The Drowned World by JG Ballard
Book of the Year 1962 (see all)
This science fiction novel may be over fifty years old but it retains its neurotic potency even today with the descent into archeo-psychic madness of its few protagonists during fateful months in the Triassic neo-world of a submerged London.
It is a novel where every word seeks to counter the titular sea; where the “colossal fireball” that is the sun makes certain that “the water would seem to burn”. The prose style is symptomatic of the earlier novels of Eric Ambler, the descriptive passages dig further back into the brilliance of Jules Verne. It is an orgiastic feast of adjectives that lend to the chronic introversion of the main characters.
The story is centred on the biologist, Kerans, who chooses to stay in the lagoon that is a London swamped under rising sea levels on an Earth that is sixty of more degrees hotter than the temperate environment of the modern reader. His decision to stay is linked to a uterine dream-state that is best explained by the concept of DNA memories, dormant but increasingly active in a human cerebral cortex forced to respond to the massive change in climate. Once he has decided not to join Riggs, who has been ordered to leave their solitary scientific existence, he stays with his casual partner, Beatrice Dahl whilst she becomes “a mad queen in a horror drama”.
It is a drama that is breathed life by the appearance of the Dr No-esque figure of Strangman, a man on the verge of his own insanity with his band of ‘pirates’. A leader ruling through both voodoo-istic charisma and a psychotic understanding of leadership through fear, his draining of the lagoon allows the group to investigate the sewer that is London all the while fighting both inner demons and the caiman predators. “Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.” With a nightmare comes pain and death, and it is this that Strangman brings as he seeks to “drown Neptune [Kerans] in an even more magical and potent sea.”
The powerful descriptive narrative is what holds the isolationist science-fiction theme of this novel up. It is rich, eloquent, bold, erudite… it is from a time where stories showed you what the world looked like, where the action was secondary to the belief.
“The blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails.”
By the end, Shakespeare’s Caliban has defeated Prospero and the tempest is free to cascade water back into the corpse of London, washing away the stain of Strangman’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Kerans heads south, the only place he can go, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”
If you are an introvert, you will truly understand this novel in all its isolationist glory, understand that the eternal lonely quest south is an enduring metaphor for seeking a kind of benevolent misanthropy. As Kerans’ acknowledges: “Much as he needed Beatrice Dahl, her personality intruded upon the absolute freedom he required for himself. By and large, each of them would have to pursue his or her own pathway through the time jungles, mark their on points of no return… their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams.”
Published in 1962, The Drowned World is JG Ballard’s second novel, and the world is reverting to its prehistoric nature. Post-apocalyptic in style, this relatively short story follows Dr Robert Kerans – a biologist who is part of a team researching the ongoing changes in a flooded London. Solar radiation flares have changed the Earth’s atmosphere; melting ice caps and creating a world which is mostly uninhabitable. Vast swampy lagoons now form the landscape, with most of London far beneath the surface of the water and just the topmost floors of some buildings visible.
Kerans lives in the Ritz of this inundated London, within a climate-controlled pod, whilst the once highly glamorous furnishings of this famous hotel rot and decay in the heat and humidity. He is supposed to be monitoring the flora and fauna of the environment, but his urgency is gradually fading as he becomes more and more inward-looking. The scientific team are called back north to where most of the remaining population are now living but he, a reclusive woman called Beatrice Dahl who spends her time frozen in her once upper-class existence and fellow scientist Dr Bodkin refuse to leave and they settle in the lagoon as it regresses into the neo-Triassic period.
It is a very dreamlike experience and seems to go against what you imagine to be their innate survival instincts. The food they have will run out eventually, as will the fuel powering the generators which are keeping their climate-controlled rooms conditioned, yet they are becoming increasingly affected by the landscape, with strange dreams plaguing their sleep. This suspended existence continues for a while before it is shattered by the arrival of Strangman - a pirate leading a band of bounty-hunters looking for the lost treasures of the civilised world. Whereas Kreans, Dahl and Bodkin were slowly losing themselves in the landscape, their 'evolved' natures draining away as crocodiles and giant iguanas slowly cruised their way down the drowned streets, Strangman is a completely alien presence. Despite the strength of the sun he is startlingly white; a colonial-era figure who wants to dominate not only the three people who are left, but also the landscape itself by dredging the flooded cities to find old masterpieces, resolutely surrounding himself with these treasures and eventually draining the lagoon to find what is left in the once majestic buildings of London.
Kerans and Strangman eventually clash, as Kerans is horrified by this wanton destruction and plundering of his world, but who will prevail – nature or humanity?
As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction this is a really interesting idea; usually it is a virus of some sort that wipes people out like in Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, or a nuclear-type disaster such as Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I found it a shame that it is not discussed how people are living now most of the world is uninhabitable and the apocalypse itself is seemingly fading into the past, so it is a very narrowly-focused book. However, this does suit the increasing self-imposed isolation of Kerans, Dahl and Bodkin, who all seem indifferent to their future, or the future of the human race. Have they resigned themselves to the end or merely adapting to their landscape? This is an excellent example of post-apocalyptic fiction and well deserves to be hailed as a classic.
Cat Fitzpatrick, 9.5/10
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