BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The human species approaches extinction as the Earth’s ocean levels rise with no end in sight.
PROS: Wonderfully bleak mood that intensifies as the book progresses.
CONS: The prevalence of technology during the decline of civilization occasionally took me out of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: The book evokes a memorably bleak mood that lingers between readings.
Stephen Baxter’s Flood, which is part disaster novel and part apocalyptic fiction, documents the rising level of Earth’s oceans. The phenomenon is gradual enough at first to avoid too much concern among the world population, but it soon becomes apparent that not only is the problem more serious than first perceived — and more than can be attributed to global warming alone — but the rate at which the water is rising is increasing. What occurs over the course of the novel, which spans 36 years, is the gradual decline of civilization. It starts by people fleeing to higher ground and progresses to camps of survivors dealing with the harsh reality of deteriorating resources.
The descent into extinction is seen through the eyes of four people, all of whom were held captive together for five years. Their rescue came via the self-serving altruism of Nathan Lammockson, a rich entrepreneur who uses his resources to help civilians while increasing his influence and power. After their ordeal, the ex-captives promise to stay in touch; they are: former US Air Force pilot Lily Brooke, who ends up working for Nathan and riding the coattails of his long term plan for survival; Helen Gray, who vows to find the baby she had while in captivity; Gary Boyle, a NASA scientist and weather expert who tries to understand the source of the rising flood waters; and British officer Piers Michaelmas, who throws himself headlong into responding to the global eco-threat. They try to return to normal lives, but they find that the world is now threatened by the rising tides.
Flood is definitely more of an apocalyptic novel than it is a disaster novel. So instead of offering action-heavy scenes of heroics and destruction, it revolves around the characters and how they deal with the ever-changing world around them. There are scenes of mass destruction, of course, but they are usually seen from the impersonal perspective of helicopters or told of through a grapevine of dwindling survivors. The effect is not one of individual horrors but of global disaster. This sets a morose tone for the book that lingers between readings. That the story is told over decades shows that the flood is not a short-term problem, but a planet-changing event.
The seriousness of the human predicament intensifies as the story progresses and resources become even more precious. A select few (rich businessmen like Nathan and the dwindling governments) use the intervening years to prepare for a changed world. For her part, Lily benefits from her relationship with Nathan, who leverages technology to survive. There were a few moments related to this that pulled me out of the story, though. For example, will Internet and cell phone service survive that long with unattended maintenance? Then there are other scenes that starkly (and believably) present the survivors’ new reality, which pulled me right back in again.
A book with such a serious plot is a fertile soapbox for preachy symbolism: there’s a flood of biblical proportions; the inevitable ark; having the ecology strikes back at man, etc. I suppose readers can read however much of this they want into it, but Flood does not come off sounding to me as if it had a message to tell. What it did do was tell an engrossing story about the approaching end of mankind and it did so in a way that was believable and memorably bleak. There are at least two possibilities that the next book (the conclusion of this duology) could take. Having enjoyed Flood so much (as much as being depressed could be called enjoyable) I look forward to seeing where Baxter goes next.