Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife carries several of Bacigalupi’s signatures. Firstly, it’s talking about the human reaction to a global environmental problem – in this case, the impact of a shifting climate, and the decline in available water, on the southern United States. And secondly, it’s a masterclass in lyrical but punchy prose.

The plot switches viewpoints between a reporter in the shattered remnants of Phoenix, the city now slowly dying from lack of water, a ‘Water Knife’ – an agent working for one of the tycoons now controlling the water trade across the United States – and a young woman, resident in Phoenix, struggling with desperation and efforts to escape.

The author presents each character with care; each has a different narrative voice, and their decisions and actions all seem to grow organically from their interactions and world views. I won’t get into their motivations, and growth over the course of the text, for fear of spoilers – but it does happen. Each of the characters takes the reader on a journey through their portion of the narrative, and they (and quite probably the reader) aren’t unchanged by it.

Another of the author’s strengths has always been world building, and setting a specific mood. His desiccated Arizona is paved with shattered dreams, each step, each moment, driven by the lack or luxury of drinking water. His depiction of Texans, driven into Arizona and unable to go further, their persecution and hopelessness, their implacable drive to make something better despite that hopelessness – all evoke Steinbeck’s Okies, and with a similar level of skill. The discussions of gangs of travellers using ‘Coyotes’ in an effort to get across the border into a state with an unrestricted water supply are appalling and, one suspects, a not unsuccessful allegory for situations around the US border today.

The plot itself starts at a slow boil, dropping the reader into this world, familiarising them with the state of affairs, pushing out an action set-piece which emphasises some of the changes….and then, a little later in the narrative, the pace picks up further – by the end of the text, it’s a no-holds-barred free-for-all, which I absolutely, positively couldn’t stop reading.

There’s a few flaws – some of the later action sequences aren’t as tight or suspenseful as those earlier in the text, and require a somewhat larger suspension of disbelief, and there’s the odd coincidence which serves the narrative, but requires a bit of a stretch to get behind.

Overall, however, this is a very good book. It has excitement, adventure, and really wild things – but it also unashamedly asks the reader to consider larger issues, and doesn’t talk down to them whilst they do so. As such, thoroughly recommended.

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