The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

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For a book blessed with interesting characters, a compelling conflict, and an absolutely spectacular hook, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife isn't actually fun to read. I don't mind violence, but there's a fine line between suffering that serves the plot and straight-up disaster porn, and too much of The Water Knife feels like the latter.

Bacigalupi's novel is set in a near-future version of Phoenix, a city in total social collapse. After years of devastating drought, water rights have become all-important, and California's senior claim to most of the region's rivers has turned the rest of the Southwest into a hellish landscape inhabited by hopeless immigrants and predatory gangs, with a few artificial oases created by rich Chinese investors. The Water Knife shifts between three perspectives: Angel, a hired gun working for the all-powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Lucy, a journalist who hasn't quite given up on the idea of justice, and Maria, a teenage orphan determined to do whatever it takes to get someplace—anyplace—better.

The Water Knife does a brilliant job of blending current and developing crises into an all-too-plausible future scenario: a perfect storm of global warming, depleted natural resources, and inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants. If all great sci-fi is really about the issues of its time, this book should be the next Dune. Unfortunately, Bacigalupi lingers with stomach-churning detail on the agonizing specifics of his characters' suffering (particularly Maria's, the youngest and most vulnerable of the three main characters), and the unrelenting gore drags the story down. A book like this should be tough to read because it holds up a bleak, unnerving mirror to the real world, not because it's literally too gross to slog through.
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Posted by: Julianka

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