It did not take long to finish the last 44.2% of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife I blogged abut two days ago. It definitely picked up in excitement like the rush of a flood over the rocks of a desert arroyo.

I’m not going to talk much about the second half, no spoilers, but have to say it veered a bit from the ending one might anticipate. Sandy was correct in saying the book is grim, but that is the point. Post-apocalyptic stories are nearly always placed well after the Earth Changing Event, in this case, it’s not quite post-apocalyptic, but somewhere on its way, in the middle of a slowed down apocalypse, somewhere past the present where we can see it if we squint.

What I do want to say is that the book to me is both an homage and an affirmation of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert — it drives the trajectory of the crises of water in the western US predicted by Reisner into the visible near future.

While in the novel, Angel drove a Tesla, I am pretty sure under the hood it was a souped up Cadillac.

The references to Cadillac Desert were very direct, and I had a good hunch about the role the book would play in the story. I Flipped through the book to try and locate the ones I remembered (where is that darned Command-F in a paperback?).

In Chapter 2, when we are introduced to Lucy, she relays an earlier conversation with her dead friend Jamie, who said things right out of Cadillac Desert:

Jamie had been talking. “I mean, John Wesley Powell saw it coming way back in 1850. So it’s not like no one had warning. If that ****** could sit on the banks of the Colorado River a hundred fifty years ago, and know there wouldn’t be enough water to cover everything, you’d think we’d have figured it out, too.”

If you have not heard of John Wesley Powell… well change that. He led the first explorations of the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, lighting the interest of the government back east for what could be done with all that water. It was within one generation of Powell’s trips that the Colorado River Compact was signed, the agreement that split the water between seven steps in a formula not sustainable, and following the dotted lines gets us to the states as warring factions in the novel.

Also, if you apply math to that quote, the book takes place in the year 2000, so that does not work.

As an aside, in Chapter 7 as Angel is driving his Tesla (remember it’s a Cadillac) to Phoenix, his thoughts do express a lived, almost poetic understanding of the desert, much more than people who mutter “It’s a dry heat” before stumbling into a Scottsdale Mall.

It had been a desperate land before, and it was a desperate land still. Angel had always liked the desert for its lack of illusions.

He compares it to the western plains where in times of irrigation, the land was turned into something different to turn “dry lands lush” growing cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans:

Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran ut, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.

The desert was different. It had always been a gaunt and feral thing. Always hunting for the next sip. The desert never forgot itself.

And one more a paragraph later…

The desert never took water for granted.

This writing by Bacigalupi suggests someone who has spent time on foot in the desert, not just looked at it through the window of an air-conditioned car flying past it on a highway.

Okay, back to the Cadillac Desert. It makes its appearance in Chapter 16, when Angel has confronted Lucy at her house, and under her gun point, he talks his way inside, After noting the decor, her photographs, he sees her books:

Books on one shelf, a small collection of old titles. Isak Dinesen, bound in leather. Alice in Wonderland, in an old illustrated edition. The kind of things someone kept to show visitors how smart they were. Accessories to identity. But one book– a copy of Cadillac Desert, old. He reached for it.

“Don’t,” she said. “It’s a signed first.”

Angel smirked. “‘Course it is.” Then: “My boss makes all her new hires read that. She likes us to see this mess isn’t an accident. We were headed straight to Hell, and didn’t do anything about it.”

Besides the eyebrow raise the books still have this value in the future, this pretty much states that The Water Knife is the future predicted by Cadillac Desert. It’s what happens, will happen, when we pretend it won’t happen.

Only two chapters later, 18, the book appears again. The water guy, Mike Ratan also has a “rare” edition, and offers it to the teen, Maria. Note that he is described as “pulling out papers that were stuffed between the pages” before trying to give it to the girl.

“You ever read this?” he asked, offering her the book.

Maria took it and read the title slowly. “Cadillac Desert? It’s about cars or something?”

“Water, actually, It’s kind of how we got where we are now. There are other books. Lots came later. You can read Fleck or Fishman or Jenkins or others online.” He nodded at the book in her hands. “But I always think people should start with this. It’s the bible when it comes to water.”

“The bible, huh?”

“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move more rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

Maria refuses the book because to her, it only talks of a past that is gone to her, when she needs something to help her in her present dire situation:

She glared at him. “I don’t need books about how things used to be. Everybody talks about how things used to be, I need a book about how I’m supposed to live now. Unless you got a book like that, I don’t need the weight.” She flicked her hand at the thing, lying in the counter. “I mean, seriously. It’s paper.”

He takes the book back and “stuffed his papers back into the book and set it aside”.

Yeah, papers.

Right after, he gets killed by the Bad Guys from California. In Chapter 20, Maria grabs the book only because she think is has some quick value to sell. To help her with the now:

It was time to go. On her way out the door she spied the book lying on the counter. Cadillac Desert. Mike had said she could sell it. People liked old books.

Maria gets nervous when there are sounds of someone breaking in the door; it’s Angel. He does not want to hurt her, and he intuits as a witness she has info that will help him find Lucy. But inside the Taiyang Arcology they are pursued by both bad guy “Calis” and security. By jumping into the water system, swimming through tunnels, Angel’s guess at a security code to close a gate on the pursuers, they escape.

She started digging into her purse, the purse he made her bring, to carry his ballistic jacket. She yanked the jacket out. It was practically dry, of course. Cadillac Desert was soaked. In Chapter 25, Maria and Angel talk as he drives away from the building where they escaped.


“It’ll dry,” the scarred man said, glancing over.

“I was going to sell it. Mike said people buy this shit.”

He hesitated. “It might dry.”

All that pain, and she was left with nothing. Staring at the sopping book, she fought to hold back the tears.

So follow the water lines. The prescient book of the 1980s about a looming water crises in the arid Southwest, Cadillac Desert, is now soaking wet. Completely wet (readers who got to the end of the book might wonder about what is in those pages). But this also means that the book is worthless for her short term gain, so she cannot sell now. She keeps the book. And thus it is more valuable in the long run, by being wet, than dry. But Maria does not know it, and her frustration plays out in… tears (water).

By Chapter 43, all the characters are racing to find Maria and the book, because those papers inside were way more valuable than the book. Again, Angel, the Water Knife speaks to Lucy, but is really talking to us, here now:

“That guy Reisner, now? That man saw things. He looked. All these people now, though? The ones who put that book up like a trophy? They’re the ones who stood by and let it happen. They call him one of their prophets now. But they weren’t listening back then.

And thus, this is why I really dug The Water Knife. Partly because of the familiar setting. But more because it is a wake up call to a likely future shown to use in Cadillac Desert.

Read it, please. And don’t take that gushing faucet, that hose, that long shower for granted.

You see, it is because we are actually the water knife, not Angel, we are cutting our own water and our future. By ignoring what Cadillac Desert clearly painted.

Read it.

Top / Featured Image: It’s not a direct connection, but the book title Cadillac Desert connects me to the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, Texas, the part of that huge state where the road more or less falls off the edge of the earth into the Southwest desert.

I had dreams of seeing it on my first drive west in 1986, but lacking a mobile phone, Google maps, a World Wide Web– I missed it. But I got to see it twice in 2011 (see all my Cadillac Ranch photos, including one I marked with #DS106 #4Life)

The one I chose is my own flickr photo shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The post "The Water Knife Really Drove a Cadillac" was originally emerged from the primordial ooze and first walked on land at CogDogBlog ( on August 4, 2016.

1 Comment

  • Sandy

    This is what I mean by lifelong learners vs locked-in-the-system students: you traced a single theme or mythogem through the book with excitement and an isn’t-this-cool-enthusiasm. I have taught and assigned that technique a thousand times and never seen it so well done.

    One of things I admire about this book is the intricate, layered world building by Balcigalupi. These themes and repeated images braid and twist like a river mouth going into the sea — just to create a watery metaphor. He’s very very good.

    This book is worthy joining the #ds106 western ranks.

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