The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How will climate change destroy us? ‘The Deluge’ imagines the scenarios.

Stephen Markley’s new novel is part thriller, part horror, part all-too-real. It’s scary, instructive and also entertaining.

An American flag rests on the ruins of the fire department in Greenville, Calif., in August 2021 after the Dixie Fire swept through the town. Stephen Markley's novel imagines that wildfires, made worse by climate change, will increasingly wreak havoc. (David Odisho/Getty Images)
5 min

Stephen Markley’s new climate-change epic, “The Deluge,” is a lot. A lot of characters, a lot of politicking and a lot of devastation, filling a lot of pages. But a lot of it is entertaining, and its length is purposeful: A realistic projection of the collapse of civilization as we know it takes some easing into. As one character puts it: “One must be careful in the handling of difficult realities. People cannot hear bad news all at once.”

This is a book review with a strict word count, though, so we’ll have to speed through the bad news as Markley envisions it: Over the next two decades, floods and fires will increasingly wreck the American coasts. Mass global migration will warp our life and politics. Attempts at legislative remedies will fail in the face of polarization. As the left eats its own, carbon-control bills will magically turn into corporate giveaways and the speedy dismantling of civil rights. A right wing greased by the oil lobby, meanwhile, will elevate figures with nicknames like the Pastor and the Hot Nazi. Famines will take hold. Mass shootings and environmental terrorism will abound. The poorest will be fed not by dog food but by dogs.

And, as 2040 arrives, we’ll have survived, more or less — as Margaret Atwood once noted, dystopian novels tend to end tinged with hope. But one of Markley’s goals is to frighten us out of tempting fate, to temper our tendencies toward violence and self-interest. He’s skeptical that we can be reformed, as every novelist must be; pacifism and selflessness make for lousy thrillers. And Markley is skilled at conjuring a blacker-hearted America: His previous novel, “Ohio” (2018), was a deftly told, complex tale of a downtrodden Midwestern town sick with Iraq War PTSD and murderous tendencies. “The Deluge” applies that sourness to a broader canvas: Markley remains fixated on how people stubbornly cling to power and the pain that power inflicts on poor people with limited options.

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In writing a clear-eyed, climate-justice-minded page-turner, Markley makes his influences obvious. The members of 6Degrees, an eco-terrorist group in “The Deluge,” communicate by sending innocuous-seeming fliers that must be decoded using a pair of dystopian classics, Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” And like those books, Markley’s assembles a set of archetypal, borderline-cliche characters and redeems them with some clever plotting. Among the crew in “The Deluge” are Tony, the climate scientist who sees it all coming; Kate, the charismatic, rebellious activist; Ashir, the Spock-like technocrat clarifying the trend lines for politicians (and the reader); Shane, a 6Degrees organizer; Jackie, an ad exec charged with painting smiley faces on the fossil fuel industry; and Keeper, the poor Ohioan with a history of drug abuse who’s an easy mark for others’ terrorist schemes.

It’s not hard to see the role each character plays here. But Markley imagines predicaments that are hard to see coming and delivers them in convincing, fine-grained detail. The story is driven by a handful of virtuoso set pieces, one featuring a fire nicknamed El Demonio that ravages Los Angeles, another turning on an activist siege of the National Mall. Markley is alert to “the chum slick of glossy greenwashing” in the carbon lobby’s ads and counterbalances the outsize climate calamities with near-future predictions that feel a lot like the present. We are still boarding planes in this novel, still shopping at Walmart, just becoming ever more enchanted with VR kits and more manipulated by AI algorithms. Most pointedly, Markley predicts we’ll retain a collective blitheness over mass loss of life, even up to the point when floodwaters are up to our necks. “We have the other worlds now,” Shane’s VR-addicted daughter tells her. “They’re better anyway.”

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Markley conceives the climate crisis as a hearts-and-minds problem — we’ll do nothing until we viscerally feel the consequences of our actions. So, a la King, he piles on the viscera: The novel’s smooth depiction of a worsening world is punctuated with harrowing depictions of shootings, self-immolation, suicide, bombings and even more grotesquely innovative killings. Through that, he seems to hope, we might more clearly see the thing that would truly help: global decarbonization. (He routinely prescribes a suite of carbon taxes and tariffs dubbed a “shock collar.”)

The whole thing largely works. Markley is so gifted at imagining catastrophe that “The Deluge” generates the same kind of guilt you might feel watching a disaster movie, calmly witnessing hurricanes and famines destroy others’ lives. That gift grows more wearisome in the book’s final sections, as Markley balances ever-more-intense portraits of devastation with ever more pages of Ashir’s policy wonkery and scenes of boardroom debates. George Will once quipped that football combines the worst things in American life: violence and committee meetings. Much the same could be said about the closing chapters of “The Deluge.”

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For all its well-researched details about methane hydrates and carbon sequestration, and all the weather calamities it depicts, “The Deluge” isn’t just concerned with climate change. Another major theme is something else it posits as an immediate risk: identity politics, which in this novel leads to divisive, distracting tribalism, exacerbates white supremacism and shifts our focus away from the radical change required to fix our most existential problems. That’s an extremely debatable point, but you can see why Markley includes it. He’s tried to write a big, unifying novel that has something for everyone — fans of horror, thrillers, science fiction, literary fiction and more. So it’s only natural that he’d play to both sides of the political aisle. He’d make room for hobbits and wizards if he realistically could. This novel might try to do the impossible; but as with the climate, so with novels: Why not try?

Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and the author of “The New Midwest.”

The Deluge

By Stephen Markley

Simon & Schuster. 880 pp. $32.50

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