There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. “Mary,” she points out, “was a virgin.” Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes:
The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.
That scene popped into my head late in The Water Knife, the new novel by award winner Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s set in the American southwest, mostly Phoenix, Arizona, in a near future where climate change has displaced populations and fueled droughts that have made water the most precious commodity on earth. Life is pretty much lived to find water, either by scrambling with other refugees at a pump set up by the Red Cross or by being part of the upper crust that lives in high rise arcologies that are self contained recyclers of water.
It’s not the setup that’s the problem. Like any piece of science fiction there are certain things that are, to borrow Rufus’s term, “leaps of faith.” Bacigalupi isn’t leaping very far, to be honest. The world he creates is terrifyingly plausible, if not without its blind spots (the role of the federal government in all this, which still exists but allows states to war on each other, is never really explained). It’s rich, in a gritty, ugly sort of way and is fully convincing even if one might be able to pull at some of the details.
No the need for gullibility comes when the story requires us to believe that characters won’t behave like people or submit to the basic laws of biology.
There are three main characters in the book, united by a set of water rights with nearly mystical powers that could be a game changer for the whole Southwest. It’s pretty much a McGuffin, a genre appropriate version of Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase, but it does drive people to do some really awful things.
Before I go any further – this is really a brutal book. I’ve seen comments in various places from readers who just stopped and gave up at certain points. I don’t blame them. In addition to the horribles entailed in living in an arid, post-apocalyptic tableau choked with refugees and amoral operators, there are scenes upon scenes of pure savagery. In fact, each of the three main characters is brutalized pretty severely (and in detail). Yet they manage to shake it off, for the most part.
Said characters are Angel, the titular Water Knife, a local reporter named Lucy, and a teenaged Texas refugee named Maria. Angel is sent from Nevada to figure out what’s going down in Phoenix. Lucy is trying to do the same, hunting for a big story and trying to figure out what got a friend killed (and brutally tortured – detail we get second hand). Maria just wants to get out, constantly scrapping to figure out how to get north. They all orbit each other, though Angel and Lucy pair up about midway through the book for good.
And I mean “pair up” in the Biblical sense. The sexual activity between the two of them is so clichéd and obvious that it really disappointed me Bacigalupi went that route. Lucy has no reason to trust, much less desire, a man whose profession is strangling cities like Phoenix of their water (he has the book’s first scene, where he rides Apocalypse Now style in a chopper that attacks an Arizona city’s water plant). Nonetheless, she sleeps with him, because, why not?
She also betrays him, which sets up the true gullibility moment. As I said all three characters are brutalized (the women basically for fun, which says something). Angel’s turn comes when the car he’s sitting in is ambushed by his own people. He’s riddled with bullets and smacked in the head by an exploding airbag. Not only does that not knock him unconscious, he manages to crawl away, only to fall head-first into an empty swimming pool (an interesting recurring image of Phoenix). After all this, which should leave him bleeding profusely, concussed, and probably with a broken neck he’s miraculously saved by Lucy and some hand-waving med tech.
This is where, even in the oppressive Phoenix heat, my snowmen started flying. As I said, the other main characters also suffer horrible abuse and manage to shake it off, but not quite like this (a minor character is up and walking a few days after having his kneecap blown away!). Unless Angel is superman – and there’s been no suggestion he is – he shouldn’t survive. At the very least, he should be incapacitated for the rest of the book. After that, I simply couldn’t care what happened to these people.
That’s not true. I kind of didn’t care all that much about these people to begin with. Angel’s basically a gun for hire. Lucy wants a big story, but doesn’t seem all that motivated by anything else until the very end. Only Maria is really worth rooting for, which makes the rather abrupt ending work in a way that it probably shouldn’t have worked.
I loved The Windup Girl and have really enjoyed Bacigalupi’s short stories. Unfortunately, The Water Knife doesn’t measure up. That’s no crime, but it’s perhaps a missed opportunity. Worth a read, but not essential, and certainly not one to pick up if you’re looking to have your faith in humanity restored.