The World Without Water – Bacigalupi’s Complex Political Dystopian Sci-Fi

waterknifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
First published on May 26, 2015
Knopf Doubleday
Source: I bought it

“In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush arcology developments can bloom in Las Vegas. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive.

There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north. As bodies begin to pile up, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.” Source: Knopf Doubleday Publishing.


The Water Knife starts out SO BRILLIANTLY as a detailed and complex story about local water politics. I am a bit obsessed with politics, and I compulsively follow the most local of stories (well, I’m in DC so local politics here is always fascinating, intersecting as it often does with national politics, and frequently mired in corruption scandals). *Swoon* Definitely a “Love at First Page” kind of book for me!

The Water Knife may be particularly enjoyable for those who like to stay up to date on news from their city council, who don’t skip the articles in their local paper on topics like building codes and telecom monopolies.

But, even if you’re not into that kind of thing, no worries! The Water Knife is one of the most original dystopic sci-fi books I’ve read in a very long time. Set in the South/Western states – Texas, Nevada, Cali, Arizona, Colorado, it describes the devastating landscape created by a world without water – sustainable ‘biomes’ that house the fortunate, complete with waterfalls and gardens on one hand, the ‘outside’, the desert, for everyone else. In this world, survival is the ultimate goal, poker-chip, and bribe; water is gold, and ‘water knives’ and their networks act as ruthless mafioso gatekeepers; many people live in makeshift camps surrounding fountains and peddle their very bodies to be able to buy a few drops, while foreigners lead the biomes.

Not only is (most) of The Water Knife a complex, well-paced political thriller, but Bacigalupi also writes his characters so insightfully, with such compassion. The story follows three main actors: a Pulitzer-winning journalist, an ex-con who does the dirty work of a ruthless politician, and a poor young Mexican immigrant who sells her body to pay rent to her slum-lord. All such vastly divergent characters, and yet we are brought into their lives so completely, we can identify with them fully, and understand their decisions and actions even when we may not see ourselves (re)acting in similar ways.

The world itself is believable and consistent – but I did not find how we get there to be terribly well articulated. For example, Bacigalupi does a wonderful job depicting how people act in extreme shortage situations. BUT, I simply did not see enough evidence to believe it a plausible situation that Nevadans would shoot Texan refugees on sight if they were caught crossing the border… (Warning: there’s quite a bit of Texas trashing in this book, and Cali is like the James Moriarty of this world). I mean, maybe this would happen if we really ran out of water, but I didn’t feel the point well-developed enough to convince me.

The first 2/3 of The Water Knife was SO good, so much so that I was going to enthusiastically rate this at 5/5…. but then I read the last 1/3. Which I could barely believe was written by the same author.

For the last third or so of this book, the subtlety of the water politics so brilliantly detailed previously gives way to obscene violence, action, and sex. Ugh. It’s like, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, the book turns into a James Bond extravaganza, and complexity gives way to inanity and crudity. And what makes this all the worst is that the shift towards an “action packed thriller” was just not necessary for the development of the plot and for bringing about a satisfying resolution. So why, why, why did Baciagalupi have to cheapen The Water Knife so? 😦

Overall, though, I am still giving The Water Knife 4 hearts because the first part was just THAT good, and I would still highly recommend it – especially to those passionate about politics, social justice, the environmental crisis, or to those who love intelligent, complex dystopic fiction.


  1. Of course, you’re into water politics! haha. 😀
    I definitely don’t keep up to date on ” topics like building codes and telecom monopolies.”
    But it’s a relief to know background knowledge isn’t essential for the enjoyment of the story. I do love the concept, but it is unfortunate that it took such a drastic turn in the last 3rd. I would be baffled too.
    Sounds like a great book overall, though. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha 🙂 yeah, I know most people don’t care about such things – actually I’m not HUGE into the smallest details but what’s cool about this book is that even if you don’t care at all, it will show you a bit of how that world works and why it’s important while entertaining you in other ways. So actually I would say, it’s this book that made me care about water politics.. Well, this and Cali’s drought situation…
      Thank you for reading 🙂 and have a great rest of your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like books that explore what might happen if we ran out of water/energy/food/space, etc., so this one interests me. I think I’d read it despite the iffy ending. Nice review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Naomi – maybe the ending wasn’t even that bad, definitely this is worth reading for the perspective. For me it was quite unique because I don’t read a lot of dystopic fiction, and this was the first on a potential water shortage. Overall it was excellent 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I read Bacigalupi’s other work and was so impressed with the world-building and ecological critique. Was very uncomfortable with the rape scenes though. But this one sounds like excellent dystopia again and water politics are so timely! Too bad about the last third, wonder what got into the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t read a lot of dystopic fiction, so to me this book was quite unique (don’t think I’ve read another work of fiction that addresses water shortages). The last part wasn’t so bad as to turn me off to him entirely so I do look forward to other books by him, though, YIKES I did not realize rape scenes enter the mix.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! Thank you. You know, I learned so much, it’s crazy – I had no idea how water rights worked, there’s apparently a lot of contract law involved and it all goes way back to settlement of native American lands… I had no idea it was all so complex.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am embarrassed to say I’m pretty naive when it comes to politics. When I was working, the news was on 24/7, so I was very informed. Ever since staying home, I am living inside a bubble. I reall do need to try to be a better informed citizen. Anyways! This book sounds fascinating! I do hate when the author duffs the last quarter of a book though 😑

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I think instead of you taking up politics, I’m the one who needs to stop watching news 247, especially now -it’s pretty bad for my mental health the way things are going… Anyways if you ever feel like a smart sci-fi dystopian book, this one is very good despite the ending (hm, I wonder if a deadline rushed him a bit?)

      Liked by 1 person

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