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.

Political Division

Politics, at the moment, is defined by division. In the US Trump and Clinton are coming to represent to antagonistic portions of a polarised society, with Sanders as a theoretically retired figurehead for a third faction which is in opposition to the other two, even if some of them have begrudgingly endorse the Democratic candidate. In the UK Labour is battling it’s own internal identity crisis as self-proclaimed ‘moderates’ rally, ineffectually, against the party’s Socialist conscience and history. The Tories too are delicately treading around their own alter-ego, as if Theresa May’s unity act is a cure rather than a bandage for the divisions wrought by the Brexit vote. All around everyone hates everyone and the usual vague sense of consensus – be it legitimate or imposed – is fading away as sides form. In the media too loyalties are being declared along predictable lines, highlighting the joke that is journalistic impartiality when ratings and owners both demand echo-chambers, a protection of personal interests and a neat story line to keep 24 hour news rolling.

None of this is news, really. Anyone can see the divisions manifesting and most people realise that they didn’t appear out of nothing. Nor did they appear out of a Brexit vote or Trump’s candidacy, they’re reflections of societal issues that have been brewing for decades now. And there’s plenty written on which side could, would and should win any one of the factional struggles which have recently clawed their way into the public perception.

The only thought I have to add is one of concern to be honest. The problem with political polarisation isn’t so much that someone will win, although there’s definitely plenty to fear there given some of the challengers. That’s a given though, that’s an observable battle where we can each choose our logical and moral ground and stand on it. What’s more worrying is that other people will lose and, in losing, look for ways to strike back. A mild example is the internal Labour struggle where, by the looks of things, Iron Corbyn will crush the opposition under his brutal Stalinist boot – well, I’ll be voting for him at least. What follows that is the issue though, as the right of the party either leave as they split the party and attempt to drag support away and towards some SDP reboot or stay and repeat the tedious process of challenges, coups and undermining. Embittering their own backers and alienating their opposition as they go, making their own defeat an act of self-sabotage against the Left wing as a whole. That’s a mild example though if you compare current UK politics to what’s surrounding the US election. There defeat for one side or another isn’t going to be a blow against a fairly small political elite who have the power to wreck on a day to day level. There the losing side is going to contain a huge number of voters who’re going to be angry, scared and bitter about the potential results of their candidate missing out. Perhaps rightly so, depending on how fatalistic you want to be. Either way though the illusion of a looming apocalypse is enough to make people act as if the stakes are high and react to them to whatever degree they imagine to be reasonable.

In both countries it seems that those in the media and those in politics are confident in the capacity for the structures of state and society to absorb all this dissent. People will be pissed off, sure, but they’ll accept it and carry on. Most probably will, although some undoubtedly won’t – and even for the vast majority who prefer to live their lives as best they can rather than hand it over to political anger it’ll be another layer of resentment and of disdain for those structures which they’ll feel have misled and cheated them, be it in the media or at the ballot boxes. It’s another sawing away of the support struts of the established structure of state and given the unlikeliness of any real unity or consensus being found whoever wins in these sort of disjointed struggles it’s hard to see anyone moving to repair the damage. And sooner or later that damage undermines the whole thing.

There’s an upside to it all too I suppose. The breaking of the two party system in US politics, the reclaiming of the Labour Party as a Left Wing entity, even seeing the Tories confront their own inner demons regarding neoliberalism and Thatcherist ideals, they could all bring about healthier and more representative landscapes. But the nudging game of hoping for destruction as a precursor to rebuilding is a dangerous one. Again, with the immediate political wranglings you can see the sides, see the issues and see the potential end results. But when it comes to society as a whole and large swathes of the population? There’s no telling how things will fall. And some analysis of that would, for me, be far more interesting than the partisan sniping that surrounds those loudest in their commentaries.

Emperor Bush and the Absolutists

Posted by the Imperial decree of Emperor Norton I of Frisco

It’s easy to forget just how big the internet is and just how far into oddity the archipelago of isolated gatherings of occasionally beautiful and often disconcerting madness spreads. Even with the jaw dropping amount of human knowledge and opinion set before us the temptation to just sit there checking Facebook, Twitter or a handful of data rich sites which lie at the centre of the whole thing tends to take control, habit being a favourite trait of the species regardless of the context.

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