.org/six-proposals-for-the-reform-of-literature-in-the-age-of-climate-change/
Bacigalupi, P. (2015). The Water Knife. New York: Knopf.
Brady, A. (2020, August 6). An Interview with Author and Scholar Matthew Schneider-Mayerson. Retrieved from artistsandclimatechange.com: https://artistsandclimatechange.com/2020/08/06/an-interview-with-author-and-scholar-matthew-schneider-mayerson/
Brown, L. (2015, August 28). Paolo Bacigalupi Interview. Retrieved from www.sffword.com: https://www.sffworld.com/2015/08/paolo-bacigalupi-interview/
Greene, R. (2021). Twenty-Five to Life. London: Angry Robot.
Heath, A. (2023, March 29). Net Zero is a Trojan Horse for the total destruction of western society. Retrieved from www.telegraph.co.uk: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/29/net-zero-trojan-horse-total-destruction-western-society/
Kamb, D. (2012). From Here. London: Lonely Coot.
Kingsolver, B. (2012). Flight Behaviour. New York: HarperCollins.
Lustgarten, A. (2022, December 22). A Water War is Brewing Over the Dwindling Colorado River. Retrieved from propublica.org: https://www.propublica.org/article/colorado-river-water-uncompahgre-california-arizona
Marshall, G. (2014). Don’t Even Think About it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. Bloomsbury: London.
Oreskes, M., & Conway, E. M. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press.
Palmer, A., & Walton, J. (2021). The Protagonist Problem. Retrieved from www.uncannymagazine.com: https://www.uncannymagazine.com/article/the-protagonist-problem/
Schneider-Mayerson, M. (2020, June 10). “Just as in the Book”? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustices and Perception of Climate Migrants. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 27(2), 337-364.
Urry, A. (2015, July 9). Can Fiction make people care about climate/ Paolo Bacigalupi thinks so. Retrieved from grist.org: https://grist.org/living/can-fiction-make-people-care-about-climate-paolo-bacigalupi-thinks-so/
Wood, P., & Chapman, C. (2021, October 4). Net Zero Targets Mean people will be poorer, colder and eating insects warn Tory MPs. Retrieved from inews.co.uk: https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/net-zero-targets-mean-people-will-be-poorer-colder-and-eating-insects-warn-tory-mps-1232488