Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

I hope you've already heard of this book. I read the fiftieth anniversary edition ten years later: this is a 1962 novel by a writer who died, after a very long and distinguished subsequent career, in 2009.

J.G. Ballard started out in SF. He could have started nowhere else; SF was necessary for his work, but, eventually, it was no longer sufficient. But that's getting ahead of myself: for the potted Life of Ballard, see my obituary here or his last book, the memoir, Miracles of Life.

His first four novels were all apocalypses, published as if in the British tradition of cozy catastrophes, though they quickly got thornier and more complex than that. The one central thing about Ballard is that all of his writing was Ballardian; that may seem like a tautology, but it's deeper than that. His concerns and central images and character types and visions were remarkably consistent for fifty years, even as they were embedded in turn in SF short stories and SF novels and experimental fiction and mainstream novels and magic realists works and thrillers and less genre-typeable writings. A Ballard book could have been written by no one else, and will be filled with viewpoint male characters who are doctors of one kind or another, with ruined human-made structures and technology, with frighteningly charismatic Others, and with women who are more symbols than people. (Well, that last is very mid-century and not unique to Ballard.)

The Drowned World is Ballard's second novel, his first "serious" one, set a hundred or so years hence. The flap copy says 2145; I saw no dates in the novel and assumed it was sixty to seventy years on from when it was written: the transition to this world took that long and the pre-apocalypse world is clearly that of when it was written. This is a massively warmed world, though not caused by man: the Sun warmed up and has cooked the tropics to near-boiling. Landscapes have been transformed within a generation by meltwater dragging silt in its wake: this is a much shallower world but a wetter, steamier one, with nearly all of the great cities buried in mud and then covered in water.

Humanity is reduced to a few million in outposts in the Artic and Antarctic. With temperatures reaching 150 in places, I assume the two ends of the Earth can now never meet - but Ballard's characters live through higher temperatures than I thought possible. Here I should point out that Ballard did train as a doctor, and does always write in a mesmerizing tone of authority, but that all science in his books must bend to the force of his narrative and to the psychological concerns of the book - accurate science can be found, but not always consistently, and it's very much not the point.

Our viewpoint character is Dr. Robert Kierans, head of a small biology team in a traveling semi-military mission to explore those overgrown cities of Europe and, perhaps, bring some positive news back to the North. The book takes place in the lagoons and swamps above the ruins of one such city: the reader will guess which specific, important city before the novel makes it clear.

Drowned World is not exactly a response to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but there are similar elements, and places where the two works rhyme or harmonize. Drowned World is much more overwhelmingly apocalyptic: this world has been utterly transformed, and the men left living in it are going through a destructive transformation of their own, which Kierans and the others characterize as evolution running backwards to recapitulate previous forms, both physically (giant insects and crocodilians) and psychologically in the human brain. The tone is Ballardian pessimism: the human race is not actually extinct yet, but hope is slim and opportunities to rebound nonexistent.

This is a short novel with a small cast set mostly in one place, primarily circling the same few concerns and obsessions. (But, then, I said it was a Ballard novel.) As the time to move on to the North approaches, some of the men feel irresistible urges, driven by unsettling dreams, to stay behind - even to head deeper to the South and the ever-hotter temperatures.

Kierans is not immune. No Ballard protagonist is immune; a Ballard protagonist is always at the heart of the transformation that book is about. I said the cast was small, but they are not all in place at the beginning of the novel. There will be changes in the lagoons above this dead city, new interlopers with their own demands and obsessions. There will be conflict. There will be death.

This is a Ballard novel, arguably the first truly Ballardian novel. This is where it all started, I suppose, though I could muster as strong an argument for a number of the stories as well. And the vision of a hothouse world that has driven humanity to the margins is vastly more relevant now than it even was in 1962. I recommend it. I recommend nearly all of Ballard, actually. If you're living in the 21st century, the classic SF writers you should know are Ballard and Dick: we live in their worlds.

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