Rarely do I suggest works of fiction. Even more rare is the work of fiction that I think captures the potential future so clearly that it leaves me somewhat shaken. Paolo Bacigalupi’s recent book The Water Knife did just that.
In his previous book, The Windup Girl, the setting was amazingly rendered but something about it was foreign enough that it remained at an arm’s length in my mind. Sure, the concept of a calorie company could easily be replaced with the name Monsanto and a world where motive power is provided by beasts of burden is believable. It just did not have the punch that I felt reading The Water Knife.
Set an indeterminate number of years in the future, The Water Knife deals with the social, economic, and political fallout in the American southwest when water becomes something that people are willing to start wars over.
If you do not believe that this is something that could happen in the United States then you are not up on your history. The story of Los Angeles basically stealing the water rights from Owens Valley in the 1920s and 1930s is well known and has even been portrayed in Hollywood film. Less well known is that California fought over water rights with Arizona in the 1930s and the state of Arizona mobilized the National Guard to assert its rights.
If you do not believe that this is something that could happen in the United States than you have not been paying attention to the Wall Street Journal or CNBC. Companies that are focused on water issues are raising venture capital funds and striking out into the market. The somewhat mythical antagonist in The Water Knife—a Las Vegas politician named Catherine Case who you can imagine being played perfectly by Cate Blanchett or Jodi Foster—may already be stalking the halls of corporate America pitching their particular vision of how the American southwest is going to look in twenty years.
The drought in California, which may or may not be slackened by El Nino, has laid bare just how desperate California will get to secure water and keep growing. Despite its left leaning politics, the state is as hooked on perpetual growth as states like Texas or Florida. Each place is like a Ponzi scheme built on a shaky foundation. California’s shaky foundation is water or, rather, the lack of water.
There are moments in the book—usually fleeting references—to pieces of our current day reality that carry over into the possible future. The running theme of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert being the book that laid the groundwork for the situation presented to the primary characters is particularly close to home. I spent almost four years of my life as a graduate student studying the same water and resource politics described in that book. To see its thesis taken forward to the future is satisfying and frightening.