The first thing I want to say about The Deluge, Stephen Markley’s doorstop of a novel on the climate emergency, is that the prestige reviews it has thus far garnered, at least in the US – I’m thinking in particular of the Times, the Post, and the LA Times – are all a bit irritated by it, and all of them in irritating ways. Especially the LA Times, which actually complains that The Deluge “drowns us in catastrophes”. Don’t get me wrong – there are good criticisms to make here — but somehow these reviews avoid, or miss, or downplay, the point that should be highlighted, which is that you should absolutely read The Deluge. In fact, should put it at the top of your stack. This book is an event like few others, and you don’t want to miss it.
I’ll not go into the details. This isn’t my job and in any case I don’t want to drop any spoilers. Which seems to be a part of the problem that seriously reviewing The Deluge poses. How, for example, do you talk about the ending? Unlike Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, which was always going to conclude with an uptick – Stan’s point is to show that we are not doomed, that we could absolutely make a different future – The Deluge is more an extrapolation of the current storyline, the one we’re trapped in, and let’s just say that this extrapolation ends on a razor’s edge.
Many things here are just absolutely fucking great. One of them, a big one, is its take on the climate movement. We talk, some of us, about “the movement ecosystem” – how the frontline activists work in implicit if sometimes hostile coalition with the legislative activists, how the technologists are essential, but prone to exaggerate their own importance, how the climate movement, as it become the climate justice movement, is passing through some challenging cultural water, how eco-desperation can decay into eco-terrorism – but rarely, if ever, has there been a fiction that more intelligently centers these cross currents, even as it shows the resulting mélange being tossed about in rising waves of seemingly unstoppable fossil-fueled fascism.
Also, the writing can be sublime.
What criticisms would I highlight? Well, the description of Kate Morris, the charismatic activist at the center of the tale, can in extreme moments collapse, or almost collapse, into caricature. On the other hand, I have to add that I would really like to have been on her staff, back before everything went to shit. Also, if you’re sick unto death by the suggestion that the US will have to lead the world out of these dark precincts, you’re probably not going to love the pathway forward, which includes an embattled US Administration managing, despite all, to nonetheless lead negotiations that actually achieve a viable international climate accord. Which, given the strength of the winds blowing against it, isn’t really all that bad.
Here’s a quick summary, as that deal emerges out of some very delicate talks in the tumultuous year 2037:
“The framework was not a new idea. Each country would bring its per capita carbon emissions into alignment so the carbon budget of developing countries could rise minimally while developed nations would have to drastically reduce theirs. The CSDF [ Climate Stabilization and Development Fund] would pay for zero-carbon infrastructure in the Global South, while debt forgiveness would be tied to each participant’s decarbonization and biodiversity preservation. Free riders would be dealt with, first with limited sanctions and then with economic boycotts. If the major economies could stick to this, it would flush the carbon out of the world’s economy to limit warming to 2.5 degrees.”
Do note that terrifying number. Because, by the time we get to this point (page 814) in the tale, the Paris temperature goal is fading history. And note too that even holding this desperate line — 2.5C is not where we would choose to turn the tide — involves winning an endlessly deepening and dispiriting battle against insane new forms of sociopathic Christian authoritarianism. It also involves a culture dominated by virtual reality, an AI-assisted surveillance state, identity politics, heroic but cantankerous scientists, very clever bombs, cap and dividend, a democratic revolution in China, the methane emergency, solar radiation management, and the widespread acceptance, won at very high cost at the very last moment, that there is no way forward save the realization that we really are in this together.
The Deluge is long. But it’s written by a real novelist – this is not climate fiction as usual. And it is imbued with a realist sensibility, tinged with hope, that I for one found to be quite congenial. It deserves way more attention than it has thus far received.