Fiction Reviews


(2008) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, 18.99 / 12.99, hrdbk / trd pbk, 504 pp, ISBN 978--0-575-0-8056-0 / 978-0-575-0-8058-4


Flood is an epic disaster story of planetary proportions. The advance publicity itself had a few nice touches. The proof, bound copy had a cover looking as if it had been dried out and even came sealed in a transparent waterproof evidence bag. The cover also showed that it had been retrieved by a retrieval team from off-planet in the 22nd century.

Flood begins in the year 2016 with hostages taken by terrorists being released by a private security team run by a billionaire following five years in isolated captivity. This five-year gap serves to provide a disjunction between our perception of reality and the different sea level rise in the novel's near future setting. It also provides us with five characters to follow over the next three decades as the World adjusts to a major biosphere event: unprecedented sea level rise.

One of the hostages is a biosphere (or in today's trendy scientific parlance (not used in the book) Earth systems) scientist and soon realises that the sea level rise is not just due to global warming but something else. At first it is the coastal low-lying areas that are threatened. Naturally the Thames Barrier, hence central London, is one of the first casualties, but the water keeps rising.

Though the flooding hugely disrupt the lives of many, humanity goes on with only low-lying communities having to migrate. However the seas continue to rise inch by inch and what's more ever faster. Now even those clinging to global warming models realise that something else is happening and it is not long before deep sea probes discover that water is being added to the oceans from within the Earth's crust. And still the sea level continues to rise...

A decade on and major relocation has taken place but some nations' authorities are beginning to show the signs of strain. Yet still the water continues to rise.

With suffering, conflict and old values eroding, humanity is entering survival mode and those with power and far-sighted inclination start to make long term plans. But will these be enough?

The concept of global flooding has of course been dealt with before in SF with perhaps one of the classic examples being J. G. Ballard's Drowned World (1963). Yet that was before current climate change concerns and the appearance of the first symptoms thereof. (This is something I know a little about: see Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects or ask a convention to get me to talk about it.) Here it should be noted that the UK saw exceptional rainfall in 2007 and much flooding. This was exactly the type of event we would expect with climate change (despite a very disingenuous report that made the UK national news earlier this year from a Government research station (and which I will be covering in my next book). Stephen Baxter himself lives outside of the worst affected area, though I see from the data that rivers in his area were exceptionally high (and his area also had an unusually low soil moisture deficit which meant that the land could not absorb that much rain so increasing the chance of inundation). Nonetheless irrespective of where you lived in Britain in 2007, with flooded homes, power being cut, contaminated water supplies on the news for a few weeks, this was clearly grist for an SF writer's mill should they wish to use it. Baxter clearly has.

Having said that the science underpinning this novel is only of the thinnest of veneers (though as Baxter points out in an afterword there is some science on which he could very loosely hang the novel's premise). But this does not really matter; after all science fiction is 'fiction'. What does matter is that this is a compelling disaster novel and a good SFnal one at that with it being of global proportions. It also has tension that is maintained by the slow but inexorable rise in water that continues until the book's inevitable conclusion in the year 2044. My only concern -- an ethical twinge really -- is that the subject matter is, or will be, all too real for those affected by flooding be they small numbers in the UK and elsewhere today or the tens of millions in the Ganges and associated deltas in the coming decades as global warming causes the seas to rise. Conversely the main protagonists in Flood do get off comparatively lightly even if some of the masses' misery is glimpsed. But then powerful stories should make you a little pensive and in this sense being a little uncomfortable surely is no bad thing?

Now if Kevin Costner's film producer and director had read Baxter's Flood and taken note, then Waterworld might have begun to reach its potential. Recommended and also seek out J. G. Ballard's Drowned World (1963) for a different but excellent take.

Jonathan Cowie

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