Flood is a disaster story of epic proportions, written by Stephen Baxter. The story follows a group of 4 friends over a 30 year period from the moment in 2012 when they make a pledge under strange circumstances to always look out for one another, as a disaster of incredible size overtakes the earth. This disaster is a biblical-style flood, caused by huge, previously undiscovered reservoirs of water under the earth’s crust that escape into the world’s oceans after a seismic event. The seepage is initially small, leading just to increased amounts of rain, and then to unexpected floods, but the rate of increase is exponential and the quantity of water beneath the globe sufficient to completely submerge all land on earth. This isn’t a global warming event – though the increase in quantities of warm water accelerates the effects of global warming – but a massive,worldwide seismic catastrophe causing a rapid and catastrophic loss of human habitat.

The early part of the story, when the flooding is still manageable, is more of a human interest story about how the four friends recover from the circumstances of their initial meeting and settle into a new and waterlogged world. But as the floods intensify and it becomes clear that something is up the story turns into one of discovery as the friends find out what is really happening, then a slow devolution from adaptation to survival to extinction. The later stages of the story become more of an overview of how human society tries to cope with its own imminent extinction by forces beyond any technology’s ability to control, and attempts to describe both the geopolitical, social, and personal effects of the essential collapse of human civilization and the potential disappearance of the human race.

This is a very interesting idea. How do societies behave as their collapse becomes inevitable, and what will people do to survive? And can people even come to terms with the possibility of their civilization’s inevitable destruction? What measures would they put in place? And can humanity survive without land? Obviously irrelevant questions, because the science of the catastrophe is completely unrealistic, but this is the kind of speculation science fiction was built for. After I finished this book I spent a lot of time wondering how society could adapt to living on a water world where all mining is impossible, and energy can only come from sun, wind and waves. What raw materials could you use? How would you prepare the remnants of your society for this? An interesting intellectual exercise. The book covers this primarily through the perspective of an egotistical company direct who runs a corporation specializing in disaster preparedness and recovery. As the world retreats from the sea he conceives of increasingly desperate schemes to protect his family and friends, and to remain powerful and on top in the new world. His schemes are ultimately fruitless in a sense, though he and his allies survive a lot longer than almost everyone else, and can be said to have escaped the catastrophe in a sense. His failure is no fault of his personal failings, either – the water just got the better of him, and the constant failings of the increasingly fragile societies within which he works continually set his schemes backwards. There is also the implication that other approaches – cooperation with other organizations and states – may have worked better, though I suspect we’ll find that their schemes were even crazier and less successful if we read the sequel, Ark. Certainly he seemed like an ingenious survivor to me, and lasting 30 years as the sea wipes out everything seems like quite an achievement to me.

The science of this book being obviously, ludicrously impossible, the main flaws in this book concerned characterization and dialogue. It’s definitely hard sci-fi and sometimes the prose was a little dry and uninteresting, the interactions of the characters a little stilted and hollow, and in this sense the book is definitely driven forward by the continual unfolding of events, and the fascination with watching everyone drown. For this reason it’s definitely not a book to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re interested in questions of social adaptation, survival and how the world changes under extreme environmental pressure, it’s worth looking into. I don’t think it has much direct relevance to global warming and its effects – the most extreme predictions of which don’t hold a candle to the events in this tale – but it does serve as an interesting tale about the importance of “ecological services” to human social cohesion and economic success. To this end it also fits in well with the movie I watched on the weekend, The Road, and some of my thoughts about zombies and survivalism. But ultimately the disasters in all these books and movies are so beyond anything we can expect to actually befall the earth that really they’re just interesting speculative tales. I wonder what it says about modern sensibilities that they all involve, one way or another, cannibalism?

Anyway, in summary this book is a good read if you’re interested in ecological catastrophes and/or disaster tales, it’s easy to read if you can be carried forward by plot and are willing to overlook occasional clumsiness in writing style and characterization. Overall I recommend it.