Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Republished into my blog’s original timeline from my lost posts archive.

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

Being on a dystopian reading kick at the moment,  when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!


Source: Own copy from the TBR

J G Ballard, The Drowned World (1962), 4th Estate paperback, 176 pages.

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