Sunday, August 1, 2010

SF Masterworks #17: J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World

In my earlier review of Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, I noted how during the 1960s and 1970s there emerged a new generation of American and British SF writers, the so-called "New Wave," who incorporated prevailing social issues into their fictions to a much larger degree than previous generations of SF writers.  The most influential of these New Wave writers was the British writer J.G. Ballard.  Ballard's fiction, whether it be his well-crafted short fiction or later novels such as Crash, tended to feature dystopic modern situations, full of bleak, often artificial landscapes.  His characters were often affected by technological, societal, and environmental developments, often resembling victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Ballard's stories have been so influential over the past fifty years that the adjective "Ballardian" was coined to describe situations that are bleak, man-made, and in which hope is almost a chimera in a world full of the devastating effects of human technological developments.  Out of all the seemingly prescient SF writers of the past two centuries, Ballard may be the one SF writer whose visions of the future most closely match our present reality.

The Drowned World is Ballard's first major novel (with a minor novel being published just prior to it), first published in 1962, well before works such as "The Drowned Giant" or Crash were published.  It is set in the early 21st century.  Due to fluctuations in solar radiation and the near-total destruction of the protective atmospheric layers, the Earth is a very hot and steamy place, inhospitable for human life except within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.  Human ingenuity is helpless in the wake of this catastrophic environmental change and the human population rapidly shrinks, even as the temperatures soar to over 140°F in the tropics.  Mammalian life retreats and reptiles and amphibians come to dominate, just as they had before the end of the Cretaceous period.  Cities such as London lie derelict, with lagoons and tropical vegetation quickly overrunning most signs of former city life within seventy years.

Kerans is part of an expedition sent to the former British capital to map out the new flora and fauna that have emerged.  It is a dangerous assignment, as the emerging new lifeforms resemble closely the megafauna of previous epochs of Earth's history.  There is a curious mixture of speculation and lethargic defeatism associated with this expedition, however, as this passage reveals:

In fact, old Dr. Bodkin, Keran's assistant at the station, had slyly prepared what purported to be an eye-witness description by one of Colonel Riggs' sergeants of a large sail-backed lizard with a gigantic dorsal fin which had been seen cruising across one of the lagoons, in all respects indistinguishable from the Pelycosaur, an early Pennsylvanian reptile.  Had the report been taken at its face value - heralding the momentous return of the age of the great reptiles - an army of ecologists would have descended on them immediately, backed by a tactical atomic weapons unit and orders to proceed south at a steady twenty knots.  But apart from the routine acknowledgement signal nothing had been heard.  Perhaps the specialists at Camp Byrd were too tired even to laugh. (p. 9)

The world Ballard describes here is at once new and very ancient.  It is not the product of advancement, but rather of regression.  In light of the previous decades being full of perhaps unwarranted optimism about human agency and the possibility of a future paradise springing from technological advancement, Ballard's emphasis on the repetition of old, flawed forms is rather sobering.  It is not a setting for brave, intrepid explorers, but rather a locale where psychological traumas await the crew:

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. (p. 14)

Over the course of The Drowned World, Ballard returns again to these new relationships between animal and environment and the resulting psychological stress placed upon the expeditionary crew.  Although this novel is rather short at 175 pages, Ballard does not skimp on development both setting and character.  There is a sense of looming danger, both from the increasingly exotic lifeforms that the crew encounters, to the very real and dangerous psychological traumas that each crew member experiences.  This culminates in a conclusion that is fittingly inconclusive, left open-ended purposely so the reader is left to develop her own answers to the very troubling questions regarding humans/technology, environment/life, and human place in a larger biosphere.

Although Ballard creates an effective narrative here, it is still feels a bit rough around the edges, especially compared to his latter work, which returns to several of these themes and develops them more effectively than the good first effort Ballard displays here.  The psychological aspects are intriguing, but Ballard fails to push them as far along as he does later in Crash, for example.  The setting, while mostly well-done, does appear to be a bit sketchy in a few places, particularly in the first few chapters, where there is not as much of a sense of the lost, decaying "old" world about the Greenland settlements compared to the lush, dangerous environs surrounded the old, drowned London lagoon.  These shortcomings do not have much of a negative impact on the enjoyment of The Drowned World, but rather they serve as a baseline for examining Ballard's later, more famous fictions.

Is The Drowned World worthy of being considered a "Masterwork"?  For most writers in this Gollancz edition of books, this book would stand out as being one of the better-written and effective stories.  But as an early novel, it pales in comparison to Ballard's later output in the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s, which showed a maturity in the prose, characterization, and themes that The Drowned World only hints at.  This is not to say that The Drowned World is not a very good story, for it, with its mixture of atmospheric, threatening setting and intense psychological examination of its characters, certainly is a quality tale.  However, if only one Ballard novel had to be selected for the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, The Drowned World would not be my first choice, but only because Ballard produced so many outstanding fictions, in both short and long form, during the course of his lifetime.  But if multiple works of his were to be nominated for major lists or publications such as this SF Masterworks line, The Drowned World certainly would fit in well with the other fine SF literature produced during the latter half of the 20th century.


  1. Cool review! Captures my thoughts on the book exactly. Although I have not read other Ballard books, so I have to say my disappointment might have been bigger than yours. The book was really good, but somehow didn't quite work for me...

  2. It's a good early effort, but Crash in particular is an impressive work.

    By the way, just read in the back of my just-arrived copy of Christopher Priest's Inverted World that The Drowning World is no longer available as a SF Masterworks. That was interesting, to say the least.

  3. And why would that be?

  4. I'm guessing it's a rights issue, as that's the only one I saw that wasn't on the new list that was on the old one. Perhaps I'll have to ask the Gollancz people sometime, if others don't ask for me.