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It’s summer, the sun is shining, it’s a bank holiday… so let’s read a book about sea levels rising… and rising… and… August 3, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction.
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IT IS Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?

Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder?

When Orwell wrote those words just after the Second World War he hardly envisaged a planetary murder. Or to be more accurate… well, we’ll come to that.

I’m usually averse to the sort of 2 for 3 deals one gets in bookshops around this time of year. So it’s fortunate that I was handed the latest Stephen Baxter book “Flood” as a gift – sticker still attached. It’s an interesting – albeit not entirely (or even slightly) cheery – read.

Baxter is probably the leading contemporary exponent of Arthur C. Clarke style science fiction. Highly polished, low levels of characterisation, technologically correct and generally set within a framework of what is scientifically plausible. No coincidence then that they collaborated on a couple of novels some years ago. Baxter has straddled a number of areas, projections about space exploration in the near future, far-future space opera, historical novels with a science fiction twist and even near fantasy works. There is a harsh tone to some of his fiction. Much of it consists of humanity far in the future, often utterly changed by evolution filling some niche or another. It is hard to pinpoint an overriding message, but if one exists it is that the capacity for intelligence in no way is a guarantee for evolutionary success – indeed if we are not careful this phase of self-awareness on the part of the species (and perhaps indirectly on the part of the planet) may be but a blink of the eye.

Still, when some while ago I read on the internet that he had written a book called Flood, about rising sea levels I did wonder, not least because it seemed to shift very slightly towards James P. Hogan territory of cataclysmic planetary catastrophe. It’s not that Baxter doesn’t have form in this regard. He wrote Moonseed, a novel where the accidental dispersal of moondust with qualities not unlike nano-technology eventually reshapes the Earth in a very bad way. Very bad indeed. While the source of the ‘moonseed’ is never clearly explained the implication is that it is a technology used to spur the human race into space. One can think of easier ways.

There’s much though to like in Flood. The sense of contemporary civilisation collapsing is dealt with effectively. A fractured United Kingdom where millions move onto hills and then uplands and then mountains is remarkably potent as a vision. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for Ireland – but then it never does. There are some lashes at the internet and the culture around it, and in particularly a poignant little vignette about the hubris of the trans-humanists awaiting a singularity that cannot occur as technology is literally washed away.

The potential power of the corporations and the super-rich, and the way in which they are supported by exploitation, to survive as national governments collapse is well detailed although some of the developments seem unlikely. For example there is no clear description of what happens to shipping, or why governments in such circumstances wouldn’t produce more of it. Nor does a civil war in a Spain groaning under mass migrations from North Africa and a right wing coup in the early 2010s seem to me to be hugely likely (and most unlikely of all? No mention of President Adams and the Green Party majority government in Ireland in 2016 – ahem!).

But if I have a major issue with the book that is the science underpinning it. Baxter has based his premise on research published in New Scientist amongst other places which proposes that there is water locked into the Earth’s mantle.

And not just a bit, but lots and lots…

Based on what they witnessed in their lab, the researchers concluded that more water probably exists deep within the Earth than is present on Earth’s surface—as much as five times more.

It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Five times as much – eh? A great starting point for a novel about that water somehow being unlocked – as it were – and released into the seas…

And some of the articles reporting this have stated baldly that this water consists of oceans of water beneath the continents.

Well, yes and no, and mainly no. Firstly it is highly theoretical with no clear evidence for vast quantities of water. Secondly even were it correct there is no obvious mechanism by which it would be released (seeing as it largely consists of molecules locked within rock) into the oceans in substantial quantities. Baxter uses some clever sleight of hand, bringing James Lovelock’s Gaia theories into play with the suggestion that the planet itself is self-regulating in some fashion, perhaps brought to this point by human activity. If so the regulation seems a tad excessive.

And Baxter himself is not unaware of these problems because in writing this he locks – indirectly it has to be said – into a discourse where many scientists fear to tread. At one point a character during a meeting with the IPCC refers to these underground seas by names drawn from the Biblical flood to the consternation of an onlooker…

‘Big mistake,’ murmured Nathan. “You don’t bring in Noah with these guys.’

Indeed. And the IPCC is depicted as an enormously conservative organisation unwilling to accept sea level rises much higher than predicted in their models. In a way that’s a modish dig – an inversion of the tiny industry and corporate linked rump unwilling to accept what is palpably evident. But it scans oddly in a book written by an arch-rationalist and proponent of evolution.

Not least because if one goes to here you will find creationists desperately scouring for scientific (!) evidence that the Biblical Flood happened (or that oil doesn’t take millions of years to be produced – so handy, so self-serving, no?). For them the reports on the subterranean ‘oceans’ has been a vindication of their stance. This is – of course – far from Baxter’s philosophy, but it indicates the dangers of underpinning fiction with speculative research.

So, do we treat this as part of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ sub-genre that was perfected by John Wyndham? Novels such as the Kraken Wakes saw the death of millions, but this was never described in detail. It always happened ‘off-screen’ as it were.

Somehow “Flood” doesn’t fit that category. It is a compassionate book, but the eventual outcome is bleak in the extreme. Indeed the more I think of it the more I suspect this book belongs more with the works of John Christopher (A Wrinkle in the Skin, the Death of Grass) written in the 1960s and with a much harder edge than those of Wyndham. But the fact that the science isn’t quite there – and in a way quite distinct from the tropes of most science fiction such as FTL – does make me wonder is it simply intended as a cautionary tale, in other words, this demonstrates in an exaggerated form what might happen. But that is problematic if only because the scenario rapidly becomes so extreme that one is relieved that we might only (only!) be facing a five or ten metre increase. Indeed the actual problems our planetary environment face seem – well – diminished to near insignificance by the novel.

Which is certainly not how it should be. Consider if you will some of the projections for close to home and they are quite terrifying particularly if the worst comes to the worst. It’s unlikely any of us will live to see that worst, but – who knows? The dislocation caused by the relatively minor sea level rises that face us wil be quite enough. Perhaps some people will remember Richard Cowper’s “Road to Corlay”, written in the 1970s and set centuries or so hence in precisely this sort of drowned world. At the time there was more talk of ice ages and rising sea levels seemed implausible.

So why not write about the actuality? Perhaps because the actuality doesn’t have the dizzying pace of fiction. Climate change is steady and inexorable, but it’s slow. As it happens I live in an area under considerable threat of minor sea level rises. It’s unlikely to happen today or tomorrow, but ten years, twenty? Fifty? Put it that way and the question becomes a little more academic, the threat a little less real. A century (or possibly less) to see sea level rises of six metres. Awful, but not quite as apocalyptic as Flood. Mind you looking at the same set of images in the last link, the melting of the Antarctic ice cap would definitely be catastrophic.

And to add a frisson of discomfort to the weekend, consider that in geological terms we’re close to the lowest figures ever recorded (although sea level changes were in these eras more to do with the structure of ocean basins). The trend remains downwards, but another way is up. If you’re willing to wait around millions of years.

There is a further thought that strikes me. I don’t know if this is almost a precious complaint, but there is something almost inhuman about the way in which fictions can for our entertainment consign millions, or billions to an untimely and unpleasant end. Of course the novel, and those like, is not real, but if it is for no greater purpose than entertainment then somehow that seems to be amorally glib. In a way I am reminded of reading Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach”, one of the first post-apocalyptic works and tracking the progress of the radiation as it progressively overwhelmed one town after another in Australia as it moved south. I was maybe twelve at the time I read it and although grim it didn’t touch me as anything other than a widescreen epic story of the end of humanity. It was only later that I realised Shute’s purpose in detailing that inexorable dynamic. For him the names of the towns were a short hand for those who lived in them and the novel demonstrated in fiction the dangers of a nuclear weapons equipped world.

Yet perhaps that is Baxter’s intention, at least in part. To write a novel which by exaggeration, by positing how ill-equipped we are even for the threats we currently face (a message implicit in his depiction of a London overwhelmed by floods – and how significant it is that that event comes early in the book giving an example of what could happen even under the present forecasts of climate change – and the fact that he has lobbied for serious disaster plans by the UK authorities), demonstrates just how containable climate change we face actually is. That far from being an extinction level event it is an opportunity to reshape our engagement with the planet, to rework our technologies so that they are smarter and more appropriate for a world which has finite limits. And in that respect perhaps this is a morality tale, because in pointing to the extreme it delivers a warning about just how disengaged we are with the present crisis. And that’s not a bad lesson to learn. Particularly while the sun is still shining.

For some interesting visuals and more on that consider this article.

Comments»

1. Джульета - May 22, 2009

Не могу понять и объяснить – что именно, но что-то ты делаешь неправильно. Хотя.. возможно я ошибаюсь.

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2. Moon: Fiction « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - July 18, 2009

[…] kindly say that he’s not so great on characterisation (indeed for those of you who recall my post from last Summer dealing with his novel Flood, here’s a good discussion on UK SF magazine […]

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