Tag Archives: Prose

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’ve been on a mini Bacigalupi streak recently – Wind Up Girl, Ship Breaker and now The Water Knife, a minor diversion into post-apocalyptic and dystopian misery which, to be honest, is a bit exhausting.

To start with the good The Water Knife is an efficiently well written and occasionally very immersive book, Baigalupi seldom drifts from the essentials of his characters and story telling and while the prose has flair to it there’s little that doesn’t also serve a purpose. So it’s readable, very readable.

The story is set in a water starved Southern and Mid-Western US where thirsty power blocs – California, Las Vegas, Colorado – vie for rights to the ever diminishing supplies under the decaying and largely indifferent gaze of the government back East. Throw in straggling hordes of refugees from the dried out state of Texas, narcos from the now formally declared Narco States, Chinese corporate interests and local gangs in Phoenix, the broad focus of the book, and you’ve got enough apocalyptic fodder to depress anyone. Which Paolo does, constantly.

There’s an ensemble cast of characters, all unified by their existence on the edge. On the edge of legality, criminality, their own societies, their own professions, morality. Bacigalupi’s world here is one with no interest in or time for the masses or the middle which, as far as an action driven plot goes, makes perfect sense. His perspective is one held just beyond the breaking point, his characters either spiralling towards it or long since submerged into a chaotic mess of cruelty and survivalist necessity. Which does work, for the most part, as I said this is a well written and eminently readable story. One which is set in a interesting world too, a compendium of human paranoias and fears about climate change, cultural decay and societal oblivion all brought to their pinnacles in one hellish, desertified landscape.

The one problem I found with that though was that his focus is a little bit too relentless. In Wind Up Girl, the first of his books that I read, things weren’t that much less extreme but in some characters at least he did allow a little humanity to survive. Even as it was shattered by another, similarly brutalised, world there were elements and characters which spoke to a remnant of recognisable humanity which wasn’t entirely despairing. With The Water Knife though there’s pretty much no redemption, no trace to be found of anything positive about our species and what minimal nods there are to a world beyond the extremities of the main characters are only ever given as a prop to demolish in the greater service of making everything worse.

I’m not saying this should be a book which offers hope mind, it obviously didn’t set out to be and grim as the reality he’s created is there’s not much scope for it. But even in the world Paolo builds there is evidence of something else, some ongoing collective struggle and sense of community existing within the horror. The shanties of the thirsty future aren’t just killing grounds, the streams of refugees aren’t solely comprised of those who’ve turned to obscene cruelty and violence as a basic state. Again though, as far as the story goes they exist only to further the main cast’s misery, to reinforce and, through suffering, prove their own descents into moral oblivion and incomprehension. There are hints that this is being presented as a comment on the US itself, a condemnation of the spirit of ultra-individualism in times of crisis which, maybe, wouldn’t be the same in other cultures. But if the relentless hopelessness is meant to push that line then it’s almost comically extreme. Pushed too far to make the point as anything short of a hammering horror story.

It’s a lack of balance which stops a good book from being a great one for me. The best exposures of human misery, in my experience, are the ones which don’t forget that there are humans in the story. The ones which don’t forget that, for most people, there is a desire towards community and a sense of security, even in situations which refuse to allow for it. That’s not to say there are happy endings or that some fantastical ‘good guys’ get their moment of victorious glory but there is some desire and, well, hope that things could be more normal. Something which Bacigalupi seems to revel in repeatedly smashing down as fodder for corruption.

On the generous side you could say that, given the issues of the books covers, like climate change, resource scarcity and societal decay an element of over the top grim-darkness is justified. Maybe that was an active choice for this story and, to be fair, in his YA Ship Breaker book there are hints of solidarity and (attempted) decency even amidst a similarly decaying world. With The Water Knife though it’s so completely, resolutely absent that it almost just feels like nihilism. Paolo has concluded that humanity will turn to cruelty without hesitation or even much resistance when circumstances demand it. All of humanity, more or less, with any hold outs falling quickly enough to be exceptions that prove the rule. A certain relish for violence, especially sexual violence, in this book (and The Wind Up Girl) doesn’t do much to dispel that notion. It’s evil all the way down here, with the only question being how long it takes any given character to descend, or be butchered before they can.

That said it’s still a good book, it’s still very well written and very strong in its intent and dystopian vision. Just as The Wind Up Girl was before it. When I circle back to his work though (and I will) it’d be nice, maybe even necessary, for him to allow for a view from the centre. Not one that’s any more upbeat or hopeful perhaps, but one where there are characters at least allowed to attempt decency without being knocked down with knowing disdain by a sense of absolute misery. Perhaps even allow a sense of agency for them, show that not everything, from society to family, is a flimsy front for inherent cruelty.

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Spoken Word & Holy Squatters

While I’m waiting for the edit to come through on my next book I’ve been experimenting with a few side-projects. Including some spoken word stuff which I’ve been dabbling with today. More of a distraction than anything I’m not expecting a great audience for it but it’s nice to try some different mediums and see how the nature of a story changes in the vocal re-telling. Still in the dicking around stage at the moment and obviously I’m doing it on a shoestring budget so quality isn’t great but just to give you a sample here’s my reading of ‘Holy Squatter’, a story I wrote a few years back and which, out of the long list of them, got picked up for recording…

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Art of Flames

He’d gotten as far as piling them up and fetching the matches before the will to set them alight sloped away from him, an exhilarating thought drained in an instant of all value. It would be childish, cowardly even to condemn the sheets to the flames, an act of bitterness not liberation. It would have been an act though, it would have been something which, sat at the scene of his placidity, was all he’d really desired.

The sketches were a life’s work, his life’s work. A personality defined in ink and paint and charcoal, a rigid skeleton for his life to hang off of. That’s what they had been anyway, now they were just a mockery, the jibing graffiti of a dead self, there only to remind him of how far he’d sunk over the years from being that soul wallpapered by it’s own creations to the desolate concrete bunker he’d made of himself now.

When and why the change had come he didn’t know, certainly there’d been no conscious breaking point between the old and the new forms of self he’d lived through. He’d never accepted defeat or abandoned his art, instead he’d just moved through it, broken through to the other side of the miasma of creativity that he’d once believed immense enough to fill the universe, to find himself stood in absolute nothingness. No more ideas, no more creations, no more art, no more anything, just longing gazes behind him as if the past might beckon him back and all would be as it was again.

That was the mood in which, in a frenzy, he’d hurled the stacks of forgotten ideas and projects, finished or still underway, into a heap and resolved himself to condemn all that he’d lost to flames. If it was gone it could be forgotten perhaps, or at the very least the mocking derision of what he had done would be stricken from his sight. The memories and loss might have lingered anyway but for a moment it had seemed like it might help.

He threw the matches to the other side of the room and slumped down. Childish, cowardly. What right had he to strike at that better man who’d created these things? How could he imagine that there was any gain to be made from hacking away at the icon he’d made of his own past? Temper tantrums didn’t make more of the person having them, they simply elevated their target by virtue of comparison. A knowledge that sapped all will from him, even knowing he’d seen the truth did nothing to offer comfort. The pictures had to stay, which meant they had to continue judging him, sneering at the empty vessel out of which all value had been drained.

With the fury of the moment passed he remembered the one option that remained to him, the one that presented no passion or intent but simply was. If they wouldn’t go, he would. After all, he’d already seen the passing of the only part of himself worth living for.

For more from me you can check out my collection No Cure for Shell Shock – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks.

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Enemy of Grief

What could I have become after what happened? Anything, I was told. All they meant was anything they could understand. I could mirror any image those judgemental cunts could dredge up from their guilty and confused notions of what a ‘good’ victim should be. Scared and broken, scarred and tough, cruel and unfeeling, lonely and lost. All the permutations they decided were acceptable for someone who’d ‘suffered’ in the generic sense they needed to limit it to to satisfy their own discomfort. All the ways they could see to fence me off as a prisoner of what was done to me, forever shaped by it, never more than it.

What did I become? Nothing good, not in their eyes at least. Spiteful, they called it. They were there for me and I’d disappointed them, rejected them and ruined their narrative of how my pain should play out. A personal insult far worse than anything they cared to think had been done to me. That’s how eager they were to steal my pain, that’s how disgusted they were at me dealing with it in my own way – they had to make me the villain. An abuser of their own grief, which had long since stopped relating to me in anything but words.

What else could I have done? Maybe I am bitter and cruel and harsh. Maybe I did make their lives worse. Maybe I did reject their fawning and hollow pity. Fuck them. I survived, in the way I had to. If that makes me the enemy then I’ll still take that over being their victim.

For more from me you can check out my collection No Cure for Shell Shock – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks.

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