Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

Paperback cover blurb


Kerans could not remember how it had been before the violent solar storms shattered the ionosphere and turned the earth into a vast tropical heat zone, a seething world of jungle, swamp and fetid water…

In the drowned, lost cities, there was the eerie beauty of the lagoons, the towering sixty-foot-high plants, the once-proud buildings smothered in silt…

Above all, there was the colossal fireball in the sky, the giant solar disk that seemed to blind him with its rays, lulling him into a strange hypnotic state, seeming to lure him back to the dawn of preconscious, to another age when Man was yet unborn and reptiles ruled the earth…

My thoughts

A new Age of Reptiles has begun, and humanity is nearly extinct. A sudden flare-up of the sun has melted the polar ice caps and turned the world into a great primordial swamp. (The Drowned World was written before the modern concept of global warming.) Most mammals have died out, and reptiles and plants are devolving into their ancient, Triassic-period forms to adapt to the new environment.

Kerans is a biologist accompanying a military expedition to a submerged London to study the new plant and animal life. There’s one problem: he’s haunted by dreams that may be recollections of long-lost racial memories of ancient times, when reptiles first ruled the earth. Soon he suspects that it’s just not plants and reptiles that are changing to fit the new climate.

The Drowned World was one of J.G. Ballard’s first novels, and it’s considered one of his best, although it is extremely hard to find in the U.S. The work is not so much about ancient creatures as it is about ancient environments and how humans would change to fit those environments. Ballard’s descriptions of a near-future London overrun with Triassic-age swamps are among the most haunting I’ve read. The Drowned World is not a book with much plot or action. It’s mostly about atmosphere, and on that Ballard excels brilliantly.

The science – with references to devolution and racial memory – may strike modern readers as dated. The Drowned World also comes to a screeching halt in the middle when a gang of looters sacks London, although it finds its footing again near the end. Still, it’s not a book to miss, and it’s a crime it’s so hard to find these days.

  • The Drowned World was the second book in Ballard's Elemental Cycle, a series of novels dealing with the end of the world, each disaster based on the elements of earth, fire, air and water. The element of The Drowned World was, obviously, water. Other titles include The Wind from Nowhere (air), The Burning World (fire), and The Crystal World (earth).
  • At least two of Ballard's novels have been made into movies: Empire of the Sun and Crash.
  • The novel was reissued in 2000 as part of the SF Masterworks series, which was released in the U.K..

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