"The Water Knife": The Present Is Prologue to a Broken Future

Many droughts will occur. Many seasons in a long series will be fruitless. — John Wesley Powell

Author Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about what he calls “broken futures.” His novel The Water Knife is no exception. Set in the American Southwest after years of devastating drought, it is a tale of two cities: Las Vegas, where they saw disaster coming, and Phoenix, where they didn’t. The plot is sci-fi noir with non-stop action. The movie Chinatown comes to mind. There’s even a McGuffin--a claim of water rights so senior it would change the balance of power in the West and bring Phoenix back from the ashes. This water claim is rumored to be somewhere in Phoenix, and the people who know about it keep turning up dead. 

The novel follows the characters Angel, Lucy, and Maria as they navigate the parched and violent ruins of Phoenix. Angel is an ex-con, now working as a water knife for Las Vegas and “the Queen of the Colorado,” Catherine Case. Angel’s job is to cut the water of any city that might threaten the flow in Las Vegas. The Phoenix water rights are the ultimate prize for Case, and Angel is determined to deliver them to his boss. Lucy is a hard-edged Pulitzer-winning Phoenix reporter following dangerous leads on stories the people in power don’t want told. Maria is a scrappy, streetwise Texan refugee caught in the crossfire. Bodies pile up. Angel and Lucy are one step behind and at each other’s throats as they race to track down the rights. Maria is just trying to survive. All around them the world is literally falling apart.

CS Peterson: Bacigalupi began writing The Water Knife during a visit to Texas during the drought of 2011. Science fiction has the unique ability to contextualize the present through visions of possible futures. Bacigalupi has said he rejects the impulse to write “consolatory” futures. Given the present trends, there is no guarantee that we will be able to innovate our way out of the problems we’ve created, no matter how clever we think we are.  

Mark Springer: Speaking of contextualizing the present ... Bacigalupi didn’t need to write a prologue for The Water Knife, because we’re living the real-life prologue right now. To prove the point: While reading the novel, I happened across a ProPublica feature about a New York hedge fund devoted to buying and selling water rights in the American West. (The story is part of an investigative series called “Killing the Colorado,” which should be required reading for everyone in North America.) The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: the real-world context made the novel’s not-too-distant future seem all the more plausible, and the novel’s unflinching post-apocalyptic realism amplified in my mind the importance of the ProPublica piece. Everything is connected. The future doesn’t come from nowhere. If we’re going to avert disasters of our own making like the one envisioned in The Water Knife, we’re going to have to start making different choices, and soon.

Paolo Bacigalupi, photo © JT Thomas Photography.

Paolo Bacigalupi, photo © JT Thomas Photography.

CSP: This presupposes that we have a choice about our future. If warned of impending disaster, we assume rational beings will change direction, right? Head away from the cliff? It feels like we have free will, we can choose to do whatever we want to do. But it also feels as if we’re sitting still in our armchairs, when we are actually careening through space at millions of miles an hour. It’s a trick of perspective, and our inability to see beyond our limited frame of reference. What if free will is the same, an illusion? What if self-destruction is our inescapable fate?

MS: Interesting idea. All through the novel, the characters make choices that get them deeper and deeper into trouble, perhaps mirroring at the micro level the self-destructive trends unfolding at the macro level. But I don’t see that as evidence of inescapable fate. Isn’t it just the narrative sleight-of-hand Bacigalupi employs to keep the story interesting and the plot moving? We expect to see characters in conflict. We expect them to make a lot of decisions they think are right, which turn out to be wrong. That’s not fate. That’s good storytelling. 

CSP: I’m thinking of game theory, which is the study of how individuals make decisions in competitive situations--war, business, biology. An underlying assumption of the theory is that intelligent, rational individuals follow principles of self-interest. In biology, for example, game theory suggests that competitive decisions are driven by the genetic imperative for an organism to survive and maximize its chances of reproducing. As long as the energy expended in pursuit of a self-interested goal is less than the potential benefit of achieving that goal, game theory predicts the individual will compete and not cooperate. If the costs of competition are greater than the potential reward, only then will the individual compromise and cooperate. Game theorists call this an equilibrium point, as famously illustrated in the film A Beautiful Mind, when four men compete to dance with a beautiful blonde at a bar. 

In The Water Knife, game theory would predict there is no equilibrium point. Sure, everyone in the American West could choose to cooperate and share the limited water resources for the greater good, if they were following some moral imperative. Everyone would have to compromise and give up their absolute claims to the water, and there would be tremendous costs for the individuals that are currently winning the competition--possibly existential costs. At the very least, Nevada and California would risk suffering the same fate as Phoenix. 

So game theory predicts that cooperation is impossible, because all sides have to assume the water wars are about survival. Short of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war, the cost of water competition can never exceed the potential benefit of winning the competition. The stakes are life and death. 

A haboob (dust storm) over Phoenix in 2011. Photo by  Alan Stark , CC BY-SA 2.0.

A haboob (dust storm) over Phoenix in 2011. Photo by Alan Stark, CC BY-SA 2.0.

MS: I’ll grant the importance of self-interest in predicting competitive and cooperative decision-making, but I’m not ready to give up my free will just yet. 

As a counter example, consider the prisoner’s dilemma, a favorite of game theorists. In a single iteration of the game, logic dictates that the players should always defect (rather than cooperate), even though both players know that mutual cooperation would produce a better outcome than mutual defection. But there’s no point in risking cooperation, because you have to assume the other player will make the rational choice and defect, so you have to defect too. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one wants to be the sucker. No one ever cooperates. Everyone goes to prison. 

But if the game is repeated, and if the players expect to play each other again in the future, then the self-interest calculus changes. Under the right conditions, mutual cooperation becomes not only possible, but preferable. (See Robert Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation for more on this.)

The conditions that make cooperation more favorable are important, especially in considering how we might avoid a future like The Water Knife. Two conditions in particular stand out: people need to take a long-term view of costs and benefits; and there need to be high costs for defecting from a situation that calls for cooperation. Both conditions are notably absent from the world of The Water Knife. In the novel, everyone is fighting for survival, which makes it impossible to think long term. The federal government has abandoned the states and their citizens and left them at the mercy of an unregulated market. The West has devolved into a wild frontier again, with predictably horrifying results. 

The 2011 drought in Texas dried up most of the state's waterways. Photo by Erik A. Ellison - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. 

The 2011 drought in Texas dried up most of the state's waterways. Photo by Erik A. Ellison - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0. 

CSP: "Predictably horrifying" sounds close to “inevitable.” It also sounds like Arizona right now. So … are we back to no free will?

MS: There’s a line in the book to that effect. It’s delivered by Catherine Case, who behaves like a zero-sum game theorist, and who has engineered so much destruction and suffering to ensure that Las Vegas continues winning at the expense of everyone else. She and Angel are talking about the ever-changing rules of the water war: “[M]aybe there never were any rules. Maybe all we have are habits. Things we do without even knowing why.” 

CSP: All the characters lining up on the side of the “winners” have a similar fatalistic streak, including Angel. By way of justifying his work as a water knife, he says: “Somebody’s got to bleed if anybody’s going to drink.” Matter-of-fact and unapologetic. In his view, it’s a violent world, a few people win, everyone else loses, and that’s just the way things are. 

MS: It's the zero-sum fallacy. Is that a term? It should be. I think it’s interesting that Angel’s fatalistic worldview doesn’t prevent him from being a man of action. He operates under the assumption that his decisions matter, at least in the narrow context of his own life. Sure, his choices are constrained by circumstances beyond his control, but he recognizes that we do have choices, even if they are limited. And he eventually comes to the conclusion that the few real choices we have are the choices that matter the most.

CSP: I’m thinking of Maria’s decision at the end. No spoilers, but it’s fitting that the character who is the least empowered, who has the fewest choices throughout the book, is the one who makes the choice that ultimately determines the outcome. Of course, the game theorist would say she didn’t really have a choice. Self-interest always wins over cooperation, if the stakes are high enough. 

MS: It’s definitely the right ending for the book, no argument from me on that. Still, despite the final scene, I don’t think Bacigalupi wants to send his readers away with such a fatalistic message. The heart of the story, to me, is when Maria’s friend Toomie says to her: 

We’re all each other’s people. Just like we’re all our brothers’ keepers. We forget it sometimes. When everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.

Life is not a one-shot, zero-sum game, no matter what the Catherine Case’s of the world want us to believe. Choices matter, even if our choices are constrained by nature and circumstance. Our prisoner’s dilemma is iterative and open-ended; the future casts a long shadow back upon the present. We can choose to take the long view. We can choose to cooperate. Even Angel understands this when he tells Lucy, “No one survives alone.” If we don’t cooperate, then it won't take a game theorist to predict our future: a few ruthless defectors will prosper and the rest of us will lose.

World map of desertification vulnerability. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Public Domain. 

World map of desertification vulnerability. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Public Domain.