Flood – Stephen Baxter (2007)
‘It begins in 2016. Another wet Summer, another year of storm surges and high tides. But this time the Thames Barrier is breached and central London is swamped. The waters recede, life goes one, the economy begins to recover, people watch the news reports of other floods around the world. And then the waters rise again. And again.
Lily, Helen, Garry and Piers, hostages released from five years of captivity in Spain, return to England and the first rumours of a flood of positively Biblical proportions begin…
Sea levels begin to rise at catastrophic speed. Within two years London and new York will be under water. The Pope will give his last address from the Vatican before Rome is swallowed by the rising water. Mecca too will vanish beneath the waves.
The world is drowning. A desperate race to find out what is happening begins. And all the time the waters continue to rise and mankind begins the great retreat to higher ground.
Millions could die, billions will become migrants. Wars will be fought over mountains.’
Blurb from the Gollancz 2009 Paperback edition
Baxter’s apocalyptic novel offers fresh perspective on at least the causes of rises in sea-levels. Some research tends to suggest that subterranean oceans exist, presumably under great pressure, since the release of these compressed bodies of water produces a flood of literally biblical proportions which eventually drowns the entire Earth’s landmass.
Understandably the novel covers the decades that the waters take to reach this point.
Structurally, Baxter takes four central characters, Lily, Piers, Helen and Gary, who have been held ransom for years by Spanish terrorists in the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s an interesting device to use since the experience has bonded the four tighter than family members. Gary is a meteorologist, handily enough and Piers is a military man who was traumatised by his confinement but now finds a strength in an odd relationship with Lily. The four are in a sense adopted by a millionaire businessman, Nathan Lomockson, who is seeking to use technology to save Humanity and make a profit in the process.
The narrative revolves around Lily who is reunited with her sister and young niece and nephew, while the other characters weave their stories around her.
Lily is indeed the central Canute figure who fights against the tide and the extinction of her friends and family, at one point almost forcing her sister to abandon her abusive boyfriend in a caravan commune on the moors.
As the lands shrink, populations and wildlife begin to compete for space, while Lomockson has set in motion various programmes to help Humanity survive afloat, such as an engineered algae/seaweed which grows into a thick floating mat and can be used as a raft-home, and his Ark 3, a liner based on the original blueprints of the Queen Mary.
This is a novel which is more character driven than most disaster novels, one is left slightly disappointed by the lack of descriptions of the effects of tsunamis pouring across continents as the weight of the new water shifts the positions of tectonic plates. Much of this happens off the page and is later reported via Lily or Gary.
One would also imagine that the ocean biosphere would undergo rapid change, and this is hardly touched upon. One is reminded of George R Stewart’s ‘Earth Abides’ and his description of ‘blooms’ of various species each year as nature sought to find a balance once Man had been temporarily removed from the scene.
Maybe it is this that is missing. Something certainly is, since although it is a decent enough it has a certain sterility to it, a lack of heart, and perhaps also a surfeit of minor characters who seemed somewhere in limbo between being ‘extras’ and having a main role.
Michael, the gay character, for instance, is introduced and reappears briefly, then is being pushed in a trolley by Gary, unconscious and dying after fighting for his boots.
Some authors can do this with aplomb, filling their pages with fully rounded temporary characters, but here it doesn’t work. The lesser characters never have a chance to be anything more that two-dimensional, and in a book of this length there should have been room for that to be sorted out.