Water, Dystopia, and Violence in “The Water Knife” by Bacigalupi
It is important to note that Bacigalupi’s book titled The Water Knife is an outstanding piece of dystopian storytelling, where the essential commodity for human survival is made scarce. Water is a major source of value for the three key states involved, which include Nevada, Arizona, and California. Due to extreme climatic changes and ruthless political struggles between different power structures, the plot becomes dynamic and realistic reflective of the real-world politics centered around oil and energy. The book is highly convincing specifically because the author does not shy away from illustrating the extreme violence and duality of his characters, making them richer, relatable, and multifaceted.
The Water Knife
The major conflict of Bacigalupi’s dystopia is taking place between three key states struck by water shortages such as Nevada, Arizona, and California. The latter is the most prosperous one, whereas both Arizona and Nevada are struggling with water. Catherine Case is a corrupt and ruthless leader of Las Vegas who trains and uses Angel Velasquez or “water knife” to sabotage Nevada’s competing states’ water supply systems. Due to his criminal and violent background, Angel becomes an effective spy and assassin. However, his story arc and character development are among the most interesting ones because there is depth in how his life unfolded, which explains why he became what he is now. Although he subsequently leaves his boss, Case, the entire character arc is also demonstrative of his conflict between his service to Case and service to good (Bacigalupi, 2016). Although the major conflicts are taking place between these states and within the chaotic gangs of Arizona, the main characters are also undergoing their conflicts, which provides the necessary details and depths to enrich the narrative.
The depiction of the future is highly convincing and even possible shortly if climate change leads to catastrophic outcomes. All living creatures depend on water to live, and the fact that it is scarce turns it into a valued commodity and source of power. The scarcity creates a water demand, and individuals with access to it become highly powerful. An example of such a person is Catherine Case, who controls the water supply of Las Vegas (Bacigalupi, 2016). Water shortage provides inception to initiative water politics around it, making the story develop in a highly dynamic and interesting manner. Although water is not a scarce commodity in the real world, the story’s interactions between states exemplify the world politics around oil. The latter is an energy source for most of humanity, and its supply is controlled by a few select groups of individuals, such as heads of nations, dictators, and business interests. Under the current circumstances, Case can be compared to Vladimir Putin in a sense since he also leveraged his power over the oil and gas supply to promote his interests.
Therefore, the story is believable and convincing due to its direct reflection on the reality of modern politics. Although the world is not experiencing water shortages now, water itself represents a more simplistic but raw aspect of value. Water in the storyline exemplifies energy sources, money, food, a source of power, and the most vital need for human existence after oxygen. Because only a small percentage of the global water supply is drinkable, and the latter is mostly stored in the ice caps, leaving an even smaller portion to be found in groundwater, drinking water is ultimately scarce. The author writes, “sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day” (Bacigalupi, 2016, p. 3). In other words, a water crisis is a possible outcome because it can become scarce in specific regions where more prosperous states fail to help them.
When it comes to scenes of extreme violence, they not only enrich the story with the capabilities of humans inflicting suffering on others but also provide the necessary emotional response for a reader to understand the direness of a situation. The elements of murder and torture progress the story by making the transformations of the key characters, Angel, Lucy Monroe, and Maria Villarosa, believable. One example can be provided in regards to Angel, whose machismo and violent nature arrive at a conflict, which makes him question himself, initiating his character development arc towards redemption. When Angel was interrogating a girl, he realized that “he could see himself from her perspective. A scarred thug with a gun shoving her around, threatening her with torture and death if she failed to obey. It made him feel less than a man” (Bacigalupi, 2016, p. 203). In other words, violence and fear serve the purpose of changing the main characters by catalyzing self-reflection.
Another example is Lucy’s experience of being tortured until Angel saves her. The fact that her torturer was complimenting her while inflicting immense pain and stating it was not personally made the experience even worse. The author writes, “and that was the true horror. It hadn’t been personal. It hadn’t been about her at all. She was just meat with a mouth, one that might or might not have information he wanted” (Bacigalupi, 2016, p. 240). In a gruesome and painful scene of torture, Lucy shows the real twisted aspect of the practice. Although the physical pain is intense and unbearable, there is a psychological element to it that makes it worse.
It should be noted that extreme violence is not a closed system of a victim and inflictor of such violence. The book implies that all members of society are engaged in it even though it does not occur directly because it is either enabled or contributed in some form. For instance, towards the end of the story, Lucy finally realizes this bitter truth by stating, “I used to think I could just cover this place, and it wouldn’t affect me … the murders. I’m part of it. And I didn’t even see it coming” (Bacigalupi, 2016, p. 324). A person seeking to be deliberately ignorant about the suffering of others and avoiding helping them indirectly becomes part of extreme violence, misery, torture, and murders.
In conclusion, the book is a highly convincing piece of literature, which is made by its direct reflection of the real world with all of its forms of extreme violence. Although most people might find one’s indirect involvement in extreme violence unpleasant and even outrageous to consider, one cannot deny how every human is connected to another one in some way. Therefore, human suffering should not be ignored intentionally because it not only disrespects the victims but also contributes to their pain.
Bacigalupi, P. (2016). The water knife. Vintage.