The Water Knife

The Water Knife

by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Water Knife

The Water Knife

by Paolo Bacigalupi


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NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A "fresh, genre-bending thriller” (Los Angeles Times) set in the near future when water is scarce and a spy, a hardened journalist and a young Texas migrant find themselves pawns in a corrupt game.

"Think Chinatown meets Mad Max." NPR, All Things Considered

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804171533
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 65,307
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.

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 . . .

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Water Knife, an arresting new novel by Paolo Bacigalupi.

1. Paolo Bacigalupi opens the novel with this sentence: “There were stories in sweat” (3). What does he mean by this? Why do you think he chose to begin with this declaration particularly?

2. Who is Catherine Case and why does Angel Velasquez work for her? How does Catherine meet Angel? How would you characterize their relationship? Does their relationship remain consistent throughout the story or does it change or evolve? What seems to cause these consistencies or fluctuations?

3. In chapter 2, readers are introduced to Lucy Monroe, a prize-winning journalist. Why does Lucy devote herself to reporting? What books has she written and how are the two books different from each other? What does this tell us about her character and how she has changed as a person throughout her career? Would you say that she is a good journalist? Why or why not? How is journalism presented as a whole throughout the novel? Is it seen as a noble profession? Does the novel ultimately seem to indicate what the primary role of a journalist should be?

4. Jamie thinks that people should have noticed what was happening around them long ago. He suggests that their downfall lies in the fact that they cared more about faith than data. What does you think he means by this? Do you feel that he is correct? Evaluate the treatment of faith throughout the novel. How does faith seem to help or otherwise hinder the characters in the novel? Likewise, what role does superstition play in the novel?

5. Examine the treatment of the theme of allegiance within the story. How does allegiance seem to be defined within this novel? To what do the characters show allegiance? Do the characters remain steadfast in their allegiance or do their allegiances shift throughout? If they shift, what seems to motivate these changes?

6. In chapter 7, Angel indicates that he “had always liked the desert for its lack of illusions” (80). What do you think he means by this? Evaluate the theme of truth in the novel. Are the characters able to see the truth of what is going on around them and the truth about themselves, or are they in denial? What allows them to see the truth, or otherwise prevents them from being able to see it?

7. Angel enjoys the television show Undaunted. Why does he seem to like this particular show? Does his view of the show change after he discusses it with Lucy? Why or why not? What might this suggest about the influence of arts and media, and the way that we approach these forms of entertainment? Would you say that the television show is propaganda? Why or why not? Are any other forms of propaganda evident in the story? How can something be recognized as propaganda?

8. In chapter 13, Angel thinks about his first meeting with Lucy: “He’d known her. And she’d known him, too” (141). realizes. Why does Angel think that he and Lucy know each other even though they had never met previously? What does he believe they share in common? Would you say that he is correct? Why or why not?

9. In chapter 16, Angel tells Lucy about a specific ritual of the tamarisk hunters. Why do you think that he chooses to share this story with Lucy? Why do the hunters share water when they meet each other at the Colorado? How does this ritual correspond to the relationship between the characters in The Water Knife? What do you think this reveals about the storyteller, Angel? Does the story seem to elicit the response that Angel was hoping for from Lucy?

10. In chapter 18, Michael Ratan compares Maria to Catherine Case. What does he say that they have in common? Do you feel that this is a fair comparison to make? Why or why not? Does it affect or alter your perception of Case’s character or any of the other characters?

11. In chapter 28, we learn that Angel blends in with the group of people he is among. What is it that allows him to blend in? What does he have in common with all of the others in the group? What major theme or themes does this seem to reveal or support?

12. Throughout the novel, several of the characters refer to the past, citing some variation of “It wasn’t always like this.” Does there seem to be any benefit to reflecting on the past or does looking back hinder the characters in some way?

13. Toomie says, “We’re all each other’s people” (250). What does he mean by this? Do the other characters seem to share this notion? Toomie also says that an Indian man once told him that he believed that the people of India could survive an apocalypse while Americans could not. Why does the Indian man believe this? Do you agree? Does the novel seem to confirm or refute that idea? Are there any examples of solidarity in the book? What does Angel seem to think about cooperation and survival?

14. What is the Stanford prison experiment? According to Angel, what determines how people act? Lucy asks if people are “anything on their own, inherently” (283) and if they can be better than what they grew up with. How does Angel answer this question? Do you agree with him? What does the novel ultimately seem to suggest?

15. In chapter 39, Angel dreams of the sicario. Who is the sicario and what relevance does he have in Angel’s life? Why does Angel have the thought that the sicario is his real father? What might he mean by this?

16. Angel tells Lucy “Under the right pressure, everyone breaks” (324). He believes that you shouldn’t judge people for “caving under pressure” but “for those few times when they were lucky enough to have any choice at all” (325). Do you agree with his statement? Why or why not? Are the characters in the story forgiving of one another?

17. Evaluate the theme of justice in the novel. What examples of justice are found in the novel? Why do the characters discuss the concept of poetic justice? At the story’s conclusion, would you say that justice seems to prevail? If not, what message does the book seem to offer about justice?

18. Consider the structure of the story. How do the alternating chapters and points of view affect your interpretation of each character? Does one point of view seem to stand out from the others? How do you think that your interpretation of the story would be different if the story was told only from the point of view of a single character?

19. Does the novel seem to support the notion of binary good and evil, or does it offer a more nuanced version of morality? What ethical decisions are the characters faced with, and what informs and ultimately seems to determine their decisions? Does there seem to be a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong? What does the book seem to say about morality, choice, and human nature?

20. How does The Water Knife compare to Bacigalupi’s previous novels? What common themes are evident among the works? Are they treated similarly in each work? What do the characters have in common? Do any universal views or themes begin to emerge?

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