The Deluge: notes on a leading climate fiction novel

How might we imagine the unfolding climate crisis through the creative arts?

Markley's The Deluge cover: cloudy skies with a sharp black tearI’ve been studying climate fiction (please don’t say “cli-fi”) for several years now, and wanted to share some notes on what strikes me as a leading example.

The Deluge is one of the most impressive examples of climate fiction I’ve read so far. It’s an epic, using dozens of characters across decades of time to sketch out how humanity might respond to global warming, and the damage the crisis could inflict.

It’s a social novel, using a broad canvas to address a topic, and I think it mostly succeeds in that strategy. Markley offers us one charismatic climate activist, her boyfriend, a desperately poor young man, a series of politicians, a bitter climate scientist, an autistic modeler, an eco-terrorist, and that’s just the most prominent people.  This gives us multiple points of view on a society in the throes of a complex crisis.

Alongside these characters there are a lot of ideas in the novel, both in terms of understanding climate change and in seeking to adapt to or mitigate global warming, much like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future. I’m fond of the proposed “shock collar” law (166) which would fine fossil fuel companies for not entirely decarbonizing, then transfer that money directly to citizens, a bit like the Alaskan dividend.

The plot is complex, but I can sum it up by saying it involves multiple people and organizations trying to grapple with climate change in various ways, as the crisis worsens.

I enjoyed the book’s style. Much of it is in the service of setting up dialog, but there is a tendency towards some nice prose:

…he looked up to see the ridge of Griffith Park glowing a pitch-dark amber…
Many of the homes in the hills were ablaze, as if the fire was picking and choosing, executing at random like a bored king. (365)

The title is well chosen. Obviously it points to literal rising tides, which occur in the story.  It appears in name only to describe rising climate activism, as far as I can tell. (503)  And I think there’s an echo of Louis XIV since much of the plot turns on the operations of state power, against rising chaos.

Also at a formal level, Markley also has fun with page layout. The terrorist cell meetings appear with sidebars unfolding some background points.  Some chapters end with a dos-Passos-like rush or collage of news items, giving micro-takes on various developments, a bit like the novel in miniature.

(I do want to speak to the novel’s conclusion, and therefore must hide things behind spoiler warnings. Scroll down after the big photo for that.)

Is The Deluge the great climate fiction novel? It’s certainly in the top tier, alongside Ministry for the Future. Yet like that book, flaws irk me.

For one, the novel is very America-centric, like the Apple tv series Extrapolations, which isn’t entirely a bad move, given the nation’s importance in causing global warming and potential to address it. Yet it leads to some poverty tourism. There’s an open call for the US to use its imperial powers to corral other nations into climate action as a form of realpolitick. (742) And while Europe makes something of an appearance, China is almost completely invisible, and when it appears, does so with scant detail. Given that nation’s enormous impact on the world now, especially on climate issues, this makes the book myopic.

I did have issues with one main character, Ashir al-Hasan, who is somewhere on the autism spectrum. I confess to struggling to grasp the current state of psychological analysis on autism and failing miserably to understand the politics around it, so I don’t feel comfortable assessing the portrayal. al-Hasan comes across as brilliant yet very flawed, and I can’t tell if those flaws are the results of Markley accurately modeling an autistic mind, or botching the portrait. Some of al-Hasan’s behavior matches my limited understanding: impatience with small talk, cutting into conversations obliquely, obsessive mastery of certain intellectual fields. Others mystify. He writes “memos” for Senators and Representatives that read like novels, and include big chunks of unneeded personal detail (cf 214ff). Is this something currently part of the spectrum? He commits once act of hideous cruelty and I don’t know what to make of it – a flawed character, or someone hung up on a single idea so that it overrides all else? Again, I can’t tell if this is the author trying to do the spectrum right, or just getting it badly wrong.

Another character has a weird hole. The climate scientist who analyzes clathrates is someone who begins the novel, and we follow him throughout. Something terrible happens to him, a major plot point and instance of worldbuilding, yet it seems to have had no impact on him as a person. (Cf a belated, almost apologetic note on 802) Which is… strange.

There are some minor world-building points which jarred. For example, I don’t think Anders Breivik will become Norway’s prime minister.  I can appreciate that as a grim bit of satire, but that doesn’t jibe with the novel otherwise.

Those bits aside, I strongly recommend the book. It’s a huge one, nearly 900 pages, but it will carry you all the way.  It combined a rising sense of urgency about the crisis with mostly convincing portraits of humans taking action. It’s a major contribution to climate fiction.

Now for the spoilers:

A huge amount of water pouring across several boundaries.

While the heroes manage to pass American legislation at last, it is a triumphant moment.  But the law has been watered down. And two different characters – with professional knowledge – reflect that the world is going to get worse, badly worse.

This horror has no conclusion. It will not end in my daughter’s lifetime or even the lifetime of any descendent she can hope to love. She will know no other future outside this claustrophobic emergency, this coffin we are now pounding on the lid of. She will know death and pain with unthinkable intimacy and likely become inured to the suffering pouring forth from every region of the world in order to keep going. No matter what ideologies arise, what myths we embrace, what technologies we invent, what dreams we offer, this crisis is effectively our eternity.
…I imagine her asking me someday with the hot fury of a teenager’s clarity, Was it worth it? Was a raped and murdered world worth it for a few decades of excess? How did you let this happen? You all knew. Everyone knew. (874)

The last chapter shies away from this terrifying perspective, fleeing into the novel’s past to recollect a sweet, romantic moment in nature, but the bell has been tolled. The age of progress is over, despite the good work we see in the plot. Decline and horror lie ahead.

I’m honestly not sure if most readers took this away from the end, or if I’m just too close to the topic.

(cover image from Goodreads, where I posted an earlier version of this review; deluge image by Lars Dugaiczyk)

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3 Responses to The Deluge: notes on a leading climate fiction novel

  1. Joe says:

    “Decline and horror lie ahead.”

    And the young FEEL it. They have every right not only to hate us, but to hang us from telephone poles. I hope that never happens, but one day the rage will be turned on the liars who made money from denying the undeniable.

  2. Pingback: Reading ‘The Deluge’ to imagine climate change’s impact on campus - Emirates Education Platform

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