Book Review: ‘Flood’, by Stephen Markley


Stephen Markley’s new climate change epic, “The Deluge,” is a lot. Lots of characters, lots of politics and lots of devastation, fill many pages. But a lot of it is entertaining, and its length is purposeful: a realistic projection of the collapse of civilization as we know it takes some slack. As one character says: “You have to be careful in handling difficult realities. People can’t hear bad news all at once.”

This is a book review with a strict word count, so we’ll have to speed up the bad news as Markley envisions it: Over the next two decades, floods and fires will increasingly destroy America’s shores. Mass global migration will warp our lives and politics. Attempts at legislative remedies will fail in the face of polarization. As the left eats its own, carbon control bills will magically turn into corporate giveaways and the rapid dismantling of civil rights. A right wing anointed by the oil lobby, meanwhile, will elevate figures with nicknames like the Shepherd and the Hot Nazi. Famines will take hold. Mass shootings and environmental terrorism will abound. The poorest will be fed not by dog ​​food but by dogs.

And, by the time 2040 rolls around, we will have survived, more or less – as Margaret Atwood once noted, dystopian novels tend to end tinged with hope. But one of Markley’s goals is to scare us away from tempting fate, to temper our tendencies towards violence and self-interest. He is skeptical that we can be reformed, as every novelist must be; pacifism and altruism make for cheap thrillers. And Markley is adept at conjuring a blacker-hearted America: His previous novel, ‘Ohio’ (2018), was a complex, expertly told story of an oppressed Midwestern city sick with wartime PTSD in Iraq and homicidal tendencies. “The Deluge” applies that acidity to a larger canvas: Markley remains fixated on how people stubbornly cling to power and the pain power inflicts on the poor with limited options.

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In writing a clear-eyed, climate-justice-minded page-turner, Markley makes his influences apparent. Members of 6Degrees, a group of eco-terrorists in ‘The Deluge’, communicate by sending out seemingly innocuous flyers that must be decoded using a pair of dystopian classics, Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ and Octavia E’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ Butler.” And like those books, Markley’s assembles a set of archetypal, borderline clichéd characters and redeems them with a clever plot. Among the crew of ‘The Deluge’ are Tony, the climate scientist who sees it all coming; Kate, the charismatic and rebellious activist; Ashir, the Spock-like technocrat who clarifies the trends for politicians (and the reader); Shane, a 6Degrees organizer; Jackie, an advertising executive tasked with painting smiley faces on the fossil fuel industry; and Keeper, the poor Ohioan with a history of drug abuse who is an easy target for other people’s terrorist plans.

It’s not hard to see the role each character plays here. But Markley imagines hard-to-see situations coming and delivers them in compelling, detailed detail. The story is driven by a handful of virtuosic set pieces, one featuring a fire dubbed El Demonio ravaging Los Angeles, another revolving around an activist siege of the National Mall. Markley is wary of “the glossy greenwashing friend” in carbon lobby ads and counterbalances massive climate calamities with predictions for the near future that look very similar to the present. We’re still boarding planes in this novel, still shopping at Walmart, becoming more and more enthralled with VR kits, and more and more manipulated by AI algorithms. In particular, Markley predicts that we will maintain a collective rejoicing at the mass loss of life, even to the point where floodwaters are up to our necks. “Now we have the other worlds,” Shane’s VR-addicted daughter tells her. “They’re still better.”

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Markley conceives the climate crisis as a matter of hearts and minds: we will do nothing until we viscerally feel the consequences of our actions. Then, à la King, it piles to the guts: the novel’s fluid depiction of a worsening world is punctuated by harrowing depictions of even more grotesquely innovative shootings, self-immolation, suicide, bombings, and murders. That way, he seems to hope, we could see more clearly the thing that would really help: global decarbonization. (She routinely prescribes a series of carbon taxes and tariffs dubbed “shock collars.”)

The whole thing largely works. Markley is so gifted at imagining catastrophe that “The Deluge” breeds the same kind of guilt you might feel watching a disaster movie, calmly witnessing hurricanes and famines destroying the lives of others. That gift becomes more taxing in the final sections of the book, as Markley balances increasingly intense portrayals of devastation with more and more pages of Ashir’s political nonsense and scenes of boardroom debates. George Will once joked that football combines the worst things in American life: violence and committee meetings. Much the same could be said of the final chapters of “The Deluge.”

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For all its well-researched details on methane hydrates and carbon sequestration, and all the weather calamities it describes, “The Deluge” isn’t just about climate change. Another important theme is something else that poses an immediate risk: identity politics, which in this novel leads to a tribalism that divides and distracts, exacerbates white supremacism, and diverts our attention away from the radical change needed to solve the our most existential problems. This is an extremely debatable point, but you can see why Markley includes it. He has strived to write a great, unifying novel that has something for everyone: fans of horror, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction, and more. So it’s only natural that he plays both sides of the political aisle. It would make room for hobbits and wizards if it could realistically. This novel may attempt to do the impossible; but as with the climate, so with novels: why not try?

Marco Atitakisis a Phoenix critic and author of “The New Midwest.”

Simon & Schuster. 880 pages $32.50

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