Saturday, July 2, 2016

Review of The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Like good artists, there are also good writers who choose a concept and explore its reaches in a series of works. For J.G. Ballard, the start of his career saw a succession of catastrophe novels that all delved into the human psyche facing realities disturbed by vast environmental changes. Sticking to the natural realm, the second of these novels, The Drowned World (1962), posits the Earth inundated with water in the wake of greenhouse changes.

Temperatures soaring near the equator, The Drowned World features a humanity pushed further and further toward the poles in escape as rising ocean waters engulf coastal inlands. London buried beneath mega-tons of water, all that remains is an archipelago of hotels, skyscrapers, and other buildings, human life is limited to the upper floors, boats, and scavenging among the remains for food, water, and fuel. The thermometer hitting more than 120F/49C in the full heat of afternoon, the effects of solar radiation have combined to evolve flora and fauna—giant mosquitoes and mutant vines, the city nothing like we know it today.

Dr. Robert Keran is part of a research crew stationed in what remains of London. Their mission to scientifically quantify the ongoing effects of global warming, the exigencies of the situation finally becomes too much, and the military gives warning that the base will be abandoned in three-days time to join groups who’ve already migrated north. The heat overwhelming, Keran’s sleep becomes plagued by strange dreams. Not the only one affected, a colleague is disturbed as well, and flees London one night. The strange thing is, rather than head north, the colleague inexplicably flees south. Disrupting Keran’s perceptions of life in London, when leaving day finally arrives, he’s faced with a huge decision, one whose consequences leads to a chain of strange and startling personal occurrences.

If it isn’t obvious, Ballard’s post-apocalyptic vision isn’t intended as a scientifically rigorous vision of the potential for global warming, nor is it explicitly a cautionary. Digging at the humanity inherent to extreme environmental change, The Drowned World takes advantage of the tropes of science fiction to examine the human psyche, particularly the devolution of the mind in the face of living conditions immensely deteriorated from “civilized life.” Changes and fluctuations in Keran’s mindset the measuring stick for this reaction, Ballard puts imagination to work, doing his best to create Noah’s Ark in the 20th century.

Such examinations highly dependent on setting, The Drowned World presents a strange, comfortingly uncomfortable dichotomy. The imagery suggests a world turned upside down, a world where nothing resembling contemporary human life should exist, and a world whose infrastructure has been lost to the oceans. And yet Ballard’s characters live relatively standard lives, follow social conventions, and have yet to collapse into anarchy. In one scene a woman lies sunbathing on a hotel balcony, reading an old copy of Vogue, all the while her husband and colleague drink brandy. The juxtaposition or normal and affected both intentional and exploited, Ballard plays one off the other, Keran the ping-pong ball between.

The Crystal World remains Ballard’s most transcendent, significant disaster novel, but The Drowned World should not be taken lightly. More accessible to mainstream genre readers, Ballard develops the setting and story in more conventional fashion, all the while focusing his efforts on character decision and reaction to our world inundated with water. The humane rendition of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse and the obvious offspring of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Ballard explores the deep, almost sub-conscious human response to tabula rasa environmental change in haunting fashion.

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