Author: Stephen Baxter
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Apocalyptic Fiction
Publication Date: May 2009
Hardcover: 490 pages
Stand Alone or Series: Book 1 in a duology.
Why did I read this book: We were offered a review copy of Flood, and after looking at the gorgeous – and terrifying – cover, and quickly reading through the blurb, I was sold. Apocalyptic fiction is my weakness, and I had not yet read anything by the esteemed Mr. Baxter.
Summary: (from Penguin.com)
The “deeply scary”(BBC Focus) new novel from a national bestselling and critically acclaimed author.
Four hostages are rescued from a group of religious extremists in Barcelona. After five years of being held captive together, they make a vow to always watch out for one another. But they never expected this…
The world they have returned to has been transformed by water—and the water is rising. As it continues to flow from the earth’s mantle, entire countries disappear. High ground becomes a precious commodity. And finally, the dreadful truth is revealed: before fifty years have passed, there will be nowhere left to run…
In the year 2016, four hostages are finally liberated from their political and religious extremist captors by a powerful conglomerate, AxysCorp. Having been kept chained in cellars for five years, former USAF pilot Lily Brooke and her fellow captives return to an alien world. Recuperating in London, Lily reconnects with her estranged younger sister, niece and nephew, but drastic changes immediately threaten Britain. Flooding on a massive scale beings – the Thames overspills, and London and other coastal areas are awash in flood waters, made worse by the torrential rains. Soon, Lily learns that the flooding is not localized to London – the extreme weather patters are echoed in Australia, and countries around the world. Over the next fifty years, Flood follows the unchecked rise of the oceans, from the scant originally predicted 5 meter rise datum to the worldwide devastation of over 8000 meters of water, documenting the struggle of life on Earth to overcome and survive.
Flood is a haunting apocalypse novel, full of powerful ideas and resonating images of a water-logged planet. Mr. Baxter puts an incredible amount of research and scientific detail into this book, examining a future where sea rise completely obliterates the planet. Though the rise is ultimately (at least possibly) attributed to humanity, this is not some global warming parable. No, although the planet is warming and ice reservoirs melting, the exponential rise in sea-levels is because of subterranean water pushing up from beneath the Earth’s mantle – as Thandie, the brilliant scientist who discovers the phenomenon explains:
“Look — the Earth is like an egg, with the core the yolk, the mantle the white, and the crust the shell. To cover all the land surface would require an ocean three times the volume of the existing seas — but this would amount to less than one percent of the Earth’s total volume. It would be an immense event for us, but only a little weeping of the white out onto the shell.”
Even though I, like Lily admit that I’m no scientist, it’s a terrifying theory and grippingly portrayed in this novel.
While the science seems entirely detailed and plausible (at least enough to suspend disbelief), the book itself actually takes a while to really dig into because of two factors: its initial lack of character focus, and the list-like, clinical descriptions of cities and countries succumbing to the rising water. On the character front, though Lily is the closest thing we readers have to a central protagonist, the novel varies in focus from Lily to fellow former hostages Helen, Piers, and especially scientist Gary, especially in the early years of the flood. The effect is at times dizzying, and instead of being able to connect with any character in the early chapters I felt distanced from each of them. These characters in themselves are a device – their extended period of captivity means that they have to be reintroduced to a strange new world, allowing for explanations to made to readers through the ignorance of these observers. As a result, the characters are not nearly so fleshed out as one might expect from a large scale apocalypse story (in contrast to, say, Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert McCammon’s Swan Song). At least, this is how I felt initially – by the second half of the book, the focus settles firmly on Lily, following her life and her relationships with Nathan (the founder of AxysCorp and many times over the man who has ensured hers and the Barcelona hostages’ survival), with Piers, but especially with her younger sister Amanda and niece Kristie. Lily is the anchor of this book, the emotional rock amid the torrent of floodwater, and the one character I felt connected to, though it did take a few hundred pages to get to that level.
The other factor that made Flood a hard novel to delve into (initially), is the emotionless, clinical way Mr. Baxter describes the rising sea levels around the world. In an offhand remark, New York is destroyed. In another, Louisiana disappears. In yet another, Australia has vanished from the face of the Earth. But, again, by mid-novel, this sense of detachment wore off…or at least, my understanding of Mr. Baxter’s writing had increased.
I found myself wondering if this wasn’t Mr. Baxter’s point with his detached voice; that it was a conscious decision to remove any emotional bravura from these descriptions. Flood paints broad strokes, impassively moving from drowned city to drowned city, and by mid-novel, the overwhelming tragedy of it all, the indifference of Mr. Baxter’s tone – as indifferent as the rising salt water – left its mark, emotionally, on me as a reader.
Too, the powerful images in the later portion of the book reinforce this emotional ache. These visions are incredibly haunting: the vision of Nathan’s Ark 3, a replica of the Queen Mary, sailing the world’s landless, plastic bag covered oceans; the human skulls guarding the last outpost in the Nepalese Himalayas bearing grim warning of what type of society lies beyond the gates; the emerging society of rafts.
By the end of Flood, the effect is profoundly sad, and profoundly moving. When the last rock succumbs to the sea, it’s a pronounced, desolate finale. Though this is by no means a perfect book, I cannot say how emotionally impacted I was by Flood – especially considering I was skeptical and unimpressed by the first 200 pages or so. A book hasn’t resonated so much with me since I read Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer last year (incidentally, my favorite read from last year). Flood is a relentless, powerful, profound novel, and one I whole-heartedly recommend.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the later portion of the novel:
The prow of the Ark plowed into the crust that covered the sea.
Lily stood with Piers on the foredeck, watching. It was as if they stood on an icebreaker pushing its way through the pack of ice of the Arctic. But the crust on this ocean was not ice but garbage. Lily had small binoculars, and through them the surface scum resolved into a mess of plastic netting, soda bottles, six-pack rings, bin liners, supermarket bags, bits of polystyrene packaging. In the watery sunlight the colors were bright, red and orange and electric blue, artificial colors characteristics of a vanished world. Lily thought she could smell it, a stink of rot and mold and decay, but that was probably her imagination; this far from land not much would have survived the hungry jaws of the sea but indestructible, biologically useless plastic.
For more on Flood, check out Stephen Baxter’s website. He has an essay on the background of the novel, titled “The Flooding of London”. Also, there’s a collection of short fiction from the Flood world, Scrapbook.
Additional Thoughts: Two things, actually.
Nathan Lammockson – rescuer of the Barcelona hostages, visionary behind AxysCorp – thinks ahead as the waters continue to rise worldwide, and builds an refuge named Ark 3 – a replica of the Queen Mary.
As a Southern California resident, I’ve been to see the illustrious Queen Mary, now cemented and forever docked in Long Beach (see below).
Larger, grander, and ultimately more lucky than the ill-fated Titanic, Lammockson says he fell in love with the Queen Mary on a visit he made to Long Beach as a child…he couldn’t have picked a better vision for his sanctuary.
Book 2 in this apocalyptic duology is titled Ark and is out August 2009 (for lucky UK residents). Check out the cover:
Gorgeous, isn’t it? Ark tells the story of Ark 1 from Flood. Here’s the blurb:
As the waters rose in FLOOD, high in the Colorado mountains the US government was building an ark. Not an ark to ride the waves but an ark that would take a select few thousand people out into space to start a new future for mankind. Sent out into deep space on a journey lasting centuries, generations of crew members carry the hope of a new beginning on a new, incredibly distant, planet. But as the ages pass knowledge and purpose is lost and division and madness grows. And back on earth life, and man, find a new way. This is the epic sequel to the acclaimed FLOOD; a stirring tale of what mankind will do to survive and the perfect introduction for new readers to one of SFs greatest tropes; the generation ship. Written by one of the most significant SF writers of the last 30 years, a man considered to be the heir of Arthur C. Clarke as a writer with a unique ability to popularize science and science fiction for the largest possible audience FLOOD and ARK together form a landmark in modern SF.
Verdict: A poignant, resonating tale about the end of the world as we know it. Flood terrifies as the world endures. Highly recommended.
Rating: 8 Excellent
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