Long before the issue of climate change had really impacted on popular consciousness, there was J G Ballard’s The Drowned World. Ballard’s 1962 debut novel (or rather his second – his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, he went on to disown) was a product of its time, yet speaks to us today with perhaps even greater prescience than at its publication.
In 2145 apocalyptic climate change has arrived not from human excess but natural occurrences. Severe solar radiation has stripped back the ozone and caused the world’s temperature to soar to extreme levels. The seas have engorged on melted polar ice, vast entanglements of rainforest and lagoon now hold sway over the flooded land, and the remnants of humankind gathers in dwindling communities at the poles. The equator is a scorching no-man’s land, whilst the rest of the world is a vast tropical and subtropical jungle. This sets the stage for questioning the validity of human stewardship: whilst the rest of the world is transforming through a rioting mass of mega-flora and fauna, it is the humans who linger on irrelevantly in this new epoch.
Ballard’s descriptions of this greenhouse world are heady and powerful. Above all is the sun, whose unrelenting heat is a leveller across species. Activity ceases long before the sun reaches its zenith, as the temperature of midday is unforgiving in its brutality. Gigantic adaptations of plantlife possess a threatening superiority, anchoring the undulating mounds of silt that bridge the swamps, creating and colonising new territories. The huge iguanas watching from their perches signal a return to a reptilian age – the Anthropocene is evident only in its topographical shaping of lagoons and creeks through the ruins of cities.
This hostile environment is witnessed through the perspective of the singular protagonist, Robert Kerans, a scientist travelling south with a military unit in a vain attempt at remapping and cataloguing the new world. The submerged city they have come to is London, now under reptilian dominion. Through Kerans’ subjective eyes, Ballard clouts us with the full dislocating, suffocating influence of the sun and its worshipful jungle. The imagery is deployed through a series of expertly implemented dyadics: ancient/new, urban/wilderness, north/south, internal/external, submerged/surfaced. These help establish a prevalent sense of un-belonging, an irreconcilable relationship between the dying order of humankind and the new age of the drowned world. For Kerans, this is a realisation that arrives through his nightmares, dominated by the iguana overlords and the indifferent sun.
Puzzled by his dreams, Kerans consults the mission doctor, who explains the psychogeographical premise: thwarted by the new environment, the human mind is undergoing an instinctive retreat from the evolutionary heights of its species, regressing to a primal and pragmatic state more fitting for survival in the neo-Triassic landscape. It’s an intelligent blending of analytical psychology, genetic memory, and mythic structure, dizzyingly enhanced by the miasmic imagery of the jungle. The doctor’s explanation is nothing less than an info-dump typical of classic, hard sci-fi, yet its early presence in the narrative makes for a potent shaper of the events that follow. Once Kerans makes his decision to stay on in the uterine chrysalis of the lagoon (to which he grows increasingly attached), his metamorphosis intensifies and events take on a fantastical, dreamlike quality. From here on, the internal landscape of Kerans’ mind merges with that of the external world. How far the following events are grounded in reality becomes largely irrelevant, as their occurrences become functional to Kerans’ personal transformation.
The agent and catalyst of this change is a bacchanalian trickster called Strangman. His appearance in the narrative is at once sinister and surreal, arriving at the lagoon on his yacht, followed by a thousand-strong shoal of giant alligators. Strangman is a freebooter of the drowned world, but is more accurately a personification of the chaotic dissonance taking place in Kerans’ mind. With his reptilian army, he appears as an archetypal messenger from the new world, testing the extent of the protagonist’s resolve. Strangman shows Kerans the two conflicting paths of his being, first by submerging him into the womb-like lagoon, where he has an eerie brush with the eternal, secondly by draining the lagoon completely, forcing Kerans to walk through the old streets of his species’ once glorious past. The crux of his transformation occurs when he is tied to a chair and suffers two days uncovered in the face of the sun. This imagery recalls Odin’s hanging on the Yggdrasil, sacrificing himself to himself; for Kerans, this is the moment where his old civilised self must bow to the nascent devolution that is his species’ new direction. When he meets again with his old companions, there is a palpable, irreversible distance between them.
Throughout the novel Ballard demonstrates a skilful knack for writing at different levels, with the imagery, plot, and subtext informing and complementing each other. It’s believable too, with the sumptuous descriptions bleeding into the emotional core of the characters, as well they might. The dialogue acts as a neat counterpoint to the dense description, being often sparse, yet always natural, flowing, and human.
Ballard’s approach to the post-apocalyptic novel is an introverted affair – his intelligently drawn premise delves deeply into the vaults of the human condition, spiralling out a narrative that is both haunting and sweeping. By the novel’s end, there is little indication of hope or redemption for the human race. Even with this primeval metamorphosis, the end result is as likely to promise extinction as adaptation. Indeed, the constant urge Kerans feels to ‘go south’ – towards the sun – reads more like a biologically-informed act of suicide than a return to a new Eden. Yet this is the subtext at the heart of the novel: a Sixties’ counter-culture of returning to the garden and rejecting the Tree of Knowledge. Ballard’s anointed firstborn is a pre-eminent work of speculative fiction, a resounding triumph of form, and well-deserving of praise.
An edition of this article first appeared at Fantasy Faction on 16th October 2014