Our future selves are all characters in New York Times best-selling author Paolo Bacigalupi’s penetrating and environmentally driven sci-fi novel, The Water Knife, published by Knopf in May and an Amazon Best Book of June 2015.
Note to future selves: don’t move to Phoenix.
Why not? In the future Phoenix is even hotter, drier, and dustier than it already is. Also it is overrun by migrants from Texas — a state that has been left out to dry, literally, after prayers for rain fell on deaf ears — and hordes of others from across the West hoping to make it to the land of plenty, California, or of at least some, Nevada. Known as “Merry Perrys” after former-governor Rick Perry and his happy-go-lucky attitude toward the drought, the Texan migrants are one of many ways Bacigalupi blends the familiar and the inventive to create a world both easy to imagine and hard to fathom.
One small catch. There are border guards everywhere and a general lawlessness throughout the land in which mass murders are commonplace and gated communities are now air-tight. In this near post-apocalyptic world there are basically two kinds of people, the haves and the have-nots: those who have water, and those who don’t. Then there’s Lucy Monroe, an East Coast journalist who decided to leave her comfortable life behind to chronicle the “Cadillac Desert.” She increasing finds herself becoming part of the landscape: someone to be observed rather than an observer.
But the main character remains unspoken throughout most of the book: climate change. Because in the future, it makes no sense to belabor the point. It’d be like arguing that winter doesn’t exist. Or that rivers can’t run dry.
“Is climate change real? Yes,” Bacigalupi told ThinkProgress from his home in Southwestern Colorado. “Do the characters in the novel recognize this? Yes, but they are past this conversation. They are like ‘yeah, wow, shitty climate change — so how do we get across the Colorado River in Las Vegas and past the militias? That’s what I want to know.’”
While the characters are beyond talking about climate change, Bacigalupi thinks it’s an unavoidable topic for novelists writing about the future, and possibly even those writing about the present. Bacigalupi’s debut sci-fi novel, The Wind-Up Girl, won the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards. In the interim since then he also wrote Shipbreaker, an award-winning young adult novel.
“I don’t think you can write honest futuristic fiction without engaging somehow with climate change,” said Bacigalupi. “I think it’s something that is going to intersect with everything about our lives. I’m not actually sure you can really write contemporary fiction without engaging with climate change — if you try to posit that our world is the same as it was yesterday, it’s not true.”
Bacigalupi said he really committed to writing a book about how the future could return the West to its wild ways again when he traveled to Austin in the summer 2011 for a conference and encountered “an epic drought” with all the trappings of a dramatic story: water shortages, electricity outages, and record-breaking heat waves. At the same time, then-governor and two-time presidential candidate Rick Perry was asking Texans to pray for rain.
It occurred to me at that moment that I wasn’t actually standing in the middle of a drought, I was time traveling.
“It occurred to me at that moment that I wasn’t actually standing in the middle of a drought, I was time traveling,” said Bacigalupi, who used to work as an editor at the environmental magazine High Country News. “I had just leapt into the future.”
He said that he decided then he clearly had to write the novel because “we have not yet engaged with reality and the thing that really stood out to me was that the people who can win in the future are the people who can engage with reality.”
And so The Water Knife is divided between Las Vegas, which is surviving due to its merciless water laws and strict water conservation policies, and Phoenix, a city reliant on precarious sources of water that must be pumped and channeled hundreds of miles before arriving. Between these two cities is a separation much starker than the current U.S.-Mexico divide. In this godforsaken space, a hired hand, an intrepid journalist, and a young Texan are caught up in a fast-paced plot to survive, with death coming precariously close to each of them. Their survival depends on discovering the true source of power over the water — a lost document containing mythical water rights that could restore water to Arizona. The only real authority figure in the book is the “Queen of the Colorado”; a ruthless, water-hungry woman who dispatches orders over a cellphone and slinks away in fancy black cars.
The absence of a superficial and politically motivated climate change debate is about the only refreshing thing about the future Bacigalupi creates. The other sources of relief are the large, domed “arcology developments” built by Chinese engineers. They scrape the sky and operate in a closed-loop system, reusing water through filtration processes. To live in one of these futuristic edifices is the epitome of a good life. A techno-fix for the elite. Everyone else is left to deal with the consequences of their forebears’ dependence on fossil fuels and negligence of environmental stewardship.
Bacigalupi said that even people with good intentions don’t want to read bad news stories about “how drought is a problem or how another species has died off” — of which ThinkProgress has written many — but that as a novelist he can “give meaning and context to these things.”
Rather than just reading about how Lake Mead is at a record low, his objective with The Water Knife is to make these familiar images and terms “become visceral, powerful and meaningful symbols” in ways they weren’t before.
For these reasons he avoids using terms that can be politicized, like climate change and global warming, in the book.
“I would rather charge up the images so that they become powerful symbols of their own,” said Bacigalupi. “So that when someone sees Lake Mead they see a story about potential Arizona problems. The more you end up using highly charged words, the further away from engagement you sometimes end up getting.”
Four years after his trip to a drought-ridden Texas, the tables have turned in the West: Texas is being slammed by powerful rainstorms while California is imposing drastic water cuts in reaction to a crippling drought.
Rather than negate the underlying themes of his book, Bacigalupi sees this as reinforcing them.
“I thought the California drought was something that I could legitimately push out for a few more years,” said Bacigalupi. “It’s like ‘OK that’s right, that’s the model, that’s what I was expecting. Oh, now it’s here.’ I guess even when you are expecting it you aren’t really expecting it.”
“We only panic when the tiger is right upon us,” he said.
According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA), the climate tiger will have pounced on the Southwest by 2050, if not before, in the form of megadroughts. The extensive reports says that in the Southwest the “severe and sustained drought will stress water sources” forcing “increased competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers, and ecosystems for the region’s most precious resource.”
These impacts will be especially acute in southwestern cities, which are home to more than 90 percent of the region’s population.
Bacigalupi’s last science fiction book, The Wind-Up Girl, was an equally thought-provoking and imaginative take on the near future. Instead of a dried-out world, it envisioned a waterlogged Bangkok where residents eke by in squalid slums protected by massive sea levees. Rather than seeking out water at all costs, they are overrun by it. Instead there is a quest for food — or “calories” — ever more in demand after the collapse of much of the international agro-industrial complex.
Both novels center, at least in part, on the “cascade effect of technology” in which a technology that solves something also creates a second problem. In both books human population and prosperity have expanded to “the edge” according to Bacigalupi, “and now we need a new techno-solution to keep it going.”
In the Wind-Up Girl, the problem is food, and in The Water Knife, it’s water and the era of big dams across the West that allow people to “make the desert bloom.”
“What happens if that surplus isn’t actually real?” said Bacigalupi. “That’s that zero-sum moment. That’s real scarcity.”
While most sci-fi novels focus on these techno-fixes, such as geoengineering to solve climate change, Bacigalupi believes we need “to find some sort of social fix.”
“At some point you have to make human beings think about themselves as globally responsible objects,” he said. “How do you make people start to think of themselves as being more than just a singular node in a singular body?”
The hardest part about being human is that we’re just built for hypocrisy.
Bacigalupi’s next book, which he said he thinks will have something to do with “this sort of mass extinction that we’re ushering the planet through” seems likely to build upon the near-future, and foreseeable, world’s he’s already created.
“Is there a point where you pull too many threads out of the tapestry and it all unravels?” said Bacigalupi. “At what point do you not have enough of the pieces and parts to make the machine run?”
There is an odd satisfaction in reading about some of the worst potential outcomes of the current environmental crisis. One could envision these books being made into successful motion pictures in the vein of Mad Max, Waterworld, or even Avatar. While Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic book The Road — which was made into a successful film — made poetry out of humankind’s devastation of the earth, Bacigalupi’s books bring a sharp sense of reality to nebulous concepts like mass drought, climate change, and just being human.
“The hardest part about being human is that we’re just built for hypocrisy,” said Bacigalupi. “And that’s a tough thing to engage with — ‘I feel really bad that almost everything I do somehow screws up the environment and probably makes the future worse for my children, yet I keep doing those thing because they are so pleasurable.’”
And I will keep reading Bacigalupi’s books.