Sunday, March 22, 2009

Book Review: Flood, by Stephen Baxter

It took me a while to pick up Flood, though not for lack of trying.  After it was listed on Stephen Baxter's website as available in the fall of 2008, I kept an eye out for it at my local Borders, and even checked out both the Borders and Barnes and Noble in Santa Barbara one day on an unrelated outing.

On a semi-related note, I searched for it one day in Borders in...oh, November or December, and it was listed as not-yet-released.  I looked it up on Amazon, then and there on my iPhone, and it was absolutely available.

So, I eventually did order it from Amazon.

I have an interesting reader's relationship with Stephen Baxter's books.  Some of them suck me in from the first page or two -- The Timeships, say, or Evolution, which I recently finished as well.  Others, like Conqueror or The Light of Other Days, were slow going at first but engrossing once I'd gotten into them.

Spoilers below, obviously.

I struggled more with Flood, and I'm not really sure why.  Perhaps because I'm not a fan of the global disaster genre as a rule -- though I found the young adult novel Life as We Knew It engrossing in the extreme.  (It might be useful to note that I was a fan of Susan Beth Peffer's older novels as a teenager.)

The story is simple enough (if you're a hard sci-fi fan): there are vast subterranean oceans that -- due to climate change or the Gaia hypothesis -- suddenly release, setting a horrific catastrophe in motion: Earth's oceans begin to rise, first by meters a year and ultimately a meter a day, until the entire surface of the Earth is covered in water.

The story begins in Spain, with hostages of a religious fundamentalist group, and their rescue.  This serves as a reason to tie the main characters together throughout the book -- a sometimes flimsy excuse, it seems to me, but I'm willing to engage in a little suspension of disbelief.

When Lily returns to England, she finds that London has already endured several flooding events.  The story follows the former hostages through the next several decades of their lives -- ending as a flag planted atop Mount Everest drowns -- as humanity struggles to cope with the changes.

I'm not certain how to read the end of Flood, where Lily and another character discuss the Gaia hypothesis, and whether it's possible for humanity to survive on rafts indefinitely.  There are several mentions of the children who are born after the flood, and how they are at home in the water from a very early age.

Perhaps because I finished reading Evolution fairly recently, that struck me several times as a vast untapped aspect of the story, and may have something to do with my ambivalence regarding the ending -- in which Lily, aging and somewhat senile, suddenly asks, "I sailed on Ark Three, and I saw Ark One fly off...but what is Ark Two?"  Paraphrasing mine, emphasis on the last Baxter's.

It's striking to me that I didn't clue into that being a lead-in to a sequel until I read an article about it -- either on io9 or Sci-Fi Wire, I forget -- because I am far more interested in whether humanity will survive.

Note: I said humanity, not civilization.

By the end of the book, several generations have passed -- the characters note that children are having babies younger and younger -- and there have been references to raft kids that could swim to depths of 200 meters or more.

Which leaves me wondering -- could natural selection operate on the remaining populations quickly enough to allow some remnant of humanity to survive?

And, if so, what characteristics would be desirable?

Clearly increased lung capacity is one, to enable people to dive for fish and other goods.  Webbed or fused fingers or toes would suddenly become desirable, rather than something that suggests immediate surgery.  Quick thinking would likely be selected for -- but more than that, a sensitivity to changing pressure would warn of impending storms, hypercanes, or waves.

And so on.

I suspect the sequel will center on Ark Two, or perhaps answer the question of whether Ark One was really a spaceship setting off for parts unknown, but I would hope that we get at least some glimpses of what life on Earth has become.

All in all...I give Flood a hearty "meh."  5 out of 10, which is a shame because I am generally an avowed Stephen Baxter fan.