Monday, July 4, 2016

A bone-dry dystopia

To keep some fountains running while million others survive on ‘hydration packs’ is the worst form of inequality that human civilization could usher in the name of progress. 

With searing discontent among citizens and conflicts brewing among states, the world is fast heading towards a water-less future. As huge areas across the globe dry up and with a billion people without access to safe water, the world might indeed be standing on a precipice. In his fictional world, which may not be far from the emerging reality, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a bone-dry dystopia where water is the most prized possession. Private armies are deployed to lay control over water of the Colorado River, as lawyers engage in court-room battles to win shady deals. It is an electrifying vision of the future where lawlessness and violence is the order of the day, with the states fighting over shared waters of the river as enshrined in a treaty drawn nearly a century ago. ‘I say we send our troops up to Colorado, that’s our water they are holding’. It is people seeking to take advantage of people. 

The Water Knife is a novel of discomforting possibilities of a piped resource and a packaged product, as water has come to mean for a vast majority of the population. Today, a sizeable chunk of population thrives on borrowed water. Else, how Las Vegas – a city that should have dried up and blown away – would have survived?  There could be nothing more shocking for those who are robbed of their water to serve the interests of lush mini-worlds hundreds of miles away. To keep some fountains running while million others survive on ‘hydration packs’ is the worst form of inequality that human civilization could usher in the name of progress. 

Bacigalupi has come a long way from his multi award-winning debut The Windup Girl. Regarded as deftly plotted and evocative, it was set in a future Thailand wherein its cast of characters scours the region in search of new food resources to tackle the impact of climate change. Having tackled a futuristic subject yet again, some critics consider him a climate-fiction or cli-fi writer. That indeed he is, as he excavates the shape of human future based on research and trends that are rapidly defining our world in The Water Knife. Each of the three leading characters in the novel: Angel, the cunning fixer; Lucy, the tireless journalist; and Maria, protecting native rights are caught up in their own world of alterations and confabulations. 

Midway through the engaging narrative, one gets a sense that the future battles over water may indeed be between over-populated cities, tossing up refugees who may have to bribe border police to cross over as illegal immigrants. Some people have to bleed so other people could drink. As one character puts it without any remorse: ‘Live by gun and die by the gun. You make a living cutting people’s water, at some point, the scales got to balance you out.’ Is it the price unsuspecting masses will end up paying for being part of the original sin of robbing others of their legitimate water rights? Or, will such a scenario force people to become water-wise?

It is a book of a grim future where accusations fly like free-floating dust particles in the desert. “If we weren’t wasting so much water on farming, we’d be fine’, goes one argument. But if you cut off farms, you get dust storms,’ counters the other. While fingers are pointed at one another, none of them points back at themselves.  It is the river like Colorado, more than a thousand mile of free flow from the canyons of Utah to the blue Pacific, which is at the receiving end of such follies – obstructed and diverted to make deserts bloom without a drop of water hitting its delta. Even reservoirs dry up, forcing Texan refugees into water-pampered Phoenix.

Bacigalupi lives in Colorado, close to the plot of his novel, lending credence and seriousness to the emerging issues of a water-stressed world. ‘What people will call us when archaeologists dig us up in another couple of thousand years?’ May be there is no one left to dig us up or maybe they’ll just say this was the ‘Dry Age’ in history. The Water Knife is a serious book about a twisted fictional landscape, hinting at the price we may end-up paying for our collective stupidity. 

The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Orbit Books, USA
Extent: 386, Price: £20

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on July 17, 2016. 

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