So I started this really cool blog where I write reviews about poetry and science fiction. And then I went to live in the woods for a month, and disappeared from the internet. But now I’m back! And I while I was in the woods, I read The Drowned World by JG Ballard.
JG Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai to a British business man. As kid he and his family were interned in a civilian prison camp. They were released in 1946 and returned to England. The Drowned World is his first major novel.
The first thing you should know about Ballard is that his prose is anything but spare.
A sample from TDW:
Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstream are tributaries of the great sea of its total recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurons and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.”
So, he kind of lays it on thick. That alone is enough to make The Drowned World a little bit of a slog.
The story is set in the near future, when solar flares have caused the Earth’s temperature to rise, melting icecaps and flooding most of the planet’s major cities and rendering the human population largely infertile (due to increased exposure to radiation) and confining us to inhabiting mostly only the poles.
The story’s protagonist is Kerans, a biologist on assignment with a military unit led by a Colonel Riggs in what we eventually find out is the future London. Kerans’ job is to document the changes in the flora and fauna as the world rapidly reverts to Triassic conditions.
Riggs is ordered to pull out because the mission isn’t important anymore, but Kerans decides to stay back, along with the quixotic and exotic Beatrice Dahl and Kerans’ assistant Dr. Bodkin. They hang out in the lagoons for a while and meet a bone-white man name Strangman who leads a troupe of buccaneers (all highly stereotypical black servant figures) looting the remains of cities for drowned treasure. Eventually Kerans and Strangman have a bit of a falling out (Strangman tries to kill him by leaving him strapped to a chair in full sunlight, wearing an animal skin, for two days) and Kerans heads south on his own, presumably to his death, to become a sort of last-Adam figure.
As the earlier quote suggests, the gist of the novel is that inscribed in our genes is a memory of prehistoric earth, that, with the onset of a new Triassic period, will begin to stir and awaken our primal instincts and cause a sort of reversion of evolution.
The Drowned World is all about the imbrication of body, psyche and landscape (which I take to be a general interest of Ballards – see Terminal Beach). Kerans and his companions find their inner world profoundly altered as they absorb the changes in the environment around them – as the world reverts to an earlier warmer climate, they they withdraw into themselves. Here’s another example of that typically ornate prose:
This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
There’s a lot of tiresomely explicit returning-to-them womb imagery, as when Kerans enters a submerged planetarium in a diving suit attached to the surface by a breathing tube, and kind of tries to kills himself. The water Kerans enters is a “warm, glutinous jelly”; his companion asks him “how’s that the grey sweet mother of us all?”; and towards the end of the chapter Ballard just goes ahead and calls the structure “womb-like.”
This tendency towards explicit expression of his theme is probably the novel’s greatest weakness. It’s a novel concerned with social regression and de-evolution, which is all fine and good, but there’s not much going on plot-wise, and little more happening character-wise, and so what you get is a little too much of Ballard’s heavy-handed symbolic-imagery pyrotechnics.
What I liked about the novel was its matter-of-fact treatment of upheaval. Ballard presents the fact that earth as we know it is destroyed and the human population decimated with so little drama that we are inclined to forget that the scenario does sort qualify as an apocalypse. It’s not a story about the human capacity to fix things, merely the course of our evolution and the inevitability of change. There is not a moral purpose to this book. Rather it seems to be an investigation – of a potential future, of the idea of individual identity, of the interaction between human mind and earthly conditions.
A note on editions — I really liked the edition I read, the paperback Harper Collins edition (not the one pictured above), because the supplemental material at the back is actually pretty decent. It includes an interview with Ballard conducted by Travis Elborough and a 1963 essay by Ballard entitled “Time, Memory and Inner Space,” both of which are worth a read.