Drowned World, The by Ballard, J.G., 1962

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At one point in my life, pretty early on in my exploration of the genre actually, I was an enthusiastic fan of J.G. Ballard's works. My father had a few in his meager SF collection, and I absconded with them about the time I found Dune on the same shelf. I became an even greater fan after watching the amazing Spielberg movie of the first book of Ballard's autobiography, Empire of the Sun, a film I still love to this day. Pardon my digression, but one of my favorite scenes in that movie is when the allied fighter plane buzzes the Japanese runway unexpectedly near the end of the film, right after the atomic bomb has gone off in Japan. ILM did the sound for that scene, I believe, and in 70mm surround sound, itís like you are there.

Since the late 80's when I think I really started to develop an eye and ear for SF, Ballard's work for me lost a bit of its luster. I was more interested in at the time in hard SF, and quite frankly as I matured I found that there were parts I just read over before; things I had missed as a boy, then failed to understand when I reread later in my teenage years. In my mind I became more and more confused about this author. I always have a hard time categorizing his work. The best that I can do is to say that he had a penchant for catastrophe stories, but to refine the categorization any further than that is quite difficult. Sometimes I think that Ballard is "post-cozy catastrophe," but that really does not work very well, and may be too fetishistic a description for non-genre readers. Certainly, he has a very different formula then Wyndham or any of his contemporaries had. Instead of "cozy," Ballard's description of post apocalyptic landscapes are surreal, sublime, psychological and frightening on a level that is just a few steps shy of H.P. Lovecraft. I think what I find so confusing about Ballard's work is that he often came up with a world-wrecking idea, but when he told his story it was often tight and highly focused on a small group of people in a very small geographic area, and more often than not the main story hinged on some sort of unrequited love or sexual frustration. That is what was going on in this week's novel, The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard.

The Drowned World is a little different otherwise than Ballard's other catastrophe novels. Rather than a story of either transformation or entropy, The Drowned World is a story of reversion and devolution, both of the environment and of the human psyche. Set in twenty-first century London, solar expansion has drastically altered the climate on Earth. Increasing temperatures worldwide have melted all of the ice on both polar caps. Run-off rushing out from them at the end of the twentieth century not only flooded the rest of the planet, but moved trillions of tons of top-soil. The combination of drastically heightened water levels and entire mountain ranges worth of loosed particulate matter changed the landscape of the few highlands that poked above the new sea level. The population has been knocked back to a mere five million, most of whom have abandoned the usual six continents and have begun to farm the Antarctic.

Kerans, the son of a former British subject, has been assigned to study the changes in flora and fauna in a submerged London. The novel begins as Colonel Riggs, the leader of the military expedition, is preparing to weigh anchor and return to base in the Arctic Circle. London is thoroughly drowned. Kerans has taken up residence in remnants of the luxuriously appointed penthouse suite of the Ritz hotel at Piccadilly Circus. The hotel forms part of a boarder of a lagoon now, with the bottom six or seven floors totally inundated. Kerans and his group have been in London for months. Most of the group cannot wait to leave. Some hate the climate, which is now weirdly tropical. Others fear the imminent onslaught of refugees from southern Europe that are sure to come at the end of the current storm season. Climatologists have predicted that temperatures are likely to rise permenantly there to an average daily high of 120F, so the brigands and slavers from the south must move north or die. But Kerans and two others are plotting to go AWOL at the last minute and stay in their lagoon, and at first, this was where Ballard totally lost me. The Drowned World is set in a landscape that has regressed half-way to the Triassic. Large reptiles, scummy waters, predatory insects and incredibly high temperatures were what the London of this world was made of. I could not fathom how anybody would want to live there. Ballard, despite being an incredibly talented author, seemed to have no interest at all in telling me why either. His characters simply wanted to be there, and that was the end of it.

The truth is that Ballard never does bother to clue in his readers about his characters motivations at all, but that is not really a failure. In fact, in hindsight it seems to me to be a triumph. Setting aside the strange environmental changes of this novel, Ballard as an artist was much more concerned with the weirdness that one may find here on planet Earth. He made a conscious decision to ignore the more popular contrivances of SF of the day, such as aliens, high technology and interstellar travel, and in May of 1962 in Moorcock's New Worlds magazine he pledged to focus his attention on what he called "inner space," meaning the psychology of the individual when confronted with SF settings and phenomena. He also drew quite a bit of inspiration from pop artists and avant garde painters. A reading of any of his works from the early years of the New Wave era and you are likely to find at least one well known piece of art somewhere in the story. This story is no exception.

It was with this book as well that Ballard set out the formula for his later works, wherein the protagonist who is confronted with a radical environmental cataclysm seems mostly ambivalent towards the destruction, and in some cases embraces it completely. That literary contrivance creates ambiguity and confusion, but within the frame of the narrative Ballard has also drawn a line of continuity between the scope of the disaster and his character's attitudes towards it. This is a world of alien molds, still waters and slow moving reptiles that gets slightly more inhospitable each day. As Kerans watches from his hotel balcony the remnants of man's society slowly disintegrated into the waters, and the biology of the Triassic era slowly crept back into mankind's domain. Kerans himself though was a product of this environment, and was not alive at the time of the first inundations. In fact, Kerans has trouble remembering if he was moored above London or Paris, as he never had any experience in any of mankind's former cities. Even so the way that he embraced this totally alien environment seemed to exceed his native understanding of it, or his professional curiosity about it. In fact, Kerans stooped to murder to protect it when Strangeman, clearly a Satan figure, who sat upon a throne of bones and demanded pagan rituals from his cadre of slaves (and the allegory does not end there, as the name "Kerens" to me clearly evokes the word "Kyrie," the Greek phrase for "Oh, God!"), intruded into the lagoon with a boatload of African thralls and hundreds of trained alligators. Strangeman, himself a slaver and a murderer, was given a pass for his many crimes by the nominal government in the Arctic when he devised a way to drain the lagoon and reclaim the land around Piccadilly. Kerans, intent on preserving the character of the new environment killed an adversary, destroyed the pumping apparatus and fled to the south coast of England.

Not all of the elements of this book are as confusing as Kerans attitude. Ballard's description of an inundated London is superb:

All the way down the creek, perched in the widows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly. They launched themselves into the wake of the cutter, snapping at the insects dislodged from the air-weed and the rotting logs, then swam through the windows and clambered up the staircases to their former vantage-points, piled three deep across each other. Without the reptiles, the lagoons and the creeks of office blocks half-submerged in the immense heat would have had a strange dream-like beauty, but the iguanas and basilisks brought the fantasy down to earth. As their seats in the one-time boardrooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life.

Looking up at the ancient impassive faces, Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, re-kindling archaic memories of the terrifying jungles of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it.

Yes, despite the confusion, Ballard does not leave the reader hanging completely by a thread here, and has provided a bit of explanation. Bodkin, Kerans' partner in the scientific mission believes that as the world changes, it awakens a physical manifestation of memory in the lower portion of our spines that comforts us, and tells us that this is not so alien, merely the way things were before. Kerans and Bodkin here are discussing a recurring dream that many members of the crew are having. Bodkin takes the fact of the dream as confirmation that his theory is correct:

He pointed to the ascending rim of the sun through the groves of gymnosperms. "The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm millions of years ago have been awakened, the expanding sun and the rising temperatures are driving you back down the spinal levels into the drowned seas submerged beneath the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronic psyche. This is the lumbar transfer, total biopsychic recall. We really remember these swamps and lagoons. After a few nights you won't be frightened of the dreams, despite their superficial horror. That's why Riggs has received orders for us to leave."

None of Ballard's stories in the sequence of four novels of which this book is a part (including also The Wind from Nowhere, The Crystal World, and The Burned World) really qualify as entropy stories, even though their central premise is the slow winding down of our technological society, culture and even the world of mankind. This is apparent to me because Ballard leaves people in this changing world who are essentially just like us. Instead he is more interested in stripping away the thin veneer of protections that we as a people build up around ourselves to insulate us from the real world. Never does Ballard get to the most basic of questions, "what is man?" Instead he concerns himself with the much more interesting and complex question of "what is modern man?" He wonders aloud how much it will take to reduce the modern man to a barbarian. The answer to that question here is nothing if not compellingly ambiguous. Kerans is at once both an environmental savior and a traitor to mankind. The fear is that the world that he seeks to preserve is going to kill the rest of mankind. But consider what the real evil here is: Is it what has happened to our planet, that someone seeks to fix the damage done, or that the rest of mankind does not feel what Kerans believes to be his primordial memories? Understand the psychology better than I, and you may figure this book out. But even if you can not, or do not, the book is still richly rewarding.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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