Review of “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

In The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, the author based his book on a real article about the ways in which businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned. Analogously, in this story, Bacigalupi uses as his basis the 1986 book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner (turned into a four-part PBS documentary series in 1997), which tells the story of the politics, money, and inevitably, corruption, behind the massive irrigation projects for the driest sections of the Southwest.


Cadillac Desert has four parts, also relevant to Bacigalupi’s “retelling”: (1) the creation of Los Angeles; (2) how the Colorado became, as PBS described it, “the most controlled, litigated, domesticated, regulated and over-allocated river in the history of the world”; (3) the political and environmental battles over the irrigation of California’s Central Valley; and a report on the ways in which water availability and manipulation of that availability affects the daily lives of millions of people around the globe.


In The Water Knife, the book Cadillac Desert is known as “the bible”:

“The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

But The Water Knife is set in the future, one in which global warming, aberrant weather patterns, and drought has returned much of the southwest to a “wild west” of dog-eat-dog competition over water. One of the characters laments:

“We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway. There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity. … This was never about believing. ..This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don’t believe data – you test data. … If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

In contrast to the story limned in Cadillac Desert, the oasis that rises out of the desert in this book is in Las Vegas rather than Los Angeles (although California’s power in every sense is central to the story), and the person in charge is fictional Catherine Case, also known as “The Queen of the Colorado.” Together with her real estate husband and a Chinese construction group, Case has been building “arcologies” in the Southwest.

[As Wikipedia explains, arcology, a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology”, is a vision of architectural design principles that creates self-contained and self-sufficient living habitats. Everything is balanced: people, animals, water, food, energy, and waste. It is, as one character in the book explains, “a whole big living machine.” The concept was popularized by architect Paolo Soleri, and was explored as well by both Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. It has successfully been developed on a large scale, however, only in works of science fiction.]


As with Bacigalupi’s previous books, greed, fear, and a thirst [sic] for survival drive the characters to extremes of behavior.

The main character here is Angel Velasquez, tough and smart, who works as a “water knife” for Catherine Case. That is, he is the muscle who makes sure Nevada gets all of the water rights it can, not only from its own state, but from other states which tap the Colorado River. He gets all the support he needs from Case, including a Tesla, a slew of helpful false identities, and basically a James-Bond-like cache of accoutrements – that is, as long as she feels she can trust him. When something goes awry with her agents in Arizona, she gets suspicious, and sends Angel to Phoenix to see if he can figure out what is happening. Soon she finds reason to lose confidence in Angel as well, and then he is basically a fish out of water, in almost every sense of the phrase.

Angel allies with a Phoenix reporter, Lucy Monroe, who is also trying to uncover what is happening with water rights in Phoenix. They pick up two unlikely confederates in their race to find out the truth or be killed it the pursuit of it: Maria Villarosa, a young refugee from Texas, and Toomie, an older guy who tries to take care of Maria in contrast to the usual me-first stance of everyone else:

“‘Why?’ she asked, finally. ‘Why are you so nice? It doesn’t make sense. I’m not your woman. I’m not your people.’

‘We’re all each other’s people. … We forget it sometimes. when everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.’

‘Most people don’t think that way.’

‘Yeah.’ Tommie sighed.”

In fact, none of them can survive without each other, and maybe none of them can survive anyway. But Toomie is the closest anyone in this book comes to an evolutionary biologists’s conception of the altruistic individual.

Discussion: Case is an interesting character. She is a villain, but also a savior; the line is never clear. She will stop at nothing, including murder on a rather grand scale, to get water rights for her arcologies, and yet her arcologies are truly edens, and the only means left to survive in the Southwest.

The alternatives to the arcologies in the fiery Hellscape of the Southwest are few: vicious narco gangs use intimidation to steal from others; addlepated religious fanatics out of Texas (“the Merry Perrys”) try prayer; and girls who emigrated from devastated Texas sell their bodies for access to water.

The cruelty of some of the characters in this book knows no bounds, and there are a number of discussions of their evil by their victims: is this tendency for evil innate? At what point will people turn on even those they love to save themselves?

Evaluation: Once again Bacigalupi forces us to take a hard look at the consequences of our irresponsible stewardship of the Earth with a bleak thriller in which the outcome is never certain. Fiction? This is the Page One Story from The New York Times of June 13, 2015:

“Farmers with rights to California water dating back more than a century will face sharp cutbacks, the first reduction in their water use since 1977, state officials announced Friday.” reports that 750 million people around the world lack access to safe water; approximately one in nine people. Diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day. The World Economic Forum names “water crises” as the highest societal risk in the next ten years.

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.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015


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7 Responses to Review of “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. Ruth2Day says:

    oh my word the water book cover made my skin curl. funny how an image can do that

  2. aentee @ read at midnight says:

    I love the way you reviewed this book with so much finesse, and the inclusion of all the real world fact. The book sounds fantastic! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😀

  3. Kay says:

    Very, very interesting. Well, water is certainly a topic of concern all over the Southwest. Happily, my area of Texas got a bumper crop of rain earlier this year, but I try to never take for granted what we get and know that drier times will come. I need to think about reading this book.

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    I like books that take on important subjects like that but do wonder if I’d understand this one.

    By the way, I was at an event last night that used conversation starter cards and one of the questions was something like, “What do you think the headline of the January 1, 2100 newspaper will be?” My first thought was, “There will be newspapers in 2100?” Anyway, my answer was, “A New Source of Water Found,” and I think everyone else thought it was an odd response.

  5. Michelle says:

    I tried to read this one. I suspect it was a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. I thought the writing was fantastic, but I really struggled getting into the story. I suspect this will be one which I will attempt to read again someday. I can definitely see the lack of water becoming more and more of an issue in the future, so the potential foreshadowing of the story is too important to ignore.

  6. Trisha says:

    I love this review. Love it. I will have to check out the book. It certainly sounds like my cup of tea; although I feel like I read a water-based apocalyptic-type book a while back that soured me…can’t remember what it was.

  7. Barbara Sevier says:

    I just read this book with my book club. And I was trolling the Web for discussion questions when a link to your blog came up. This is a wonderful review. But I am also grateful to you for your additional of explanation of Cadillac Desert [please mentally insert italics], since I don’t have time it read it or even watch the PBS documentary before our meeting.

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