Book Review: The Deluge by Stephen Markley

The Deluge

What will the climate crisis and the world’s response to it look like over the course of the next decade or two?

The Deluge by Stephen Markley offers one of the most thorough and compelling answers to this question that I’ve read to date. This novel explores almost every facet of the climate crisis in amazing and terrifying detail. Even after reading dozens of other climate fiction classics like Ministry for the Future, Termination Shock, and Parable of the Sower, I found myself blown away by both the sheer scope of this novel and the many skillful ways Markley drew me in and kept me reading throughout the entire 896-page journey.

This novel covers so much ground that it could easily be the subject of an entire semester-long course on climate fiction. Since this isn’t a climate fiction course, I’ll narrow the focus of this review to three themes: climate catastrophes, climate solutions, and narrative structure.

Climate Catastrophes in The Deluge

The Deluge depicts floods, droughts, wildfires, and other climate catastrophes in such vivid multisensory detail that it feels like experiencing it firsthand. These catastrophes build in frequency and severity over the course of the novel, creating a broadening and deepening sense of dread about both the fictional narrative and the likelihood of similar horrors unfolding in real life.

It’s one thing to read an article about how climate change is making certain disasters more frequent or severe. It’s another thing entirely to experience these disasters through the lens of a character’s point of view. At various points throughout the novel, characters find themselves wading through putrid floodwaters, traveling through massive dust storms as thick as fog, choking on wildfire smoke as flame engulfs an entire city. These scenes convey some of the most extreme and dramatic consequences of the climate crisis through vivid imagery and visceral action sequences that left me on the edge of my seat.

What makes these moments of climate catastrophe even more powerful is the deeply personal context of the characters experiencing them. It’s not just riveting because some big climate catastrophe is happening. It’s riveting because well-developed characters find themselves in high-stakes climate disaster situations with their lives, futures, and loved ones on the line.

I also love the fact that these climate catastrophe scenes aren’t just there for the sake of rattling the characters or demonstrating the extreme weather consequences of the climate crisis. They’re meaningful turning points in the plot and character development arcs of the story. All of the institutional machinations and political organizing that unfold over the course of the novel directly shape, and are directly shaped by, these climate catastrophes. The author takes these many distinct stories of individual and institutional responses to the climate crisis and weaves them together seamlessly over the course of the novel into a single overarching narrative about the world’s response to the climate crisis.

Climate Solutions in The Deluge

This brings us to one of the greatest strengths of The Deluge: its exploration of how and why diverse characters and institutions respond to the climate crisis in radically different ways.

Characters in The Deluge respond to the climate crisis with an incredibly broad and realistic range of approaches: cynical profiteering and politicking; green investment fund management; data and policy analysis; climate communication; computer hacking and programming; personal survival strategies; community organizing; political demonstrations; civil disobedience; popular uprisings; and even eco-terrorism.

Each of the main characters in their own way offers a glimpse into the motivations and inner experiences of the people involved in one or more of these approaches.

What’s it like to be a scientist trying to warn the world about the climate crisis? What does it look like when a climate activist organizes mass demonstration campaigns across the country? What’s life like for people living in poverty and trying to survive the economic and political instability without any political analysis? What’s it like profiteering off of the climate crisis while telling yourself that it doesn’t matter or that your lucrative sustainable investment fund is part of the solution? What’s it like when your approach to the climate crisis changes dramatically over time in response to events in your life and the world at large?

Some climate fiction novels struggle to develop a deeply convincing, compelling, complex depiction of even one or two different types of responses to the climate crisis. For example, they may feature a simplistic narrative involving a plucky protagonist or band of climate heroes struggling to survive climate catastrophes or defeat one-dimensional climate villains. The Deluge, on the other hand, features an expansive cast of well-developed and morally-complex characters with many different and often conflicting motivations and worldviews.

Some of the ways that their lives intersect and interact are predictable, but there are also plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way. Some characters have impressive redemption arcs; some meet an untimely end as a consequence of their own choices and broader social forces; some just change over time in an organic way with unclear or neutral impacts on their relationship with the climate crisis. And regardless of how much love or hate I might feel for a particular character, I always appreciated the glimpse into their internal motivations and felt eager to discover what happened next.

The author also devotes a significant amount of time to exploring the solutions themselves in both concrete and abstract ways. I would have liked to see more glimpses of a few of the constructive solutions, particularly the Fierce Blue Fire community hubs that combine elements of job creation, mutual aid, urban agriculture, addiction recovery, and social work resources for the low-income participants involved in the program. But given the fact that the novel is already 896 pages long, I can see why the details of some solutions didn’t make the cut.

Even so, I did feel that each solution was presented in enough detail to make it clear what was happening, what the key details were, and why the characters involved found this particular solution more compelling than others.

The characters supporting the main climate advocacy group, Fierce Blue Fire, feel an urgency that inspires them to pursue new community organizing projects and mass demonstrations that apply pressure to systems of power. The characters involved in 6Degrees, the underground eco-sabotage group, don’t believe that it’s possible to persuade politicians and businesses to stop fossil fuel pollution in any reasonable timeframe, so they attack the infrastructure responsible for extracting, transporting, and combusting fossil fuels. Politicians support a variety of promising climate solutions, greenwashing schemes, and openly authoritarian and fascist policies depending on the ebb and flow of political expediency and the whims of their base and donors. Wealthy fund managers see the unfolding crisis as a lucrative opportunity for profit, exploring a variety of investment responses ranging from maintaining questionable sustainability portfolios to openly profiting off of climate chaos without any moral compunction about what they’re doing.

Since the characters disagree wildly about the morality and benefits of these solutions, the reader is largely left to draw their own conclusions about what solutions might be more desirable to support, both in this story and in real life. The most extreme solutions on either end of the spectrum are ultimately portrayed negatively, but usually not to the point of eliminating the moral complexity of the characters pursuing those solutions.

I also appreciated how the author handled partisan politics. Both of the major parties in the U.S. – the Democrats and the Republicans – contribute to climate solutions in different ways. The Republicans are rightly portrayed as the most unhinged and overtly destructive of the two, but both parties pursue climate solutions and make major missteps with horrific consequences. This complexity of partisan dynamics allows the novel to explore the ups and downs of many different responses to the climate crisis without coming off as a partisan screed for or against either of the two dominant U.S. parties or any particular climate solution.

Speaking of the U.S., the plot focuses almost exclusively on characters and events in the United States, but periodically speaks to what’s happening in other parts of the world. This was an effective way for an author living in the United States, and writing a story primarily set in the United States, to handle the interplay between national and international responses to the climate crisis. There was enough detail about what was going on in the rest of the world to convey the global nature of the crisis without having to add another 800+ pages of text (and likely some inaccuracies and implausibilities) by doing a deeper dive into the climate crisis and climate solutions in other countries.

Narrative Structure in The Deluge

The Deluge has an overarching narrative structure similar to other long novels with many characters. It starts by introducing each of the main characters in their respective contexts before the onset of the main action of the story. These initial chapters of the first section of the novel establish both the characters themselves and the initial conditions that ultimately launch each of them on their individual responses to the climate crisis.

There were times in the first section of the novel where I found myself wondering why we were even exploring these particular characters at all, much less why their stories were being presented in such a variety of styles and perspectives.

Point of view shifts between first, second, and third person depending on the character. Style shifts from a more traditional text to the inclusion of sidebars, pages full of news headlines in various fonts and sizes, and whole chapters that are meant to be news articles, op-ed pieces, white papers, or similar “nonfiction” pieces from the fictional setting.

Some characters have obvious connections to the climate crisis – for example, a scientist studying methane clathrates. Others have lives and identities with no initial relationship to the climate crisis or the other characters.

Despite the initial oddness of this flip-flopping between different styles, points of view, and seemingly unrelated characters, each of the individual chapters was captivating enough (or in some cases unsettling enough) to keep me reading. The first chapter in particular got the novel off to such a strong start that it should carry any skeptical readers through the initial oddness of these point of view and style shifts.

Once the main action of the novel gets going, there’s an intense and fruitful interplay between the utopian and dystopian elements of the story.

Most readers would probably say that the novel skews in a dystopian direction – escalating climate catastrophes, worsening social conditions, and a multitude of messy climate solutions that for the most part don’t seem to prevent the worst of the social and ecological consequences of the climate crisis.

But some of the best climate fiction to date combines both utopian and dystopian elements – and the Deluge is no exception.

Over the course of the novel, some climate solutions succeed to varying degrees, temporarily or in the long run. The actions of the main characters often have dramatic impacts on the course of regional and national responses to the climate crisis (for good or ill), indicating that our agency as individuals, communities, and movements still matters, even in dire circumstances that seem beyond our control. And honestly, for me, any portrayal of the next several decades that doesn’t result in the total collapse of civil society in the United States and possibly the world is at least somewhat utopian in its outlook.

The near-future reality presented by The Deluge is similar in important ways to my own perspective and the perspectives of many climate justice advocates in recent years. Namely that the climate crisis will get far worse before it gets any better, but our actions can still have some meaningful impact on outcomes. And the greatest successes we can hope for in the near term are the abatement of the absolute worst outcomes and the enthusiastic pursuit of a broad range of climate solutions, many of which will falter and fail in messy ways.

It’s not the doe-eyed utopianism of a Marvel movie where the heroes save the world at the end of the story. But it’s also not the grimdark dystopianism of a Mad Max movie where society has already collapsed and the best we can do is survive and resist the brutal overlords who rule the wastelands. It’s something in between – a world where society is trending in a destructive direction that can’t be stopped entirely, but individual and collective action can sometimes (not always) shift circumstances in a more livable and liberatory direction. Honestly, because it strikes this balance so well, I would love to see it adapted to film, or possibly TV to give it enough breathing room to do the full story justice.

This skillful blend of dystopianism, utopianism, and excellent writing makes the Deluge one of my new favorite works of climate fiction. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to check it out and let me know what you think!

Print Books on Bookshop

Leave a Comment