Excavating a Future

By Sherryl VintJune 22, 2015

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Part of the problem is that our Hollywoodish imagination of disaster is dominated by the blockbuster spectacle of some future, definitive event that triggers a system collapse. In reality, the apocalypse has already begun and the ongoing evidence is all around us in the die-off of oceans, forests, reefs, and habitats, desertification or salinization of soil, species extinction, and bioaccumulation of carcinogenic toxins. Yet these slow-motion disasters are much more difficult to illustrate, let alone dramatize.

— Andrew Ross, Bird on Fire

Her critics said she was just another collapse pornographer, and on her bad days she agreed: just another journo hunting for salacious imagery, like the vultures who descended on Houston after a Cat 6, or the sensationalized imagery of a fallen Detroit being swallowed by nature. But on the other days Lucy had the feeling that she wasn’t so much eroticizing a city’s death as excavating a future as it yawned below them. As if she were saying, This is us. This is how we all end. There’s only one door out, and we all use it.

— Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife


PHOENIX, ARIZONA, is the world’s “least sustainable city,” according to Andrew Ross, who gives the city this moniker in the subtitle of his recent book Bird on Fire, which explores the city’s destructive environmental politics, its crisis-oriented capitalist economics, and its grim future. As Ross recounts, the city was given its mythically inspired name in the late 19th century by an English adventurer who sought to convey something of the “indomitable pioneer spirit” he associated with contemporary colonization. Although the once-great Hohokam civilization that dominated this valley had passed away and been forgotten, another and equally great settled city would arise from its ashes, just as the phoenix of Greek legend is cyclically regenerated from the ashes of its destruction. Needless to say, we have taken the wrong lessons from this mythology: we embrace only the triumphant resurrection of the phoenix and fail to envision the preceding destruction. Our own ongoing death is a slow-moving apocalypse of environmental collapse that we cannot see as such because our imaginations are dominated by Hollywood visions of sensational and swift destruction.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s new novel, The Water Knife, shows us the dramatic aftermath of this ongoing slow apocalypse. The novel skips ahead several years to show a violent world of contrast between the lives of the affluent and vulnerable that is every bit as stark as the imaginings found in blockbuster fantasies of economic and environmental collapse such as Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2014), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), or Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). The novel explores the entwined experiences of three central characters: journalist Lucy, whose reflections appear in the epigraph above, who follows a story of water rights and murder; Angel, the titular water knife, a corporate assassin and spy who works for the Southern Nevada Water Authority against rival agencies representing Arizona and California; and Maria, a young Texan woman displaced by climate change, who lives by her wits on the dangerous criminal fringes of a decaying society. People either live within arcologies, closed communities premised on water recycling that are centers of comfort and privilege, or they live outside, reliant on masks to protect themselves from the ever-present dust, squatting in the ruins of suburban housing developments rendered worthless when the city water supply was shut off. The novel takes its title from this practice of protecting some communities by “cutting the water” from others as jurisdictions compete for hegemony. Sometimes such battles are fought in court with lawyers and arguments about the primacy of various claims; other times more overt methods are deployed, such as Angel’s operation early in the novel to blow up a rival water-processing plant before the courts re-open and jurisdiction once again shifts away from Nevada. Without the necessary infrastructure, Nevada will retain the water, whatever the legal decision. Bacigalupi thus extrapolates only slightly beyond real-world experiences concerning how legal and extra-legal forces are coordinated to ensure that the rich remain rich.

As Lucy’s reflections on her career reveal, the novel’s main purpose is to function as a warning about the ongoing apocalypse, to “excavate” this future in a way that moves beyond mere spectacle of disaster and toward politically engaged change. Characters regularly reflect on the stupidity of their immediate predecessors, and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert (1986) circulates as something like a founding scriptural text — although as one character notes, had anyone listened to Reisner at the time of his original publication, they likely would not be living in the wasteland they now inhabit. Although most of the conflicts in the novel have to do with struggles among groups trying to maintain more than their share of the pie, the narrative also continually reminds us that we (humans, species, the planet) are all in this together; the short-term thinking that sustains privilege can only defer the crisis for so long.

The Water Knife makes most of the same points that Ross makes in Bird on Fire and draws on much of the same history to inform its plot. Ross presents this history and anticipated future through interviews with local actors, references to Marxist theory, and thoughtful analysis about how economic discrimination, racist immigration politics, and environmental collapse combine into a perfect storm in Arizona, especially Phoenix. Bacigalupi embeds the same information into a future premised on the logical outcome of the trends Ross analyzes, and he combines this with a gripping murder mystery that is hard to put down and compelling characters that make us feel the painful choices that come with either sustaining the unsustainable city or letting it go. The novel is about loyalty and cost, about the ways we are changed by the loss of our accustomed lifestyle, and about what is required not merely to survive the impending future but to deserve that survival both as individuals and as a species.

A 1922 compact allocated much of the Colorado River for diversion into irrigation systems, chiefly the Central Arizona Project (CAP), and the terms of this agreement meant that Arizona had the least priority if the river ran low and “would be the first to incur cutbacks, and would, in fact, absorb 96 percent of the subsequent rationing” (Ross, 42). This compact privileged private property over community usage in how it conceptualized natural resources: surface water is governed by “the doctrine of prior appropriation (or ‘first in time is first in right’), which grants absolute rights to the first, beneficial users” (Ross, 52). This way of thinking about natural resources created a culture that prioritizes usage instead of conservation and turned water openly into a commodity because such rights could be sold or transferred. Ross thus argues that Arizona in general (and Phoenix in particular) was an early instance of the type of governance that we have come to call neoliberalism, in its generalized application. Bacigalupi shows us the immense human cost of these policies in the intimate tales of lives derailed and made expendable by climate change — entire communities and generations decimated as thoroughly as if by a plague. In the stories of these difficult lives, and the even more difficult choices his characters face, we see the power of fiction to make us feel as well as understand the future we are rushing toward.

Eric Otto argues in Green Speculations that science fiction’s characteristic technique of cognitive estrangement — defamiliarizing our perception and understanding of the present and critically reflecting back on this reality — can lead to transformed ethical relationships, including our relationship to other species and to the environment as a whole. The dystopian strain in ecological SF prompts us to remember how present and future are interconnected and thus to recognize our responsibility or culpability for the futures our choices create. Otto quotes Bacigalupi from an interview in which Bacigalupi describes the connection he sees between his environmental politics and his role as an SF writer:

The speculative process, the process of going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report, oftentimes [gives us] the information we really need to know. And it seems like scientists are inherently conservative, and science journalists are inherently conservative, because you don’t want to be wrong. But that’s where I can get involved as a science fiction writer. I don’t have to be right, exactly, [but] I need to illustrate. I need to illustrate a feeling or experience so that people can say, “Does that seem like something we want to be going toward?”

The Water Knife takes these two or three steps down the road, asking us not merely if this world of water wars is a destination we desire, but more provocatively asking us to think about the kinds of people we might become if we continue down this road. The novel is filled with violence, but its most violent characters are not its most dangerous: the truly sinister actions come from those who calmly contemplate the destruction required to perpetuate their privilege and accept such “collateral damage” without qualm. Everyone breaks under pressure — in this case, often physical torture — and everyone betrays others if something they love enough is threatened. But the novel refuses easy moral consolations that would allow us to be complacent about these facts. We find here neither larger-than-life heroes who never bend or break, nor caricatured villains who are evil for its own sake and thus deserve their fates. “When people lost hope, they sometimes lost their humanity, too,” Lucy learns. “Desperate people did desperate things, became avatars of unexpected tragedy.” Bacigalupi’s elegant characterization of these “avatars of unexpected tragedy,” the massive transformations of worldview we see our central characters undergo, give the novel its power.

As many critics have noted in a variety of contexts, as the 21st century unfolds, science fiction increasingly comes to seem like a realist rather than a speculative genre, documenting the pervasiveness of technology in daily life and conveying the affective experience of living through end times. The Water Knife is an exemplary text of this trend, depicting a future so near that we almost see it materialize before our eyes, like a mirage seen in desert heat. The world of the novel oscillates between nightmarish fantasy and discerning perception, at times a dystopian warning of the future we might face and at others a stern reminder that the apocalypse has already begun, even if we refuse to recognize this truth. The Water Knife reminds us that SF can be a realistic if not realist genre, more so than many other popular modes that on their surface appear less fantastical. The novel makes this point overtly with its diegetic television show, Undaunted, which chronicles the exploits of hard-boiled hero Tau Ox as he defends vulnerable Texan refugees from unscrupulous coyotes and violent Arizona and California vigilante border patrols. Mercenary enforcer Angel loves this show, loves its uncomplicated vision of good and evil, especially in contrast to his daily life of compromised ethics. He recognizes the damage his work causes to others, but believes another way of life is impossible. “It feels good to wish we were as good as [Tau Ox],” he realizes. But faced with the chance to make similar choices, he logically dismisses them as futile at best. Lucy deflates his optimism by telling him that the show is simply “propaganda,” funded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, meant to humanize the Texans who are increasingly seen as less than human by those whose borders they threaten. Maria takes the privileged space of Las Vegas in Undaunted, with its open fountain from which anyone might drink, as a promise of the future she might have if she is able to gain access to an arcology, a belief that motivates her own harsh choices. Popular fiction motivates personal choices and shapes political attitudes, the novel thus makes clear, but the more realistic setting of Undaunted does not result in more truthful representation. Instead, the cognitive extrapolation of The Water Knife gets us closer to the complexity of reality. These water wars of the future are fought mostly along class lines, but the open rivalries among competing states, with their corresponding slurs — Zoners for Arizona, Merry Perries for Texans — hint at the degree to which the intensifying water wars in our material world are linked to the rise of racist anti-immigration politics in the region.

The people we choose to be in the midst of slow apocalypse is the heart of this provocative novel. Maria, who was an adolescent when her world of middle-class privilege fell apart, rejects the future described (and longed for) by sympathetic adults. She appreciates that they care for her, but scorns their plans as the strategies of those who see with “old eyes.” Dismissing Lucy’s crusading plan to rescue Phoenix, Maria sadly observes, “She thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it’s not. It’s already changed. And she can’t see it, ’cause she only sees how it used to be.” Similarly, she refuses a poetic nostalgia about Cadillac Desert as part of the same unhelpful and backward-looking sentimentality: “I don’t need books about how things used to be. Everybody talks about how things used to be. I need a book about how I’m supposed to live now. Unless you got a book like that, I don’t need the weight.” Yet hope persists in the novel, faint as it may be, a hope that is amplified by the reader’s realization that we have perhaps not yet passed the tipping point, although we are surely very close to it. Although transformed practices vis-à-vis the environment and water management are an important part of this delicate optimism, more crucial is a transformed sense of community and interdependence. There is only one door, as Lucy notes, and unless we all want to be ushered through it in our turn, we need to begin to choose “the right way instead of the easy way. Instead of the safe way” — to choose solidarity over individual survival. In these glimpsed moments of hope for another kind of future, for a more sustainable mode of living, The Water Knife is a book about how we are “supposed to live now,” so that we don’t find ourselves living in its future.


Works Cited

Otto, Eric C. Green Speculations: Science Fiction and Transformative Environmentalism. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Ross, Andrew. Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City. Oxford University Press, 2013.


Sherryl Vint teaches at the University of California, Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Sherryl Vint teaches at the University of California, Riverside. She co-edits the journals Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television and Humanimalia. She is the author of Bodies of Tomorrow and Animal Alterity, co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, and co-editor of the books The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Beyond Cyberpunk.


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