Baxter’s Flood

In Oxford a few weeks ago I picked up two science fiction books, Bear’s City at the End of Time, which was mostly disappointing mysticism, and Baxter’s Flood, which I came to greatly respect, at least until I learned of its sequel.

Flood is in the great "one assumption" hard science fiction tradition, making one implausible but hardly impossible assumption, and projecting its implications as faithfully as possible.  The one assumption here is that the vast quantities of water held in Earth’s mantle, far more than in its oceans, start seeping out about 2015.  At first ocean levels rise about a meter in five years, but the rate steadily grows 14% a year – a rate that could cover Everest in three decades or so. 

The book focuses on a few relatively rich and well-connected individuals, who go from denial to crisis management to more desperate measures.  They move out of flooded areas, and hitch their wagons to groups seeking higher ground in ways ranging from uncaring to horrific, justified in terms of saving what they can of civilization.  At each stage the poor and less well connected are seen drowning or floating off on makeshift rafts, presumably to their doom.  To say more I must give spoilers, which are below the fold.

The reader keeps expecting a solution but none comes, and in the end a last tech-filled cruise ship floats among a few hostile primitive raft-based fishermen.  The ship visits cannibalism in the Tibetan highlands and a last ditch hunkering down at NORAD, and then the ship is torpedoed by pirates.  Our remaining heroes are last seen among raft primitives.  The end.

At that point I thought "brilliant!"  The unsaid lesson is clear on reflection – humanity had clear warning about the likely outcome but was so obsessed with saving civilization that it neglected the more important goal:  saving humanity.  Knowing all land would soon be gone, and that industry was almost impossible to save, they should have tried hard to develop viable rafting hunter-gatherer societies to survive perhaps millennia until waters recede.  But instead proto-rafters were rudely stepped on in the race to save tech on higher ground.

Alas looking at reviews after finishing the book, I learned a sequel called Ark comes out next year.  And looking closely I see hints that NORAD launched a spaceship ark just before the end.  And so alas I fear the sequel will have this ark survive in space until receding waters allow a return to rebuild civilization – a completely implausible scenario that destroys the important moral that a lone Flood could have told.  Sigh – shades of the idiot sequels to the great Matrix movie.

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  • Tim Tyler

    I learned a sequel called Ark comes out next year.

    Christian SF? As if Narnia wasn’t bad enough.

    Tried Anna Kavan’s Ice? Possibly the best SF book ever – and it involves a man-made disaster causing the end of the world. It may be up your street.

  • WTF

    Is this post helping our hero with mere exposure bias? Tune in next time same biased time, same biased channel.

  • Baxter’s Titan was along the same lines as well. A mission is sent to see if life can survive on the Saturnian (or Jovian? Don’t recall or feel like wikiing at the moment) moon. Meanwhile, the USA is rent asunder by fundamentalists, and eventually falls into civil war, if I remember correctly. The mission does not go terribly well either.
    Pardon the not-so-great summary, it’s been years since I read it. It certainly did not paint a rosy view of our future.

  • The sequel idea reminds me of one of my favorite B movies, When Worlds Collide. I thought the tone was about as realistic as I’ve seen for a Hollywood movie speculating on how humanity would react to a near term catastrophic existential threat. It’s very anti-Speilbergian film.

  • Merk Temporis

    The issue is that I think, and the authors probably do as well, that going back to a primitive form of civilization is actually MORE REPELLENT than allowing humanity to die out. I’m not saying this as a moral judgement–it’s actually more visceral than that and a reason I hate post-apocalyptic fiction.

  • XOR

    Why would those people want to save humanity? Some tech could make their remaining lifetimes less occupied with primitive survival needs and therefore more worth living. But to save humanity… Why would anyone want that at all?
    Well, at least for me, only existing sentient individuals and their qualia are really important and worth caring about. Not genes, humanity, life as a whole, etc.

  • XOR, you could reduce your scope even further and focus on saving you, the people you actually know, or know about and care about, and me (perhaps a Dunbar’s number of 150 people

  • robin, how would one persuade the powerful to act in the interest of the rest of humanity? it seems to me they don’t see it as a worthwhile endeavor. what practical steps would one have been able to make to induce them to act differently?

  • XOR

    HA, such a reduction of scope would be unfair if we agree that all living sentient beings have equal rights (at least initially). It’s not about selfishness, it’s about caring for real people and their happiness rather than for abstract entities like humanity.

  • “HA, such a reduction of scope would be unfair if we agree that all living sentient beings have equal rights”. We don’t agree about that, XOR. If I don’t persist, the concept of the rights or non-rights of others is absurd, from my perspective. Although I do encourage other people to put a concept of “HA’s right to persistence” over maximizing their own persistence odds. For example, I encourage people to donate their brains to brain banks, whereas I plan to be cryopreserved. Hopefully research we do on their brains will maximize my reanimation odds at a future date, or even better, may result in breakthroughs making it unecessary for me to be cryopreserved. How do you handle the brain bank vs. cryopreserved question for other living sentient beings? What should they put in their will?

  • Z. M. Davis

    XOR: “But to save humanity… Why would anyone want that at all?”

    Well, if you save the species, then there might be a chance of building up to civilization (and posthumanity?) in the long, long, long, long run. We can care about possible future people without putting intrinsic value on humanity qua humanity.

  • XOR

    I think everyone should choose cryopreservation. In fact, I’m no great altruist. Equal rights concept just feels good at some “higher values” level, and has some kind of aesthetic appeal to me. Advocating cryopreservation doesn’t even start to feel like sacrifice. Really hard moral dilemmas are another story, of course. But I surely do not intend to persist at all costs. Some costs would make life just not worth living.

    Z. M. Davis,
    We cannot say these possible future people want to exist. At the very least, they are surely not going to suffer from my failure to bring them into existence. Since a lot of already existing people do suffer, they seem literally infinitely more important to think about.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “Since a lot of already existing people do suffer, they seem literally infinitely more important to think about.”

    I would think twice before using phrases like “literally infinitely.” Choice criteria don’t always imply what we think they do. Forget the flood scenario, and simply suppose that having children in today’s world is more of a burden than a joy to parents. Would that really make it right to let the population dwindle to zero?

    Of course I agree that presently nonexistent people don’t have rights and can’t be harmed, but I value more things than simply the minimization of suffering in the here-and-now. I am willing to suffer a little today, that I might live and flourish tomorrow. I suggest we take a similar attitude towards potential future people as we do towards our potential future selves.

  • Sorry, just googling through looking for something else, but I just have to say that this —

    “this ark survive in space until receding waters allow a return to rebuild civilization”

    — is such an un-Baxterish thing to happen that I will eat my proverbial hat if it comes to pass. Ark will almost certainly be a generation ship story, and if Earth gets a look-in, it will be about further adaptation to the new environment, which is a perennial Baxter theme. (In fact I wouldn’t put it past him to skip far enough into the future that the end of Ark is Flood in reverse — that the waters do retreat, but in the process destroy the new water-adapted civilization that has developed there …)

  • Alan


    I’m struggling to recall a Baxter novel where it all comes right in the end..

    Also just happened upon your site ..I was looking for a review of Flood!