Wednesday, October 02, 2013

"Flood" - Stephen Baxter ('Ark', 'Proxima')

I've been hot and cold on Stephen Baxter. Well, to tell you the truth, more cold. I found his early stuff pretty unreadable, stuffed with with cardboard characters, mere marionettes of the plot. But recently it's been time for a re-evaluation.

"Flood" was a library book, left on the shelves for years because to be honest, who wants to read another novel on climate change? But I took a chance and, guess what, it's not about climate change. Here's the Amazon review from G. J. Oxley, which I agree with well enough.
"This book begins in 2016 with the story of five hostages held in Barcelona, where it's raining heavily and won't stop. They're rescued by a team sent by Nathan Lomockson - a technocrat and very rich man - but not before one of them is brutally killed. The remaining four pledge to look out for each other from then on. Lomockson himself takes a lifelong interest in each of them, and their fates thereafter are tied in with his. The ensuing events in the novel take place over a span of around sixty years.

The narrative moves forward by chronological increments as the world's water level increases, and continues to rise. The episodic structure suits the book perfectly - it's a neat narrative trick. Baxter provides us with a series of snapshots of important events and details the human reaction to each stage of the increase.

Nathan sets himself up as a would-be saviour of the world. He appears at pivotal points throughout the story as the sea levels rise higher and higher, and we see the impact of important events on his and/or one or more of the former hostages. Although a hard-boiled, nuts and bolts SF writer, Stephen Baxter realises that his book would be nothing if the reader weren't allowed to engage emotionally with the characters.

And even though the characterisation isn't as strong as your average mainstream writer's, it's still good enough to carry the story of the watery death of an entire planet.

If you remember back to your schooldays (a harder and harder job for some of us!) the hydrologic cycle taught us that there is not one extra drop of water now than there was at the time of creation. So where is the extra water coming from? Melting icecaps? That would only be responsible for a limited increase. The author comes up with a fairly plausible reason for the scenario - and guess what? - we're responsible! But I'll say no more about this aspect, as I don't want to spoil the book for readers.

This is a big fat tome but I galloped through it very quickly. There are a lot of evocative scenes that resonate in the mind long after the book is finished, and it reminded me of why I fell in love with SF in the first place some thirty years ago. I for one am greatly looking forward to the follow-up `Ark', due out next year."
The Amazon reviews are all over the place. This is usually a 'keep-off' warning but we should be smarter here. Some of the reviewers think the characterisation is poor - well, it is Stephen Baxter and he's never going to be people-centric, but he really has improved. Other criticisms are really less convincing:

  • The lead characters (the hostages and the billionaire) are unsympathetic/damaged/dull. (Agreed but sometimes people are and it doesn't in fact detract from the story).
  • As the flood water rises, the rich and powerful use lethal force (even ethnic weapons) against the poor and dispossessed trying to scale their high-tech redoubts - and Baxter doesn't express moral disapproval. (And this wouldn't happen?)
  • The story is too focused on the survivors. (Well, they were the ones still around to convey the story forwards).

To be fair, this is classic 'sense-of-wonder' science-fiction as we're forced to ponder what would happen if the sea level just kept on rising*. At the end we discover there are three 'arks': we know what happened to one of them (an ocean liner which proves sadly unsustainable) but the other two are somewhat mysterious.

This is why I ordered today the sequel, 'Ark' **.

* You may wonder, as I did, how this could happen. Baxter does hard science-fiction and has an explanation backed up by some seismic data. (Please be assured that wormholes dumping water into the oceans operated by malevolent aliens are not involved).

** Also 'Proxima', again trying to 'interpret' the reviews.