Oct 292015

water knifeThe Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Synopsis: Grimdark near future where the American Southwest collapses into low-level civil war over water.

Book Review: Bacigalupi is known for his post-environmental-collapse dystopias, and this is another fantastic entry in that style. Many of Paolo’s works carry a theme of ‘We are living in an absurdly wealthy period, where we can afford things like compassion and charity. When the easy resources dry up and we are left fighting over the remaining scraps, those who try to retain their compassion and humanity will be torn to pieces by the people willing to do what is necessary for survival. People are always exactly as good as circumstances allow them to be.’ Moreover, we’re currently able to believe any old crazy thing for that reason, but in the near future people will be forced to see reality only as it is, or die. It’s a very Hansonian view.

He differs from Hanson in that Hanson says this isn’t as bad as we think it is, and “poor people still smile”, whereas I think Bacigalupi’s message is “So let’s work hard to make sure THIS NEVER HAPPENS.” And he shows you vividly what the This is, and how it could happen. Don’t expect an uplifting story.

Bacigalupi’s writing is strong, the story never falters or lets up, and you feel like you are in a crumbling metropolis. The city itself feels like a character, with large events taking place in the background that both make for great flavor and inform and constrain the human protagonist’s actions. You realize that these people are just one small part of a large world. The human protagonists themselves are fantastically portrayed. Even when they are doing awful things you are rooting for them, because they’ve won you over with their ideals, or their fears, or simply their desperation to not be ground down and abused every single day. I sympathized deeply with every character, and in each case for a different reason.

In short, this is a very good book. Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Also a fantastic book for book clubs! There is SO MUCH to talk about here! And I don’t just mean the message portion, because frankly all of us in the book club are already very much onboard with Bacigalupi’s message, so we didn’t talk about that part at all. Rather, the portrayal of humanity and what happens to us when the shit REALLY hits the fan lead to a lot of discussion over the nature of humanity, and whether Bacigalupi is a cynical misanthrope and we’re better than that, or if he’s just a realist who isn’t afraid to view the world with open eyes. (You can probably guess my position by the phrasing of that sentence). The fact that this is very near-future really drove home that this story is about us, and made a lot of people challenge his assumptions. There was a lot of talk of idealism vs circumstance, and whether we are uniquely situated to fail in situations our ancestors wouldn’t, because we are so socially isolated and insulated that the institutions of community have broken down and all we’re left with is this fragile individualism that isn’t actually worth shit in any non-modern/non-super-wealthy situation.

Plus lots of discussion about character arcs and plot elements. One of the major contributors to the discussion is that this is NOT a perfect book. It has flaws, and those imperfections add to the conversational grist as well. The discussion was so rich and interesting that we ran right up to closing time without realizing it.

One caveat – two of our members had very negative reactions to the grimness of the book, one in particular is in a bad stretch of life right now and declared she wouldn’t be reading any other works by Bacigalupi. I can’t blame her. It’s not the worst thing ever, it’s certainly not slasher horror or anything, but it may be a bit too much for some readers. With that warning – Strongly Recommended.

Cultural Appropriation Watch! The protagonists in this work are American Hispanic female, white female, and Mexican male. Bacigalupi is none of those. A couple of our bookclub members (who don’t read my blog) expressed appreciation for the diversity of the cast. It was very well done, and definitely increased the quality of the storytelling! The Appropriation Police would have us whitewash this book so it only contained white male characters (bleh) or simply not allow it to be published at all (bastards!!!). They shame their ancestors, let us hope they repent their ways quickly.

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