During the first few years after we bought our house, letters from the water company would regularly appear in our mailbox every six months. "We are pleased to announce that the water is now in the normal range for chromium hexate. Stick your head under the faucet and drink up!"
Somehow, we failed to find the news comforting. Because moving was not an option, we stopped drinking and cooking with the water all together, using it only to bathe and hoping it didn't sink too deeply into our pores. We freaked so hard when our children started putting their bathwater in their mouths that, four years later, when we pass a water tower our kids ask us if "that water is safe to drink." I feel guilty about this, but then I remember Erin Brockovich and get angry all over again. When I was a kid, we played in the woods all day and, when we were thirsty, drank water out of a natural spring trickling out of a crack in a large rock embedded in a hill. When I went back a few years ago, there was a bright yellow sign next to the spring. "Warning! This water is not potable for humans or animals."
In H2O, author Mark Swartz takes this current downward spiral one step further in his noirish novel.
Set in the year 2020, a series of environmental disasters including a seven year drought devastate the planet, leaving the world's resources in the hands of the few. The government quickly privatizes all modern necessities, leaving water purification in the hands of Drixa, a multinational conglomerate that also controls the mail and all utilities. Due to its proximity to Lake Michigan, Chicago fared the best during the drought and the residents of both coasts flee inland, turning Chicago into a monstrous city-state. Amidst permanent gridlock and lethal water, Hayden Shivers, a lowly Drixa engineer who works in the Filters & Drains department is obsessively working on a secret project that began on his honeymoon in Malta, where he discovered a fungus that somehow produces more water than it absorbs. After a series of sporadic results, Shivers is pretty sure he has the ability to create fake water. When Lionel Dawson, CEO of Drixa, gets wind of Shivers' revolutionary new fungus-injected filter, he offers him the job of Chief Engineer of Drixa in exchange for the patent. Shivers' longing for success clashes with the knowledge that total control over all the Earth's water would give the corporation a dangerous amount of power (not to mention his guilty conscience at the disturbing side effects the fungus seems to cause), and he wavers uncertainly at the crossroads of his future.
Swartz skillfully leads the reader through the novel by dropping hints about the broader picture here and there, like jumbled pieces of a kaleidoscope that slowly jells into a pattern. However, it falls frustratingly short of being a fantastic read. The early exposition, delivered by minor characters, made getting involved in the book initially difficult. As difficult as it is to create an entire new world, having the characters catch the reader up to speed by trading facts back and forth isn't the best way to do it. They trade facts about their current world that they obviously both know, making the dialogue irritating and completely flat, like:
Native Chicagoan A: The name Chicago means "smelly onion."
Native Chicagoan B: And of course you know, it was founded on swamp land.
Native Chicagoan A: Yes, and it almost burned down in 1871.
Native Chicagoan B: And now it's the home of the Sears Tower, which for years was the tallest building in the world.
In reality, it would go like this:
A: The name Chicago means "smelly onion."
B: Yeah, I know.
A: And it was founded on swampland!
B: I know.
A: It was almost destroyed in a fire in 1871!
B: Shut up before I kick your fucking ass, you jag-off.
A: "Jag-off" is a colloquialism native to----Gaaaaaaaaaccck!
The characters seem a bit shallow and remote, not fleshing out enough to make the reader care about them. The exception is Miyumi Park, the gorgeous corporate suck-
up whose greatest talent is climbing the Drixa ladder, stepping on whoever's back makes up the next rung.
Despite its flaws, H2O tells an excellent story of an ecological nightmare, a grim future where people realize they've gone too far, and there may be no turning back.
by Mark Swartz
2006 by Soft Skull Press
Paperback, 166 pages
Wednesday, May 09, 2007