What If The Drought Doesn't End? 'The Water Knife' Is One Possibility

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 (NPR)
(NPR)

What if the devastating drought in the western U.S. doesn't end? A few years ago, the science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi started exploring what could happen.

"Lake Powell and Lake Mead were hitting historic lows, and they weren't re-filling the way they were supposed to. Las Vegas was, in fact, digging deeper and deeper intakes into Lake Mead," he remembers. "This question of scarcity. This question of too many people needing too little water."

Those questions inspired Bacigalupi to write The Water Knife, a noir-ish, cinematic thriller set in the midst of a water war between Las Vegas and Phoenix. The novel follows three people: a climate refugee, a journalist, and a "water knife" — a secret agent for Las Vegas's ruthless water czar. Think Chinatown meets Mad Max.

Bacigalupi talked with NPR's Arun Rath about the new book, his inspirations, and how to categorize his fiction. Listen to their full conversation with the audio link above.


Lake Mead is at its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
Lake Mead is at its lowest level since the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s.

Interview highlights

On the difficulty of communicating context with a news photo

There's the blue sky, there's the pretty white bathtub ring, there's the red rocks, there's the, there's the blue water — it doesn't look like a disaster. And so as a fiction writer, you sort of ... "Here's a piece of information, and now let me explain to you exactly why this actually is a disaster."

And it's not because the water level is low today — it's because it seems to be going somewhere. ... Once you understand a potential future — if you live inside of that world, if you live inside of that water scarcity, if you see people reacting, if you see a, a water riot, if you see a climate refugee or you live in the skin of a climate refugee — suddenly that makes more sense than just "oh, we've noticed that Lake Mead is now at a historically low level."

On the bleak future The Water Knife depicts, including state border patrols and climate refugees

Paolo Bacigalupi is also the author of the novels The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.
Paolo Bacigalupi is also the author of the novels The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities.

People don't actually stay still, you know — when their area is a disaster, they go somewhere else, right? And that's just a natural human impulse. And it's also a natural human impulse for people to sort of hunker down and say "no, no, this is ours — we've got the good stuff, and we don't want to share."

And so yeah, in this future, there's a point where there's so many refugees on the road, there's so many — some of them because of hurricanes, some of them because of high seawater levels, some of them because of drought — that you're starting to see all of the states sort of, like ... you know, sort of really getting much more muscular about their state's rights.

They're like: "No, no, no, this is our territory. We don't want to share it with the state next to us." And you see a really weak federal government at the same time that isn't able to really coordinate or get people to sort of cooperate with one another.

I think that, when I think about the future that The Water Knife represents, it's one where there's a lack of oversight, planning and organization. That's really the disaster. There's the drought and there's climate change, and those things are horrible — and then there's how people react to it. And this is, this world is built on the assumption that people don't plan, don't think and don't cooperate — which makes for a pretty bad future!

On how to categorize his fiction

The questions about how we label a story really seem to set a lot of preconceptions in people's minds. So if I say this book is science fiction, or if I say I'm a science fiction writer, automatically one of the things you'll hear from people is "oh, I don't read that."

[But if you say,] "No, no, no — well, so I actually write about this crazy drought in the Southwest where Phoenix and Las Vegas are having a water war, and there's very little water in the Colorado River," and suddenly the person's like "oh yeah, well, we're having a terrible drought here" or wherever they're living. And suddenly they're very engaged...

When I think about myself as a writer, for sure I am a science fiction writer. The tools of extrapolation, the tools of anticipating the future — those are science fictional questions.

And so, you know, in terms of labeling it, I'll label my books anything that will get somebody to read it. ... [You] want them to like or hate your book based on the book is itself, not based on the idea that maybe it's, I don't know, Barbarella.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

What if the devastating drought in the west doesn't end? A few years ago, science-fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi started paying attention to what's been happening to the water supply out here.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Lake Powell and Lake Mead were hitting sort of historic lows, and they weren't refilling the way they were supposed to. And Las Vegas was in fact digging deeper and deeper intakes into Lake Mead. And you could sort of see the storyline was already there - this question of scarcity, this question of too many people needing too little water. You know, and so as a fiction writer, you're like, well, what happens next?

RATH: One possibility - the world depicted in Bacigalupi's new novel "The Water Knife." It's a noirish, cinematic sci-fi thriller - sort of "Chinatown" meets "Mad Max." He told me he was inspired by his work in environmental journalism because he realized most people don't get a real sense of danger from news reports or photos of shrinking reservoirs.

BACIGALUPI: You know, there's the blue sky. There's the pretty, white bathtub ring. There's the red rocks. There's the blue water. It doesn't look like a disaster. And so as a fiction writer, you sort of take - here's a piece of information. Let me explain to you exactly why this actually is a disaster. And it's not because the water level is low today. It's because it seems to be going somewhere. And the context is really only if we viscerally understand what the potential future is. Once you understand a potential future - if you live inside of that world, if you live inside of that water scarcity, if you see people reacting, if you see a water riot, if you see a climate refugee or you live in the skin of a climate refugee, suddenly that makes more sense than just, oh, we've noticed that, you know, Lake Mead is now at a historically low level. That's a news item. It's fairly dry and fairly abstract.

RATH: And you paint this - this really bleak, terrible picture of what water refugees in America would be like - basically, if Texas were to dry up...

BACIGALUPI: Right.

RATH: You know, people trying to get to wetter states. You have the whole - the whole Northwest, you know, Washington and Oregon are basically - they have a wall to...

BACIGALUPI: Right.

RATH: ...Keep - keep the thirsty people out...

BACIGALUPI: Right, yeah - no - and there's - you know, there's - I mean, you know, there's some - you know, we see that, like, all the time is, you know, like when people don't actually stay still, you know, when their areas is a disaster, they go somewhere else, right? And that's just a natural human impulse. And so - that's also a natural human impulse for people to sort of hunker down and say, no, no, this is ours. We've got the good stuff and we don't want to share. And so yeah, in this future, there's a point where because there's so many refugees on the road, there are so many - some of them because of hurricane and some of them because of high seawater levels, some of them because of drought - that you're starting to see all of the states sort of like - you know, sort of really getting much for muscular about their state's rights. They're like, no, no, no, this is our territory. We don't want to share it with the state next to us. And you see a really weak federal government at the same time that isn't able to really coordinate or get people to sort of cooperate with one another.

I think that when I think about the future that "The Water Knife" represents. It's one where there's a lack of oversight planning and organization. That's really the disaster. There's the drought and there's climate change and those things are horrible, and then there's how people react to it. And - and this is - this world is built on the assumption that people don't plan, don't think and don't cooperate, which makes for a pretty bad future. And that's sort of - you know, that's just sort of generally my philosophy about these things, so...

RATH: Well, I was going to say, it sounds of a piece with a - you have a previous book where, you know, it's set in the future. There's an energy crisis - biological engineering, like genetic engineering...

BACIGALUPI: Right.

RATH: ...Ends up making things kind of worse. You have these stories where - people often think about science being a way that there are going to be these cool futuristic ways that we use science and technology to live without water.

BACIGALUPI: Right.

RATH: But in your stories, they kind of just - people are just what they are, and the science doesn't help.

BACIGALUPI: Right. I think - well, I think science and technology - I think they tend to exacerbate whatever we are inherently. I mean, you look at any given technology and it's always both useful and horrific at the same time. When you look at nuclear power, you know, you can say you can have power. You can have a weapon, or you can have something like Fukushima, so you can have an accident. And all of those things are inherent to us because of our lack of foresight, because of our aggression, because of our idealism. You know, we create all of those things out of this technology. And, you know, the thing that I'm always interested in isn't so much like can we solve the initial problem; it's the did we anticipate the cascade of problems that might follow? And oftentimes, we don't. We don't tend to look much further than the nearest problem. And so we tend not to be real organizers and planners. We tend to be sort of reactive sort of problem solvers.

RATH: You've won all kinds of awards - the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus. You know, I feel like we've been hearing a lot of quibbling lately about genres, you know, whether something is science fiction or speculative fiction or fantasy. What would you call this book?

BACIGALUPI: Well, it - you know, this is always interesting to me because the questions about how we label a story really seem to set a lot of preconceptions in people's minds. So if I say that this book is science fiction or if I say I'm a science-fiction writer, you know, automatically, one of the things you'll hear from people is, oh, I don't read that. And you say, no, no, no, well, I actually write about this crazy drought in the Southwest, where Phoenix and Las Vegas are having a water war and there's very little water in the Colorado River. And suddenly, the person's like, oh, yeah, well, we're having a terrible drought here and - you know, wherever they're living - and suddenly, they're very engaged. You know, so when you say science fiction, the wall comes up. But when you say I'm writing about drought, they say - the wall comes down, which is really interesting to me. You know, when I think about myself as a writer, for sure I am a science-fiction writer. The tools of extrapolation, the tools of anticipating the future, those are science-fictional questions. And so, you know, in terms of labeling it, I'll label my books anything that will get somebody to read it.

(LAUGHTER)

BACIGALUPI: I want them to hate it on its basis. You know, like you want them to like or hate your book based on what the book is itself, not based on the idea that maybe it's, I don't know, "Barbarella."

RATH: That's Paolo Bacigalupi. Did I say that right?

BACIGALUPI: Yes, you did.

RATH: That's Paolo Bacigalupi. His new novel "The Water Knife" is out on Tuesday. Paolo, thanks so much.

BACIGALUPI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.