Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

I forgot how I got introduced to Paolo Bacigalupi. I do remember that the first book I read by him was The Windup Girl. I loved it. In the universe he creates, the world is post Peak Oil and depends on bioengineering, among other things, to provide the functions that used to come from petroleum. For example, vehicles run on springs, special nanotechnology springs that can store a tremendous amount of energy. They are wound by huge animals called meglodonts that walk on treadmills to generate power.

Cool, huh?

I followed that book with the short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories that I enjoyed as well, especially since many of the stories occur in the Windup Girl universe.

His next two books, however, were aimed at young adults. Look, considering the amount of money made from stories aimed at the YA market set in a distopian future, preferably with a female protagonist caught in a love triangle, I can’t blame him. They were good but not as enjoyable as his other work.

When I heard he had a new adult novel out, called The Water Knife, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

This book is definitely aimed at adults. It is set in our current universe, perhaps ten to twenty years in the future, and concerns the issue of water in the American southwest.

The story references a real book called Cadillac Desert. I haven’t read it (it’s on my wishlist) but it apparently warns that current water management policy in the western United States is doomed to fail. Considering the large population of people who live in that part of the country, the disappearance of water would have a huge impact.

The Water Knife is mainly set in a future Phoenix, Arizon, and follows three main characters: Angel, hired muscle to enforce water rights (or “water knife), Lucy, an idealistic Pulitzer-prize winning author, and Maria, a Texas refugee who fled to Phoenix when the water gave out in her home state.

Bacigalupi brings together these three people against a backdrop of violence and a murder mystery as they search for something that could greatly change the distribution of water in the region. The characters are fully developed, the writing is tight and I found it hard to put the book down. His writing reminded me of a younger, hipper William Gibson.

Reading the book was very straightforward, or I might have compared him to Neal Stephenson. Mainly because I didn’t much care for the book’s ending, and Stephenson is renown for not ending books well. He’s also known for requiring a bit of work to get into his stories, but this one was much easier to read. The more I’ve thought about the ending, the more I’m okay with it, but it is hard to say more without spoiling it.

Speaking of spoilers, I have more to say but as usual, the more sensitive of my three readers may want to stop now and just go get the book. If you like Gibson and Stephenson, you’ll like this. If you liked The Windup Girl you might be disappointed, as I was, that this story wasn’t set in that universe, but I still enjoyed the book.


Okay, so a little more detail about the story. The current system of water in the west has collapsed. Texas went dry, causing a mass exodus of people to the surrounding states. This caused a fracturing that saw these states to independently set up and police their borders, becoming more like small countries. They are still part of the USA, but Washington, DC, is a long way away.

As I mentioned above, Angel is a Mexican ex-con who works for a woman named Catherine Case, “The Queen of the Columbia”. Case makes her money building self-contained buildings in Las Vegas. All of the water and moisture is captured and recycled within the structures, and many of the wealthy citizens have bought into her buildings. She was able to build her empire by exercising tough control over water rights within Nevada.

Nevada is constantly competing with other states in the area, such as Arizona and California, for water. Case pulled Angel out of prison to become a “water knife” – a sometimes violent enforcer of her water rights. The book opens up with a military operation to destroy the pumping capacity of an Arizona border city that lost a lawsuit against Case. As part of his compensation, Angel lives in one of Case’s buildings, drives a Tesla, and is much more affluent than many around him.

We are also introduced to Lucy. She lives in Phoenix, which is struggling to stay alive after they lost access to water. While they are also building self-contained buildings for the affluent, the city is heavily populated with refugees from Texas. As with any situation with such suffering, the criminal element has taken root as well, and combined with a “Zoner” hatred of the influx of Texans, there is a lot of violence. She is documenting life in the city in the hope of finding some answers, and she makes her living publishing those stories. So while she is far from affluent, she can support herself and, unlike others, has the option to leave.

Finally, we meet Maria. She is a Texas refugee who came to Phoenix with her father, who was working to help build one of the self-contained buildings. He died in an accident and she was left without many options. Her story is that of the struggle the refugees face living day to day and wondering when and how they will get water.

As a reporter, Lucy often rushes to scenes of violence within the city. On one such trip she discovers the body of friend of hers, and he had been horribly tortured before his death. She knew that he had discovered something about water rights, rights that could drastically change the balance of power in the region, and it had gotten him killed.

Case has also heard that something is up in Phoenix, and she sends Angel to investigate. He and Lucy first meet when she is at the morgue to learn more about her friend’s death.

If anyone has any doubts about Bacigalupi’s return to adult fiction, the account he writes about what happened to that body will remove them, along with your ability to sleep at night. It describes, in cold and clinical detail, one of the most horrible acts of torture ever conceived. I thought about quoting it here, but I can’t bring myself to type it in.

Anyway, the paths of Angel and Lucy cross a number of times until they become partners of sorts. Lucy is trying to uncover the news story of a lifetime, and Angel is trying to execute his job for Case. Eventually, their paths cross with Maria.

I should stress, this is not a happy book. What happens to these three characters is not good. Water is life, and without it life is “nasty, brutish and short”. I won’t, and actually can’t, say if the ending is happy or not, but if you’re looking for “they lived happily ever” read Harry Potter.

If you are interested in a take on how the beginning of the end will start, check out this book. You’ll be glad you did.

Review: Slabscape: Dammit by S. Spencer Baker

The second book in the Slabscape series, Slabscape: Dammit takes place immediately after the events in Slabscape: Reset. Once again we join Louie Drago in his various incarnations on a spaceship called The Slab (that is the size of California) on its 20,000 year journey.

That seems like a long time, and it is. This second book is very much about time.

We follow the story through the eyes of our protagonists, the “reset” Dielle who is in Louie Drago’s rejuvenated body, as he strives to find purpose and understand his new home, and a holographic recording of Louie Drago himself, who has managed to place himself in a position of power within the Slab’s government system. This is a system which is not a democracy. As my home country struggles with its own democracy, I really liked the following quote from the book:

Democracy is a flawed and highly ineffectual form of government that relies on the majority of the enfranchised being capable of understanding all of the implications of highly complex and interdependent situations. An empowered electorate must not only be able to fully comprehend all of the information they are given and be capable of making accurate analysis, which few are, they must also be motivated and willing to be completely engaged in the process, which even fewer are, and they must also accept responsibility for their decisions, which virtually no one does. Democracy is open to manipulation by clandestine information controllers and by the mass media who have their own commercially dictated agendas. Voters are too easily influenced and are vulnerable to the fear-mongering and short-term whims of the self-interested and the self-destructive.”


As in the previous novel, the Slab is beset with a danger that it must overcome, and Louie plays a big role in this. We also follow Dielle’s journey of personal growth through a variety of very comic situations. I enjoyed this book a lot, and I think SSB has avoided the sophomore slump.

I have more to say that I’ll try to keep spoiler-free, but if stuff like that bothers you, just stop now and go read the book.


The Slab is traveling at close to the speed of light. That causes all kinds of funky things to happen. For example, compared to someone remaining on Earth, time would appear to move much more slowly on The Slab. Those whiz-bang smart kids I went to school with can even calculate the exact factor by which time would slow down. It’s called gamma, and there is even a nifty little calculator to determine what it is. For example, if you are traveling at 97% of the speed of light, gamma would be a little over 4. This means that for every year of subjective time you experience, a person in a reference frame stationary to yours (i.e. think back on Earth) would experience four years. At 99% of the speed of light, that jumps to 7. A speed of 99.9% makes it 22, and 99.99% comes out to 71.

So if the Slab was traveling at .9999c for 300 years, over two millennia will have passed on Earth.

Now, the physics of Slabscape are similar to our own, and thus the Slab is having issues trying to accelerate. From a stationary reference point, gamma also affects mass (well, not really, it affects momentum but let’s pretend it affects mass). If you are at 99.99% of the speed of light you would appear to have 71 times the mass. Since the energy needed to accelerate an object is proportional to its mass, it takes a lot more energy to accelerate a relativistic object a small amount than it would at lower speeds. Since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the theory goes, it will take more and more energy for smaller and smaller gains until it takes an infinite amount of energy to try to reach light speed.

That is, if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Einstein, the guy who thought most of this up, stated that not even information can travel faster than the speed of light. But then he and two buddies named Podolsky and Rosen came up with a thought experiment, referred to as the EPR Paradox, that seems to cast doubt on that.

The idea is pretty simple. There are “entangled” particles that have to share certain known characteristics. For example, spin. If one particle has a spin of “up”, the other must have a spin of “down”. The kicker is that spin is pretty arbitrary. During the measurement I choose what is “up” is, but with entangled pairs, the moment I say one particle is “up” the other one automatically becomes “down”, even though the values of “up” and “down” didn’t exist before the measurement.

So, the EPR guys thought, what happens if I have an entangled pair and I send each particle off in opposite directions at close to the speed of light. I then wait awhile (milliseconds is enough at these speeds) and then measure one particle as “up”. The second one must instantaneously know to be “down”, but the only way that is possible is if the information travels faster than the speed of light.

Fascinating, huh?

Anyway, this theory plays a role in a plot point in Slabscape: Dammit as we finally find out how Louie got his start. Louie, currently a being of pure data, ends up getting himself duplicated again, and each of those “selves” have a fun run in with time.

In the meantime, our horny, naive hero, Dielle, is busy making friends and questioning his relationship with his manager/girlfriend Kiki. At one point she refuses to let him join her shopping because he is a heterosexual male, and, also being a heterosexual male who has been married for over 20 years, I loved this explanation of the female shopping experience:

Statistical analysis of time spent shopping by typical female Slabcitizen: 40% trying on things they already know they won’t like, 40% deciding not to try on things they know they would like but are too similar to something they already own and 20% complaining about the lack of suitable choice. Although 85% of shopping results in zero acquisition, 90% of shopping activity produces feelings of satisfaction in the shopper, 65% of acquisitions are never worn, 30% of acquisitions are worn once only, 4% are worn more than once but never when the same people are involved in the same social situation, and 1% are worn until they wear out, then lamented over despite the fact that identical replacements are available.

Anyway, he joins a band called “The Garlic Farts” (a wonderful name by Slab standards) and takes the stage name of Blood, and yes, Blood Dielle took me a lot longer to get than I care to admit.

One of his band mates, Fencer, is a character that I identify with pretty strongly. If I had unlimited time and fairly unlimited resources I’d be out making things, and that is what Fencer does (in addition to playing mad drum solos on a virtual reality drum kit). He is the one who figures out how to use quantum entanglement to send information back into the past.

We also get to learn about other cultures on The Slab. For the most part we’ve been spending time with the “famous for being famous” set, those people who make modern day TV shows with the words “Real” or “Shore” in their titles popular. But there is a huge set of “gamers” on The Slab who spend their entire lives isolated and immersed in a virtual reality. If all of your bodily functions could be maintained automatically, wouldn’t that be tempting? Some people isolate themselves to a similar extent on modern day Earth – in Japan there is even a term for it: Hikikomori.

There are also the Unkos, or “uncooperatives”. These are people who do not wish to be attached to the SlabWide Integrated System (Sis) and have thus withdrawn to areas of the Slab Sis is not allowed to monitor. This doesn’t mean they have gone primitive, as many use localized versions of the tech Sis manages, but those who do are called Naturalists. Naturalists tend to grow their own food and make their own tools and shelter, as well as doing other things in a more natural fashion that would spoil a funny part of the Slabscape mythos if I told you about it.

As I mentioned above, SSB is really finding his stride in this second novel, and it made me hunger for the third book, Slabscape: Reboot. Since the first one came out in 2011 and the second in 2015, we may have to wait until 2019 for it, but at least he writes faster than George R.R. Martin.

Review: Slabscape: Reset by S. Spencer Baker

When I was last in the UK, I made a friend named Bill. We share a lot of things in common, especially a taste for a certain breed of science fiction. He recommended that I read the Slabscape series by S. Spencer Baker, so, moist robot that I am, I immediately ordered it on Amazon.

The first book in the series (whose number currently stands at two) is Slabscape: Reset. I quite enjoyed it, once I got over the author’s initial attempts to channel Douglas Adams.

For geeks of a certain age, Douglas Adams holds a special place in both our pantheon of authors and our hearts. There was no one like him. When I started the book I felt that SSB was trying a little too hard to write like Adams. Now, granted, he did a pretty darn good job of it but I still found myself recoiling slightly every time I hit a paragraph that was especially Adams-esque.

Luckily, that didn’t last. The author finds his own voice and spins out a yarn that only echoes the whimsy of Adams without co-opting it entire. Part of the similarities could be that they are both British and about the same generation, but beyond that I wasn’t able to find out much about him. There wasn’t even a Wikipedia entry, so I had to go off and make one (I’m a little embarrassed about my own).

The TL;DR is that if you like science fiction along the lines of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, you’ll probably like this.

As usual, I try to be spoiler free when doing reviews, but purists may want to skip the rest of this.


Okay, Slabscape: Reset. The book focuses on the point of view of two characters, who are, in a sense, one. Louie Drago was once one of the wealthiest people on the planet. In his old age he has himself frozen and he buys a one-way ticket on a huge interstellar spaceship with instructions to revive him when the technology has advanced enough to do so. The start of the book details this revival as Louie comes back as a “reset”. His body has been reset to that of a 27 year old male, and while he remembers things such language he doesn’t remember much of his previous life.

He finds himself on the “Slab”, a spaceship that is 1024 km long, 455 km wide and 114 km high, currently holding nearly 32 million humans. Most of those humans are neurally connected to an artificial intelligence called the SlabWide Integrated System, or Sis. As a reset he can choose his own name, and at the suggestion of his nurse, Kiki, he chooses Dielle (from Row D, Column L, where his frozen body was stored).

Turns out Kiki is not normally a nurse. She wanted to be the first to meet Dielle because most of the revenue generated on Slab is from entertainment, and at 325 years Dielle is the oldest reset ever and thus a source of great interest to the Slab population. She is a media specialist who becomes his partner and love interest, and a lot of the early plot and humor comes from Dielle’s attempts to understand and assimilate into this new culture.

Part of that is dealing with meeting himself. The original Louie Drago is still around in the form of a hologram, and soon after Dielle turns him on he manages to gain autonomy. He quickly adapts to his new situation and becomes quite a player within the Slab community. One of my favorite quotes from the book is a description of Louie’s past self:

… he was pornographically wealthy, had traveled to all the parts of the Earth he had any desire to visit, had experienced as many risky and thrilling experiences as he could reasonably endure and had variously drunk, eaten or inhaled as many legal, semi-legal or wildly illegal substances as his robust constitution could tolerate. He’d been there, seen it, done it and stubbornly refused to buy any T-shirts, postcards or anything that would ever require dusting …

If I was planning on having a tombstone, I’d love to be able to put that on it.

The Slab is on a 20,000 year mission to a specific part of the galaxy. Scholars on Earth, trying to determine the existence of a soul, had discovered that when people die some energy heads off toward one particular point in space. The people on the Slab refer to this place as Home, and even though the Slab is traveling at a significant portion of the speed of light it will still take a very long time to get there (this story is set approximately 300 years after departure). Technology has advanced so that the Slab’s engines are “gravity drives” that collect mass to provide building materials and propel the ship forward. There are zones of the ship that are always in daylight, some that are always in darkness, and various combinations of sunlight and weather throughout the vessel. Drago had made most of his fortune through the discovery by his business partner of “matter transmitters,” or “emties,” that can instantaneously move matter from once place to another. They play a key role in life on the Slab.

The mission, however, is not a key part of this book. It is much more about discovering the world that SSB has created. In a place where everything necessary for survival is provided for you, human endeavor turns to creating things: art, music, entertainment, etc. How this society deals with issues of intellectual property, privacy and human interaction is interesting and at times quite funny.

Against this backdrop, a threat to the slab is discovered. Louie ends up playing a key part in addressing it. While emties can move matter around, they do not work on living things. Louie, being a hologram, isn’t covered by this limitation. Being pure data, he also ends up getting copied a number of times, so we end up with more points of view that are all still Louie in some form or another.

As with any good tale, adversity is overcome and the characters experience personal growth. I really enjoyed his portrayal of the consumer culture on the Slab. Think about it, what would you do if all your spare time could be focused on making things? While there are characters who take advantage of that, most of what is consumed on the Slab is the same banal entertainment that populates our culture and this book is something of an indictment of it.

It was a very enjoyable book and made me eager for the next one.