Flood by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
14 July 2008
It turns out this is the way the world ends: neither with a bang nor a whimper, but a splosh. Baxter's new novel is, in several senses, a storming disaster tale—his best book for a long time, actually. It's a splendid and engrossing read and a thought-provoking whole to boot.
The story is there in the title. In 2016 persistent rainfall and rising sea-levels overcome the Thames Barrier and central London floods. Similar inundations happen in low-lying coastal regions around the world. Some consider this freak weather, others, small-scale global warming; but as Baxter's novel moves on, it becomes clear that something on a much larger scale is happening. The novel then tracks through three decades of rising water, and humanity's various strategies for dealing, or incapacities for coping, with the results.
Of course, there is a brilliant young scientist who understands the true state of affairs (water is pouring from seabed fissures, out of the body of the Earth itself), and of course the Scientific Establishment, wedded to old scientific paradigms, doesn't take her warning seriously until it is too late. Mind you, it's not clear to me what they could have done if they had heeded her earlier. Baxter details the various holding measures, then emergency plans, which humanity attempts, all the while believing that the waters will rise a little way and then stop. We, the readers, cotton on sooner than that. In my case, reading a bound proof from Orion Books, I cottoned on right at the start: the cover gives the game away. But the spoiler, in this case, hardly matters: the narrative drive has little to do with pondering, "Will the water stop rising at 50 meters? At 500 meters?" It derives from a more profound, and profoundly satisfying, sense of the onward driving inevitability of the disaster. It simply sweeps you along.
To humanize what might otherwise be a distancing perspective, Baxter focuses on a group of disparate characters brought together at the novel's opening by the unlucky chance of having been hostages of a radical Islamic terrorist group. It's a slightly creaky device, actually; I presume Baxter uses it as a way of striking a sort of keynote—we're all hostages to climate, as passively helpless in the face of ruthless events as any Westerner chained to a radiator in a terrorist's basement. But the opening sections are a little clumsy, straining slightly for effect ("one shot got him in the face, which imploded in a bloody mess," p. 14). Fortunately, you soon lose sight of that as the whole narrative carries you on along with its tidal bore. The hostages, released, try to get on with their various lives, maintaining a bond throughout the disaster.
On occasion the book is a little sketchy on details: "Even as the huge work of excavation continued, there were family arguments, divorces, suicides, murders" (p. 324), Baxter notes at one point, events which might usefully have been fleshed out a bit. Also, I found myself wondering, with respect to all this water overwhelming the world: whence? Baxter's premise is that there are "deep rock layers of the Earth's structure" that "contain lodes of water that would dwarf existing oceans." This is fair enough, although I wasn't sure what exactly is propelling several trillion metric tonnes of this famously incompressible fluid out of the rocks and onto the surface. The explanation in the novel is Lovelockian (which is to say, Gaiaesque), and is again fair enough. More, Flood is one of two: the sequel volume Ark is due next year, and that may give us more details. (Full disclosure: Baxter is a friend of mine. I taxed him with this matter and he produced a number of solid scientific rationalizations. One might almost say, in the voice of Magnus Pyke, that he blinded me with science; but then given his scientific luminosity and the mole-like weakness of my scientific eyes, that's not very hard to do. "Good heavens, Mr Stevimoto! You're beautiful!" and so on.)
The canvas is large, the narrative momentum prodigious, and—especially towards the end—there is a series of exquisite and haunting images of the post-apocalypse: a submarine journey through drowned London, the Queen Mary (a replica, actually, but still) sailing over the Matterhorn, and most strikingly of all a huge floating continent of plastic rubbish, two thousand kilometers across, shepherded by currents in what used to be the Pacific:
a mess of plastic netting, soda bottles, six-pack rings, bin liners, supermarket bags, bits of polystyrene packaging. In the watery sunlight the colours were bright, red and orange and electric blue, artificial colours characteristic of a vanished world. Lifted gently on the ocean's swells, the rubbish stretched all the way to the horizon, where a small ragged fleet of boats prowled. (p. 423)
The boats are guarding their resource, of course. I particularly loved, in a novel that treats the mythic resonance of Noah's original flood very nicely (which is to say, lightly) throughout, the way the rainbow from the original tale is here reimagined in terms of floating junk. "What we're seeing here isn't the sum total of waste," notes Piers, one of the original hostages who survives to the end. "Plastic itself is indestructible, but a plastic bag can be reduced, shredded, chewed and eroded, ripped to bits. It ends as a cloud of particles in the water … all the world's plastic produced since the nineteen-fifties, a billion tonnes of it, is still in existence." When another character observes, with some awe, that "it outlasted the civilization that produced it," Piers replies: "it will outlast mankind, no doubt. A million years, maybe, until some bug evolves the capacity to eat it. What a contribution to the biosphere!" (p. 424). Philip Larkin, in uncharacteristically melting mode, once claimed that "what will survive of us is love." Baxter knows better: it is wholly in keeping with the tone of this awe-inspiring, unsentimental, gripping book that we finish it with the sense that what will survive of us is shredded plastic.
Flood is sopping genius. Dive straight in.