(2008) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £12.99, pbk, 473pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08058-4
Well, well, well. A good old-fashioned disaster novel: who'da thunk it! Nothing wrong with them of course but, just as with disaster movies, there is little you can really do with them. Either it is a disaster that you can do something about, in which case it's usually a race against time kind of thing, as the characters run around trying to avert catastrophe, or it is a disaster that you can not do anything about, in which case it becomes either a 'how much can you do to mitigate circumstances' story ('It was awful, but we can rebuild') or an 'oh dear, we're screwed' story (tragic but noble characters die but re-affirm human values). This book pretty much falls into this last category.
So, our cast of tragic but noble characters... Lily Brooke, a USAF captain and helicopter pilot; Gary Boyle, a NASA climatologist; Piers Michaelmas, British military; and Helen Gray, relative nobody; these are all held hostage for five years in Spain by a Christian extremist group. In 2016 they are busted out of captivity by AxysCorp who are looking for one of their employees, John Foreshaw, killed just before the rescuers arrive. Helen also has a baby, Grace, having been raped by one of her captors, a Saudi prince called Said. This group emerge into a world that is experiencing a sea-level rise unpredicted by the best climate models, and it rapidly becomes clear that something other than global warming must be at its root. Through their eyes we are introduced to further characters who collectively allow the reader to jaunt around the world as the disaster unfolds. There is Lily's sister, Amanda, and her kids, Kristie and Benj; a colleague of Gary's, Thandie, another climatologist; and Michael, a Foreign Office official who is helping Helen to locate baby Grace, stolen by the Saudis. The group is held loosely together by Nathan Lummockson, a British billionaire and head of AxysCorp (who eventually ends up either directly or indirectly employing most of them). And, from thereon out, we follow the fortunes of the cast as the world drowns between 2016 and 2052, with various ups and downs, changes of fortune, but always with a steadily accelerating disaster unfolding. As you might imagine, as more and more land ends up under water, there are refugee crises and wars over high ground and extreme groups making bids for power and religious types slaughtering each other, and so on and so on. All pretty much par for the course. So we end up with a 'can any of humanity be saved?' plot, and the answer is a qualified 'maybe' which it is worth reading the book to find out about...
This was an interesting book for me, largely because I have a love-hate relationship with Baxter's work; some of his books I think are utterly brilliant (usually the whacked-out far future stuff, but also his 'steam-punk' output) and some of them I think are just boring (the plodding detail of near-futures or, worst still, pasts). In theory, this book should have fallen into the latter category but, for a change, I was actually quite engaged with the goings-on. Of course, part of that is due to the slow-motion car-crash enjoyment of disasters, but I also enjoyed most of the characters too. So, if you too like a good unfolding disaster, this is definitely one for you. Enjoy.
See also Jonathan's review of the hardback of Flood by Stephen Baxter.
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