May 5 2009 5:37pm

Stephen Baxter’s Flood

I’m a sucker for “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” books. So it’s no wonder I picked up Stephen Baxter’s Flood and started it as soon as I read the inside dust-jacket flap:

Four hostages are rescued from a group of religious extremists in Barcelona. After five years of being held captive together, they make a vow to always watch out for one another. But they never expected this…

The world they have returned to has been transformed—by water. And the water is rising…

…water continues to flow from the earth’s mantle. Entire countries disappear. High ground becomes a precious commodity. And finally the dreadful truth is known. Before fifty years have passed there will be nowhere left to run.

The year is 2016. Sea level has risen between one and five meters as global warming has continued to melt glaciers and arctic and Antarctic ice. Scientists predict that the seas will continue to rise and that disaster is possible decades down the line.

Lily Brooke, Gary Boyle, Piers Michaelmas and Helen Gray are chained to chairs in a basement in Barcelona. Kidnapped by terrorists they have been shuffled from place to place for five years, held for ransom or other political reasons, barely retaining their sanity. Also present is Helen’s infant, Grace, the result of a brutal rape by one of the group’s captors.

As the novel starts, the captives are freed by forces controlled by Nathan Lammockson, one of the richest men in the world. When they arrive in London, they discover that the world is changing much more rapidly than anyone suspected. And gradually they learn that sea level is going to rise much faster than scientific calculations estimate.

Lammockson, a visionary megalomaniac (but not really an evil man), has become something of a fairy godfather to the folks he plucked from Spain and does his best to keep them and their families and friends out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, there is a lot of harm to avoid.

The melting icecaps are just a fraction of the cause. It turns out that there are vast seas under the earth’s mantle that are beginning to leak into the oceans. The rise in sea level will be exponential. And there may be no stopping it.

Baxter follows the lives of each of the four hostages as he or she travels around the world just ahead of the flood. They depend on some amazing coincidences to keep running into one another in far-flung areas of the globe. The cast of minor characters also grows, almost exponentially, and, occasionally, it is just a bit daunting to keep track of which protagonist is involved with whom.

Not surprisingly, the British Baxter describes the flooding of London in greater detail than any of the other major cities and villages that succumb to the waters. But the entire world is the author’s stage.

There are some weaknesses in Flood, among them, the fact that the scenario he depicts would likely be much worse than he portrays and the aforementioned coincidences. But as an “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” book, this is a pretty good read.

I think Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s great comet thriller, Lucifer’s Hammer, is at the top of my list in this science fiction subgenre. Here are just a few of my other favorites: Blizzard by George Stone; The Sixth Winter by Douglas Orgill; The Hab Theory by Allan W. Eckert; Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart; Aftermath by Charles Sheffield; and Gordon Dickson’s Wolf and Iron.

rick gregory
1. rickg
Um. OK. I guess I don't get the connection between terrorists kidnapping some people, them being freed by a rich guy in London and global warming. And why are these vast underground oceans releasing now? Nice coincidence and certainly gets him his end of the world scenario, but...

Oh and the "oceans of water under the mantle" sounds iffy scientifically and trips my "a world under the earth... /facepalm" trigger. But that's just me I bet.
Paul Howard
2. DrakBibliophile
Rickg, "oceans of water under the mantle" triggers my "throw the book across the room" reflex.
3. stargazer
Rickg, "oceans of water under the mantle" triggers my "throw the book across the room" reflex.

Seriously. I skimmed this in a bookstore the other day, and was taken aback by how far beyond plausibility he stretched in order to get the plot he wanted. (It's not like plausible climate change scenarios lack for nasty consequences...) Flooding the world takes not just a lot of water, but a ludicrously, stupidly enormous amount of water.

Spoilers, and some physics: (Highlight to read)

By the end of the book, the entire land surface of the Earth is underwater, including the summit of Mount Everest at an altitude of 8.8 km. Given the surface area of the Earth (500 M km^2) and that altitude, it's an easy matter to compute the volume of water needed, which turns out to be 4.5 billion cubic kilometers.

In other words, a cube of water almost 1700 km on a side. That's a quarter of the volume of the entire moon! A cube 50% bigger on each side than the state of Texas. It's insane. Maybe that much water is buried deep inside the earth, but if you somehow could get it out, you'd have way bigger problems than just flooding: like nation-sized sinkholes opening up all over the place, and earthquakes that make the dinosaur-killer impact look like a tickle...

Furthermore, consider the energetics: Let's say you have to lift all that water 10 km. That takes 4e26 J of energy. The total amount of solar energy incident on the Earth is only 2e17 W. Thus, even if you could absorb 100% of incident solar light and devote every last bit of it to lifting water, reradiating no energy into space, that would take the planet's entire energy budget for 70 years to lift all that water. Of course, 2/3 of the incident light is reflected, and essentially all the rest is re-radiated, so this becomes even more implausible still.

Throw the book across the room, indeed.
4. Hgao
Yea, this premise really doesn't make much sense. When I first saw it, I thought it was talking about a Flood in a biblical sense, though that would be a different book altogether.
5. Chrislt
I would have added Earth Abides and No Blade of Grass to your recommendations.
Allyn Edgar Hughes
6. allynh
Your comfort level with ambiguity is set too low, kick it up a few notches.

I've noticed that most SF readers are deeply conservative, which is why SF has always dragged twenty years behind the times. That's what's killing the magazines; new readers coming to the page are finding wheezing asthmatic fiction that does not match their cutting edge lives.

Poul Anderson was always writing stuff that was twenty years ahead of the pack, which is why his stuff still reads like it was written tomorrow. Zelazny was the same way.

Check the following website for fun new concepts.

Oil Is Mastery

If you can't stretch your minds to encompass some Fringe science, then stick with Jane Austen.
rick gregory
7. rickg
/yawn... Allynh, what does your comment have to do with the book? It's not conservative to call out poor science just as it's not edgy to write it. And Fringe is fiction. Not very good fiction, either.

Oh, but you probably just wanted to link to your blog.... nevermind.
Nicholas Alcock
8. NullNix
Well, actually *that* stuff is -- barely -- plausible. The water currently *on* the Earth probably came from the deep mantle, after all, and perhaps it's pushing it to expect Baxter to know that the mantle is now in excess of 50% depleted of volatiles. In any case, maybe that best-understanding is wrong. It wouldn't be the first time, and it's not derived from direct measurement.

And there's lots of energy in the deep Earth: maybe, just maybe it built up over aeons and now is being released in a terribly conveniently timed flood (but the occasional suggestion, thankfully brushed past rapidly, that it was triggered by global warming *is* ridiculous).

But my usual problem with Baxter novels resurfaces: as James Nicoll has pointed out in several memorable reviews, his characters are bloody milquetoasts. The sum total of human attempts to survive (ignoring the blatant hook for a sequel at the end: let's look at what the novel actually tells us) appears to consist of *one ship* which is obviously doomed to fail as it depends on land to resupply. After that, everyone is sitting around on failing rafts, for *years*, dying young, *doing nothing* and musing intermittently how they'd be in real trouble when the irreplaceable synthetics they use for things like fishing line wear out ('cos, y'know, no humans ever made fishing lines before metal and plastic were invented. Maybe you could make more line out of parts of fish! Maybe you could use your environment rather than just sitting there like dummies waiting to die! but this is never considered.)

As with so much of Baxter's stuff, this is a book designed principally to show off some impressive set-pieces (the submarine trip over 4km-drowned London, for instance: oh yes, that *working nuclear submarine* also did almost *nothing* to help anyone other than take them on setpiece tours). If you want characters actually *doing* anything about their admittedly enormous problems, look somewhere else.

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