The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has made a career out of imagining the some of the less pleasant futures that are possible given humanity’s current path, written brilliantly enough to keep you turning the pages even as you realize to your horror he might turn out right about these things. The Water Knife, a hardcover bestseller now releasing in paperback, is no exception, and in this Big Idea, Bacigalupi writes about when he was writing the book, the present was influencing the future world he was creating.

(Disclaimer: I liked this book enough to blurb it.)


When I began writing The Water Knife in 2011, the Texas drought was in full swing: record-breaking temperatures, low reservoirs, dying cattle, and a governor who was encouraging people to pray for rain.

As I worked on The Water Knife in 2012, I attended a drought conference in Colorado, my home state. Snowpack in many areas was nearly non-existent. Tourism and agriculture were hurting. Reservoirs were at historic lows. Forest fires were tearing through parts of the state, and those places that burned then turned into mudslide zones when rains finally did come. And at the drought conference, no one could utter the words “climate change.”

By the time The Water Knife was published in 2015, the western United States was in the grip of a new epic drought. The Sierras had no snow. Hundred year-old orchards were dying. Reservoirs throughout the state were draining dry.  Above Los Angeles, they were pouring plastic balls into their reservoirs to slow evaporation. Desalinization plants were once again under discussion, despite the costs and environmental complications.  In Nevada, Lake Mead sank to to historic lows, and Las Vegas finally completed a multibillion megaproject to dig Intake Number Three, a last bid attempt to allow them to pump from a reservoir that had been sinking for a decade. In the Northwest, fires raged through tinder dry forests, and a heatwave seized hold of Portland, Ore.

When I conceived The Water Knife, I was aiming to create a visceral experience of a future that I feared was rushing toward us. I thought I was being sober and serious when I set the Big Daddy Drought of the novel some decades still into the future.

By the time the book actually came out, snowpack in the river drainage where I live was at 1% of normal.

In some ways, the droughts of 2015 made The Water Knife seem prescient.  The news was stuffed full of stories of wells going dry, battles over water rights, farmers watching worriedly as dry cities turned their thirsty gazes on farmers’ water rights.  And then of course, there was Syria, collapsed into a civil war that looked a lot like what a model for a real water war might look like. Not a war over water, but a war sparked and exacerbated by drought and food scarcity, that was already starting to put domino pressure on other countries as refugees began to flee the horror of their collapsed country.

There it all was: fires, scarcity, refugees.

It made The Water Knife seem, if not predictive, at least entirely reasonable.

But the feeling I really had was that I had missed the story. Even though I had been trying to write a future of water scarcity that would seem both real and believable and imminent, as I went out on book tour, I realized that I had been deluding myself as much as an idiot climate denier like Rick Pray-For-Rain Perry.

In attempting to make the book seem reasonable and “realistic,” I had set my climate disaster a comfortable few decades still in the future.  But the the uncomfortable reality that even I don’t want to honestly face is that we simply don’t know when climate disaster will come. Science tells us that that climate disaster is out there, looming—more and more likely to occur—but no one can say exactly when. And as I toured the parched western states last year, it was a little frightening to realize that even someone like me—who spends most of my time being anxious about what tomorrow may bring—would prefer to delude myself into believing that while the risk is out there, it won’t come yet.

Not Yet.

That’s our problem. The same problem we humans always face.  Our human instinct is to pray and hope that even if  bad things are coming, that they aren’t coming yet.  I make fun of Rick Perry because hides from the data that says his state will increasingly become a desert, but really, we’re all in denial.

I certainly was in denial, even as I wrote The Water Knife, even though I couldn’t see it.

Not Yet.

We want to keep flying around the world, and driving our cars and expanding our cities into deserts. We want to keep buying gasoline and importing our gadgets from around the world, and enjoying the fruits of our technological age. We want so desperately to keep going with our immediate comforts, that we willfully avoid the fact that Not Yet might turn out to be Right Now.

Right now, El Nino has been kind enough to dump some rain on California and some snow in the Rockies, and so we might be tempted to think that today really will turn out to be Not Yet. But down in Australia, where drought has run for the last decade, the reservoirs outside of Perth aren’t just low as they are here in the States—they’re empty. Syrian refugees continue to swamp Europe, people desperate to get away from the conflict in their own land, and the dams and rivers of the middle east are strategic assets for the warring powers. And of course, here in the United States, we see demagogues and fear-mongers gaining in popularity, the politics of fear of outsiders who might need desperately to move as their own parts of the world become uninhabitable.

One thing I do think I got right in The Water Knife is that climate crisis and collapse won’t come all in a rush. It will be a slow accretion of problems, accidents, and missteps. A steady accumulation of stressors and shortages that finally trigger political and social unravellings, that then cause further domino effects. The Water Knife isn’t about a lone hardy band of survivors after a climate apocalypse, it’s a story about millions of people, all trying to adapt and shift, after spending too much time believing that Not Yet meant Never Will, and I think I got that right, because I see my own instinct to keep making bargains with against my son’s future, telling myself that I still have time before a true catastrophe. Telling myself that we all do, even if it’s just another decade or two.

Some people say that a story like The Water Knife is unrealistic. A broken future that will never be, because we won’t ever be that stupid, or selfish, or lacking in foresight.

I do hope they’re right.


The Water Knife: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (expand on the page). Visit the author’s site.


23 Comments on “The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi”

  1. Windup Girl and Ship Breaker are two of my favorite recent novels by anyone and I’m running out to buy this one immediately.

    I’ve been wondering this for years, though. How the heck do you pronounce “Paolo Bacigalupi?”

  2. I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, it really sounds great (and scary). May put in queue to read alongside “Floodpath” by Jon Wilkman.

  3. I have to say, I really enjoyed this book. I consider it stronger than Ship Breaker, on a par with Windup Girl.

  4. Embarrassed to say I’ve not actually read anything by Paolo Bacigalupi, but this sounds very good – will get!

  5. I only red about 2/3rds of “Windup Girl”. The rape/ sexual abuse scenes were too much for me. (I enjoyed other aspects of the book.) Is there less of that in “The Water Knife”?

  6. Paolo, hate to say it, but I think you’re being unduly optimistic. The fact that nobody’s insisted on closing down golf courses in the desert is pretty much prima facie proof that yes, we’re really that stupid. You can cheat Darwin and Malthus for a time, but they always get the last laugh.

    *Fe* But hey: maybe if we ask Mexico to build a wall along the border, that will keep all the water on our side of the river. Trump could be our savior after all. */Fe*

  7. I read this book right after I moved to Seattle from Tucson.

    I’m not going to say that this book was one of the reasons I moved north . . . but I’m also not going to deny that it was on my mind a lot as we settled into our new home. It’s a really powerful read, especially if you live in the Southwest or another drought affected area. Highly recommended.

  8. Wow! @ Geoff Hart – yet another fellow tech-comm’er here on the Whatever! More proof of the high quality in these comment threads. :-)

    On topic: I’ll have to check into this book.

    While it might be easy for us in the Great Lakes basin to think “Why did all those people & businesses move to the desert if they needed water? They should have stayed here in the rust belt where it’s plentiful…” that line of thought is about as constructive as the wall Geoff referred to. Each of us knows we could do better in taking care of the Earth, no matter our position on climate. Someday, it will all come home to roost. ‘Actually reminds me of the (biblical) king Hezekiah: when a prophet told him that future generations of Israelites would be carried away into captivity, Hezekiah basically felt that was OK since it wouldn’t happen on his watch (paraphrased, but IMO that’s the gist of it). The climate may change, but human nature? – not so much, at least in the last several millenia.

    It’s certainly not wrong to hope that bad things won’t happen, but hope in itself isn’t enough; change that sacrifices immediate comfort for long-term results will help bring those hopes to pass.

  9. Actually, if he pronounces it the Italian way it is Pow-low Bah-chee-ga-loo-pee. Sorry if I have that wrong, Mr. B!

    I read it and thought it was quite good indeed. I really cared about the main characters.

  10. Typo, extra word? Third graf from last. “…making my own bargain with against my son’s future. ” Did author mean “with against” (two words) or just one word, either with or against? Maybe ask him and fix if needs fixing?

  11. I loved The Water Knife. It was one of the first novels I read that I seriously considered Hugo-worthy. Several months and several books later, it still made my list!

  12. How the heck do you pronounce “Paolo Bacigalupi?”
    “PAhohloh BahtcheegahlOOpee”. It’s an Italian surname from the same part of Italy I come from (Liguria).

    I was at Paolo’s reading at the Tattered Cover in Denver the other day, and I absolutely recommend this book (as well as Paolo’s other novels, of course).

    Hope he is wrong about our future, but I’m afraid he is right.

  13. I just finished this book and I’ve been recommending it left and right. In my top 3 books of 2015, I’m just sad I didn’t get to it before Hugo noms closed.

  14. For those of you who’ve never read anything by Paolo, grab whatever’s on the shelf and you’ll be very glad you did. I tried to entice John into trying his hand at cli-fi, as he stood near a large display of The Water Knife at Powell’s Books in Beaverton (I’m the guy in the {blush} red shirt, John) and he thought Paolo was handling the genre quite well on his own. Think of it this way, John, you’re one of many in military sci-fi, you’d only have Paolo to compete with in cli-fi. 8^)

    Matthew Ciarvella: From Water Knife territory to Cascadia Subduction Zone? Ummm, kind of a frying pan to fire thing…

  15. @russkirk: A fair point, but when the CSZ goes, it will be a huge, dramatic event, the kind of thing that provokes a massive response. Humans are pretty good at dealing with dramatic events, but like Bacigalupi said in his post, it’s the slow, gradual things that we can’t seem to deal with.

    I have my survival supplies, food stockpile, emergency equipment, basic emergency training, and other preparations for an earthquake, even a massive one. When I lived in Tucson, when the water stops flowing from the tap, there aren’t any natural sources of water that someone could survive on. It’s the slow death that’s the hardest to protect against.

  16. “But down in Australia, where drought has run for the last decade, the reservoirs outside of Perth aren’t just low as they are here in the States—they’re empty.”

    Um, no they aren’t. We’re really low on reserves, despite a whole lot of (surprisingly high amount of) desalination, but we aren’t actually out of dam water, and never have been in my lifetime.

    Some actual hard numbers for anyone interested in them (straight from the relevant organisations):

  17. I’m an ecologist and environmental consultant, and I did my grad school work on climate change and ecological resilience. So, with apologies to Mr. Bacigalupi, I can’t say I enjoyed his book very much. Not because it wasn’t a very, very good book, but because the world he’s describing is what gives me that cold feeling in the pit of my belly just about every time I seriously engage with my own field. And every time I contemplate the field my own little boy will be growing up in, and every time I see the news that this month’s climate anomaly almost rang the 1.5C bell, and so on. The cold feeling isn’t just dread or fear, it’s the same damn guilt and denial Paolo so eloquently describes above – because let’s face it, I still drive a Subaru Outback to work, I still order from Amazon, and I still fly commercial aviation. Because even though I know as well as anybody that Not Yet is in a lot of ways Right Now or Pretty Goddamn Soon, right down to the statistical nitty gritty, I’m still in denial too.

  18. russkirk:

    “Think of it this way, John, you’re one of many in military sci-fi”

    I sell more than most of them, though, so it works out fine.

  19. And speaking of right goddamn now, it’s not always going to be drought we’ve got to be concerned with, it’s all kinds of issues. Houston right now is experiencing the diametric opposite problem from Bacigalupi’s future Southwest, but the probability of individual rain events which exceed 99% of all recorded Houston rain events has increased by 167% percent since 1950. Friends in Houston right now are calling this pretty goddamn catastrophic. We’ll all reap the whirlwind in different ways.

    But hey, I’m in San Antonio and shortly moving to Colorado…it’s not going to happen Right Now for this little black duck! Goddamn my stupid brain.

  20. I read this book a few months ago and it is my bet to win the Hugo award for best book. It should also win any other award it is nominated for. I too hope Not Yet means We’ll Smarten up and Fix This so it Won’t Happen.

  21. @ Russkirk

    “Think of it this way, John, you’re one of many in military sci-fi, you’d only have Paolo to compete with in cli-fi. “

    And Kim Stanley Robinson and Tobias Buckell…

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