Stephen Markley’s THE DELUGE is not only the best fiction read of 2023 but one of the most important novels I’ve ever read. In this extraordinary and ambitious novel, Markley lays out a scenario for a climate change future, and it’s even more horrifying than you imagined, leading Stephen King to call it “terrifying.”
The novel had been recommended to me, but at first I found it a little daunting. At 900 pages, it’s a door stopper of a read. I don’t mind long reads, but they don’t always earn the length and can be self-indulgent (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you). I figured, well, I can at least give it a shot. I’m glad I did.
Told through a large cast of characters, we see the horror of climate change. Heat waves, massive storms, gradual sea level rise swamping coasts, collapse of ecosystems, a weakening food chain, and the terrifying threat of massive pockets of methane in ocean and permafrost releasing to essentially end human civilization and ultimately humanity itself as a species. Remarkably and deeply researched, this is climate change without platitudes (like how technology and specifically tech billionaires will save us), hyperbole, or political agenda, just the best available science.
On the human side, we see the even scarier reaction to the world slowly fraying. Massive refugee flows, skyrocketing food inflation, entire towns and cities being gutted by flood and fire, overdeveloped coastal areas washed away. The rich donate to causes while continuing to profit off the problem, asking for government bailouts while undermining any effective legislation. Then we have the usual portion of the population that reacts to fear by trying to make any problem worse by fabricating an entirely different reality of denial and obfuscation, ripe for the usual grifters. Lefties aren’t spared either, criticized for ideological purity tests, infighting, and tying every single social justice aim to addressing climate change. Beholden to big money, both parties prove worthless and impotent to address the crisis.
In short, there are three major reactions to what happens. Those who see the problem and the solution scream like Cassandras, only to be attacked and thwarted at every turn. Those who are profiting from the problem will do anything to maintain business as usual. And those suffering from the problem will either rise up or just as likely be distracted and wind up punching down. If you’ve been paying attention to American politics over the least 10+ years, you’ll likely find yourself saying, yeah, this is exactly how it’s going to go down.
Part of the problem here is we can’t address climate change while maintaining capitalism and the political system in its present form, and that brings out the usual tiring hysteria about the New World Order and Marxist gulags. It’s always weird to me how people get their ass kicked by capitalism, a system designed to break every four to eight years, and then blame the government, whose minimal safety net and regulation is the only thing separating them from outright robber baron dystopia–alternately holding the government accountable for every problem but then screaming “Socialism!” at any effort to solve the problem. (I just saw an example of that this year–in my province, oil production is 7% of GDP but you’d think it was 95%, based on our premier’s policies and rhetoric, and even though half the province was literally choking on another year of rampant forest fires, and even though the premier cut budget for wildfire fighting services in half, she was re-elected with a solid majority, which simply boggles the mind.) To address climate change, we have to stop the legalized bribery, hold both parties accountable to the problem, stop thinking corporations will solve it for us, and hold big business–particularly the fossil fuel industry, which has known about climate change for many years but even now actively suppresses science and government action–accountable for their pollution, the cost of which they largely pass on to the rest of us.
We see these perspectives portrayed through a wide range of characters, eco-terrorists and scientists and policymakers and others, spanning two decades of steady environmental collapse. The characters themselves are interesting, often have a distinctive personality and voice to distinguish them from the rest, and are deeply drawn. Nonetheless, the author made the decision to make it not easy to tell whose point of view we’re getting when each new chapter starts. This results in a mental effort with each new chapter that becomes annoying. With so many characters, it’s not easy to keep track of everyone even without this confusing approach. But kudos to the author for managing all these characters and intertwining storylines in a tale that is packed with science and economics but is also very human and packs a big punch with horrific sequences that steadily ramp up the story into becoming an outright thriller. In this, THE DELUGE compares favorably to Kim Stanley Robinson’s THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE, another door stopper I loved that reads more like nonfiction than fiction and whose characters often feel like mouthpieces for different views than real people.
Anyway, that was ultimately a minor criticism compared to how much I absolutely loved this book for telling hard truths. My only major criticism is the same as I had for THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE, which is how much hope there is we can act in time. When America finally starts to do the right thing, it does every right thing, and I have my doubts we can pull it off. In my opinion, America is essentially run by billionaires profiting from today’s capitalism, choosing politicians and policy, getting bailed out by the taxpayer when they make bad investments, and believing if the world ends, they’ll be insulated from it–as if any seat on a burning plane is the one you’ll survive in and that all that wealth they can’t get enough of will be worth anything in the end. Still, I appreciated the novel’s recipe for victory in the war against climate change and the hope it represents.
Overall, I encourage everyone to read THE DELUGE. In my view, it’s the most important work of fiction of the year if not the decade.