I first stumbled across Stephen Baxter's work when I read his "Manifold" series, which told three parallel stories centered on resolving the Fermi Paradox. In the "Manifold" stories, Baxter exhibited his skill as a hard science fiction author by tackling the each scenario in a rigorous and scientific manner.

I started "Flood" after reading about the discovery of subterranean water deposits in the Earth's mantle, 400 miles beneath its crust. A Hacker News poster mentioned that "Flood" covered this scenario, and I picked up the book on the strength of Baxter's name alone.

In short, "Flood" describes a near-future where the Earth's subterranean oceans are released to the surface, causing a global flood that dwarfs even the worst-case global warming scenarios. Set over a period just under 50 years, "Flood" describes in excruciating and depressing detail how the world (as we know it) ends as the sea level steadily rises year over year.

"Ark" is a sequel/companion to "Flood" that covers the United States' last ditch effort to save humanity by sending a generation ship to a nearby Earth-like planet to establish a technological and cultural foothold before the terrestrial oceans wipe out all traces of humanity. Whereas "Flood" is a book set on a global stage, "Ark" is its inverse, mainly chronicling the journey of about 80 colonists over several decades on their way to a new human homeworld.

While I'm glad that I read the books and had my mind expanded by Baxter's stories, the duology are the most depressing things that I've read in some time. (And that includes my earlier foray into Christian apocalyptic fiction earlier this year.) "Flood" especially is like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. Tragedy happens, and despite our perceived self-importance, humans are unable to do a single thing to save themselves.

The overall tone of the series is best captured by this quote towards the end of "Flood":

"It's a tragedy, you know," Gary said. "We just ran out of time." He looked up at the huge sky. "Another fifty years and we'd have had power stations in orbit, and mines on asteroids and the moon, and we wouldn't need the damn continents."

"Ark" captures the same themes, but instead of looking outward at the world against humanity, it's a very personal story that looks at humanity working against itself. Set at the time when the last of America is being flooded, the remaining scientists, engineers, psychologists, and ethicists try to put together the best 80 person crew to weather a multi-decade journey to a nearby star with an Earth-like planet in a vehicle no larger than three airline cabins. Despite picking the best and brightest, human nature exerts itself in the trek, and the space capsule society takes some dark turns.

As I mentioned earlier, these are not fun books, but they are solid stories about the fragility of modern existence and how ill equipped we are to deal with a planetary or cosmic curveball. While the books may be "mere" science fiction, Baxter does a wonderful job backing up his stories with modern science so that the fictional elements of the story are secondary to what happens in his world and what could happen in our own. I only hope that we would deal with the situation better than those in his books, but I'm pessimistic.

(An aside: as I was writing, the track below was playing on my stereo, and it captures the mood of the series well enough that I thought I'd share it.)

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