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H2O
Mark Swartz
Soft Skull paperback $13.95

review by David Hebblethwaite

The year is 2020, and clean water has become a scarcity. Chicago has weathered the 'hydro crisis' reasonably well, though its society has still been reconfigured, with all the major utilities controlled by three giant public-private partnerships. Water is the responsibility of Drixa, and it's an employee of that corporation - an engineer named Hayden Shivers - who makes a discovery that could solve the world's water-supply problems: a Maltese moss whose properties defy conventional physics; if you filter water through it, a greater volume of water comes out. The new product, dubbed 'H2O', is, Drixa insists, just ordinary water; though the protest group ICE-9 (led by the daughter of Drixa's CEO) is not convinced. As the novel begins, Miyumi Park, Drixa's head of human resources, offers Hayden Shivers the post of chief engineer - and he becomes a pawn in an elaborate game of power played out by more parties than he could ever have anticipated.

I never like having to say this about a book, but H2O is nowhere near as good as it should be. It should be great, because Mark Swartz is clearly a skilled writer: he comes up with some remarkably evocative imagery ("The famous skyline [of Chicago] kept its distance [from Hayden] like a doctor consulting a beautiful woman about her terminal illness"); he observes with a sharp satirical eye (Hayden's divorce lawyer comments, "As your lawyer, I'm a mouthpiece. I say what you tell me to say, only better"; and some protesters are described as being "like carefree pranksters indulging in guerrilla theatrics for their own sake"); and he describes some neat ideas in passing (I laughed at the 'science of near misses' - how much more there is to panic about when you consider what could have happened!).

Swartz's characterisation is less strong, though his characters are not so much unbelievable as painted in rather broad strokes; so, for example, Miyumi is the coldly efficient career woman. Hayden himself, though shown by his first-person narration to be smart and articulate, is pretty nondescript ("Could a Hayden Shivers biopic be made without Hayden Shivers? If I wound up on the cutting room floor, what difference would it make?" he asks - and not without good reason). This sketchiness does lead to some moments where one wonders why a particular character did or didn't do something; but that does not in itself scupper H2O.

The real problem with this novel, I think, is that it's hard to take seriously. This may seem a strange thing to say about a satire, which perhaps by definition will have one foot out of reality; but H2O is in danger of having both feet out: it's acknowledged in the text that the idea of the moss is scientifically implausible, which starts to make me wonder how believable we're supposed to find some of the book's other aspects (such as Drixa funding the protesters). I found that, sometimes, Swartz pushed at the bounds credulity so much that I found it hard to believe - even taking into account H2O's satirical nature - and, hence, hard to care.

This has two other detrimental effects in particular. One is that it makes other problems. As noted earlier, Hayden feels like something of a passenger in his own life; trouble is, his role in the story is also orchestrated too much by other characters; something that is made even more apparent by the all the other artifice. Then there is H2O as 'ecological fable' (to quote the cover blurb). For all the dire straits that Swartz's world is in, and the catastrophe that (Hayden discovers) H2O may cause, we never feel much of the peril, not on the emotional level where it really counts. And the exaggeration just makes this worse: how can you truly care about the fate of a world that wears its fictitiousness on its sleeve? The ecological aspect of H2O surely demands that the book keep some grounding in reality; but its satire wants to push it out of reality, and the two impulses don't sit well together.

More than that, however, the satire itself is blunted. at times, as it becomes unclear just what Swartz is arguing. Neither the protesters nor Drixa are painted in wholly positive terms, but the author is more critical of the corporation - I think so, anyway; but his world stretches reality so much that I'm not sure how critical he means to be.

(This is not just a problem caused by the level of exaggeration. An example: Hayden makes a throwaway comment to a journalist that H2O could only be discovered by 'forgetting' the laws of physics - a comment used in the subsequent article as evidence that H2O causes amnesia. I thought this was a neat joke about media scare-mongering and the 'creative interpretation' of people's words; but, later, it seems that other people have concerns about H2O and amnesia - concerns that, as far as I could tell, don't stem from reading that article. So now I'm not sure what to think about that joke.)

In the end, then, H2O left me with a certain feeling of confusion over what exactly it was trying to say; and disappointment that it did not live up to its considerable promise. To use water as a metaphor, the novel has moments where it truly sparkles, but is too muddy overall to be great.
H2O by Mark Swartz

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