Friday, January 8, 2010

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard *guest review by fishy!*

It appears that book blogging is catching. My husband, known here as fishy, asked me if I thought he should review some of the books he's been reading. I was quite excited at the prospect, so here it is -- his first ever review. My nefarious plan is to keep him reviewing after this one too and apparently he is down with that. He might even consider reviewing a thing or two with me. But for now, he has reviewed a science-fiction classic. With footnotes! Enjoy!


J. G. Ballard passed away this past spring, and shortly after, Writers and Company1 aired an earlier interview with him, and a reading by him of a short story ("The Enormous Space"). I listened to this as a podcast2 while driving north towards Huntsville, Ontario along highway 11. That route is a mix of natural beauty and beautiful human ruins, an ideal environment for Ballard. The reading put me in such a trance that I became convinced that I was lost, and pulled over to look at a map, only to discover I was in Orillia, right next to the shattered corpse of the Sundial Inn3.

I've been wanting to read his work ever since, and picked up this early novel for a birthday stay-cation this week. The library had very little, but this felt like a perfect introductory work.

The novel opens some 70 years after the beginning of a global environmental collapse. Sun storms have increased global temperatures and blown away the Van Allen Belt, exposing the earth to (you got it) global warming and ozone depletion. Human populations have dwindled and fled north, living in polar regions as rising waters swallowed major cities, rising heat made them uninhabitable, and atmospheric loss made high altitudes impossible.

A small military scout team has spent the last 3 years mapping out flooded cities, cataloguing the new realities of flora and fauna in preparation for an overly wishful future of rehabitation. Working their way north as temperatures continue to rise, the team has spent the last 6 months in some great northern European city: maybe Paris, Berlin or London. Our main character, Dr. Kerans never bothers to find out. He and Dr. Bodkin are the scout biologists, flora and fauna respectively.

The city is submerged, 10 stories deep, the base of operation is in 'the lagoon', a silty swamp surrounded by the crests of hotels, apartment blocks and office buildings. Kerans has commandeered the penthouse of the Ritz, living in a bubble of hermetic luxury in the middle of a primeval lagoon. The staggering temperatures lay a tropical exhaustion over the narrative. Bodkin and Kerans carefully recorded their observations at first, but now the effort feels impossible, and the conclusions clear. The heat and the high levels of solar radiation have the world re-converging on a "Neo-Triassic". Reptiles dominate the lagoon, giant horsetails erupt from the silt, and moss coats the insides and outsides of buildings. The genetic memory of the Triassic has been reawakened and re-expressed in plants and animals; whole swathes of modern species simply die off.

And humans? Colonel Riggs, the commander of the scouting party, jokes that humans will return to the jungles, but continue to dress for dinner. But humans in modern form here are submerged and stuck in a silt amber, living in air conditioned bubbles and increasingly hypnotized by the lagoon. Alarmed by jungle dreams and a primal fear of iguanas, spinal Triassic memory seems to be awakening too.

Ballard's prose could be read and enjoyed for the imagery alone, I think:
Kerans [..] was distracted by his discovery among the clutter of debris on the opposite bank of a small cemetery sloping down into the water, its leaning headstones advancing to the crowns like a party of bathers. He remembered again one ghastly cemetery over which they had moored, its ornate florentine tomb cracked and sprung, corpses floating out in their unravelling winding-sheets in a grim rehearsal of the Day of Judgement.
and I felt myself entranced by the punishing sun setting the lagoon surface on fire. The setting and mood feels real and immediate, but the humans feel uncomfortably cold and unconscious. Civilian hold-out Beatrice seems almost reptilian, solitary and aloof. Characters are compelled and sometimes singularly driven, but without accessible motives.

I suspect this might be a big turn-off for some readers, but it is critical to both the mood and the ideas of the piece. And at least for me, this novel is a work of images and ideas. Characters and plot are well constructed, but minimally constructed, all underlining a well executed thought exercise.

It is tempting as a novice reviewer to launch into a discussion paper about the ideas in this book, and my reflections on them. It's similarly tempting to just say that the book filled me with enough reflections to shovel the driveway and wash two loads of dishes. I'll strike a balance.

A lot of dystopian novels, which I guess this is, depict post-collapse humanity as... well, humanity. Some of those archetypes are here: the tribal scavengers, the lucky recluse, the naval artifact, the survivalist. Kerans even references the surreality of the Crusoe-model of human survival... I think of this as the dystopian Flintstones effect: regressed to the stone age, we can fashion a tea-set from elk bones and retire to the parlour.

But in reality, modern humanity is profoundly environmental, and human desires and motivation suprizingly submerged in our reptile brains. Somewhere perched on that knife-edge between the two is our reality. Ballard's regressing survivors are solitary, selfish and alliances are transient. Like the crocodiles, they are only momentarily agitated when one of their companions meets an end. They clutch loosely to the remnants of civilization, and when they spring from that lingering structure into the jungle, language and identity drift away. It is hard to say whether they descend into the jungles as animals, or flare out as human sparks dispersed into the swamps.

Time is also a concern: at the lagoon there is a transient overlap of human time and evolutionary time. The city has no Friday afternoon rush hour, the hands have fallen off the clock towers, or are locked in place. But the days have their rhythm and presumably the seasons will too.

I enjoyed this book, though in places it did feel like an 'early novel'. Plot periodically was too neat, the science a bit loose. There were moments of magic realism, which stuck out a bit. But with strong imagery and interesting (to me) themes, this was perhaps a book written for me. If you need redemption or rescue, or perseverance of the traditional sort, it should be clear early on in this short work that you will be disappointed. However, it isn't as dark or stringy with the sinister as you might expect. Suprizingly buoyant, rather than cynical. Calling it cheerful would be a stretch.

From the interview referenced at the start of this review, I understand that urban decay and driven but somewhat inaccessible characters are common in his works. That appealed to me, and this work didn't disappoint. Next for me from Ballard will be Vermilion Sands, a collection of short stories he wrote about a decade later with similar themes.


[scroll down, this can be listened to on the page, or if you are nimble at
agent spoofing, downloaded as an mp3]

[though sadly a dearth of good exterior shots]


Cecelia said...

Footnotes! Great review.

And on the book itself...I think I need to read this. Soon. I don't know enough of the sci-fi classics I got off track towards fantasy as a teenager and haven't steered back since. Thanks for the recommendation!

E Maki said...

I was pretty lapsed too, though not into fantasy, as Kiirstin will point out. I went back, and I've been slowly puttering through classics. I'm actually not sure what contemporary SciFi I would enjoy.

I think this is worth reading, though I am not sure it is considered a classic, except maybe in the sense that 40+ years after publication I can find it in the library.

One of my first novels back on the SciFi wagon was H.G. Wells The Time Machine, which actually this reminded me of in many, many ways.

Phyl said...

What a great review! I hope you do more of them, because I really enjoyed this.

I've been dipping more into older science fiction myself, in the past year or two, mainly because while I knew many of the names, I'd never actually read them.

This is another author I haven't read. I imagine I'd read this book with a kind of shrinking horror, but probably wouldn't be able to put it down till I'd finished.

Oh, and...anyone who listens to Writers & Company, and gets that profoundly affected, is A-Okay in my book. :-)

E Maki said...

Thanks, it was a worthwhile exercise, for sure. At this point, I am planning to continue, but I read at about a half or a third of the rate Kiirstin does.

Tales of Whimsy said...

The Drowned World sounds awesome :)

Jill said...

Oh, I read this years ago and enjoyed it, but I haven't thought about it in ages. Great review! I'll have to do a reread some time soon.