Not a BSFA Best Novel 2010 Nominee: Flood by Stephen Baxter (Gollancz)

Title: Flood
Author: Stephen Baxter
Pages: 480
Genre: Science Fiction
Standalone/Series: Series
Release: Out Now in Paperback
Publisher: Gollancz

Synopsis

Next year. Sea levels begin to rise. The change is far more rapid than any climate change predictions; metres a year. Within two years London, only 15 metres above the sea, is drowned. New York follows, the Pope gives his last address from the Vatican, Mecca disappears beneath the waves.
Where is all the water coming from? Scientists estimate that the earth was formed with seas 30 times in volume their current levels. Most of that water was burnt off by the sun but some was locked in the earth’s mantle. For the tip of Everest to disappear beneath the waters would require the seas to triple their volume. That amount of water is still much less than 1% of the earth’s volume. And somehow it is being released. The world is drowning. The biblical flood has returned.

And the rate of increase is building all the time. Mankind is on the run, heading for high ground. Nuclear submarines prowl through clouds of corpses rising from drowned cities, populations are decimated and finally the dreadful truth is known. Before 50 years have passed there will be nowhere left to run.

Flood tells the story of mankind’s final years on earth. The stories of a small group of people caught up in the struggle to survive are woven into a tale of unimaginable global disaster. And the hope offered for a unlucky few by a second great ark . . .

The ultimate disaster – the world is drowning and there is nowhere left on earth to go.

Comments/Thoughts/Analysis

If I’m being honest I wouldn’t have been reading Flood if Ark wasn’t nominated for the BSFA Best Novel this year. Why? You’ll have to excuse the pun but I thought that Stephen Baxter was going to be dry and academic. I really did, which is my immediate reaction to most heavy SF writers. Though to be far I think that most pure fantasy writers are going to be dry and boring too, seeing as I’m being honest.

But like my assertions on heavy SF and pure fantasy writers in general I was wrong. There is nothing dry about Flood. In fact it’s more than entertaining. It’s educational too. That’s the School of Harsh Truths that Baxter is making us study in.

So it’s theoretically possible that the Earth’s sea levels will increase but what if they increased dramatically? What would happen to the land and the people? That’s what Baxter looks at. Though he keeps his view focused on the top of the tree – those that have the means and power to survive.

This focus does make it slightly surreal as I don’t know any billionaires or their connections so I’m going to have to take it on faith this is what they are like. And I have to take it on faith that some of the meetings between the characters were possible.

But then for all the 6 billion people on this planet it turns out that most of the time it’s a very small world indeed. So it is plausible and even provably that they could connect the way they do.

I must admit to being worried by the opening. Five hostages being moved across Spain doesn’t sound like a my kind of thing but it’s essential to what happens next in the world and their bond and characters really holds the rest of the story together. They provide the perfect picture and opportunity to explore the flooding and how different functions react.

Bizarrely, the science and the mass human reactions feel real but the story does feel just like a story, something that is made up, and slightly unreal. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing and was probably the reason why I enjoyed the journeys of the characters so much but if you are expecting something drier and academic from Baxter then this isn’t a book for you.

Baxter has a wonderfully confident way with narrative. The calendar leaps are well timed and feel natural. He provides dates, estimated sea levels and occasional maps to help place things in context.

And he uses the bonds of each of the characters as a very strong anchor to ground everything else. To be honest humanity on the whole doesn’t come across that well. We are all animals at the end of the day. Basic values can and do go out the window when we have to cater for our own survival.

But we only see glimpses of that. Baxter keeps his focus on a billionaire and his plans to save what’s his. Both his money or at least the influence and the materials that it can buy him and the people he employs that are closet to him.

Summary

Baxter does an excellent job of mixing hard science fact with entertainment. He’s chosen a good mix of avatars to explore the effect that rising see levels would have on the human and non human inhabitants of Earth.

There is a genuine sadness at the fates of some of the characters. The humanity and the human reasoning for the actions of the main characters does make it more thriller than documentary and it worked so much better for it.

Baxter surprised me by taking a serious and potentially realistic scenario and turning into something that makes you wonder what would you and could you do if everything changes just because the water didn’t stop rising.

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