by JG Ballard
176 pages, Fourth Estate
Audio version read by Julian Elfer
Review by Pat Black
Sometimes the imaginings of the child give themselves away in the work of the adult novelist. This is particularly true of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.
It reminded me of Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, and the main characters’ journey into the cosmos in the unearthed spaceship. The science behind it all is scrupulously detailed, but the story retains the essence of a 12-year-old’s fantasy; a depiction of what weird life might lurk on distant planets, and what adventures you might have there.
The Drowned World must surely have flowed from a childhood fancy of Ballard’s that the streets of Shanghai were completely underwater, with monstrous creatures gliding along the surface among the bobbing humans. The city was flooded while Ballard was a youngster, and it’s easy to imagine the effect this sight would have had on his imagination, with the water levels high enough to lap the windows, or to drown a man. The incongruity and splendour of the Bund’s skyline must have cast strange, grand shapes onto the waters beneath.
I used to have a similar fantasy, imagining my toy spaceship was a submarine and my house was an ocean abyss. Water pressure, and how flimsy machinery might withstand it at such incredible depths, was not my concern back then; nor did I have any plausible explanation of how the rubber dinosaurs which snapped at the sub’s stern might have survived into the modern era. The Drowned World is Ballard’s way of putting such irksome physical forces back into the child’s daydream.
Predicting the future is a mug’s game, even for an SF writer, but Ballard did it a little better than most. The Drowned World comes very close to the ecological catastrophes scientists tell us we’re facing now, although the climate change which bloats the seas to such preposterous levels in the book is not man-made. It’s down to solar flares, raising the temperature to unbearable highs and melting the ice caps. The seas then drink most of the land in one draught, leaving only tropical jungle above steaming swamps and lagoons.
The novel is set in a London sank into a tropical sea, and the characters struggle to remember what the drenched Babylon beneath them was called. While high rises and office blocks still jut out of the water here and there, the surviving land is choked with vegetation and haunted by immense iguanas and man-eating alligators. As the novel opens, there are even reports of a huge swimming reptile with a sail on its back, like an ancient dimetrodon – the dinosaurs returned, in other words.
Our main character is Robert Kerans, a biologist taking part in a survey of the tropical lagoon. Leading this party is Colonel Riggs, a soldier who is also looking for survivors clinging to what’s left of the land. Fellow scientist Dr Alan Bodkin has a curious theory about what might be happening to the human mind as the outer world regresses to a prehistoric state. Kerans and others in the party are plagued by dreams of giant Triassic lizards basking in a fierce sun, while their crested descendants do the same on the shoreline. Bodkin theorises that the mind is drawing in on itself as the land returns to its ancient state, with the limbic system providing a trace memory of what life used to be like millions of years previously; the ultimate atavism.
The only woman in the story, in a delicious coincidence, is called Beatrice Dahl, very close to the name of the actress who played Betty Blue decades later. Dahl is fascinating, a languid bikini-clad lush lolling in the sunshine and taking up residence in mossy penthouse suites. She chooses to remain in the drowned world.
You can take your pick of the watery metaphors employed. Is she a mermaid, or a siren? Maybe there’s a little of the marooned Circe in there, as she clings to ancient ideals of glamour and high living even as thick green vines curl their way into her illusory world of gilt-edged mirrors and crystal decanters, accepting and discarding suitors.
Certainly she is fully aware that her boyfriend Kerans and Riggs are rivals for her favour, and she enjoys playing with that. But in keeping with the regressive tone of the novel, Kerans and Dahl’s relationship devolves into a more cold-blooded state before the end. I imagined that Dahl might end up floating like Ophelia at the end of this book, but her fate is carried on stranger tides.
Unwilling to leave their new Eden, Kerans, Bodkin and Dahl remain behind while the pragmatic Riggs returns his military party to the solid ground and security of Greenland. Soon afterwards, the novel abruptly changes tone when the pirate, Strangman, arrives in the lagoon, unleashing a ferocious tide of giant alligators to act as watchdogs.
Strangman’s aim is not just to scavenge for artefacts and useful machinery among the soggy ruins, but also to reclaim the land by draining it – dovetailing with the aims of what government remains in the world, and thus granting him a certain legal immunity. A strange, sardonic man, Strangman is initially cordial towards his fellow lagoon-dwellers – understandably so in Dahl’s case – but it’s clear that his mostly black crew are not to be trifled with, and that danger follows in their wake. I have to confess to some sympathy for the narrator on the audio version I listened to, forced to appropriate stage West Indian accents for some of the crew, particularly Strangman’s ferocious henchman.
Kerans dons an ancient diving helmet and plunges into the drowned city to help out Strangman, in the oddest part of a delightfully odd novel. He plods into a planetarium, entranced by the ersatz starlight still twinkling underwater. Kerans has a trippy experience before almost coming to grief when his air line gets snagged. He initially suspects Strangman has tried to do away with him, but it seems that Kerans himself might have tried to end it all in the midst of his oxygen-starved rapture, a sort of sublimated auto-erotic asphyxiation. Ballard was a kinky bugger, so you can’t quite rule that out as inspiration.
Strangman’s aim to halt the advance of ancient, seething nature and reclaim the streets from their drenched oblivion horrifies Kerans and Bodkin. When civilisation shows its face, the innocence of the new world is tarnished. As if in response, the minute the buccaneer drains the city, something fundamentally changes in the characters, and an immense paradox comes into play. With London dredged out of the deep, the characters return to a state of savagery, as if the grimy, mud-clotted streets had awoken everyone’s darker natures, rather than the pristine jungle. The book’s debt to Conrad, in Outcast of the Islands as well as Heart of Darkness, is obvious from this point on.
This novel might have been mistakenly bought by people looking for simple pulp thrills, and as such it has an action-adventure section after Bodkin goes mental and tries to blow up the dam. This finally breaks down Strangman’s precarious barriers of civility, and Kerans and Dahl are captured. As they indulge in looting, partying and brute savagery, the pirate crew act out a bizarre ritual which sees Kerans tied up and left for dead.
He escapes, finds his Colt 45, rescues his girl from Strangman, and gets some payback.
Not unlike Lord of the Flies, the escalating violence is halted by a convenient intervention, but Kerans’ mind has gone. Emulating Hardman, a colleague who went bonkers and ran into the jungle early on in the book, Kerans finishes what Bodkin started by reflooding the lagoon. He then gives his mania full rein by disappearing into the jungle.
It’s difficult to know whether there’s something in Bodkin’s theory of psychological regression, or whether Kerans is just drunk on sunshine and blue water.
Ballard’s prose is always a delight, and it’s especially gratifying to hear it spoken aloud by Julian Elfer. The author bathes in that sublime, distinctly non-British vista of tropical blues and greens and the hissing reptilian life which splashes through it. One line in particular about “dragon-haunted emerald depths” sent a shiver up my spine. No wonder people like Martin Amis are in raptures over Ballard to this day.
Ballard examines that familiar feeling triggered in us by the clean blue hues of the tropics. Perhaps there is something in the core of our brain which responds to such scenes, something that we understand even if we’ve never been there, with no memory to draw upon. This is an image Kerans happily stumbles after in the blazing sun even as the swamps seek to gulp him down.
I am in the happy position of having so much more Ballard still to read. High Rise next methinks.