FLOOD by Stephen Baxter

In his latest outing, Stephen Baxter’s reeled things in a bit. Instead of the vast blackness of space and all the wonders hidden in it, he brings us to a drowning Earth and gives us ringside seats to a civilization that’s slowly drowning with it.

Flood begins in 2016. Four hostages have just been released by a group of Christian fundamentalists at war with the Spanish government. The four hostages – former Air Force Captain Lily Brooke, British military man Piers Michaelmas, NASA scientist Gary Boyle and Helen Gray – have been released just in time to witness a world at a turning point in its history, as sea levels around the world have begun inexplicably to rise. So far the damage has been relatively minor, but things are slowly getting worse. Before long, millions must be evacuated from Australia. London and New York City are covered by the rising waters. Millions of refugees flee as the last remaining governments go to war over the high ground. And still, the waters are rising.

It’s interesting to measure Baxter’s book against something like, say, Waterworld, that explains away a drowned Earth with a single line of dialogue. “The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water.” Baxter, by contrast, goes into sometimes chilling detail, giving us a much more realistic portrayal of the lengths people go through to survive the end of civilization. While the rich sink (zing!) their money into grand projects like floating cities and gigantic luxury liners, waves and waves of poor refugees take to the open road. Thousands, millions, heading further inland as the coasts are flooded, then flooded again. On the other side of the world, China and Russia go to war over Central Asia. Word of this spreads slowly, as communication systems all over the world are set back more than a hundred years.

While the science behind some of Baxter’s other books may have you scratching your head, Flood is surprisingly easy to understand. It’s discovered that the ocean’s rise is being caused by giant underground reservoirs that have ruptured and are now spewing their contents into the sea. It’s been hypothesized that this is actually a possible scenario, and that possibility really sucks you into the story.

If you’re a newcomer to Baxter’s work, this is probably a good book to start off with. As said, the science behind the science fiction is easy enough for anyone to understand. And the disaster story, which lies at the heart of Flood, is one we’re all fascinated with. There are a few things some might have problems with. The lack of character development being the biggest (although that’s less of a problem here than it is in Baxter’s other work). There are a few stock characters Baxter tends to reuse. The most prominent in Flood being Nathan Lammockson, the billionaire businessman who arranges for the four hostages to be released in the beginning of the novel. Baxter’s books almost always feature technology that’s years ahead of anything we’ve ever seen, so there’s got to be some rich eccentric who’s looking for an excuse to grease the wheels. Stuff like this may bother some, but it’s a minor quibble and fans of Baxter and the genre will probably consider it par for the course.

Flood is a lot of fun, and a novel that makes you ask how you were able to get through it so quickly. The fact that Baxter chose to bring things back down to Earth lends a certain humanity to the story that some of his others may find a bit lacking. You’ll be hooked all the way through to the book’s last line, which segues perfectly into the second part of Baxter’s duology, Ark. Recommended for both vets and newbies.

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