Friday, October 14, 2011

100 Books 54 - J.G. Ballard's THE DROWNED WORLD

It's kind of embarrassing and inexplicable that I'm just now reading J.G. Ballard. Most of the science fiction authors I admire the most (e.g. Heinlein, Sturgeon, Ellison) cite Ballard as the one they admire most, after all. And lots of my friends agree.

Now I can see why!

The Drowned World could easily look like a climate change cautionary tale nowadays, depicting as it does a planet on which all the major cities are under hundreds of feet of water, the average daytime temperature is a good 120-140 degrees, and the biosphere is reverting to something much like its Triassic state, teeming with giant ferns and reptiles that some people are starting to suspect are evolving back into dinosaurs. But the book (first published in 1962) predates modern theories; here the sun is the culprit; a series of really bad solar  flares having stripped away a lot of the protections Earth's atmosphere provides, the planet has gotten hot and steamy; The Drowned World could well be a sequel to Stephen Vincent Benet's poem, "Metropolitan Nightmare," which is even older.

So the characters here are neither hand-wringers nor moralizers. Robert Kerans, Colonel Riggs and Beatrice Dahl are studying the vast series of lagoons that used to be London as the book opens. But it's time to go back to the relative safety and comfort of the Arctic Circle; the iguanas and gators are getting uppity and the heat is going to get unbearable. Everything looks good to go -- but nobody asked Beatrice. And Beatrice, like many other members of the expedition, has started to have "deep" dreams that seem to be seducing her into staying, into giving up her humanity as it is commonly understood and becoming a quiescent consciousness submerged in jungle and lagoon. And because she and Kerans have become a couple during their time in the Lagoons-That-Were-London, he's going to stay, too. Besides, Kerans kind of likes his living arrangements, in the penthouse of the ruins of the Ritz Hotel -- a penthouse that's now more or less at water level, and still crammed full of a long-dead resident's silk shirts and other treasures.

What follows is a short -- shockingly short by modern standards; I had almost forgotten that novels once took up just 133 pages! -- account of a myriad of ways in which people can go mad outside of civilization. We have looters, a savage king (who arrives on a paddle steamer escorted by hundreds of alligators who seem to respond a bit to his will), and more than one person who has decided to do as the dreams suggest and just sort of zone out and become human lizards. When the savage king finds a way to drain the lagoon where Kerans and Beatrice are basking, the better to get at the treasures he imagines are still to be had in the abandoned stores and museums at the bottom, things get even stranger, which I would not have thought possible.

I had my own "deep" dream after reading The Drowned World in which I basically invented my own sequel to it and shared the sense of being subsumed in its waters; Ballard's sequences are so vivid and compelling that I wasn't at all surprised by this. I too, want to see London's big planetarium filled with water and teeming with sponges and coral and angelfish, the little specks of light from the water's surface far above forming a new set of constellations that Kerans imagines mirror those that appeared in the night sky when the Earth's climate was last like this.

Ballard is a wonder!

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