Author: Stephen Baxter
Genre: Science Fiction
Stephen Baxter does things to me that no other author does, and this is where my fangirl love for him got its start. I picked up Flood in a little cheapy, paperback-only bookstore that I like to frequent a good few years ago, and have gone through a lot of his work since then. Since a fair bit of time had passed I decided that it was time to give this, its sequel Ark, and their associated short stories another go and, unlike the first time round, to read them back-to-back to get the complete story in one go.
As a collection they represent yet another of Baxter’s brilliant looks at what humanity can do/become when faced with extreme difficulties (like, the planet’s trying to throw us off it levels of difficulty), and it was every bit as good a second time round.
Lily Brooke, Piers Michaelmas, Helen Gray and her daughter Grace (a product of rape), and Gary Boyle have been held captive by extremist Christians in holding cells in Barcelona for the past five years before being liberated in 2016 by Nathan Lammockson. Lammockson is the multi-billionaire owner of AxysCorp, a corporation with its finger in every single pie imaginable. The period the four adults spent as captives and owing their freedom to Nathan will form the crux of their interactions with one another and the decisions they make throughout the course of the story.
A lot can change when you drop off the map entirely for five years, but one of the most surprising things is a sea-level rise of just over a metre. The story kicks off in London, which is now prone to constant flooding due to the rising sea. When a tidal surge over tops the Thames Barrier, while the Sydney Opera House finds itself with waves lapping at its foundations, it becomes apparent that something is very very wrong, particularly since the rising ocean levels cannot be attributed to global warming or melting ice.
Thandie Jones, who befriends the group of former hostages and who endears herself to Nathan, theorises and later proves the cause of the rising oceans – giant subterranean reservoirs of fresh water, previously beneath the Earth’s crust, have broken through and are now dumping their contents into the oceans. The results of this are catastrophic – the sea level rise is exponential, doubling every five years. Not only are the oceans rising, cutting into human settlements, but its causing extinction events on a massive level as land-based life can’t move and re-establish itself fast enough, shore-life is drowned out as the seas keep rising, and the dropping salinity of the ocean means that animals that cannot rapidly adapt just die off.
Flood takes place over a period of nearly 40 years and follows the four hostages, Nathan and Thandie and a number of other characters as they try to outrun, adapt to, prepare for, and defy the rising flood waters and a planet that is fast running out of dry land to walk on. With water levels that will ultimately rise by more than enough to cover Mount Everest the group will need to make choices that are beneficial to both themselves and to mankind on the whole or face the possibility that our species will go extinct when Mother Nature decides she’s finally had enough of us.
The Writing Style
Stephen Baxter’s writing can be very dry, and this is quite true of Flood. It’s not that the characters aren’t well realised or established, but here the characters are secondary to how they fit into the rapidly evolving disaster around them. What I did enjoy about these characters is that there are no heroes – in the face of unprecedented disaster they are flawed, sometimes basing their decisions on logic but always acting in self-interest, even if that self-interest is for the betterment of others.
The flooded world is also masterfully written. One of the things I like about Stephen Baxter is how thorough he is in his research and the consequences of what he writes about. While the flood is catastrophic, the disaster doesn’t end there. For example, as the seas rise the sewer systems are completely compromised, leading to a massive spread of disease across the flooding coastal regions. While that’s happening, the decaying detritus of the flooded cities starts to seep up and cause further disease and destruction (anyone up for swimming through clouds of Freon gas from drowned fridges?) And while our own civilisation rots and collapses around us, the rising flood waters also wipe out swathes of plant life, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect that only amplifies the problems caused by the flood. This constant barrage of problems is not only very interesting, but it creates an atmosphere of utter hopelessness and destitution as people do their best to escape a world that doesn’t want to offer them refuge anymore and the needs of the dispossessed are pitted against the interests of those doing their best to hold on to what they have on higher ground.
Mixed into this is just the right amount of sheer human defiance as different groups, headed up by the rich with the foresight to convert money into the right material possessions, struggle to create arks that will carry some remnant of humanity into the future. The beauty of this defiance, which Baxter describes very subtly, is how useful is a cruise liner to a species that evolved on grassland when soon enough all of the continents will be kilometres beneath the sea’s surface?
You know what it’s like when you’re on the edge of your seat with a movie? That’s how I felt with this book. You know things are going to get bad, but I didn’t think of all the implications of something like the ocean rising a little bit until Baxter pointed them out. Given the level of research that went into the book (the sources for which are included at the end of the book, for those interested in looking these things up) it also means that what you’re reading is plausible, which makes it simultaneously more interesting and infinitely more terrifying.
Beyond the general greatness of the book, Flood also holds a very special place in my heart for introducing me to Stephen Baxter’s work, but I’d like to think that doesn’t make me biased in any way.