But as a science fiction writer, I can't help thinking that the conflation of the actual 21st century with science fiction is not only something of a back-handed compliment, it's also a gross simplification of the kind of things science fiction can do. For one thing, it suggests that science fiction is increasingly defined by the dystopian mode, and that anything other than that is no more than a thought experiment. But while there are a good number of recent and notable examples of dystopias, especially in young adult fiction and by authors outwith the genre, the vast variety of science fiction hasn't yet collapsed into the singularity of day-after-tomorrow apocalyptic fiction. It's still possible to imagine near futures without road warriors, hypercapitalism, bird flu, or zombies. Futures which are as complicatedly and variously good and bad as the present, and futures that may not be likely or even probable, yet contain their own internal logic and also have something to say about the way we live now.
Science fiction has always been a speculative literature. Any realism it possesses isn't merely about precise and accurate representations of the world as it is, but also concerns the logical consistency of the other worlds it creates, whether or not they're directly spun from the present. Sherryl Vint qualifies 'realist' with 'realistic', but I think the quality of verisimilitude is more important. Unlike literary realism, but somewhat like romanticism, science fiction attempts to present believable versions of the world as it might be, not as it actually is.
While Vint expertly anatomises the sources of The Water Knife's near future scenario, Bacigalupi points out in an interview quoted in the review, the speculative process that illustrates what we might be heading towards involves 'going two or three steps down the road beyond what you can actually report.' Realism in science fiction isn't an inherent quality. It's a tool.