Monday, 30 January 2017

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I try so hard to remember that characters do not necessarily equal the author. Just because a character does something, it doesn't mean the author would, or that they condone or approve. It's generally something you can ferret out from the book over all, but a singular moment may be in no way reflective of how the author sees the world. When you see things repeated over and over in several books, you start to assume that they in some way relate to who the author is, although not necessarily how.

(For example, I thoroughly believe that Spider Robinson's lung(s) collapse or have collapsed at regular intervals, causing him immense pain and debilitation, and also that he had very very painful surgery to prevent it from always happening. It's shown up in a lot of his books, in detail that feels far too specific.)

So I am trying not to infer too much about Paolo Bacigalupi, the person, from having read a couple of his books. But there are a few things I feel like I can say about Paolo Bacigalupi and what he writes. For all I know, in person, he's a kind and happy person who feels the need to warn the world repeatedly about impending ecological collapse, and the many many cruelties people will enact on each other in the wake of consecutive and concurrent disasters.

That's not even a bad thing to do. On the other hand, his books are not only pessimistic, they're remarkably nihilistic and verging on cruel. Cruelty to his own fictional creations, to be sure, but cruel nonetheless.

Of course, I can say all that without for a moment denying that he's a damned good writer - his writing is intense and urgent, his characters strong, the world he creates one that may shock his readers. Granted, no question. This is not me saying he shouldn't be read. This is, however, me saying that I find it very hard to choose to voluntarily choose to spend my time in a fictional world this bleak. I need some hope to leaven my reading experience, and I am strongly bothered by what comes through as an assertion in this book that not only is everything fucked, but moreover that kindness is dangerous, fickle, and worst of all, stupid and unrealistic. That hope for creating something better is holding on to the scraps of an obsolete past.

The characters end the book in a strong argument that in a fucked world, trying to create anything is foolish. The only thing to do is to feather your own nest as much as you can. Get out of bad situations no matter how much death and destruction you cause in your wake, because no one will do better by you. I don't know if Bacigalupi the author is saying this, but I do know that not only do his characters express it, but it's the final message on which this book ends. It might be a warning, but it feels as much a message.

(Oh, right, what's this book about? It's about the search for water rights in a world where the lucky and rich (synonymous, no?) live in arcologies, and everyone else in vast swathes of the interior United States lives in dessicated, dying squalor.  Three main characters - a "water knife" (hired gun who does whatever water controllers in Las Vegas tell him to do to keep the water flowing), a journalist, and a young refugee woman from Texas.)

I mentioned Spider Robinson earlier for a reason. It's the essay he wrote called "Pandora's Last Gift." You may be able to google up a copy, but it's also in at least one collection of his works. It's about the importance of hope, not only in life, but also in fiction. In doing something other than writing cynical works about us all "merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." That hope is hard and it hurts, but it's also essential, and why this leads him to write mostly hopeful works.

I go back to that essay a lot. Particularly these days.

This book might have been technically good, but spending too much time in Bacigalupi's fictional worlds would be extremely dangerous to my mental health. I prefer to think that something can be done, that the problems we face can be faced. So...I think it may be a long while before I can force myself to venture back into this bleakness again.


  1. I feel the same about both of the author's books I have read - The Water Knife and Shipbreaker - dark and depressing. Even though I didn't love this book I do still think about it, and I think I read it in 2015? So, at least it's thought provoking. Although honestly there's so much to be unhappy about if you let it get to you that I don't need realistic collapse fiction on top of it.

    1. Yes, exactly. They're strong books, but more pessimistic than my mental health can bear at the moment.