The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Water Knife Bacigalupi

2015. Knopf. ebook. 384 pages.

Recommendation from: Leslie of Regular Rumination


The Water Knife is one of those dystopian novels where the plausibility sucked me in right away. As Bacigalupi unhurriedly sets up the narratives of the three main characters, the details of the world-building provide the initial feelings of frisson. Scarcity of water has wreaked havoc on the American Southwest, and powerful figures use legal and extralegal means of acquiring rights to remaining water sources.

Bacigalupi releases small revelations about this future vision, often without ceremony. Mexico has been officially carved up into cartel states. Texas is no more. Chinese corporations have moved into derelict Southwestern cities and provide some of the few means for employment. People raise aid for the impoverished Southwest, but they restrict interstate migration.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Phoenix, which is teetering on the brink of dissolution. Angel Velasquez, right-hand man for the ruthless boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been sent to Phoenix to check on another of the boss’ projects. Meanwhile, Connecticut-born journalist Lucy Monroe – who has adopted Phoenix as her home – pursues a story she knows she should leave alone. And at the bottom of the Phoenix food-chain is Maria Villarosa, a smart teenage refugee from Texas who is running out of ways to survive.

The convergence of all three characters’ storylines was perfectly thrilling because, in a moment, everything escalates very very quickly, in the best way. All the preceding character and world-building provided the stakes so that when the novel gave itself over to action, I was invested. Death dogs the characters every step of the way, and there were no guarantees on any character making it to the end.

Going back to my attraction to the plausible: I liked, for example, that in The Water Knife, the U.S. government still exists and most of the states still exist as well, and that in other parts of the country, people were not living in near-apocalyptic conditions. The whole world doesn’t need to have gone down in flames for a dystopia to exist somewhere. Certainly, we already have places in the world that resemble Bacigalupi’s Phoenix.

I also appreciated the end of the novel. In a story where “saving the world” – even “saving Phoenix” – was never a real possibility, the best one can hope for is to live another day.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Rhapsody in Books – “Bacigalupi is a consistently intelligent, prescient, and compassionate writer. If we just stand by, as we are now, and watch it “all going to go to hell,” it won’t be for want of trying by Paolo Bacigalupi.”

So Many Books – “Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away.”

Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It – “The characters spring to life easily, but maybe Angel is a bit too much of the typical semi-invincible hard guy hero. It’s not that he’s flat (not at all even), but he’s just so good in what he does. Then again, a lot of action packed books are about guys that have all the luck in the world”


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8 responses to “The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. If you follow this one by the similarly-themed Gold Fame Citrus you can be thoroughly depressed! :–)

    • I had forgotten or perhaps hadn’t realized that Gold Fame Citrus was also about water scarcity. I have it on my to-read list – thanks for the warning.

  2. I have read book by Paolo Bacigalupi but nothing since. I missed this book even existed!

  3. I am too scared to read this! I love dystopian fiction, but the one thing I really struggle with is futures in which all the water is gone. That’s too real for me.

    • I am trying to think if this book is a “process dystopia” and thus lure you into reading it anyway – but a lot of the bad stuff has already happened by the time the book starts and people have more or less figured out how this new world works, though more collapse is forecast and likely to occur.

  4. Reading your comments I’m surprised to see other readers hadn’t heard of this title either–I just kind of stumbled across it. I really believe it was one of the best books of 2015–I think it was robbed by all the attention given to “Fates and Furies,” which wasn’t half the book, in my opinion.
    Like you, I loved that it was “selective” dystopia–terrible in some states, not so bad in others–seemed more realistic and horrifying altogether.

    • I don’t think I would have heard of it if Leslie (Regular Rumination) hadn’t praised it so highly at a book club get-together as we were discussing other stuff we were reading.
      My to-read list has early Lauren Groff works on it, and I still feel like I want to go back and read those but I haven’t been tempted by Fates and Furies.

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