A review of

H2O

by Mark Swartz

Central question: What happens when you blow the whistle and it’s out of everybody’s range of hearing?
Format: 160 pp., paperback; Size: 5" x 8"; Price: $13.00; Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Editor: Ammi Emergency; Print run: 3,000; Book design: Gary Fogelson; Typefaces: Granjon, MonotypeSorts, OfficinaSans, OfficinaSerif; Number of physicists consulted during writing of novel: 1; Protagonist’s original name: Harold; Alternate titles considered: The Drop, H2Opia, Shivers Down; Representative passage: “Flush out the waste material. Filter out impurities. Build in valves to relieve pressure. Expunge the sticky and the disruptive, with force if necessary. And clean up thoroughly when you’re done.”

Hayden Shivers, the narrator of Mark Swartz’s H2O, designs water filtration systems for a living—not a bad job in 2020, when a worldwide shortage of clean and potable water sets the stage for global corporate opportunism that makes today’s oil market look like a church bake sale. Shivers’ star rises when he discovers a mysterious fungus from Malta that somehow secretes more water than it absorbs. Trying to understand how it works is hard enough, but figuring out what his corporate masters plan to do with it forces Shivers to choose between the temptations of personal gain and the less remunerative virtues of the truth. Yes, this is the case of the Maltese Fungus.

Swartz’s Chicago doesn’t offer a very pretty view of the future. Thanks to the outsourcing of public services, Shivers’ employer, mega-corporation Drixa, controls the water supply for Chicago, now a city-state that delivers water across the Midwest. But maybe this is a hopeful dystopia. Drixa is, after all, kind to those who protest its water products—it even pays for their flyers. And once Shivers relinquishes ownership of his breakthrough discovery, he’ll become Chief Engineer. As he tries to figure out the fungus, though, he finds it harder to ignore how the company, protesters, and press direct the flow of both water and information. The more deeply he’s involved in Drixa’s preparations to market its new product, “H2O,” the more uncertain Shivers becomes about Drixa’s intentions—and, ultimately, about his own ability to fish out, from the company’s flood of misinformation, whatever truths might remain.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Thomas March

Thomas March is a poet and essayist. Recent work is forthcoming in Diner, New Letters, The North Atlantic Review, Shenandoah, and The Spoon River Poetry Review. He teaches at the Brearley School, in New York.

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