Everybody from J.G. Ballard to Paolo Bacigalupi to George Miller has tackled the “extreme drought” future, but few have taken it quite as far as Damon Norko has done in his latest novella, The Levee.
The world of The Levee is one in which not only have the rivers and lakes dried up, but so have the oceans. Barsoom-like*, humanity now dwells on the dead sea bottoms, and water, pumped from deep under those bottoms, has become so scarce and precious that it is used as currency, making for a weird and cumbersome economic system that I’ll expand upon later in this review.
The narrative guiding us through this world concerns a struggling young member of the barely-employed underclass, Darren Dwyer, who has worked his way up a big box store’s hierarchy to the point of being a cashier — trusted enough to actually handle the water with which customers pay for everything. He lives with an ailing mother whose pension cannot support her, so times are tight and Darren’s job is what’s keeping them off the dole — or from dying of thirst.
Enter Lori Fitz-Palin, daughter of the most powerful water tycoon in the Sargasso, with whom Darren “shared moisture” once in high school. Economics and class divides soon parted them, but fate reunites them when she happens to show up at his register one fateful day, and something is rekindled.
That all sounds more than a little hokey, but manages not to be within the story itself. The romance is not ever allowed to become the central point of The Levee, because Lori, and most everyone else we meet, has secrets, ulterior motives, and big plans for Darren.
That they might not be in Darren’s best interest is merely by the bye, but he is a willing victim of her machinations, since at first they seem to involve an improvement to his circumstances, and never mind that it’s largely through Lori’s class-appropriate boyfriend (d’oh!) that this happens.
Norko does a good job of balancing the romance with the intrigue, and deftly sketches in the details of Darren’s untenable circumstances as a young man whom society doesn’t seem to need and who is desperate for a reason not to give up. This short work is worth the read for these elements, but be prepared for an annoying bit of head-scratching, because the economic system is unwieldy to the point of obnoxiousness and distracts more than a bit from the good stuff.
We all learned — or at least used to — in high school economics that the barter system is grossly inefficient and restricting, and a commodity-based one is even worse, especially if, as in this story, the commodity serving as currency is something everyone would die without — and is something heavy and sloshy in any quantity. A stand-in, like, say, the Fremen’s water-rings in Dune, would most certainly be called for, but here, everybody is physically carrying actual water in vials for everyday transactions. Darren’s cash register is a contraption into which customers pour water, which then measures the volume paid and gives change also in water. Water that can be spilled, can evaporate, can ooze out of worn-out or leaky containers, etc. And when one bathes, he or she is literally bathing in money. When one eats or drinks, he or she is consuming money. When one dies, etc.
Other readers might not find this as distracting as I did, and Norko has done a brilliant job in other ways of depicting a society adapted to extreme water scarcity. For example, the system of concentrate powders with which people feed themselves and flavor their food, all using minimal water, is ingenious, and, finance aside, the world is well realized in nice detail.
The result is a good, but not a great, book. Just don’t lend it to anyone seriously studying economics.
* Minus, of course, the hot naked Martians and the many-limbed monsters and the magic ray-powered flyers.