Man, The Water Knife is tough going. Bacigalupi isn’t a feel-good writer at the best of times, but every time the viewpoint shifted to his doomed teenage Texan refugee Maria, I put the book down for a bit and did something else. Maria is having a grindingly horrible time, and it just keeps getting worse. And it’s not even as though I could go on-line and make a credit card donation to some charity which would intervene on my behalf to make it all better. This was a completely made-up piece of misery which would only happen if I made the effort to read about it. Well-written misery which echoed a kind of misery which is far too available right now, but still completely fictional, and so it felt way too much like punching myself in the face for no good reason.
The misery doesn’t ever let up, but about half way through the book Bacigalupi decides that he’s done enough background misery and kicks everyone into the plot. Which is something that always annoys me in books; you’ve got three or more viewpoint characters who have nothing to do with each other, but since they’re all in the same book, they’re going to move into alignment with each other somehow before it’s all over. Typically, when it does happen, it feels like artifice, like un-earned coincidence, like something dumb. How come these three characters all collide just when they need to? They’ve got nothing to do with each other, and there’s no good reason why they should all be in the same place at the same time.
The reason that this kind of thing feels stupid in books is that the story is told the wrong way. Whenever anything happens in real life, it’s always because people have collided with each other, and a lot of the time they knew nothing about each other and never expected it to happen. And right up to the moment of the collision, they were just getting on with their lives, all stars of their own little show without any thought for the bigger show someone else might be in. And if you start with that collision; start with the inciting event; the reader doesn’t even blink. This thing has happened to these people, I wonder what’s going to happen next. But if you keep the cast apart for half the book or more, then by the time they run into each other, it feels forced and artificial, as though these people with real lives have been rammed together in service of the plot.
Not that Bacigalupi cares hugely about plot. As I’ve commented before, he’s writing about the collapse of the world, and the way it hurts people, and the way that it hurts people right now. Plot is secondary to theme and characterisation, which is why an otherwise perfectly good writer will hang everything off a McGuffin so blatant that most episodes of TV would have had a sheepish grin on their faces while they explained that they would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for the …. If you haven’t figured out what’s going to turn out to be the Maltese Falcon/letters of transit/glowing briefcase about ten seconds after it’s put into play, you’re some kind of freak of nature who by chance has chosen The Water Knife as the first work of fiction you’ve ever read.
Which is a shame. The Water Knife is set in a near future dystopia of the American south west, and I can’t help wondering how much better it would have been if Bacigalupi lived near Don Winslow and went out with him for a few beers to talk about plotting and how to make chaos into a real plot driver. Winslow makes the contemporary south west and borders into a terrifying character in its own right, to the point where I am anticipating The Cartel with a perfect measure of glee and dread that uses every shred of meaning in the word “anticipate”. Winslow could have put some plot manners on The Water Knife.