The Water Knife (2015), Paolo Bacigalupi’s first adult SF novel since The Windup Girl, more than rewards the wait. This is a first-class near-future science fiction thriller that’s topical, harrowing, smart, and utterly compelling.
With the world in the inexorable grip of climate change, things look grim in the southwestern United States. Competition for water is fierce, and bickering over dwindling resources has created a cold war amongst the dying cities of the region. Las Vegas, under the cutthroat leadership of Catherine Case, is weathering the shifting landscape by ruthlessly deploying “water knives”—secret agents who specialize in securing water rights for their employers, at any cost. Case’s best agent is Angel Velasquez, whom she sends south to investigate the fishy behavior of her network of informants in Phoenix. There his path collides with “collapse porn” journalist Lucy Monroe and Texan climate refugee Maria Villarosa, both of whom become increasingly entangled in desperate intrigue and spiraling violence in the pursuit of a priceless, life-giving resource.
Even if I hadn’t recently moved from one drought-ridden state to another currently experiencing record-breaking heat waves, I would have found The Water Knife a brutal, timely, eye-opening novel. But it’s also a pulse-pounding, effortlessly read narrative full of rich, cautionary world-building and skillfully drawn characters. As usual, Bacigalupi abuses these characters mercilessly, and sometimes I wish he’d let up on them a little. But it’s not without purpose, for the book serves as incisive commentary on the complicated web of motives that underlie our inexcusable inaction in the face of one of the great global challenges of our century. Nobody makes the literary equivalent of getting kicked in the teeth as entertaining as Bacigalupi, and The Water Knife once again shows him in superb form.