jueves, 11 de junio de 2015

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Cadillac Desert, by Blackbird Raum (Spotify, YouTube).

Audioclip: Thanks to the nice people at Audible, you can listen to a clip of The White Knife for free, narrated by Almarie Guerra. 

I am a huge fan of Paolo Bacigalupi's work. The Windup Girl is one of my favorite novels of the last years and I like his collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, even more. Hence, The Water Knife was one of the books I was most highly anticipating this year. And Bacigalupi has not disappointed, for The Water Knife is almost as good as The Windup Girl and, in some aspects, even a more accomplished novel.  

In fact, I can only describe the first half of The Water Knife as almost perfect. The setting of the novel, for those acquainted with Bacigalupi's previous work, is the same as in his short story "The Tamarisk Hunter", but the author has clearly improved as a narrator and the world-building is simply impressive. With just a few science-fictional elements (which are but a consequence of the current trend of climate change) Bacigalupi is able to describe a future that you will not only believe, but wonder if it is not already happening today. The ruthless water wars, the draughts, the immigrants and refugees... Sadly, all this sounds too familiar. 

Bacigalupi, with an austere but nonetheless beautiful prose, manages to depict this dire situation in a way that will make you feel as if you were there, experiencing the hot weather and the thirst, to the point that your throat will almost feel raspy and dry with the dust:
She plowed down Phoenix’s six-lane boulevards, the empty optimistic cross streets of a car culture now so drifted with dust that vehicles moved in single file between dunes, glued to one another’s taillights as they navigated the hillocks of a city being swallowed by desert. (...)
It was striking to Angel how similar every town looked after it lost its water. It didn’t matter whether it was at the top of the Colorado River or the bottom. It could be Las Vegas or Phoenix, Tucson or Grand Junction, or Moab or Delta. In the end it was always the same: traffic lights swinging blind on tumbleweed streets; shadowy echoing shopping malls with shattered window displays; golf courses drifted with sand and spiked with dead stick trees.
This new landscape is, in fact, a new ecosystem where only the toughest can survive:
Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming. 
The desert was different. It had always been a gaunt and feral thing. Always hunting for its next sip. The desert never forgot itself. A thin fall of winter rain was all that kept yucca and creosote blooming. If there was other life, it cowered alongside the banks of the few capillary rivers that braved the blazing lands and never strayed far. 
The desert never took water for granted. (...)
“You’re a tiny little mouse, in a big old desert,” he said. “I would’ve thought you understood that by now. There’s hawks and owls and coyotes and snakes, and all they want to do is eat you up. So do me a favor when you run into boys like Cato and Esteban. You remember that you’re the mouse. You hunker down, and you stay out of sight. You forget that for even a second, and they’ll eat you from the tip of your nose down to the tip of your tail, won’t even notice that they swallowed you. Won’t even burp. Won’t cause a bit of indigestion. You’re just a snack on the way to whatever their real dinner is. You got it?”
And thus, the first half of The Water Knife not only introduces and describes this agonizing world, but the people that live in it and how they struggle to thrive. The focus in on three main characters, Angel, Lucy and Maria, that will eventually interact in different and unexpected ways, but the human landscape (the Texans, the Zoners, the Fivers, the Merry Perrys...) is equally important and fascinating in its cruel but extremely believable actuality. Bacigalupi has done an amazing work of creating a possible future populated by tormented, vivid characters and reading The Water Knife is completely worth for that alone.

The second part of the novel is still solid, but a bit more ordinary. The plot turns into a thriller, with many action scenes and runaways (and some quite violent fragments that might be disgusting for those with a weak stomach). As such, it is still interesting and quite enjoyable, but I couldn't help feeling that it didn't live up to the promise of the first, superb half. For instance, my impression is that some ideas (like the Merry Perrys or the CAP) and, especially, amazing characters such as Catherine Case, were not fully exploited. 

Despite these minor problems, The Water Knife is a very good novel and I highly recommend reading it. It is lighter on science-fictional elements than, for instance, The Windup Girl, and that makes it, at the same time, more accessible to a wider audience and just slightly unsatisfactory for hard-core SF fans. Undoubtedly an important work, nonetheless, especially for it is a frightening but very real warning, and a novel that will certainly be talked about a lot in the months to come.

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