My new project is on what I call “flood fictions”, novels that use floods as a literal consequence of climate crisis, but also as a symbolic image for life in the Anthropocene: unpredictable, overwhelming and quite literally engulfing. Floods become synecdoches for climate crisis as a whole, bringing the large scale developments leading to and effects of climate change into relatively small-scaled and contained environments.
The unnamed narrator of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (2017) hears disturbing news just weeks before giving birth to her son: “the water is rising faster than they thought. It is creeping faster. A calculation error. A badly plotted movie, sensors out at sea” (3). The waters are rising, creeping towards London – and while she’s in the hospital, the really bad news comes. London, it seems, has been lost to the water: “An unprecedented flood. London. Uninhabitable. A list of boroughs, like the shipping forecast, their names suddenly as perfect and tender as the names of children. Ours” (8). Hunter’s novel is just one of several contemporary British novels that imagine floods as a consequence of climate crisis.
Floods are a recurring feature of the climate crisis imagination, both literally and symbolically. In disaster films floods provide welcome imagery, from the flooded planet in Waterworld (1995) to the flooding of Manhattan, leaving only the Statue of Liberty standing in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and the breaching of the Thames Barrier in the 2007 British film Flood.
Sensationalist though these films may be, flooding is a very real consequence of climate crisis. Global warming is linked to increased flooding in most European countries, as well as in other areas around the world (Alfieri et al.). In Britain, changing environmental and climatological circumstances will make floods twenty times more likely by 2080, affecting at least twice as many people than are currently at risk from flooding. Little wonder, then, that many twenty-first-century fictions imagine a very wet future, especially for Britain.
Floods are also a powerful symbol to describe climate crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary Before the Flood uses the image of the flood as a kind of environmental turning point, a tipping point after which broad-scale climate crisis can no longer be prevented. Similarly, the 2017 film Downsizing, in which humans have themselves shrunk in order to have a smaller environmental footprint, ends with a waterless, but no less dangerous flood. When the methane levels in the atmosphere reach dangerous heights, a group of idealistic environmentalists descends into a cave under the earth’s surface, in an attempt to wait out the next great extinction – of humans. The cave, the film’s protagonist realizes, functions as a kind of Noah’s Ark.
A similar extinction event is referred to as the ‘waterless flood’ in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam-trilogy, in which a scientist creates a deadly virus that wipes out a considerable part of humanity. Similarly, the deadly flu that kills off most of humankind in Station Eleven (2014) is framed as a flood: “‘The flu’, the prophet said, ‘the great cleansing that we suffered twenty years ago, that flu was our flood” (60). In a slightly different vein, Ali Shaw envisions an arboreal flood in The Trees (2016), when Britain is quite literally swamped, and destroyed, by millions of trees popping up overnight.
Eventually, my new project will lead to another monograph. Before that, I have a few conference papers planned, and at least two articles about the different dimensions of flood fictions. The list of novels that I’ll analyse is growing, but includes Hunter’s The End We Start From, The Ship (2015) by Antonia Honeywell, When the Floods Came (2016) by Clare Morrall, The Carhullan Army (2007) by Sarah Hall, The Flood (2004) by Maggie Gee and All Rivers Run Free (2018) by Natasha Carthew.