Monday, August 16, 2010

"Flood" by Stephen Baxter

This was our most recent SF book club book. There is not really much to it conceptually. Its single idea is to imagine what would happen to the world if the level of the seas started to rise at an ever increasing and implacable rate. The book follows a number of characters as they scramble for higher ground and try to make sense of what is going on. One of the characters is an incredibly rich can-do entrepreneur type who serves as patron to the others, so they get to see more of things than they would if they were just moving between a succession of refugee camps.

Although you might think this is a global warming book, it is established fairly early on that the sea level rise is happening independently of any melting of the polar ice caps. It is also happening faster than even the most alarmist projections of global warming science. The somewhat outlandish explanation that is eventually outlined is that the floor of the ocean has shattered at a number of points, causing some huge sub-oceanic reservoirs of water to spurt forth. There is apparently some scientific evidence to support the existence of these vast bodies of water stored somewhere in or below the earth's crust. It struck me as a bit outlandish, however, that they would all burst out simultanaeously for no obvious reason, or that the rate of flow from them would keep increasing. But the book is more about the depiction of a drowning world than the science.

That depiction of the drowning world is very vivid. Baxter has a great eye for visual detail and telling vignettes, and much of this book will live on in my mind forever – the mobile city of the Seminole, the roofs of the National Gallery covered in pigeons as Trafalgar Square floods (the whole sequence in which the Thames Barrier is overwhelmed and London floods is a tour de force), the cannibalistic gulag into which the Tibetan plateau is transformed, and many more. The character stuff is maybe not so great, with some odd leaps in behavioural logic needing to be swallowed by the reader. But that is just flim-flam compared to the big picture story of the world we know disappearing beneath the waves. The depiction of that horror is done very well, and I must salute Stephen Baxter as a writer of great talent.

However, I cannot really recommend this book. There is something soul-destroying about a work that begins with London flooding and ends with people on rafts watching the sea rise over Mount Everest. Nothing the human characters do can stop or even slow the rising sea levels. Maybe the efforts of the aforementioned entrepreneur and some others will lead to the human race surviving, but it does seem like a pretty marginal existence for the various boat peoples.

There is nevertheless a sequel to Flood, a book with the evocative title of Ark. And it is the next book for SF book club! If you fancy reading it, you can probably pick up a copy from the Dublin Central Library in the ILAC (you may need to ask at the counter for it). It looks like it exists at least somewhat independently to Flood, so you would not have to have read that first. We will be discussing it there on the 14th September.

I should mention that Flood is not the first inundation-themed novel to pass through SF book club. Some time back we read The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard. That is a very different kind of work. Ballard's characters have a languid detachment that is very different from the desperate energy of Baxter's people. In some ways it seems like Baxter's book is the more realistic while Ballard's has a certain visionary quality to it. Then again, maybe if the world was falling apart around you, your response might just be to kick back with a large gin and tonic.

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