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.