Facing the Speculative: ‘The Water Knife’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

Nov. 30, 2021, 8:23 p.m.

Welcome to “Facing the Speculative,” where I will be discussing some crucial speculative fiction novels and their implications for modern society. This is an extension of the project “Imagining Adaptive Societies” with Earth Systems Associate Professor Jamie Jones and Political Science Professor Margaret Levi under the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences.

“Look at this lake. Look at where the water has receded over just the last 20 years. That is larger than the height of the Statue of Liberty,” said Vice President Kamala Harris at her recent visit to Lake Mead in October.

Harris’ visit to the lake brought dire and necessary attention to the climate-fueled crisis happening in the American Southwest. The basin is entering its 22nd year of drought. Water levels at Lake Mead are at a historic low as the lake vanishes before our eyes.

These developments have catastrophic effects for the states who depend on the basin as a water source. According to Patti Aaron from the Bureau of Reclamation, 18% of water deliveries to Arizona, 7% to Nevada and 5% to Mexico are projected to be cut within the following year. 

While this demonstrates that climate change does have a tangible impact on the resources (such as water) that we depend on, we as consumers still find ourselves ignoring warning signs. According to General Manager of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) Theodore Cooke, the water cutoffs will have no physical effect on human life for at least five years. Water will still be available at the turn of a faucet until it is too late for us to do anything about it.

In the climate fiction (cli-fi) novel “The Water Knife,” author Paolo Bacigalupi warns us of what may happen if we continue to neglect this forthcoming water scarcity — if we continue to allow this condition of Lake Mead and the overall American Southwest persist. Bacigalupi presents an American Southwest ravaged by the effects of drought in the apocalyptic near-future. State water deliveries have been cut. Lake Mead is suffering. Commercial monopolies are purchasing water rights. War over water has ensued between California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

Bacigalupi raises important points of concern about who we as humans are at our core — especially when in survival mode. For example, when a foundational resource of human life becomes scarce, when parties must compete over water to keep their people alive, we lose a sense of morality — there is no morally good thing to do. 

Through the complex narratives of Angel, a “water knife” working for a water supply company whose job is to cut off other competitors’ access to water; Maria, a Texan refugee trying to survive the water crisis; and Lucy, a reporter whose investigative journalism gets her caught up in the water rights war, Bacigalupi demonstrates what happens when this foundational resource of human life evaporates. Corruption, distrust and individualism break out as competitors fight for water. People become willing to hide information, lie and turn a knife to their trusted colleagues. As the narratives of Angel, Maria and Lucy intertwine, we witness how quickly we must sacrifice our morality in order to persevere in apocalyptic times that may not be too far away. We become people of self-preservation, not of cooperation.

Even further, “The Water Knife” demonstrates our lack of human agency, especially in times of crisis. In this war-torn water-deprived landscape, all characters seem to have resigned to their positions and the depravity of the situation. As a “water knife”, Angel neglects to protest the morality of his role, willing to shed blood to satisfy his boss’ commands and kill off other competitors. He makes a special reference to the Stanford Prison Experiment: “You ever hear about that psychology experiment, where this guy made people pretend like they were either prisoners or guards, and everyone started acting just the way prisoners and guards really act?…This is the same. ”

Bacigalupi’s novel is a warning that moments of crisis cause us to lose our grasp on morality and agency, the very things that make us fundamentally human. But it also teaches us that it doesn’t have to be this way. As of now, we retain the agency to make morally right decisions in order to prevent our society from turning into the frightening apocalyptic world he describes. We retain the energy to protect Lake Mead right now. We just have to make the right choices before it’s too late.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Allison Casasola '24 is a columnist for the Arts & Life section. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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