Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Drowned World

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
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J.G. Ballard's 1962 The Drowned World is an unusual, intriguing novel of post-apocalyptic torpor, de-evolution, and uncertainty. There are no scientists racing against time to avert looming disaster, no brave survivors fighting merciless predators with two legs or with more, in fact no urgency at all, really. The world without is what it is, yet the world of the mind...well, that is what the book at least attempts to explore.

As the title suggests, Earth of the not-too-distant future has been inundated by all the icecaps melted by "[t]he succession of gigantic geophysical upheavals" that began "some sixty or seventy years" before the plot opens (1966 Berkley edition, page 20). Huge years-long solar storms stripped away Earth's ionosphere, allowing a rise in temperature of "a few degrees each year," with temperatures in the tropics climbing to 130 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit, until "[u]nder the direction of the United Nations" Antarctica and the far north of Canada and Russia are "colonised" (page 20). Interestingly, however, although sea levels have risen, the percentage of the world covered by ocean actually has decreased because all the topsoil has been carved away from the continents by "the huge disgorging channels" caused by melting of the icecaps, and then deposited far downstream, "extending the continental coastlines and damming up the oceans" (page 21). The Mediterranean, for example, has "contracted into a system of inland lakes," while Britain is "linked again with northern France" and Europe is a "system of giant lagoons"; on the other side of the Atlantic, the Middle West now is merely "an enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay, while the Caribbean Sea was transformed into a desert of silt and salt flats" (page 21). Ballard's conception of a "drowned" world thus is rather different from what the reader at first might expect.

Yet even stranger, perhaps, is the ecological upheaval that has accompanied the great physical changes in the globe. Increased solar radiation reaching the planet's surface has accelerated "the rate at which mutations occurred," with "freak botanical forms...recalling the giant free-ferns of the Carboniferous period, and...a drastic upsurge of all lower plant and animal forms" (page 20). Dr. Robert Kerans, part of a U.N. naval expedition working on a cartographic survey of the drowned cities and changed coastlines of an abandoned Europe, has spent three years cataloging the altered Triassic-like lifeforms as well. Yet the water level is still rising, the scientific community has just confirmed, meaning that the previous three years of mapping "has been a total waste" (page 14). With equatorial temperatures "up to one hundred and eighty degrees now, going up steadily, and the rain belts...continuous as high as the 20th parallel" (page 14), returning to Camp Byrd in northern Greenland, the only home that he, as one of the "fewer than five million people...still living on the polar caps" (page 21), has ever known, does make sense.

Kerans isn't so sure, though. It is not simply the allure of wealthy heiress Beatrice Dahl, she of the "long oiled body" (page 23), who lives in a Diesel-powered rooftop penthouse with pool high above the sunken city--"London" is its name, Kerans eventually learns without much interest (page 69). No, it is a malaise, an indifference to the present, a deep, only slowly acknowledged desire to sink back into the warm uterine depths of the ancient, pre-evolved past. As the elderly Dr. Bodkin explains to Kerans, "the oldest memories on Earth" are "carried in every chromosome and gene" (page 40). "The brief lifespan of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memories" (page 40). And now there are dreams, too, strange syrupy dreams of that long-gone and yet now-near Triassic swamp where the great bloated sun pounds hypnotically to the beat of the sweat-soaked sleeper's heart...

This is a psychological, introspective, in some ways torporous novel. It is a colorful novel, too, though the colors are the multitudinous greens of riotous vegetation and rotting detritus. The overlapping and tangled greens are oppressive in a way, as are Ballard's layer upon layer upon layer of detail regarding the wild plant and animal life: fronds, stalks, vines, and creepers, along with giant mosquitoes, large bats, huge basilisk-like iguanas, and strangely milling caimans. Almost surprisingly, there even ends up being action--gunshots, explosions, the works. Far more prominent, though, is the landscape of the mind.

On the one hand, I find the precariousness of the technology that supports Beatrice's strange redoubt both frightening and frustrating. That generator, after all, powers the air-conditioning, the elevator, the freezer full of food, and yet it "ke[eps] stopping," she tells Kerans "matter-of-factly" (page 46). But even after Kerans has repaired the thing, he finds the remaining fuel at only "about a thousand gallons..., enough for three months" at most--though the reader needs to be very careful not to wonder how long Beatrice has been here, burning Diesel fuel that can never be replaced--and there is only perhaps six months' food left (page 73). Bodkin, who remains behind as well when the expedition leaves, comments that he probably would "prefer iguana" over the "bully beef" anyway (page 73), but there is no real discussion, nor does there seem much awareness, of how life will proceed once they really return to the deep past when technology fails and the rain belts creep up from the south and the temperature climbs higher and higher. What would be the best way to catch and kill an iguana?--by trap, spear, or deadfall?--and should anyone look into the possibility of planting some sort of garden or farm? Apparently no one wonders such things. More important, it seems, is the somnolent, hypnotic lure of the dream that appears no less real than reality.

And yet, ultimately, Ballard's treatment of this psychological return to the primordial past carried in our genes, such that "as we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amniotic corridor and move backward through spinal and archeopsychic time, recollecting on our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct geological terrain, its own unique flora and fauna..." (page 41), falls rather short of its early tantalizing and unsettling promise. Oh, the idea never leaves, and yet neither is it fleshed out in any particularly satisfying way. J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World may be more a 4-star read for me, but despite its occasional flaws, it still is strangely beautiful and peculiarly compelling, and hence worth the read.

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Reading Progress

August 16, 2020 – Started Reading
August 20, 2020 – Finished Reading
August 21, 2020 – Shelved

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