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July, 2008 : Review:

Review of Flood by Stephen Baxter

Flood by Stephen Baxter
Gollancz, July 2008; hardcover: 480pp.; £18.99
ISBN-13 978-0575080560

Snapshots of a drowning London, July 2016:

Warning sirens wail along the Thames estuary. From the air, the houses are "clusters of brick red like scrubby flowers huddling in the rain" (63). Cars clog all major roads out of the city, headlights peering through the dark of the storm. Water starts to spill "almost casually" (65) over flood barriers and walls, lifting the cars like logs. Further inland, the stout Thames Flood Barrier, designed to withstand all but a once-in-a-millennium event, is breached: water sweeps through Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs. The Dome is drowned. From the heights of One Canada Square, office workers peer down at the refugees washing around the base of their building; they take photographs, they laugh, they raise their glasses in salute. More water slops over the walls onto the South Bank, and onto the Embankment. The drains overflow. Standing at the RAF Memorial opposite the London Eye, this is what Helen Gray can see and hear:

Now that distant thunder deepened. She looked along the river, facing downstream. And she saw the storm coming. A vast wave spanned the river, white-topped, scouring towards the Hungerford bridge. Where it passed fountains of spray leapt up over river walls. People were standing on the walls photographing it; she saw the speckle of flashes. But water was pouring down the Embankment itself now, a river on the road surface, paralleling the surge. It was still a long way off, but she saw people being knocked off their feet, stationary cars being pushed aside like toys before a hosepipe (95).

This is the idiom of the disaster novel in full flow (as it were). It's undeniably bludgeoning stuff—thunder, water "scouring" and "pouring," short sentences—but it's designed to emphasize not just that the unfolding disaster is big, but that humans are small in the face of it. Toy-like, in fact; somewhat insignificant. This sort of perspective shift is an old science fictional trick, and indeed an old Stephen Baxter trick, but it works just as well here as it does when staring down the well of deep time, or across the face of a galaxy.

The first hundred pages of Baxter's Flood are full of such cunningly intense passages. In the face of them, it seems churlish to complain too strongly that "casual" breaches of flood walls occur several more times, including only a few pages after the instance noted above; or that it's not just the flood barrier that stands stoutly against the waters. Not least because if at a sentence level Baxter sometimes isn't as careful as he might be, in other ways he is often a very good writer of detail, picking out that speckle of flashes, or the scrub-like houses—the image or moment that will bring a sketchy panorama into clear relief. And you could say that Flood ultimately impresses as much as it does because Baxter pays attention to the detail of his idea.

We get our human perspective from four main guides, including Helen. All of them are ex-hostages, recently liberated from the clutches of terrorists in a disintegrating Spain—collapsing under the weight of migrants from drying Africa, becoming "a Lebanon of the West" (10)—by the security forces of AxysCorp. Helen is 25, English, and was raped while held by terrorists. Gary, also in his 20s, is an American meteorologist; Piers, in his 40s, is British military; and Lily, also in her 40s, is a half-American on loan to the UK from USAF. (Another detail that Baxter notes is that all of them are "white, and all British or American, the categories that made them valuable as hostages" [13].) After their release, we follow them—primarily Lily—back to a London struggling with constant near-disaster. It's as much of a shock to them as it is to us; something dramatic has happened to the climate in the five years the hostages have been held, and its effects have rippled into every area of life. Returning to the family home, Lily discovers that her mother is dead, and that her sister and two nieces have moved in following a mandatory "climate-proofing" of the premises, including such precautions as moving electricity sockets a meter up the wall, and tiling the floors. The Olympics were a washout, and other sports fixtures are delayed more often than not. "Green studies" are a new lesson in schools, with children encouraged to keep a scrapbook of relevant stories.

Before they have time to fully acclimatize, the ex-hostages are briefly reunited at a party hosted by AxysCorp CEO Nathan Lammockson, a third-generation Ugandan-British immigrant with big plans. "I feel it's time for somebody to show some leadership, to show we can cope with this fucked-up world of ours" (51), he says, cheerfully un-British in his belief that doing public good and profitability can be combined. Then we're into the flood of London, and the four split up again: Helen goes to meet a contact who has information about the whereabouts of her daughter, which is how she ends up where she does; Gary goes to rejoin some colleagues and figure out what the hell is going on; Piers is caught up in the refugee tide; and Lily ends up in the right place at the right time to rescue her sister from being swept away. Truthfully, in fact, all end up in the right place at the right time. The mode throughout is unashamedly journalistic and authoritative, the emphasis always on explaining what is happening, ensuring we have a clear picture in our minds of the unfolding calamity. And what we get to see depends on the information the characters have access to. The underlying assumption is that a clear picture is possible, at least while humanity's technology survives; there are a lot of news reports from around the world, and descriptions of satellite pictures, and every so often someone will get in a plane or a helicopter, the better to provide an overarching perspective. If it's a transparent strategy, it's another tribute to Baxter's skill at making the most of the opportunities it offers that we can ourselves still be swept away by the story; and swept we are. It is bold, compassionate, exhilarating, wrenching stuff.

Stephen Baxter is, of course, no stranger to catastrophe. He has, in the twenty-odd years of his career so far, destroyed the universe more than once, ruined the Earth about half a dozen times, and sent humanity to the wall on at least eight occasions that I can think of. To that extent, it's not surprising that he's good at conveying events of the magnitude that Flood depicts, in which the drowning of London is only the start. But only one previous novel—1998's Moonseedreally uses the same disaster-novel conventions as Flood to structure its narrative. Like Flood, the earlier novel describes a planetary threat; but comparing them, it's impressive how much, and in how many ways, Baxter has matured as a writer in the last decade. Notably, Flood showcases a new thoroughness and nuance in Baxter's representations of geography, history, and diversity; the depth is most noticeable in the sections dealing with the UK, such that I strongly suspect he was drawing on research done for the Time's Tapestry series, but it's a strength throughout the book. Flood is also a more controlled and better-paced piece of work than Moonseed from start to finish.

But the big difference, of course, is in subject matter. A global flood plugs directly into contemporary concerns in a way that Moonseed, with its B-movie-ish glob of alien nanotech from the moon, never could. But there is a difference, I think, between a climate change story—which is what Flood initially appears to be—and a, well, flood story, which is what the novel is ultimately revealed as. The latter goes back to Noah and Gilgamesh, and who knows how far before that, with contemporary expressions too many to count, while the former by definition only go back about half a century, and are still relatively sparse, with Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy (2004-2007) standing as a recent landmark. The similarity between the two types is that they are stories where disaster is caused by a lack of respect, and are about taking responsibility; the most important difference, beyond the simple scale of the events involved, is perhaps emphasis. In a flood story, the flood exists for a purpose beyond itself: it is a punishment, or the world's largest metaphor. In a climate change story, the change is just something that's happening, and that people have to deal with.

Transcendent (2005), in which the US has launched a global "Stewardship" to deal with sea level rises, is as close as Baxter has previously come to writing a climate change story. As I've suggested, Flood starts out in this mode. Its Cassandra-in-chief, Thandie Jones, comes to believe that Flood's floods are indeed caused by human action. Her theory is that the water is coming from deep sub-surface reserves—not literal undersea oceans, but molecular water locked in mineral compounds or trapped in porous rock—but neither she nor anyone else gets the chance to stop surviving for long enough to prove the theory. (Which is just as well since, as far as I can tell, although such water does exist there's no plausible way it could be released.) Nor is she able to convince the rest of the establishment. In fact, one of the neat tricks Baxter pulls by making the source of his flood something new is to render current climate change advocates the new deniers: thus denial becomes a human response to crisis, rather than a shrill characterization of a particular group of people.

However, once it becomes clear that the mechanism behind the flood is going to remain handwavy—indeed, the need for explanation is rather brusquely dismissed by one character: "What we have to deal with are the symptoms of this global sickness, whether we understand the causes or not" (280)—and once the water level shoots up past the theoretical eighty-meter maximum caused by melting of polar ice, the second half of Flood becomes a flood story. If there's a substantive criticism to be made of the book, I think it's here, in that although Baxter is equally capable in both modes, the shift between them is a little rough around the edges. In a sense, though, the shift is demanded by the logic of the story.

In order to make something as slow-moving as climate change storyable, you either need to make your characters live longer, as, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson does in Blue Mars, or you need to make the change shorter and sharper, which is the route Robinson takes in Science in the Capital and the route Baxter takes, to a much greater degree, here. (Of course you can set stories within an ecologically devastated future without deploying either of these strategies, and many writers have; but they then stop being stories about the process of climate change, and become stories about living with it.) The big advantage to Baxter's strategy is that it tremendously intensifies the problem, particularly in the early stages, creating a crucible within which the dramas caused by a changing environment—mass migration, for one—can play out on a human timescale. Stern currents of class, race, gender, religion and evolutionary biology all swirl through Flood, driving and shaping the drama. (The religious echoes, in particular, are well handled.) But once you've introduced that sort of acceleration, if you're a writer like Baxter you have to follow it through to its conclusion; and in this case that means shifting modes. So Flood skyhooks us into a story that—while still predominantly literal—is stranger and more emblematic than it at first appears.

After London, the four ex-hostages disperse, but make a pact to stay in touch. Lily and Piers keep close to Lammockson, who funds efforts to discover exactly what's causing the flood, and subsequently initiates big projects to survive the worst of it, including establishing a high-tech enclave at the top of the Andes. Helen, along with the Foreign Office official she met at the war memorial, continues efforts to locate her daughter, while Gary gets involved with the climatology effort, before ultimately being stranded in the midwestern United States. Through it all, the waters rise, marked by a relentless progression of numbers: every so often, someone will note what percentage of land has been lost, and what percentage of humanity has therefore been displaced or killed. Relationships, inevitably, are strained; indeed, there are almost no healthy human bonds in the novel. Humanity as a whole, it seems, is suffering from a form of traumatic stress, manifesting itself in weird, strained emotional attachments. Piers withdraws into himself; Lily's sister bounces between inappropriate relationships; Lily herself eventually enters into a relationship with Piers based more on pity and shared experience than anything enduring; several characters develop unhealthy fixations on children; and Lammockson's arrogance fairly quickly becomes outright bullying, including toward his own son. On a psychological level, Flood is one of Baxter's most complex efforts to date.

And good thing too, because it helps Flood to avoid becoming (as Moonseed was) disaster-porn, particularly in its later stages. Another factor in Flood's favor is that although the structure of the novel is one of relentless escalation, the initial rush provided by the opening flood of London fades, to be replaced by a pervasive sense of weariness: every time humanity reaches a new sanctuary, the waters force them to move on. But perhaps most significant is the point made by Piers, during a visit to an inundated New York, and the way Baxter's narrative responds to it. Diverting his companions from their journey to the UN building, where they will witness a presentation to the IPCC about the possible causes of the flood, Piers forces them to look at a refugee camp accumulating in Union Square. "We could fall into the trap of ignoring what's real" (171), he says, and it stings, because it's exactly what disaster stories traditionally do. Throughout, but particularly from that point onwards, Baxter seems to be at pains to point out the human costs of the flood. Lily's daughter keeps a scrapbook of events from around the world, from which we occasionally see excerpts, for instance; and the novel never forgets that the consequence of disaster is usually to exaggerate the gap between the haves and the have-nots, with every redoubt against the water being surrounded by its own immense shanty town. There perhaps aren't as many characters on the have-not side of the divide as I'd have liked, but there's no doubt that the great mass of humanity is the story, and that Flood gets closer to that story than most disaster novels I've read. If Baxter's characters are placed in a vantage point, it's so that they can report that much more accurately, not so they can be spared from trauma.

You could perhaps argue that in its final hundred pages Flood goes too far; that, essentially, it would have done better to stay as a climate change novel. But that would mean sacrificing some of the novel's most haunting images and, I think, would misunderstand Baxter's ultimate aim. At one point, Gary discusses the US government's attempts to build refuges from the floodwaters. One character points out that, whatever the happy benefits, "an awful lot of money will be filling an awful lot of corporate pockets." "Well, yeah," another character allows. "But at least it's visionary" (282). That, I think, sums up something important about Baxter's approach to science fiction, and to this novel in particular. Flood is intensely cynical about the ability of human society, with its prejudices and injustices, to survive a catastrophic event of this kind. It is nearly as cynical about the individuals who might be able to act where governments have failed. Lammockson's obsessiveness and arrogance are much-commented on, and ultimately he may be insane. Flood cannot, in other words, be described as uncritical; but it is still a work of vision, a work which ultimately tries to see as far as possible, a work in which arguably what is seen is more important than the seer. It's a trait—this search for the astonishing as well as the appalling, or even in the appalling—that runs through all of Baxter's best novels, from the personal longing of Natalie York that informs Voyage to the naked finality of humanity's destiny in Evolution. It is, in a way, a kind of faith. And it is the well from which everything in Flood flows.

Copyright © 2008, Niall Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

About Niall Harrison

Niall Harrison is editor of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and reviews editor at Strange Horizons. He has also reviewed for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation and Interzone. He blogs at Torque Control.


Jul 1, 03:40 by IROSF
Post your thoughts about Flood or Stephen Baxter.

The review is here.
Jul 2, 02:37 by James Morrison
It's also meant to be the first of a trilogy, I think.
Jul 2, 08:24 by Niall Harrison
First of a duology, so far as I'm aware -- the sequel is called Ark, and due next year.

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