Friday, June 20, 2008

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

This torrid, powerful 1962 novel was a major turning point in J.G. Ballard's career. In this future our old world has been gradually drowned as global warming melts the ice-caps and primordial jungles and swamps have returned to tropical London, recreating the ancient ecology of the Triassic age. According to the logic of Ballardian "inner space", these Turkish-bath surroundings evoke the psychological suction of the deep past, calling the human "hindbrain" back to the enfolding warmth of the womb. The text is rich with dreamy phrases like "the fata morgana of the terminal lagoon" and "the brighter day of the interior, archaeopsychic sun". As various members of an expedition to London busy themselves with more or less futile schemes like draining Leicester Square in hope of loot, the passive central character Kerans moves in his own "neuronic odyssey" to a strange acceptance of and assimilation by this lushly transformed world, vanishing into a final epiphany of heat and light. There is little narrative drive or sense of story (fans of rip-roaring, action-adventure SF tend not to get on with Ballard). The Drowned World is a potent, sensual mood-piece--static, jewelled and unforgettable.
I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I started this book. I knew it was on the list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die and virtually nothing else. I hadn't read any of Ballard's other books and I'm not huge into science-fiction. I did enjoy this book though. Very little happens and some of the biology and more science-y related matter went over my head (maybe somebody else can explain to me how humans have memories of living through the Triassic period built into us genetically?), but what kept me going was the language and description of London as a swamp, this journey that the characters are taking back into the Triassic period. It's a fairly short book and worth a read.

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