Title: The Water Knife
Rating: 4 Stars
I’m guessing that this book will not be featured prominently on Fox News anytime soon. It’s the story of a near future dystopia where Arizona, Nevada, and California are nearly in a state of war over water rights. Climate change deniers be forewarned.
At the start of the novel, Texas is essentially a wasteland. Cities such as San Antonio and Dallas have collapsed. In desperation, the Texans have migrated northward into Arizona, where they are universally despised as worthless immigrants. Meanwhile, Phoenix itself is on the verge of collapse. It is in a rather desperate struggle with Las Vegas to maintain access to a water supply. Above all of this is California, which with its wealth and size is a fearsome force to be reckoned with.
Inside this dystopian tale are three main characters. There is Angel, a Las Vegas mercenary trying to track down a mystery regarding water rights in Phoenix. There is Maria, a native Texan that has immigrated to Phoenix, desperately poor, just trying to survive. Finally, there is Lucy, an intrepid reporter, also living in Phoenix, on the track of a big scoop as the body count ratchets up. Their paths collide as the three states battle to recover a document that describes the original water rights.
A book that is heavily referenced here is Cadillac Desert (a real book) that describes how the federal government took an area of what was essentially arid desert, and through sophisticated water management, helped to create thriving cities. The book posits that as the growth continues and the climate dries up, inevitably cities will collapse and states will desperately fight each other for access to the dwindling water supplies.
This is an interesting subject. Water has played an out sized role in these parched states. If you’re interested, read about the California Water Wars, which describes how Los Angeles basically screwed over a bunch of farmers to get water rights, thus creating a thriving, growing Los Angeles and the death of farming in Owens Valley (basically the plot of the movie Chinatown).
Around that same time, a preposterous idea promulgated was the concept that rain follows the plow. The idea was that somehow human cultivation naturally led to the formation of clouds and the increase of rain (something about the dirt being kicked up by the plow). This actually passed as science at one point. The government actively encouraged farmers to inhabit arid lands and try to farm them, thinking that it would increase rain supply. This coincidentally seemed to work for a while due to a natural wet cycle but ultimately farmers starved, died, and abandoned farms during the Great American Dust Bowl (read The Worst Hard Time).
This is the context in which the novel is written. Its dystopian future, with desperate refugees from American states, with American citizens lynching fellow citizens trying to sneak into their states, with Phoenix constantly beset by dust storms, and Chinese corporations lurking in the background looking to pick at the carcass of the fading American economy, are all clearly drawn in a grim manner. Knowing what little that I do know about the formation of the Southwest, it’s not entirely an impossible narrative.
My only complaint is that the characters are pretty stock. You just know that Angel, the brutal mercenary, really has a heart of gold. You know that Lucy, the reporter, is going to be full of pluck and will relentlessly pursue the story. You know that Maria, the immigrant, will be given a whole series of hard knocks but will ultimately prevail.
This is clearly a book with an agenda and a political conscience. In no way does it hide it. Even given that, I still found it not only to be provoking but also an entertaining read.