“With Perfect Clarity” by Wendy N. Wagner (5211 words)
Here’s a story about need and about corruption, about politics and sabotage and greed and hope. About, in essence, water. Yalan is a Water Keeper, a civil servant working for perhaps the last of the social promises—that water should be free. The setting is decidedly dark and wonderfully build, with a punky aesthetic of grime and bureaucracy in equal measures, where water is direly held and the only weapon in the ongoing war against the desert, against the spread of climate and exploitation driven destruction and desolation. Like everything in the city where Yalan works and lives, though, water is quickly becoming a tool for the ambitious to try and squeeze out a bit more revenue from those already unable to afford much. I love the way the story draws its lines, showing how politics has shifted in the face of this new world order, where foreign enemies are not so dangerous as homegrown greed.
This is very much a story for our times, in the sea of cuts to social programs, the growing mentality that nothing should be free, not even those things that have always been free. With crises like Flint and droughts around the country while wealthy suburban homes run sprinklers so their lawns don’t brown, we’re already living in something of a water dystopia. Most people, after all, pay for their water, for the service that city water can provide. When that water becomes undrinkable...bad things happen. And here we see a city where water might not be abundant, but for the moment at least it is free. Controlled, but free. The story shows, though, how governments can get preoccupied with the concept of assets, even as the real threat of desert and annihilation are knocking on the door. It’s not a pretty story, or even a clean one. The life that Yalan lives is a brutal one, not because she wants the easy path but because she chooses the hard one, fighting to protect open access to water to all people. When a powerful man threatens that, things go quickly downhill as Yalan learns how little scruples can do in the face of institutional corruption. Murder, sabotage, and nepotism are all rather par for the course, and push Yalan into an increasingly desperate situation.
All this unfolds around the...kind of romantic vision that Yalan has of their job, because it’s how they deal with the ugliness of the world around them, the bleakness of it. Their job becomes this pure thing, despite that it exists among the pollution of people like those trying to deprive others of water, the violence that is necessary to protect the water from those who would steal it. Yalan has this vision of the job, held as pristine as their memories of a woman they once worked with who might now, who might always have had, an ulterior motive. As the stability of Yalan’s world is taken away, they hold to one thing that has always gotten them through, and which is in danger of being taken away.
It’s a grim and gripping read that follows Yalan through the struggle to remain pure, even as they are tainted by secrets, by the need to act in the shadows. It’s a heartbreaking story but one that still holds to hope, that imagines that maybe Yalan can win a victory for water, even if it means a personal sort of defeat. It’s a deep and powerful piece that provides a great setting, memorable set of characters, and a shattering ending. You should definitely read it!