Flood by Stephen Baxter

Flood by Stephen Baxter has the feel of a typical mega-disaster novel, one where a cast of characters confronts a huge threat from all angles.  Flood, appears to be a warning about global warming, but it’s not, not really.  Baxter predicts yet another source of water flowing into the oceans to make their rise far more dramatic than the worst global warming predictions.  Flood can almost be called a prequel to the film Waterworld.

baxter-flood

For the average reader, maybe even the average science fiction reader, Flood is a scary novel that people will equate to the effects of global warming.  That’s unfortunate.  Flood is more in the tradition of end-of-the-world disaster novel, especially when you consider it’s sequel due out soon.  Think of Flood as a special effects movie, like the recent film 2012, were movie goers go to watch the special effects of Earth being destroyed.  Readers of Flood get to observe one great city after the another destroyed by water – Katrina times 1,000,000.  Along the way mankind makes one valiant stand on high ground after another, each time hoping to gain a foothold to build a new world order, and time and again, each gallant effort is drowned by relentless rising waters.  Baxter gets to show a variety of political solutions to the problem, and that in itself is interesting.

It’s quite fascinating to compare a literary end-of-the world novel like The Road by Cormac McCarthy to a science fiction genre novel like Flood.  McCarthy’s story is 90% characterization and 10% details about the end of the world.  Baxter’s story is 90% description about the end of the world and 10% characterization.  The Road was 256 pages, and Flood is 490 – so we get a lot of details.  Writing a novel like Flood is mind boggling to contemplate because of the massive amount of information involved.  While reading Flood, I kept thinking about all the research Baxter had to do to create each page.  Depending on your mood and reading tastes, Flood could seem like one long info-dump, or it could be a thrilling vision painted in words.

Now here’s the funny thing, McCarthy’s book is far more realistic.  It’s far more likely to happen than Baxter’s story.  I could even call The Road ultra hard literary science fiction.  Flood, on the other hand, is something different.  It’s totally unlikely to happen.  It’s a made up scenario to make an epic science fictional fable.  Baxter goes for the Big Wow!  A superficial glance at the story would suggest it’s a warning about global warming – but again it’s not.  If Baxter had written a more realistic tale of 2016-2052, with as much characterization as Cormac McCarthy’s story, we might be hailing him for writing a literary prophetic novel of global warming, but he didn’t. 

Science fiction generally goes to for ridiculously big story, and in this case I’m torn between really enjoying the wild ride and being disappointed that Baxter failed to be serious and write a believable SF novel about humans altering the planet.  McCarthy proved that deadly serious catastrophe novels can be big best sellers.  I doubt Flood will receive any notice in the world of books at large, and only minor notice within the small world of science fiction readers.

Science fiction has always been about ideas, but not necessary realist ideas.  On every page of Flood, Baxter gives his reader something big to think about, but the novel doesn’t have a traditional fictional structure, it’s more like a documentary that takes thirty-six years to film.  For characterization, we get to watch a handful of reporters get old.  It’s the kind of story that would have appeared in Astounding Science Fiction or Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The book does have plenty of ideas to explore philosophically.  For example, at one point people in London are wondering if they should run for the hills, and then country folk blow up the roads and bridges letting them know they aren’t wanted.  Will that happen in the real world?  It’s a lot to think about.  Throughout the book we hear about one species after another going extinct, but the one I was most chilled at was my kind, “The global extinction event has claimed the coach potato.”  Flood does try to realistically portray collapsing urban environments, and it made me realize I wouldn’t have much of a chance.

Even with the weak characterization and monumental info-dumps Flood is a real page turner.  Before mother nature gets Biblical on humanity, the book can be read as an illustration of what global warming might do to some cities, but after a point you realize Baxter is a kid bent on blowing everything up for the sense of wonder thrill of it all.  And it is epic fun, in the same way When Worlds Collide thrilled me as at thirteen.  I’m looking forward to reading the sequel Ark, which is why this book isn’t realistic, but ultimately very science fictional.

Baxter has created an amazing vision but I wished he had made the mixture at least 25% characterization and 75% details.  The characters occasionally moved me, but for the most part they were pawns in the plot.  Only when Grace does a runner did I feel any character acting on their own agenda and breaking free of Baxter’s strings.  That’s how you tell great characterization – when all the characters have their own agendas making any plot meaningless.  Characters are slave to plots in genre stories, and seldom get to break out.  Great characters take control of their strings and make puppets of their authors.  I wanted to rate Flood much lower because of the weak characterization, but the far out A+ science fiction overwhelms the story.

Final Grade:  B+

JWH – 12/30/9 

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