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Stephen Baxter
Gollancz, 473 pages

Stephen Baxter
Stephen Baxter was born in 1957 and was raised in Liverpool. He studied mathematics at Cambridge and got a PhD from Southampton. He worked in information technology and lives in Buckinghamshire, England. His first story, "The Xeelee Flower," was published in Interzone 19.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The H-Bomb Girl
SF Site Review: Emperor
SF Site Review: Transcendent
SF Site Review: Exultant
SF Site Review: Coalescent
SF Site Review: Phase Space
SF Site Review: Reality Dust
SF Site Review: The Time Ships
SF Site Review: Origin
SF Site Review: Origin
SF Site Review: Longtusk and Deep Future
SF Site Review: Manifold: Space
SF Site Review: Longtusk
SF Site Review: Vacuum Diagrams
SF Site Review: Titan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jonathan McCalmont

Between 2007 and 2008 Stephen Baxter produced six novels. It seems not unreasonable to suggest that this is too many. It would appear that the publishing climate that once saw SF authors churning out dozens of short stories a year in order to earn a living wage has returned, only this time the output is not short stories but 400+ page novels. Given such a creative environment, it seems almost absurd to review works of SF as stand-alone artefacts. The review works as a unit of critical thought only for as long as you assume that their subject is the final flowering of a train of though, a series of ideas and a process of gradual improvement. If SF authors are expected to churn out a book every four months, then it seems more just to see individual novels as snapshots of evolving trains of thought that only ever take shape over the course of several books. If judged as an isolated work of fiction, Flood (2008) is under-written, under-characterised and overly familiar. However, if seen as a part of Baxter's wider development as an author, it shows flashes of the brilliance that continues to guarantee Baxter's place as one of the most inventive writers that science fiction has ever produced.

The book spans 32 years in the lives of a group of people initially thrown together as hostages in a near-future Spain that has collapsed into sectarian civil war. When the group emerge from their basement, they find a world experiencing dramatic rises in ocean levels. Before long, members of the group are witnessing the flooding of London and the shattering of New York's glass skyscrapers by a hurricane that fills the air with broken glass, instantly rending apart all those unlucky enough to be caught outside. As sea levels continue to rise, economies, governments and human civilisation fail. The book hops through time and from place to place as the hostages and their friends try to secure the higher ground and the resources that will allow them to survive the drowning of the Earth but, by 2048 the tip of Mount Everest has disappeared and the remaining humans face a future without civilisation on a planet that looks very different to the Earth we know.

Despite a reputation as an author who foregrounds Big Ideas at the expense of the human element, Baxter showed in his historical Time's Tapestry series, that he is capable of producing memorable characters with complex relationships. Given Baxter's treatment of obsessive rivalries in Navigator (2007) and moral compromise in Weaver (2008), Flood's humans feel like a real step backwards. Baxter has always been an author prone to using stock -- or, more charitably, archetypal -- characters and Baxter fans may well notice the similarities between Flood's Nathan Lammockson and the Manifold trilogy's rogue entrepreneur Reid Malenfant, or indeed between Flood's Lily Brooke and the strong female pragmatic survival machines Emma Stoney and Regina from Manifold: Time (1999) and Coalescent (2003). However, while the decision to use the relationships between a tightly-knit group of former hostages as a framing device is undeniably ambitious, it is never given space to bed in and so a relationship singular enough to lend weight to all the characters and be an interesting subject in itself never feels like anything more than a clever trick to unite what is ultimately a rather spread-out narrative. The same is true of the conflicts within the group such as the love triangle between a hostage, the daughter of a hostage and an Incan revolutionary; the attraction for the young woman never seems like anything other than motivated by reproductive concerns.

The book's narrative improves as it goes along. The first two thirds of the book are examples, not of the traditional British "Cosy Catastrophe," but rather of a Mundane Meltdown as Baxter swamps the text with seemingly pointless minutiae such as issues of disability access for people in wheel barrows (p. 78) and the benefits of drinking Coca-Cola for the sugar and caffeine hit (p. 84). By contrast, the shattering of Manhattan receives barely a sentence while Tibet's descent into barbarism is not so much Heart of Darkness as No Room at the Inn. Indeed, the book's choice of focus makes it difficult to place within a wider genre context. Flood lacks the psychological depth and philosophical introversion to be a intimate portrait of post-apocalyptic humanity such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2005), but it also tends to downplay the sensawunda-inducing spectacle that tends to form the basis for cinematic environmental disaster stories such as Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or even Frank Schatzing's The Swarm (2004). This means that the book feels as though it falls between two stools. However, as the book reaches its final third and it becomes clear, even to the characters, that the sea is not going to stop rising, Baxter starts to use shorter chapters that are more spread out in time giving us brief but powerful flashes of the death of Human civilisation. This change in narrative posture allows Baxter to revisit some of the most enduring themes in his body of work.

Thematically, Flood is hugely reminiscent of the Destiny's Children volume Transcendent (2005). Both novels feature extended riffs on the consequences of radical climate change and humanity's initial passivity and then active failure to do anything about it. The other theme that runs through both books is the Otherness of humans that are products of different environments. Some of the most memorable passages in Flood are those dealing with the children born after the flooding; a race of empty-headed seal-like creatures who spend their days screwing and eating, lacking any interest in the stores of knowledge that might well one day save them should they expend the effort of learning and passing the wisdom on to future generations. The differences between post- and antediluvian generations is both an effective reminder that each new generation finds its own values and a chilling vision of a post-human future. Unlike many SF authors that are quick to accept the ideals of transhumanism and the ultimate kinship between humans and post-humans, Baxter has always been more sceptical. In Transcendent we are shown a number of seemingly alien species that are profoundly Other despite the assertion that they are, in some sense, human. Similarly, Baxter's short story "In the Manner of Trees" (1992) depicts the disconcerting descendents of a crashed space ship crew that are visibly human but devoid of intelligence and who breed in the manner of plants.

Olaf Stapledon once wrote "great are the stars and man is of no account to them," this slogan could apply equally well to the work of Stephen Baxter. His Xeelee sequence depicted a universe that filled and then emptied of humanity. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair for no matter how powerful humanity waxed, the universe stayed cold, forbidding and utterly indifferent to us. In his more recent works, Baxter has taken to reducing the time frame of Stapledon's observation from galactic aeons to mere generations. Hence not only Flood's seal-like youngsters but also the opening of Conqueror (2007) that shows a sub-Roman Britain in post-apocalyptic meltdown. Within the space of one generation the values of an entire civilisation are wiped clean, leaving behind creatures that are human but also utterly alien to the generations that came before. Baxter's writing invariably stresses not only the unavoidability of change and entropy but also the absolute alienation that this change brings with it. He is also acutely aware that change is only ever a bad thing from the perspective of the status quo. The teenagers at the end of Flood do not mourn our world, nor should they as the values that make us prize a complex technological civilisation are completely inappropriate for a humanity that exists afloat in rafts on a planet-sized ocean.

When seen within the context of much of Baxter's recent work, Flood constitutes an intriguing re-examination and development of the same set of broadly existential themes. However, as a stand-alone piece of work, Flood is an oddly unsatisfying read that squanders its attention on an endless series of checkpoints (there goes Europe, there goes Asia, there goes Africa) and poorly exploited character narratives while the real meat of the piece; the set pieces and the book's wider themes are either glossed over or rationed out. Compelled to churn out three books a year, it is perhaps unsurprising that Baxter's ideas are like too little butter scraped over large pieces of toast but it is still deeply regrettable that Flood feels much like a transitional work instead of the blend of big picture theme and small picture characterisation that Baxter is more than capable of producing.

Copyright © 2009 Jonathan McCalmont

Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic and cynic who produces criticism and commentary for a number of different venues including his blog Ruthless Culture.  He is also the editor of Fruitless Recursion, an online journal devoted to discussing works of genre criticism.  He lives in the United Kingdom so that you don't have to.

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