Sunday, December 11, 2011

100 Books 74 - Stephen Baxter's FLOOD

Oy, will someone tell me why I keep reading this man's books?

It's not that they're at all bad, mind you -- they've scientific verisimilitude in spades, are decently written, and tell compelling stories. They're just so god damn misanthropically, hopelessly, possibility killingly bleak they make The Road look like a sunshine-y tale of a boy and his daddy tripping through the daisies. Even when, as in the Manifold trilogy, they deal with our voyages (or, at least, our enhanced squid surrogates' voyages) to infinity and beyond.

You're never more than a page-turn away, in a Stephen Baxter book, from being confronted with the grim finalities that await us, our species, our planet, our sun, our galaxy. Depressing as HELL.

But it's still generally decent stuff, damn it.

I hate Stephen Baxter and I can't make myself stop reading his stuff.

This time around, Baxter has kind of stolen Greg Bear's clothes -- the Greg Bear of Forge of God and Anvil of Stars, at least inasmuch as this first book (there is a sequel, Ark, which I'll be reading next year, no doubt) exhaustively and painstakingly details the destruction of human civilization and, more or less, our planet, while the second looks to concern itself with a spaceship ark, traveling to the stars to give humanity and a genome bank full of other earthly life a second chance elsewhere.

The difference here being that Bear created a malevolent alien race to do the destroying (in the first book) and the being-hunted-down-for-revenge (in the second), but, Baxter being Baxter, it's all our own fault in Flood/Ark.

Baxter has also stolen, or at least laundered and patched up, some of his own clothes: anyone who has read his Evolution will have a hard time not thinking of it as the Anthropocene era on Earth comes to a disastrous end in Flood. It's as though he took the middle narrative of Evolution (a sketch of Homo sapiens sapiens, its day come at last after a good third of the story having been spent detailing its glorious journey from single-celled extremophile to talking primate with a big carbon footprint that is busy killing itself off, a victim of its own success, a failed experiment on Nature's part, soon to be replaced by non-sentient beasties herded by fierce giant rodents) and expanded it into a whole novel. Which is fine, for all that.

So as you might guess, as disaster porn it's first rate. Baxter does his homework and has a vivid and detailed (if grim and morbid) imagination; the reader feels very much a part of the action as neighborhoods, then cities, then regions, and finally entire continents disappear forever under the rising tide of the swelling seas*, even if she doesn't give a fig about what happens to the one-dimensional characters that populate the story. He has spent, as usual, a lot more time thinking about the grand implications of his disaster than on the people living it out -- though this time around he has come up with a pretty good excuse for all of the exposition that has to happen, in the form of a primary cast of characters who have just been released from a half-decade-long hostage situation: they really were living under a rock while climate change suddenly ramped itself up to 11.

If asked, I would not recommend this book, or any of Baxter's books, to new readers, because they really are depressing, disquieting, damaging as hell. But if you're like me, already a reluctant, gnashy-toothed fan of his, know that the bastard has still got it.

*His explanation for why this is happening is, as is usual for Baxter, taken from cutting edge theory, in this case, a sort of thought experiment imagining what could happen if it turned out to be true that all of the water vapor that was present at the time of earth's original formation was still trapped deep inside its crust and mantle (the surface water having been deposited later by comets) as subterranean oceans -- and something happened to poke holes in that reservoir and draw all that water to the surface.

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