Flood and Ark

Recently, I finished reading two Sci-Fi books: Flood and Ark by Stephen Baxter. Ark is the sequel to Flood. They both take place in a near future where earth slowly disappears under a rapidly rising sea level.

Flood and Ark

I read some Stephen Baxter books in the past. Not that I particularly like his writing. I do enjoy his approach to Hard Sci-Fi. But he has some fundamental deficits in the descriptions of his characters. So I like to read the books to understand the problem better and to figure out how to avoid those mistakes myself.

To be fair, Baxter does covers a lot of the basics. The Flood series has a rather large set of characters and it puts them in the foreground quite prominently. The characters all are entwined in a rather complex web of relationships and dependencies. A common problem with Sci-Fi is to write about awesome geeky stuff and put in characters as an afterthought. This is not that kind of book.

On the other hand, the characters are sadly not what is driving the plot. Usually, in a well-crafted story, it’s the individual character’s goals that motivate their action. Usually, the characters have contradicting goals or values which creates tension and causes the plot to move along. I noticed that this is rarely what happens in Baxter’s stories. Yes, there is a complex web of inter-dependent characters. But all of them have usually a very common goals. So in case of Flood and Ark, pretty much all characters just want to find a way to survive. Well, duh! But the similarities go even deeper. They also have very similar values. They are all very respectful of science, they are weary of Governments and they are usually non-militant. Most disaster movies have characters with similar goals, yet manage to add some variations. At some point I realized it was difficult for me to tell some of the male characters apart from each other. They are essentially the same person.

The more defined characters are the female ones. For example, one is a scientist nerd. Another one is the mother of a baby that was kidnapped. But then the mother is so overly focused on the baby that it completely overshadows any other aspects. I couldn’t tell you anything else about her. The scientist nerd on the other hand seems to be little more than a vessel to info-drop the science content of the book. I mean, take Jeff Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park. There are ways to make scientists interesting and distinct.

So even though there is a huge staff of characters and a lot of talk about them, the plot still just drops them almost randomly in spectacular but emotionally irrelevant set-piece situations. You can forget about it in scenes like the flooding of London, which is described quite vividly. But as the books drag on, the world becomes more and more alien and less engaging. The characters aren’t able to pick up the slack.

It was around that time when I was reminded of the text medium being very weak at describing spaces. For example, the author spends quite some time describing how coastlines change over time. Not having a map at hand, this is completely incomprehensible unless you are some sort of geographic genius. A visual medium like a game, a movie or even a comic would be able to handle such task with ease.

The second book, Ark is somewhat better. The characters have slightly more profile, but only just. Most importantly, they go to space. That’s almost always enough to keep me reading. But then, the entire premise is quite far-fetched. They use an Orion propulsion system (a space ship propelled by nuclear detonations) to launch a huge vehicle off the ground, go to Juptier to harvest anti-matter and use it to create an Alcubierre Warp Bubble to go to an Exosolar Planet. That’s a pretty hardcore way to escape from some water. That’s a lot of unproven, even completely theoretical technology too! And then 40 people or so survive over 50 years in what is supposed to be a ship the size of a Space Shuttle External Tank? You need a whole warp bubble to stretch my suspension of disbelief this far.

But Baxter makes an interesting argument which I encountered myself at some point. Other planets in our Solar System are so hostile to life, that it’s difficult to come up with a scenario where going to space would be easier than staying on Earth. Even an Earth entirely flooded with water should be more hospitable than the Moon, Mars or Titan. I just doubt that researching warp drive and harvesting Jupiter is the next logical solution.

So it’s hard to recommend the books to anyone else than a complete Hard Sci-Fi geek. The detailed description of the Flood and the low-fi space flight to a different star have some memorable highlights. But then again, even the geeks will find plenty of holes to nit-pick at. Perhaps that’s good. I guess those are good books to start thinking for yourself. They certainly made me think.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Flood and Ark”

  1. Daniel Renkel

    its good to hear your clear thoughts about details being wrong on the book.
    now, i do not feel so naive and trivial anymore. Because while in the shop I just paced in of both books over some pages and thought “naaahhhh”.

    so, thanks for your effort – atleast its giving my feelings some kind of substantial background to back them up :-)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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