In ‘The Water Knife,’ extreme drought creates a dystopian America

The Kansas City Star

When the water stops, things get ugly fast.

And not just the dust-clogged cities and sand-driven landscapes in Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel, “The Water Knife,” where the American Southwest of the near future has collapsed.

Texans are fleeing their drought-stricken wasteland, but they’re not welcome in Arizona, where the downtrodden are picking through what’s left of Phoenix’s devastated suburbs.

State borders have become militarized. Arizona’s ragged survivors are pitted against Nevada for the ever-diminishing waters of the Colorado River.

In Las Vegas, the wealthy few live in lush, highly engineered and enclosed communities. Meanwhile, California keeps a tight grip on its claims to the river. In Bacigalupi’s sci-fi thriller, the current selection of the FYI Book Club, the battles are legal — until they aren’t.

Angel Velasquez is a “water knife,” an enforcer for a Nevada water authority, who does whatever it takes to guard the precious commodity for Las Vegas. His work collides with Lucy Monroe, part crusading journalist, part sensationalist, who is following clues about a new water claim that could salvage Phoenix. But it’s all zero-sum, life-and-death.

Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation with Bacigalupi.

Q. Your book is fiction, but the issue of water scarcity is a reality. What led you to tackle it?

A. I started thinking about water years ago. I was the online editor for a newspaper that covers the western United States. One of the journalists there was reporting on the state of the Colorado River. This was back in 2005, and we already knew there wasn’t as much water in the river as people had previously thought.

Lake Powell was shrinking and wasn’t going to refill. Lake Mead, the primary water source for Las Vegas, was also getting lower and lower. The city was installing multiple intakes, chasing the water deeper and deeper in the reservoir. Another journalist was reporting on the changes we were seeing at the ecosystem level because of global warming — unnerving sorts of changes.

The climate data seems to indicate that we’re more and more vulnerable to major drought and major weather events. So you begin to think, if we’re already getting drier and drier, how bad does that get?

That’s the “what if” to spark the story.

Yes, and almost everything I write about starts with a real what if. I look at a trend, at something that’s really happening, and I ask, “If this keeps going, where does that lead us?”

The book is described as a “near-future thriller.” Did you have a specific date in mind?

I almost always avoid dates when writing future stories. But it’s an interesting question: When does this happen? Is it going to be in 30 years or 50 years or next year?

I started working on this book in 2011 during the Texas droughts. I was really struck by how bad they were and how much they matched climate predictions. Cattle were being put down. Texas was having rolling brown-outs and record 100-degree days.

You see that and you say, I don’t want to live in this future. This future looks horrible.

And now with the California droughts, it all suddenly feels impossibly relevant. When does this book happen? The concern is, sooner than we would like.

In this future fights over water rights continue, to say the least. Explain a little about that.

In the western United States, somebody owns all water. Every drop of water in a stream has an owner. Basically, whoever got there first and filed on the water is the senior rights holder. People who came later are junior rights holders. And it’s an absolute right.

I grew up in an area where you were constantly aware of where your water came from. In a bad year, in about July, somebody downriver would put a call on the river water, and you’d have to turn off your irrigation. You’d have to let your fields die. It’s not that there wasn’t any more water, it’s that you weren’t able to touch it.

How did you decide what this place of endless drought would look like?

I wanted Las Vegas to be a place that had planned for this, that had built these giant arcologies: totally integrated, living, working, farming spaces, where every piece of people’s lives could happen indoors, protected from the desert.

Water is endlessly recycled. Hanging gardens and waterfalls aerate and clean the water. It’s astonishingly well-engineered. One of the inspirations was the casinos, which also are highly integrated living environments, spaces you’re not supposed to leave.

While Las Vegas was planning aggressively, Phoenix was different. They tried to pretend their water wouldn’t run out. As the water supply fails, businesses fail, subdivisions fail. Property becomes useless — and it’s instantaneous.

The only business left is recycling things out of the houses that have been abandoned. People are living very desperate lives. And the city is swamped with refugees from Texas.

Journalism sinks to some pretty low lows, although Lucy has a few finer moments. Describe her a little bit.

Lucy wants to do good stories, and she has done some. But she also has seen that it’s a terrible way to support herself. So she does what other journalists do to get the clicks, writing salacious stories of suffering.

It’s “collapse porn,” similar to what we’ve seen done with Detroit and “ruin porn.” It’s not that she doesn’t have ethics. She’s extremely idealistic, and she also wants to eat.

And Angel, the water knife?

Angel is entirely unsentimental about making sure Las Vegas keeps its water. Having been recruited out of desperate circumstances, he has no intention of going back to that.

His job is to “cut water” for Las Vegas. He extends offers on water rights that can’t be refused. He has no sympathy for the losing side. He’s been on the losing side and doesn’t want to be there again.

As the drought disaster takes hold, people fall into various groups of victims and survivors. You came up with great names, including Zoners and Fivers. And Merry Perrys, the refugees who gather in tents to pray.

To create a future that feels very real and lived-in, people have to change and adapt, and language also changes. There are new ways of interacting, new slang.

Zoners are people from Arizona who are down on their luck. Fivers are people with five-digit addresses, desirable addresses, which means they live in the Taiyang Arcology, the only rich place in Phoenix.

The Merry Perrys are based on Rick Perry. Back in the 2011 drought, he was the governor of Texas and a presidential candidate. In the middle of this terrible drought he was organizing prayer circles, urging people to pray for rain.

It was one of those moments when it seemed like our leadership was in free fall, that somehow magical thinking would save us. It was deeply disturbing. That’s not how you make a good outcome for people. People who are open-eyed and realistic are the ones who survive.

Imagining new technologies must be part of the fun of writing science fiction. “Clearsacs” come quickly to mind.

I’m interested in how we adapt to problems technologically. This is the geeky part.

We know the marketplace addresses problems from a consumer perspective, like individual water filters we put on our taps. Clearsacs are like that.

People are desperate for water. It has to be recycled. So basically you pee into one of these disposable Clearsacs, and when you squeeze it, it filters out all the impurities, and you get clean water you can drink.

It’s intended to make you go “ew.” It’s also an opportunity to emphasize how water-deprived people are every day. And with no trash disposal, Clearsacs are everywhere, blowing around all over the streets, stuck on billboards, on saguaro cactus, just part of the garbage of the world.

You hit on other themes, about the roles we play in life, about loyalty and betrayal.

Our identities are based on our circumstances. We think: I am a civilized person, I am a peaceable person, I am an intelligent person. But that’s all on a bedrock of prosperity. So what happens when you strip those things away?

All the characters in the book are in pressed circumstances. They’re asking, What do I need to do in order to survive? They’re making choices. I’m fascinated by that.

And how much will I risk for somebody else? Everyone is trying to figure that out. Are you and I teamed up? Maybe we aren’t. Maybe you’re working against my interests.

One of the things I noticed about the story is that while people are flipping on one another, nobody takes it too personally. It’s like “I totally get why you stabbed me in the back on that one.” They’re so deep into their needs that it’s not personal.

It’s, “I’m sorry I can’t go down that path for you, because that’s the one that will destroy me.”

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call 816-234-4442 or send email to On Twitter @eeveld.

EXCERPT: “The Water Knife”

From Chapter 1 of Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Water Knife,” published by Knopf, a division of Random House. Angel Velasquez is a “water knife,” an enforcer of water rights for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Here he is leading a Camel Corps helicopter attack on a rival city’s water treatment plant.

And then they were hurtling south, toward the Mead in question: twenty-six million acre-feet of water storage at inception, now less than half of that thanks to Big Daddy Drought. An optimistic lake created during an optimistic time, whittled now and filling with silt besides. A lifeline, always threatened and always vulnerable, always on the verge of sinking below Intake No. 3, the critical IV drip that kept the heart of Las Vegas pumping.

Below them, the lights of Vegas central unspooled: casino neon and Cypress arcologies. Hotels and balconies. Domes and condensation-misted vertical farms, leafy with hydroponic greenery and blazing with full-spectrum illumination. Geometries of light sprawling across the desert floor, all of them overlaid with the electronic graffiti of Camel Corps’s combat language.

Billboard promises of shows and parties and drinks and money filtered through military glass, and became attack and entry points. Close-packed urban canyons designed to funnel desert winds became sniper alleys. Iridescent photovoltaic-paint roofs became drop zones. The Cypress arcologies became high-ground advantage and priority attack zones, thanks to the way they dominated the Vegas skyline and loomed over everything else, bigger and more ambitious than all of Sin City’s previous forays into the fantastical combined.

Vegas ended in a sharp black line.

The combat software started picking out living creatures, cool spots in the dark heat of millennial suburban skeleton — square mile after square mile of buildings that weren’t good for anything except firewood and copper wiring because Catherine Case had decided they didn’t deserve their water anymore.

Sparse and lonely campfires perforated the blackness, beacons marking the locations of desiccated Texans and Zoners who didn’t have enough money to get into a Cypress arcology and had nowhere else to flee. The Queen of the Colorado had slaughtered the hell out of these neighborhoods: her first graveyards, created in seconds when she shut off the water in their pipes.

“If they can’t police their damn water mains, they can drink dust,” Case had said.

People still sent the lady death threats about that.

The helicopters crossed the last of the wrecked suburban buffer zone and passed out into open desert. Original landscape: Old Testament ancient. Creosote bushes. Joshua trees, spiky and lonely. Yucca eruptions, dry washes, pale gravel sands, quartz pebbles.

The desert was entirely black now and cooling, the scalpel scrape of the sun finally off the land. There’d be animals down there. Nearly hairless coyotes. Lizards and snakes. Owls. A whole world that only came alive once the sun went down. A whole ecosystem emerging from burrows beneath rocks and yucca and creosote.

Angel watched the tiny thermal markers of the desert’s surviving inhabitants and wondered if the desert returned his gaze, if some skinny coyote looked up at the muffled thud-thwap of Camel Corps gunships …

An hour passed.

“We’re close,” Reyes said, breaking the stillness. His voice was almost reverent. Angel leaned forward, searching. “There she is,” Gupta said.

A black ribbon of water, twisting through desert, cutting between ragged mountain ridges.

Shining moonlight spilled across the waters in slicks of silver.

The Colorado River.

It wound like a serpent through the pale scapes of the desert. California hadn’t put this stretch of river into a straw yet, but it would. All that evaporation — couldn’t let the sun steal that forever. But for now the river still flowed in the open, exposed to sky and the guardies’ solemn view.

Angel peered down at the river, awed as always. The radio chatter of the guardies ceased, all of them falling silent at the sight of so much water.


Age: 42

Hometown: Paonia, Colo.

Family: Married with an 11-year-old son

Education: Bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from Oberlin College in Ohio

Awards: Hugo and Nebula awards for “The Windup Girl.” National Book Award finalist for “Ship Breaker.”

Next project: “Seascape,” part of a young-adult science fiction series


The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.

Members of FYI and the library staff chose “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi.

If you would like to participate in a discussion of the book at 7 p.m. Aug. 4 at Kansas City Water Services, 4800 E. 63rd St., email