Scarcity and survival reign in ‘The Water Knife’

A conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi about climate fiction, the power of water and his new novel.

 

The author Paolo Bacigalupi grew up in Paonia, Colorado, where he was also on staff at High Country News. He has won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards for his writing, but we remember him fondly as our first online editor. His new book, The Water Knife, grew from a short story he wrote for HCN, “The Tamarisk Hunter.” In his latest novel, Bacigalupi has written a near-future thriller, set in a world where water is scarce and law is scarcer, where much of humanity is holed up in efficient towers called arcologies, and where a man named Angel Valasquez, the henchman for a Vegas water czar, brutally cuts people away from their water rights. We spoke as we walked along an irrigation ditch above Paonia, its water high from recent rains and the valley’s hay meadows and apple orchards green with spring.

High Country News: In your future world, what does Paonia look like?

Paolo Bacigalupi: The way I look at Paonia is that it’s built on engineered water. There are a couple of different reservoirs at work, and those engineered pieces of equipment are the way that we maintain our water throughout the dry summers. So what I see is sort of a patchwork of survival, and it's defined entirely by this other invisible overlay on the valley, which are your legal water rights. All of this depends on the idea that there is legal enforcement and that there is rule of law. 

In The Water Knife, that's breaking down. So in that future, you could very easily see people sitting up on the Paonia dam, saying, “No, we decided that even though there's a call on the river further down, even though you supposedly have higher rights, we actually sit higher on the river, so we control the water and how much goes down to you.”

HCN: Do you feel like you saw the California drought coming when you were starting to write this book?

PB: Statistically I saw it coming. The climate models say that the South and Southwest should be dead dry. They’re saying extreme weather is more likely. The statistics are all there. I crafted (this book) to feel near-future. The only future tech that you really see are things that relate to water and water scarcity. That's deliberate because you want to feel like this future has relevance to the present, not some hypothetical future where you have something like Blade Runner or any other really high-tech science fiction. I'm going to give this to an audience that doesn't traditionally read science fiction. But I want to do some extrapolation about what water scarcity is, and so we're going to stay tightly focused on the way we are.

Author Paolo Bacigalupi
JT Thomas
I actually hadn't felt like I would do any drought stuff or more water or climate change stuff, because I felt like those ideas were out there enough in the zeitgeist, that other people could handle, and I had already done things like “The Tamarisk Hunter,” where I basically explored the core concepts.

It wasn't until the 2011 drought in Texas, when I was down there seeing these terrible impacts and also seeing this astonishing denial coming from the leadership, that I had this moment where I was like, ‘wow, I guess this drum needs more beating.’ (Gov.) Rick Perry was praying for rain, and the drought that Texas was experiencing matched climate models. And you're like: “God didn't just turn his back on you; this is just us dumping carbon into the atmosphere and making situations like this really statistically likely.” I felt a certain rage, that we were still living in this reality free-fall.

HCN: Tell me how you settled on a “water knife,” the job of someone who cuts people from their rights, and the relationship between Angel Valasquez and Catherine Case, who’s a sort of Patricia Mulroy type, the Queen of the Colorado River.

PB: When you're writing about things like drought or climate change, or water or water rights, you’re stuck in this abstract, non-visceral space. Even scarcity gets written about in some weird, cliché ways: Everybody turns upon themselves and they'll tear each other down. And you're like, well, no, there still are government bodies, organizational values, identity politics. And without those specifics, you’ve really written another cliché apocalypse novel.

I wanted to make the legal structure of water rights more apparent. I wanted to make the idea of water scarcity, and how there are cascades of winners and losers, more apparent. Having somebody like Angel Valasquez gives you a way to do that that's more like a thriller and more fun than if you just have a bunch of lawyers sitting around a table talking about, “We're going to give these people an extra 50,000 acre-feet of water, and we're going to engineer this water trade where so-and-so will install a water saline treatment plant in return for giving back X amount of their river allocation”—which doesn't make for good fiction. Angel’s the action hero version of water rights.

In this world, Vegas is weak in comparison to California, but it's smart in comparison to places like Phoenix. Vegas is the city that looked around in this very clear-eyed way and said, “Wait, we have terrible water rights. We only think it's going to get worse. What do we need to do to buffer ourselves against disaster?” Eventually Catherine Case, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in the story, says, “You know what, those subdivisions, they're wasting money, they're gone. We're pulling all the water into our arcologies instead; we're going to hunker down here.”

HCN: How does that play into the idea that we're better off living in urban areas, where everything's packed together and where we can consolidate our resources, like water, rather than live in sprawling communities?

PB: The arcologies are really, really efficient. They're built to take in things and keep them as long as possible, to recycle all of their waste, to recycle all their water to grow food for themselves, to take advantage of every synergy that they can, of being tightly packed together and very well designed. But they're also a symptom of a problem, which is the moment that humanity accepts that the world outside is no longer an inviting and supportive and sustaining place for people. So arcologies are also the wrong techno solution to a much bigger problem.

When we say we need big cities because it's more efficient, it's like, maybe we need less people. This is a tradition of ours — that we never solve our source problems. We're never going to say, “Now that there’s climate change, let's actually tax carbon, let's really cut back on our coal consumption, let's tax all of our plane travel hard, let's actually not add any more heat to the atmosphere.” What we do instead is build arcologies, and we get ready for our devastated future, but we don't actually avoid our devastated future.

HCN: Where’s the optimism in The Water Knife?

PB: A friend of mine told me that I must be an optimist; otherwise I wouldn't be so disappointed every time things go wrong. But I think when you look at (climate) data or that Lake Mead just had its lowest levels ever, those are indicators that say we aren't solving problems. So (injecting optimism) is like setting markers out there that define waypoints towards what might be smart.

The thing that I'm most interested in doing is comparing the outcomes between people who've decided to live inside of nostalgia and live inside of denial about their present moment and where the future is taking them — and those people who are going, “I don't like the look of this stuff. It looks pretty dangerous. I need to make some moves, and I need to be planning.” So the marker that you're trying to set out there is: People who are reality-based and data-driven survive. Reality-based people, they do a lot better than the people who are living in denial.

Brian Calvert is the managing editor of High Country News. Follow him on Twitter @brcalvert.