By Paolo Bacigalupi
Orbit/Trade paperback/373 pages/$27.99 without GST/ Major bookstores/3/5
A post-apocalyptic landscape where a crucial resource has run almost dry, leading to a dystopian society where the haves live in unimaginable splendour while the have-nots fight with barbaric intensity and cruelty over scraps.
So far, so dysfunctional in The Water Knife, American writer Paolo Bacigalupi's latest novel.
The resource in question is water, and in the American south- west, Nevada and Arizona are battling over the dwindling volume of the Colorado River, barely clinging on to the illusion that they are still part of the United States of America.
The title refers to Angel Velasquez, the physically and metaphorically scarred anti-hero of the tale who goes around doing the dirty work for Catherine Case, the power behind Vegas' water authority. He is sent to track down ancient water rights that will secure the H2O supply for Vegas.
His search leads him to cross paths with award-winning journalist Lucy, who has gone native in Phoenix as her hunt for the next story takes her into a murderous web of shady water dealings, and streetsmart Maria, a teenager plotting her way to a better life in the north where there is still rain.
What Bacigalupi excels at is the detailed evocation of a possible future world, whether it is a world where crops have been ravaged by rust and genetic engineering gone wrong in The Windup Girl (2009), or the flooded lands of Ship Breaker (2010) and The Drowned Cities (2012).
In these previous novels, he has also proven to be a thoughtful and thought-provoking writer whose fiction teased out a particular strand of science or politics and spun it out into plausibly dark extensions of our current world.
In this latest tale, the battle over water is not far-fetched in today's context where droughts and climate change are already displacing people. Entertaining and slick as this is, it lacks some of the raw urgency and vibrant energy of his previous works which were powered by a sense of prophetic doom. Good for a summer beach read, but unlikely to leave as much of an impression as The Windup Girl.
If you like this, read: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade Books, 2015, $25.89, Books Kinokuniya), his gripping 2009 debut set in a future Thailand where food production is controlled by powerful conglomerates and genetically modified humans are used as slaves. It is a sort of a GM take on Blade Runner.