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The Water Knife

The Water Knife

4.6 7
by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Paolo Bacigalupi, New York Times best-selling author of The Windup Girl and National Book Award finalist, delivers a near-future thriller that casts new light on how we live today—and what may be in store for us tomorrow.

The American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona skirmish


Paolo Bacigalupi, New York Times best-selling author of The Windup Girl and National Book Award finalist, delivers a near-future thriller that casts new light on how we live today—and what may be in store for us tomorrow.

The American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona skirmish over dwindling shares of the Colorado River, while California watches, deciding if it should just take the whole river all for itself. Into the fray steps Las Vegas water knife Angel Velasquez. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her lush, luxurious arcology developments can bloom in the desert and that anyone who challenges her is left in the gutted-suburban dust.

When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent to investigate. With a wallet full of identities and a tricked-out Tesla, Angel arrows south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive. There, Angel encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist, who knows far more about Phoenix’s water secrets than she admits, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north to those places where water still falls from the sky.

As bodies begin to pile up and bullets start flying, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger, more corrupt, and dirtier than any of them could have imagined. With Phoenix teetering on the verge of collapse and time running out for Angel, Lucy, and Maria, their only hope for survival rests in one another’s hands.  But 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 03/16/2015
Hugo Award–winner Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl) delivers an ambitious, genre-dissolving thriller and a timely cautionary tale. In an indeterminate near future, extreme water shortages have made the Southwestern United States a dystopia, with the privileged few living in elite “arcologies” with self-generating water recycling systems. The depleted Colorado River has become one of the last lifelines and the object of armed conflict among the residents of Arizona, California, and Nevada. Angel Velasquez is a “water knife,” a sort of mercenary factotum, whose job is to secure as much water as possible for his Las Vegas boss, arcology developer Catherine Case. Sent to investigate a possible water source near drought-stricken Phoenix, Angel soon crosses paths with an idealistic journalist, Lucy Monroe, whose underground dispatches put her in constant danger. As vigilante bloodshed and desperation threaten to consume Phoenix, whispers of a 150-year-old document surface that may settle the water rights dispute and bring life back to the desert metropolis. With elements of Philip K. Dick and Charles Bowden, this epic, visionary novel should appeal to a wide audience. Seven-city author tour; 150,000-copy first printing. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh. (May)
From the Publisher

·         Amazon.com, Best Books of 2015
·         NPR Book Concierge, Best Books of 2015
·         Kansas City Star, Best Fiction of 2015
·         Paste Magazine, Best Fiction of 2015

“[A] fresh, genre-bending thriller. . . .  Reading Paolo Bacigalupi's richly imagined novel The Water Knife brings to mind the movie Chinatown. Although one is set in the past and the other in a dystopian future, both are neo-noir tales with jaded antiheroes and ruthless kingpins who wield water as lethal weapons to control life—and mete out death. . . . Bacigalupi weaves page-turning action with zeitgeisty themes. . . . His use of water as sacred currency evokes Frank Herbert's Dune. The casual violence and slang may bring to mind A Clockwork Orange. The book's nervous energy recalls William Gibson at his cyberpunk best. Its visual imagery evokes Dust Bowl Okies in the Great Depression and the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam that killed 600 people and haunted its builder, Mulholland, into the grave. . . . Reading the novel in 93-degree March weather while L.A. newscasts warned of water rationing and extended drought, I felt the hot panting breath of the desert on my nape and I shivered, hoping that Bacigalupi's vision of the future won't be ours.” —Denise Hamilton, Los Angeles Times

“[A] water-wars thriller set in the Southwest only a few decades from now. . . . While Bacigalupi's environmental message could not be more powerful, it's neatly embedded in a nonstop action plot, full of murders and betrayals, that should satisfy thriller readers who didn't even think they cared about these issues.” —Gary K. Wolfe, The Chicago Tribune
“Mr. Bacigalupi’s is the most thought-provoking of the recent apocalypses. It’s a very timely read for policy-makers, as well as anyone living in the threatened American West. That’s the thing about sci-fi authors: Some of them really mean it.” —Tom Shippey, The Wall Street Journal
“Residents in the southwestern United States enduring that water crisis will appreciate the precision with which Bacigalupi imagines our thirsty future. . . . Bacigalupi is a grim, efficient and polished narrator. . . . Our waterless future looks hot—and filled with conflict.”—Hector Tobar, The Washington Post 

“Bacigalupi's characters are engagingly unpredictable, and his story blasts along like a twin-battery Tesla. The Water Knife is splendid near-future fiction, a compelling thriller–and inordinately fun.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A noir-ish, cinematic thriller set in the midst of a water war between Las Vegas and Phoenix. . . . Think Chinatown meets Mad Max.”—NPR, All Things Considered

“Paolo Bagicalupi's new near-future thriller arrives at a depressingly appropriate moment. . . . The Water Knife is a carefully constructed thriller, with elements ofChinatown and The Maltese Falcon. But the novel ultimately transcends its pulpier origins. Bacigalupi offers a carefully calibrated warning of what might happen if the US refuses to address global climate change and its own water-wasting ways. It's one we ignore at our peril.” —Michael Berry, Earth Island Journal 

"These days are coming, and as always fiction explains them better than fact.  This is a spectacular thriller, wonderfully imagined and written, and racing through it will make you think—and make you thirsty.” —Lee Child, author of Personal

"An intense thriller and a deeply insightful vision of the coming century, laid out in all its pain and glory. It's a water knife indeed, right to the heart." —Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Aurora
"Anyone can write about the future. Paolo Bacigalupi writes about the future that we're making today, if we keep going the way we are. It makes his writing beautiful . . . and terrifying."—John Scalzi, author of Lock In

"The Water Knife is an noir-tinged, apocalyptic vision of the near-future: What will the world be like, and how will we live in it? Bacigalupi already seems to live there. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.” —Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble

“A fresh cautionary tale classic, depicting an America newly shaped by scarcity of our most vital resource. The pages practically turn themselves in a tense, taut plot of crosses and double-crosses, given added depth by riveting characters. This brutal near-future thriller seems so plausible in the world it depicts that you will want to stock up on bottled water.”—Library Journal, starred review

"The frightening details of how the world might suffer from catastrophic drought are vividly imagined. The way the novel's environmental nightmare affects society, as individuals and larger entities—both official and criminal—vie for a limited and essential resource, feels solid, plausible, and disturbingly believable. The dust storms, Texan refugees, skyrocketing murder rate, and momentary hysteria of a public ravenous for quick hits of sensational news seem like logical extensions of our current reality. An absorbing . . . thriller full of violent action."--Kirkus 

Library Journal
Angel Velasquez "cuts" water in the drought-ravaged Southwest. As wealth and corruption increasingly determine who can drink, he is sent to Phoenix to investigate a possible new water source. There he finds a journalist, a refugee, and a murderous plot to control an entire river. VERDICT Organized crime, a bleakly realistic take on apocalypse, and three original character perspectives make this near-future thriller a compelling read. (LJ 2/15/15)
Kirkus Reviews
In his sixth novel, Bacigalupi (The Doubt Factory, 2014, etc.) imagines the vicious conflicts that might arise in a world of severe water scarcity.In an American Southwest devastated by severe drought, Angel Velasquez is a "water knife" for one of the most powerful people in the region. When his boss, Catherine Case, wants to cut off a city's water in a game of ruthless political maneuvering, Angel descends upon it with helicopters, guns, and unshakeable loyalty. He chases rumors of something that might transform the region's balance of power to Phoenix, a city in a state of precarious near-collapse, where he finds himself entangled in the lives of Lucy, a journalist, and Maria, a young and desperate refugee. The three of them plunge into a frightening mess of political betrayal and merciless greed, desperately trying to second-guess the plans of people who will do anything to wield the power and wealth that water bestows. While the characters sometimes slip into the uncomplicated types that inhabit a slick action movie and the plot suffers from an excess of tidy coincidence, the frightening details of how the world might suffer from catastrophic drought are vividly imagined. The way the novel's environmental nightmare affects society, as individuals and larger entities—both official and criminal—vie for a limited and essential resource, feels solid, plausible, and disturbingly believable. The dust storms, Texan refugees, skyrocketing murder rate, and momentary hysteria of a public ravenous for quick hits of sensational news seem like logical extensions of our current reality. An absorbing, if sometimes ideologically overbearing, thriller full of violent action and depressing visions of a bleakly imagined future.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

There were stories in sweat.

The sweat of a woman bent double in an onion field, working fourteen hours under the hot sun, was different from the sweat of a man as he approached a checkpoint in Mexico, praying to La Santa Muerte that the federales weren’t on the payroll of the enemies he was fleeing. The sweat of a ten-­year-­old boy staring into the barrel of a SIG Sauer was different from the sweat of a woman struggling across the desert and praying to the Virgin that a water cache was going to turn out to be exactly where her coyote’s map told her it would be.

Sweat was a body’s history, compressed into jewels, beaded on the brow, staining shirts with salt. It told you everything about how a person had ended up in the right place at the wrong time, and whether they would survive another day.

To Angel Velasquez, perched high above Cypress 1’s central bore and watching Charles Braxton as he lumbered up the Cascade Trail, the sweat on a lawyer’s brow said that some people weren’t near as important as they liked to think.

Braxton might strut in his offices and scream at his secretaries. He might stalk courtrooms like an ax murderer hunting new victims. But no matter how much swagger the lawyer carried, at the end of the day Catherine Case owned his ass—­and when Catherine Case told you to get something done quick, you didn’t just run, pendejo, you ran until your heart gave out and there wasn’t no running left.

Braxton ducked under ferns and stumbled past banyan climbing vines, following the slow rise of the trail as it wound around the cooling bore. He shoved through groups of tourists posing for selfies before the braided waterfalls and hanging gardens that spilled down the arcology’s levels. He kept on, flushed and dogged. Joggers zipped past him in shorts and tank tops, their ears flooded with music and the thud of their healthy hearts.

You could learn a lot from a man’s sweat.

Braxton’s sweat meant he still had fear. And to Angel, that meant he was still reliable.

Braxton spied Angel perched on the bridge where it arced across the wide expanse of the central bore. He waved tiredly, motioning Angel to come down and join him. Angel waved back from above, smiling, pretending not to understand.

“Come down!” Braxton called up.

Angel smiled and waved again.

The lawyer slumped, defeated, and set himself to the final assault on Angel’s aerie.

Angel leaned against the rail, enjoying the view. Sunlight filtered down from above, dappling bamboo and rain trees, illuminating tropical birds and casting pocket-­mirror flashes on mossy koi ponds.

Far below, people were smaller than ants. Not really people at all, more just the shapes of tourists and residents and casino workers, as in the biotects’ development models of Cypress 1: scale-­model people sipping scale-­model lattes on scale-­model coffee shop terraces. Scale-­model kids chasing butterflies on the nature trails, while scale-­model gamblers split and doubled down at the scale-­model blackjack tables in the deep grottoes of the casinos.

Braxton came lumbering onto the bridge. “Why didn’t you come down?” he gasped. “I told you to come down.” He dropped his briefcase on the boards and sagged against the rail.

“What you got for me?” Angel asked.

“Papers,” Braxton wheezed. “Carver City. We just got the judge’s decision.” He waved an exhausted hand at the briefcase. “We crushed them.”


Braxton tried to say more but couldn’t get the words out. His face was puffy and flushed. Angel wondered if he was about to have a heart attack, then tried to decide how much he would care if he did.

The first time Angel met Braxton had been in the lawyer’s offices in the headquarters of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The man had a floor-­to-­ceiling view of Carson Creek, Cypress 1’s fly-­fishing river, where it cascaded through various levels of the arcology before being pumped back to the top of the system to run though a new cleaning cycle. A big expensive overlook onto rainbow trout and water infrastructure, and a good reminder of why Braxton filed his lawsuits on SNWA’s behalf.

Braxton had been lording over his three assistants—­all coincidentally svelte girls hooked straight from law school with promises of permanent residence permits in Cypress—­and he’d talked to Angel like an afterthought. Just another one of Catherine Case’s pit bulls that he tolerated for as long as Angel kept leaving other, bigger dogs dead in his wake.

Angel, in turn, had spent the meeting trying to figure out how a man like Braxton had gotten so large. People outside Cypress didn’t fatten up like Braxton did. In all Angel’s early life, he’d never seen a creature quite like Braxton, and he found himself fascinated, admiring the fleshy raiment of a man who knew himself secure.

If the end of the world came like Catherine Case said it would, Angel thought Braxton would make good eating. And that in turn made it easier to let the Ivy League pendejo live when he wrinkled his nose at Angel’s gang tattoos and the knife scar that scored his face and throat.

Times they do change, Angel thought as he watched the sweat drip from Braxton’s nose.

“Carver City lost on appeal,” Braxton gasped finally. “Judges were going to rule this morning, but we got the courtrooms double-­booked. Got the whole ruling delayed until end of business. Carver City will be running like crazy to file a new appeal.” He picked up his briefcase and popped it open. “They aren’t going to make it.”

He handed over a sheaf of laser-­hologrammed documents. “These are your injunctions. You’ve got until the courts open tomorrow to enforce our legal rights. Once Carver City files an appeal, it’s a different story. Then you’re looking at civil liabilities, minimally. But until courts open tomorrow, you’re just defending the private property rights of the citizens of the great state of Nevada.”

Angel started going through the documents. “This all of it?”

“Everything you need, as long as you seal the deal tonight. Once business opens tomorrow, it’s back to courtroom delays and he-­said, she-­said.”

“And you’ll have done a lot of sweating for nothing.”

Braxton jabbed a thick finger at Angel. “That better not happen.”

Angel laughed at the implied threat. “I already got my housing permits, cabrón. Go frighten your secretaries.”

“Just because you’re Case’s pet doesn’t mean I can’t make your life miserable.”

Angel didn’t look up from the injunctions. “Just because you’re Case’s dog don’t mean I can’t toss you off this bridge.”

The seals and stamps on the injunctions all looked like they were in order.

“What have you got on Case that makes you so untouchable?” Braxton asked.

“She trusts me.”

Braxton laughed, disbelieving, as Angel put the injunctions back in order.

Angel said, “People like you write everything down because you know everyone is a liar. It’s how you lawyers do.” He slapped Braxton in the chest with the legal documents, grinning. “And that’s why Case trusts me and treats you like a dog—­you’re the one who writes things down.”

He left Braxton glaring at him from the bridge.

As Angel made his way down the Cascade Trail, he pulled out his cell and dialed.

Catherine Case answered on the first ring, clipped and formal. “This is Case.”

Angel could imagine her, Queen of the Colorado, leaning over her desk, with maps of the state of Nevada and the Colorado River Basin floor to ceiling on the walls around her, her domain laid out in real-­time data feeds—­the veins of every tributary blinking red, amber, or green indicating stream flow in cubic feet per second. Numbers flickering over the various catchment basins of the Rocky Mountains—­red, amber, green—­monitoring how much snow cover remained and variation off the norm as it melted. Other numbers, displaying the depths of reservoirs and dams, from the Blue Mesa Dam on the Gunnison, to the Navajo Dam on the San Juan, to the Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green. Over it all, emergency purchase prices on streamflows and futures offers scrolled via NASDAQ, available open-­market purchase options if she needed to recharge the depth in Lake Mead, the unforgiving numbers that ruled her world as relentlessly as she ruled Angel’s and Braxton’s.

“Just talked to your favorite lawyer,” Angel said.

“Please tell me you didn’t antagonize him again.”

“That pendejo is a piece of work.”

“You’re not so easy, either. You have everything you need?”

“Well, Braxton gave me a lot of dead trees, that’s for sure.” He hefted the sheaf of legal documents. “Didn’t know so much paper still existed.”

“We like to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Case said dryly.

“Same fifty or sixty pages, more like.”

Case laughed. “It’s the first rule of bureaucracy: any message worth sending is worth sending in triplicate.”

Angel exited the Cascade Trail, winding down toward where elevator banks would whisk him to central parking. “Figure we should be up in about an hour,” he said.

“I’ll be monitoring.”

“This is a milk run, boss. Braxton’s papers here got about a hundred different signatures say I can do anything I want. This is old-­school cease and desist. Camel Corps could do this one on their own, I bet. Glorified FedEx is what this is.”

“No.” Case’s voice hardened. “Ten years of back-­and-­forth in the courts is what this is, and I want it finished. For good this time. I’m tired of giving away Cypress housing permits to some judge’s nephew just so we can keep appealing for something that’s ours by right.”

“No worries. When we’re done, Carver City won’t know what hit them.”

“Good. Let me know when it’s finished.”

She clicked off. Angel caught an express elevator as it was closing. He stepped to the glass as the elevator began its plunge. It accelerated, plummeting down through the levels of the arcology. People blurred past: mothers pushing double strollers; hourly girlfriends clinging to the arms of weekend boyfriends; tourists from all over the world, snapping pics and messaging home they had seen the Hanging Gardens of Las Vegas. Ferns and waterfalls and coffee shops.

Down on the entertainment floors, the dealers would be changing shifts. In the hotels the twenty-­four-­hour party people would be waking up and taking their first shots of vodka, spraying glitter on their skin. Maids and waiters and busboys and cooks and maintenance staff would all be hard at work, striving to keep their jobs, fighting to keep their Cypress housing permits.

You’re all here because of me, Angel thought. Without me, you’d all be little tumbleweeds. Little bone-­and-­paper-­skin bodies. No dice to throw, no hookers to buy, no strollers to push, no drinks at your elbow, no work to do . . .

Without me, you’re nothing.

The elevator hit bottom with a soft chime. Its doors opened to Angel’s Tesla, waiting with the valet.

Half an hour later he was striding across the boiling tarmac of Mulroy Airbase, heat waves rippling off the tarmac, and the sun setting bloody over the Spring Mountains. One hundred twenty degrees, and the sun only finally finishing the job. The floodlights of the base were coming on, adding to the burn.

“You got our papers?” Reyes shouted over the whine of Apaches.

“Feds love our desert asses!” Angel held up the documents. “For the next fourteen hours, anyway!”

Reyes barely smiled in response, just turned and started initiating launch orders.

Colonel Reyes was a big black man who’d been a recon marine in Syria and Venezuela, before moving into hot work in the Sahel and then Chihuahua, before finally dropping into his current plush job with the Nevada guardies.

State of Nevada paid better, he said.

Reyes waved Angel aboard the command chopper. Around them attack helicopters were spinning up, burning synthetic fuel by the barrel—­Nevada National Guard, aka Camel Corps, aka those fucking Vegas guardies, depending on who had just had a Hades missile sheaf fired up their asses—­all of them gearing up to inflict the will of Catherine Case upon her enemies.

One of the guardies tossed Angel a flak jacket. Angel shrugged into Kevlar as Reyes settled into the command seat and started issuing orders. Angel plugged military glass and an earbug into the chopper’s comms so he could listen to the chatter.

Their gunship lurched skyward. A pilot’s-eye data feed spilled into Angel’s vision, the graffiti of war coloring Las Vegas with bright hungry tags: target calculations, relevant structures, friend/foe markings, Hades missile loads, and .50-­cal belly-­gun ammo info, fuel warnings, heat signals on the ground . . .

Meet the Author

PAOLO BACIGALUPI is a Hugo, Nebula, and Michael L. Printz Award winner, as well as a National Book Award finalist. He is also a winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the John W. Campbell Award, and a three-time winner of the Locus Award. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and High Country News. He lives with his wife and son in western Colorado, where he is working on a new novel.

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The Water Knife 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the world of this novel a lot. Strongly based off Cadillac Desert's (and the book references it) dire predictions of the US West without water. The characters however are a bit too one dimensional. There's not enough action to be a thriller like Reilly, Rollins, or whomever and not noir enough to be a detective boiler. It's somewhere in between. Also, there's a clunker of a sex scene about 2/3 through that really takes you out of the story. In my mind, women who are just freed from a lengthy torture session aren't in the mood for borderline rough sex.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He races in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
4th res
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Hi" she says
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Crashes onto the ground from falling off a tree* ouch