Monday, June 09, 2008

Flood - Stephen Baxter

How much science do you like in your fiction? This is a topic that's been up for discussion recently, and your answer may form a good chunk of your opinion on Flood. Starting in 2016, we follow the fortunes of a group of ex-hostages, released from a 5-year imprisonment in troubled Spain to find a world in environmental meltdown. Sea levels have risen by a metre or more and are still rising, weather patterns are disrupted, and no-one knows how bad it's going to get. Over the course of the next 35 years or so, as the continents are swallowed one by one, we get their various perspectives on the drowning world and their own personal struggles for survival...

If you think this sounds like a cheesy Hollywood disaster movie, you wouldn't be far wrong - that's exactly the tone that this conjures up. It's compelling reading, and is full of action-packed setpieces (for example the first direct flooding scene, where an unseasonal storm devastates London), but at its heart contains a core of deep stupidity worthy of Crichton himself. For all the scientific references cited in the afterword, the whole concept behind the flood seems highly unlikely, and a lot of the other pseudo-scientific touches are just as dodgy (case in point - the portable music player which "beams the music directly into your brain", used by the kids of 2016). Using real-world near-future settings carries an extra burden of reader expectations with regard to realism, and, for me at least, it failed to deliver sufficient plausibility. I'd even have preferred Wyndham's Kraken Wakes deep-water aliens as an explanation; at least that's a decent bit of handwaving.

Another drawback was the rather uninspiring set of characters. They were nominally given personalities and motivations, but all of these felt strangely flat; their main purpose, really, was to be in key locations to observe the aforementioned setpieces. This involved a number of coincidences and deus ex machinas even dodgier than the science, as our hostages chummed up with billionaires, revolutionaries and research scientists, none of which I was remotely interested in. I suppose this is the much-vaunted "human angle" that journalists like to include in their disaster reporting, but I just wanted to see what was happening to the Earth, not some boring hunt for an abducted baby.

As with 28 Days Later, where the best bit is the pan shot across the deserted London, almost all the good parts of Flood are the ones describing the state of the world. Unfortunately my copy of the book was an ARC and so lacked maps, but the published version promises to start each section with a map showing the extent of the flooding when the sea level rises 10, 100, 1000 metres, and Baxter shows us many of the key events, from the loss of Bangladesh to the moment the Black Sea breaches the Bosphorus. What was missing from this, alas, was a convincing picture of the human scale of the disaster - with billions displaced or dead, I would have expected a much larger global economic or social upheaval, but the flow of consumer electronics appeared to flow unabated until the very last days, and everyone's satellite phones continued to work surprisingly well.

It was certainly an enjoyable read, but the devil is in the details, and these were dubious at best. If you like to read about great global catastrophes, then it's certainly worth a go, and dodgy science certainly hasn't hurt Crichton's career, but don't expect anything too convincing. It may make you look askance at high tides and rainstorms for a few days, but a believable prophecy of doom it's certainly not.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

1000 meters? What, does he have a few million comets crashing into the Earth? The absolute maximum upper limit for possible sea level rise is less than 100 meters - though even that would be disastrous, and is a disturbingly real possibility.

3:40 am  
Blogger Alice said...

Well, he does have a sort of explanation, but that falls well into the "dodgy science" part...

6:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thats why its called fiction u dicks! lighten up geeks

9:35 am  
Blogger Alice said...

Ah, looks like we've found the demographic, then.

12:07 pm  
Blogger Jake said...

Don't read this if you don't want to be spoiled (althought it's not exactly a big issue for the book)

The explanation for the rising sealevels is that subsurface oceans much larger then existing surface water are breaking open around deep sea vents, pouring enormous amounts of water into the system.

These subsurface deposits of water are believed to exist, but are mostly likely in the form of trillions of tiny droplets, not enormous oceans.

I really enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to the sequel.

7:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading some of the review, I'm coming under the impression that you either have a knack for picking the worst of a popular author's books or intentionally pick the worst ones. Pick up something else by Baxter see where that leads you.

10:44 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an avid fan of Baxter's work and I have to say this is one of his weakest efforts. Don't write him off on the basis of this terrible novel.

11:49 pm  

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