In The Drowned World the main protagonist Robert Kerans is a biologist observing nature in a world that has been devastated by fluctuations in solar radiation which have caused the ice caps to melt and irreversibly changed the world as we now know it. Cities are covered in water and lagoons have formed in which the top floors of buildings form weird anchor points where craft can land. On a scientific expedition with part of an army, now stationed on the remainder of the earth’s land on the north pole, Robert makes one of the top floor buildings of a luxury hotel his haven. Here he can retreat and slowly sink back into a mesmerising past, the boom of the jungle and the call of the Triassic age. He discovers later that the city drowned in the lagoon is London.
In notes at the back of the book Ballard explains that one of the subjects of the novel is ‘the journey of return made by the principal characters [Kerans, Beatrice, Riggs, Strangman and others] from the twentieth century back into the paradisal sun-filled world of a second Triassic age, and their gradually mounting awareness of the ambivalent motives propelling them into the past.’
There is an undercurrent of unease about this past, whilst at the same there is the strong attraction of leaving the presence and letting oneself sink into one’s own self, cut off from whatever remains in this world. At one point, Kerans accepts that he does not really understand Strangman, does not know what his motives are:
‘Racing along the lagoons like the delinquent spirit of the drown city, apotheosis of all its aimless violence and cruelty, Strangman was half-buccaneer, half devil. Yet he had a further nuronic role in which he seemed almost a positive influence, holding a warning mirror up to Kerans and obliquely cautioning him about the future he had chosen.’
Strangman, for the time being keeps Kerans where he is, prevents him from going southwards and so losing touch with the presence forever. All Kerans wants to do is sink back into a state of total ‘quietness’ and become as one with the Triassic vegetation and reptilian life around him. He wants to revert to a Triassic organism. He is at the stage where his eyes are dulled, and every effort is too much, shaving, getting dressed, talking to others – he is listening to the booming of the ‘phantom jungles’ in his mind.
This is a science fiction story full of layers of meaning, on the one hand the physical destruction of the world as we know it, due to a natural disaster, on the other hand it is about the psychic memories of who or what we are and our relationship with this world and others. Sometimes others prevent us from going back into ourselves, they are a constant reminder of what we are, social beings linking to the rest of humanity, at other times the pull to let go of it all may just be so strong that we will try to sever the links and let go of it all.
It is scary and yet so brilliantly written that I don’t understand why I have not read this before. The book has been on my tbr list for such a long time. Ballard is of course one of the best and this is one of his earlier books, I think the first in fact, written in 1962. He uses words and strings sentences together as only a master writer is able to. I sat with a dictionary and enjoyed reading about ‘crepuscular skies’ and learned names of vessels that I had rarely come across before, the creatures inhabiting the world during the Triassic period, etc. His science is convincing enough to imagine that this world could once more become a reality and so the setting is believable; the comparison with a social regression expressed through the characters is also superb. It resonates strongly with our own concerns about where we are going as civilisations, the realisation that it might be so very easy to slip back into a primeval way of living as after effects of war or natural disasters.
If you have not read this yet, put it on your list. It’s definitely given me much food for thought.
Whatever you do, have a happy Easter weekend with lots of excellent reading, walks, socialising, and other pleasant things. We should relish what we have.