Stephen Baxter has always been the most likely of the modern SF authors to become the true heir to Arthur C. Clarke. Like Clarke, Baxter has always been more interested in science than plot, ideas more than characters, but also like Clarke, this tendency - perhaps to be seen as a failing by some - has never managed to stop his books being highly enjoyable and occasionally - as with The Time Ships - become true modern classics of the SF genre.
Flood opens in 2016 in Barcelona. Four people from different nationalities have been held by ultra-Christian fundamentalist terrorists for five years before they are released, the result of negotiations between their captives and the head of AxysCorp, Nathan Lammockson. They emerge into a world transformed by technology, where the marvels of the London Olympics are already years in the past and a world where rainfall has increased, with little or no warning. They are welcomed back to civilisation through a party in London that coincides with a massive flood which overwhelms the Thames Barrier and devastates the city. Across the world the waters are slowly rising, a metre in less than two years. London and Sydney have to be evacuated, displacing millions of people to higher ground. The old models of climate change cannot even begin to explain what is happening. Low-lying nations disappear off the face of the earth, the mountain peaks become the most prime real estate on the planet and Tibet becomes a warzone as India, Russia and China battle for control of it. And through it all the waters rise and New York and Rome, Beijing and Paris all disappear beneath the waves. By 2020 global sea levels have risen by eighty metres, the worst-case scenario predicted for the effects of global warming after a century. And the inundation is accelerating.
How an this be happening? In the early 2000s the existence of massive underground oceans locked deep in the mantle of the earth was postulated and then proven by the discovery of a subterrenean sea containing more water than the Arctic, located under China and the Yellow Sea. In different parts of the world the ocean floor has shattered, releasing the vast volumes of water located beneath them. As governments teeter and fall, a few far-sighted individuals such as Lammockson attempt to preserve the human race, and the four friends from Barcelona become witnesses to the end of civilisation...and the birth of a new one.
Flood is a tremendously enjoyable novel, for once a modern SF book where the central science doesn't need the reader to have memorised advanced quantum theory beforehand. Whilst the threat Baxter postulates isn't very likely to happen, the fact that it is possible (albeit somewhat less likely than a major asteroid collision in the next century) lends a rather disturbing air to proceedings. Let's face it, we are fascinated by disaster stories, by the idea that our huge and advanced civilisation will be swept away in a short space of time by a quirk of nature, and that humanity will be wiped out or forced to start again. Against such a vast and global story, Baxter is still able to tell smaller, human stories, about the missing daughter of one of the hostages who has been kidnapped by her Saudi father, and about the fate of the downtrodden workers being worked to death to ensure the survival of the rich elite on their floating cities and huge luxury liners. Baxter's skill with characters has improved markedly since the last time I read one of his novels (a good decade or more ago), although they are still somewhat less-developed than might be wished for and tend to info-dump a fair bit.
But complaining about lack of character depth in a disaster novel - and this may be the ultimate disaster novel - is a bit churlish. This is about the story, about the catastrophe and about the tiny fragments of hope to be found near the book's conclusion. Whilst not every last plot thread is tied up - a sequel, Ark, will follow next year - the book is given enough closure to make it stand alone, with a final line that Sir Arthur himself would have been proud of.
Flood (****) is a superbly enjoyable SF novel, although those living close to the sea may feel a bit nervous after reading it. And before anyone asks, yes, it's better than Waterworld.
The book will be published by Gollancz in the UK on 26 June 2008, in both hardcover and trade paperback.