Book Review – Stephen Baxter’s “Flood”

What if one day the Earth’s oceans all began to rise?

Not because of man-made global warming or climate change melting the polar ice caps, but from an entirely different source, something completely out of our hands.

What if this rise in ocean level continued over the years, slowly flooding the planet and making high ground the most precious type of land?

What would you do?  How would you survive?  Could you find a way to keep living knowing that unless the flooding stops, eventually every piece of land will eventually disappear under the water?

That’s basically the premise for Stephen Baxter‘s Flood, a 2008 science-fiction novel dealing with the slow flooding of planet Earth.  As the sea level continues to rise and flood the continents, humanity struggles to find a way to survive.  The balance of power shifts as people fight for high ground and deal with the reality of their situation.  Billions of people eventually die over the years as the sea level continues to rise, dry land slowly vanishes, food becomes more scarce, wars are waged between organizations and countries, and survivors are forced to build ships and rafts as a final way to survive . . . for at least a little while longer.

Stephen Baxter --- Flood

Stephen Baxter — Flood

Flood begins in 2016 as a small group of people are being held hostage in Europe by an organization of extremists.  The hostages are former US Air Force helicopter pilot Lily Brooke, British military officer Piers Michaelmas, English tourist Helen Gray, and NASA scientist Gary Boyle.  All of them were in Europe at one point or another when they were each captured and taken hostage.  The experience was particularly tough on Helen Gray as she was the youngest female in the group and had gained unwanted attention from the guards.  She was abused and eventually gave birth to a daughter, Grace, by one of the guards.

After being held hostage for five years and eventually transported to Barcelona, Spain the group is suddenly liberated by a private megacorporation called AxysCorp.  A fifth hostage, John Foreshaw, was executed by the terrorists moments before the rest of them were rescued.

Immediately after being rescued, the gang notices that their world is a little bit different than when they last saw it.  Now England and the rest of Europe are plagued by a nearly endless number of rainy days which have been sparking localized flooding.  When Lily reconnects with her sister Amanda, and her two children Benji and Kristie, she learns that the sea level itself has actually risen about a meter.  It may not seem like much, but low-lying areas are being threatened by the rise and a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean has been reclaimed by the sea.  Naturally, the constant rainfall and the slow rise in sea level is being blamed on man-made global warming.

Lily, Piers, Helen and Gary are all invited to the mansion of Nathan Lammockson, the CEO of AxysCorp.  They’re not really sure why Nathan has such an interest in them, but they do notice that Nathan has some sort of plan in action to deal with the flooding and the slow rise in sea level.  For starters, his mansion itself is actually a floating barge that is floating on a river.  While at Nathan’s house, the rest of the group learns that Helen’s baby, Grace, was taken away from her by government workers as soon as she was rescued.  It turns out that the guard who fathered the child is actually the son of a Saudi royal, and the child had been taken away to Saudi Arabia.  It’s one big mess for Helen and she befriends Foreign Office official Michael Thurley in the hopes of returning her daughter.

Days pass, the rains continue, and parts of London as well as Sydney, Australia have to be evacuated because of the flooding.  This includes Amanda’s home.  She and her children are forced to evacuate London and move to higher ground, but there’s resistance from the nearby towns as the city evacuates.  Not everybody wants to deal with the refugees from the city, and some people take to drastic actions to slow or stop their movement.

Lily is unable to return to the U.S. Air Force, so she accepts Nathan’s offer and works with him on his special projects.  She meets American oceanographer Thandie Jones and assists her submarine dives to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  The dives are successful and Thandie is able to find the evidence that she needs to support her theory about the rise in sea level.  The only problem is that except for Nathan Lammockson, the world’s leaders don’t want to listen to or believe Thandie’s theory.

Thandie Jones believes that the upper part of the Earth’s mantle actually contains a tremendous amount of water, so much water that it would dwarf all of the world’s oceans.  While on her dives to the ocean floor, she discovers that the seabed has fragmented, and turbulent water is flowing upwards from those cracks and fragments.  To make matters worse, as the oceans slowly expand, the weight of all of the seawater increases and forces more pressure on the crust which triggers more violent seismic activity.  The frequency and strength of earthquakes increase around the world, and some of those underwater earthquakes trigger devastating tsunamis.

Three years later in 2019, Amanda and her two kids are living in a small mountain town with an abusive man.  Lily is able to convince Amanda to flee with her, and the four of them make a quick getaway before a massive earthquake strikes and a powerful tsunami wipes out most of England, killing hundreds of thousands of people, including Helen Gray.  Similar waves of water also hit the east coast of the U.S., destroying cities like New York City, Miami and BostonWashington, D.C. is evacuated and the nation’s capital is moved to Denver, Colorado.

By 2020, most of the eastern part of the United States is now underwater.  People have fled into the Appalachian Mountains and westward into the rest of the country.  Houston, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana are gone, and Atlanta, Georgia is slated to be the next major city to be flooded.

Not only is Nathan Lammockson filthy rich, but he’s also a visionary who realizes what’s really happening in the world.  Nathan uses his bargaining skills and power of persuasion to arrange a land purchase high in the Andes Mountains in Peru.  He builds a private complex known as Project City, a place for him and his chosen friends and colleagues can live and continue to survive.  This is one of the highest places on Earth that also has an abundance of natural resources.  Nathan knows that it’s not a permanent solution as the flooding is likely to continue until the entire planet is underwater, but it buys them time to continue living and working on an alternate plan for survival.

Lily, Piers and Amanda choose to live with Nathan in Project City, but Amanda’s children choose to live outside the city.  They’ve been growing older and seeking their own lives as the world continues to flood.  Benji gets caught in the crossfire during a dispute, and he’s killed.  Kristie befriends a local boy named Ollantay who believes that he’s a descendant of the Incas.  She later marries him and has a son, Manco.

Meanwhile, Michael Thurley had succeeded in locating Grace in Saudi Arabia and bring her to the United States.  Together with Thandie, the three of them join the other refugees wandering around the Great Plains in the U.S., looking for a place to call home.  They witness part of the shooting war between the Mormons in Utah and the federal government of the U.S., and they eventually work their way south to Mexico and then Central America.  After passing through Panama, the group of refugees trek into the Andes where they reach Project City.

It’s 2035 by the time that Kristie and Ollantay have their son, and when Michael, Grace, Gary and the refugees reach Project City.  By now the oceans have risen and covered most of the planet, destroying cities and killing billions of people.  Ollantay leads a revolt and launches an attack against Project City.  He’s killed in the attack by Piers Michaelmas, and Amanda is caught in the crossfire and also killed.  Most of the people in Project City are able to escape on board Nathan’s “Ark Three,” a ship the size and shape of the historic Queen Mary.  People on the ship include Nathan, Lily, Piers, Grace, Kristie, Manco, and over a thousand other people to live and work on the ship.

The Ark Three sails away from the carnage in Peru.  The plan is to sail to Tibet and find refuge in the Himalayas, the highest mountains on Earth.  However, when they arrive and meet with the leaders in Nepal, they learn that life is brutal in Tibet.  Warlords have gained control of the high ground, and the refugees are used for human slavery and cannibalism.  Knowing that there’s no hope for them at the highest place above sea level, Ark Three sails away and cruises around the world, avoiding skirmishes with pirates and fierce hurricanes that circle the planet.

Conditions slowly deteriorate on board Ark Three.  When the ship returns to what’s left of the U.S. government in the Rocky Mountains, the ship is attacked and destroyed by a group of pirates.  The survivors are forced to use the rescue gear to make a series of rafts.  They then float adrift in the oceans and try to survive their new lifestyle.

By 2048, nearly the entire planet is flooded except for the highest mountains in the Himalayas in Asia.  Humanity has reduced itself to floating on rafts, using the resources of the seas to continue staying alive.  Piers, Nathan and Kristie all die from one ailment or another, and Manco meets a girl, Ana, and the two of them have a son, Boris.  Manco and Ana are only young teenagers themselves, and it’s a pattern that’s repeated on other rafts around the world.  As the sea levels rose, humanity downgraded itself back to its more primeval and savage forms.  By the time that Boris is born, entire generations of people have little to no idea of what life was like before the global flooding.  Tremendous amounts of knowledge are lost in the process.

Flood ends in 2052 as a group of survivors in rafts watch as the seas wash over the peak of Mount Everest.  Now all of planet Earth is officially submerged, and there’s no telling if the waters will ever recede.  If what’s left of humanity has any hope of survival, the people must learn how to work with the seas.

Civilization is virtually dead as the children of the flooding, those born on the rafts, develop their own aquatic culture.  They must succeed in living, otherwise the human beings on Earth will become extinct in the near future.

It’s learned that Ark Three was one of several projects developed by AxyCorp and other organizations.  Ark One was a starship launched from Denver in 2041, before the city was flooded.  Rumors were learned of such a project, and Lily was able to get Grace selected as a passenger.  She had to bargain with Nathan and get him to give up the seed bank that he was storing on board Ark Three.  Grace was unwillingly made pregnant by Hammond, Nathan’s son.  Nathan himself was too old to be selected for such a flight, and Hammond didn’t have the right sort of skills for the sake of humanity.  Grace was proven to be a survivor, and her being a pregnant female ensured that she could have more children and help repopulate society when the rocket reaches its destination.  Plus, being made pregnant by Hammond guaranteed that Nathan’s genetics would continue to survive.

The rocket launches in 2041, but nobody on the rafts actually see the launch.  They only hear about it through stories of other people who were repeating stories that they heard from others.  In 2044 there’s a lunar eclipse.  As people are looking into the night sky they see a bright flash of light near Jupiter.  Lily realizes that the light was caused by Ark One, and that Grace, and humanity as a whole, still had a shot at survival on a distant world.  It’s believed that that point of the flight was timed with the eclipse, and that it acted as a farewell to everybody trapped on Earth.

Flood ends with Lily (now in her 70s) wondering about all of Nathan’s “Ark” projects.  She had sailed on Ark Three, and she knows that Ark One was a starship.  The question remains:  What was Ark Two?


So is Stephen Baxter’s Flood a good story?

Flood is a great doomsday story with a plausible plot involving the slow rising of the Earth’s oceans.  It’s a frightening scenario based on scientific evidence of cases on immense water reservoirs deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

What would you do in a situation like this one?  Sure, you could always run to high ground, but only so many people can live in the mountains.  There’s only enough room and resources to go around.  But what if that’s not high enough?  What would you do to continue surviving as the water level rises higher and higher, threatening to submerge everything on the planet?

Flood takes a realistic look as civilization crumbles and people scramble to find ways to survive.  The book focuses on people building and then living on ships and rafts, and it hints at a starship sent to a new world.  The bottom line is that the vast majority of humanity will die from such an event.  The survivors will be forced to build a new lifestyle on a watery Earth, or go out into space and find a new home.  Otherwise, humans will become extinct.  It’s a brutal vision that reminds us of what could happen should the Earth’s geologic forces shift and go against us.

As a whole, most of Flood was an impressive story that painted a frightening picture of a doomed world.  The science aspects of the plot seem plausible, and the conclusion is just as you would expect.  The only problems dealt with the characters being fairly bland and somewhat repetitive throughout the story.

But that’s really it.  Flood moves quickly through the first third of the book as the major coastal cities are forced to deal with the rising water.  The story slows a little bit in the middle as people are forced into the mountains.  The fast pace resumes after the attack on Project City and the sailing and ultimate destruction of Ark Three.  The ending of the story adds a few more details, and it leaves us craving for more.  Thankfully, Stephen Baxter wrote Ark, a sequel to Flood.

If you love science-fiction as well as a doomsday story, then you cannot go wrong with Flood.  It’s not perfect, but the book has a fantastic combination of fascination and sheer terror of the reality of the situation.

three-and-a-half stars