The Deluge, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.
Summary: A novel imagining the interaction of accelerating impacts of climate change and the unraveling of societies.
I should say at the outset that there are a number of reasons not to read this book:
- It’s long–880 pages
- It’s scary, because it reads like our news feeds on steroids–both in accounts of extreme weather and other climate change impacts and societal unraveling.
- It involves movement back and forth in narrating the lives and actions of a disparate set of characters, all a part of a growing crisis intermixed with collages of news articles, fictional op-ed columns, and magazine articles. It’s not always easy to keep track of it all.
- It’s raw with graphic descriptions of violence, of various iterations of sex, and adult language.
Yet, despite all this, I could not put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it. The lead character in this book is really our planet–its ice sheets, its oceans, its atmosphere, and its weather. Markley portrays in vivid detail the extreme weather events we already are seeing–in even greater extremes. Unprecedented snow storms. An atmospheric river flooding California (certainly written before the recent actual weather events). Monstrous hurricanes with 250 mph winds. Fires that destroy Los Angeles. Sea levels inundating coastal cities. Midwest flooding. Triple digit heat domes a routine summer event. Melting permafrost and ocean floors releasing methane, leading to cascading increases in global warming.
The novel moves between the stories of a collection of characters. A passionate environmentalist, Kate Morris, founds a creative movement, Fierce Blue Fire, starting both local community development groups and a national lobbying effort to pass environmental legislation, ultimately gutted by carbon interests. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of Matt, her partner in an “open” relationship–the terms dictated by Kate. Tony Pietrus, is a scientist who discovers and models what happens when underwater methane is released through oceanic warming. Then there is the Pastor, a has-been actor who undergoes a conversion and becomes a religious alt-right charismatic figure who eventually runs for president as a tool of the carbon lobby. Jackie is a savvy ad exec, who crafts the media strategy that guts the climate legislation Kate had fought so hard for who goes on to join her partner, Fred, in building a global investment fund leveraging the changing energy and social situation to make lots of money for investors at the expense of the world’s poor–until she regains a conscience. There is a group of climate radicals, 6Degrees, committed to using violent means to stop big coal and corporate America that through compartmented protocols and infiltration of computer networks, evades detection while staging a series of increasingly violent bombings. Keeper, an ex-addict trying to put his life back together with the help of an immigrant pastor in a small town community and gets swept up in 6 Degrees activity. And there is Ashir, who writes memoranda to a congressperson that are really personal narratives. He is a brilliant analyst and mathematician whose predictive algorithm ends up being exploited by everything from sports betting to the investment fund Jackie and her partner, Fred, manage.
All of these characters’ stories unfold against the backdrop of an unraveling country. States seceding, An irreconcilably divided political environment controlled by powerful lobbies. A tanking economy. Food and power shortages. Increasingly violent and aggressive militias. And a similarly unraveling international situation. A series of “martyrdoms” lead to what seems an awakening and embrace of the actions needed to stabilize an ever-warming world, but one requiring generations of brave effort to do so.
While one might find faults with the book, its length, structure, and character development, I thought it all worked in the end. I found myself actually caring about many of the people. As I said, I couldn’t put it down. And it made me ask the question–could all this really happen? I find myself very troubled by the fact that I have no good argument to say, “it can’t happen here?” A society that threatens public health and political officials over wearing a piddly little face mask during a highly infectious pandemic strikes me as ill-prepared or disposed to enact radical and long term societal-wide changes to reduce global warming. Despite all we know and all the talk about energy-saving and renewables our U.S. carbon emissions went UP 1.3 percent in the last year.
Can fiction speak to what all our white papers and models have not? What Markley does is take a holistic look at what happens to a society when increasingly extreme weather disrupts the fabric of our lives on an increasingly pervasive scale. The picture isn’t pretty. He bids us to look into the abyss. While some act with nobility and courage, for many others, the worst nature dishes out brings out the worst in humans. He raises profound questions about whether our democratic republic can survive these stresses. There are indications that he hangs on to hope even while portraying how challenging the world will be for our children and grand-children. And perhaps that is where we need to be–both clear-eyed, and passionately hopeful. Lord have mercy!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.