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The Drowned World (SF Masterworks No17) by JG Ballard (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 175 pages, paperback; first published 1962, this edition 30 September 1999.)

This is part of the Masterworks Series, being issued now by Orion. It's an interesting volume, not least because it reads very much as a book of its time. Although it is set in a far future, after the second millennium, when solar storms have caused catastrophic global warming, the characters and their drama are a story which is long on intellectual detachment and short on 'real life drama' as that might be narrated in today's climate of extreme self-awareness. However, in spite of its sense of remove and of the whole thing being a thought experiment, the book has its fascination and this comes from the strength of the writing.

The events take place in a small series of lagoons, built up over a Northern European city by vast tides of silt, flushed from the old landscape by glacial and polar melt-water. Nowhere is Ballard more successful than in his vivid evocations of this primal swampland with its eternally burning sun, flat water and teeming, gigantic lifeforms. Ever present in the text and always freshly seen, this zone is so real that you can feel the stifling humidity - it's a relief to feel the breeze from turning a page.

Within this cauldron a small set of people embark on the final leg of a powerful inward journey. The viewpoint character, Kerans, is a biologist, documenting the new lifeforms being thrown up by the severe climate change. The project is pointless because the changes are still occurring and there is almost no interest in the results of the work, in fact no sense at all of an outside world still existing beyond the huge trees and the burning sky. Here the central figures of the drama hope to escape evacuation to the safer north, and to finish their psychological descent through genetic time - reaching down to 'lumbar spine memory' - to a state of being which is perfectly fitted for this new Triassic era, and which longs to exist there.

There are marvellous touches of imaginative brilliance right from the outset. Kerans has moved out of the testing station and now lives in a penthouse of the Ritz hotel, one of the few buildings with storeys still above the waterline. He dresses for dinner. He dines on delicacies and drinks old brandies from the hotel stores. Across the lagoon, a strange reclusive girl, Beatrice, has voluntarily stranded herself in her luxurious rooftop estate. The contrasts of developed decadence and primal biology make a beautiful and intense setting for what could be a great drama.

Unfortunately for this reviewer a great drama is not what ensues. The characters don't particularly have much interest in one another, nor have many sympathetic traits except for their love of the drowned world for its own beauty, in the face of stern opposition from the military units who have been their protectors and who see it as a terrible fate, a ruining. In the second half of the book, having successfully secluded themselves in their festering idyll, the serenity is disrupted by the superbly rendered and violent arrival of a dandified intrigant, Strangman.

It is here that the book most closely invites comparison with Conrad's ubiquitously cited novel, Heart of Darkness. Not simply because this is a mood of retreat along ancient rivers into a primitive past embodied by the jungle, or a contrast between the louche effeteness of the characters and the almost obscene fecundity and gigantism of the other life around them, but because Strangman is both very like and unlike Conrad's antihero, Kurtz.

Strangman is a personality of hypnotic power which defies a civilized reason, some shreds of which Kerans still possesses. His perfect white suits, his squad of 'dark' henchmen led by Negro [sic] commanders, his arrival on a fanboat amidst a gyre of frenzied alligators - he is the chaos that comes out of the wild land, but he has managed to contain and assimilate it to his advantage and retains his contemporary mind. Unlike Kurtz, who is consumed and whose changes give him radical perspectives, Strangman hasn't got the imagination for that. He has come to loot the drowned worlds as a barbarian, without taste or restraint, as his collection of the tat and second-rate shows.

Here is where the sense of symbolism really begins to strike and the text shows its literary cultural influences most powerfully. Strangman's limited imagination requires the enactment of huge spectacles, based on mythic tales illustrated in his store of paintings. His sense for drama is reminiscent of the Nazi love of overblown rituals and cultish obsession with signs, symbols and sympathetic magic. He drains the lagoon, much to the appalled disgust of the others who are operating on their primal aesthetic, and finds - well, I won't spoil it for you, but his psychotic antics and that of his crew are so compellingly odd that unfortunately they quite eclipse the last glimpses of sympathy that I had for Kerans, Beatrice and their colleague, the other biologist, Bodkin.

Kerans is made the victim of tribalistic sacrificial rituals which fortunately fail to kill him as intended, although he does nothing to save himself; it is his adaptation to the Triassic which does that. Beatrice does nothing but shuffle through the parts allotted her by Strangman like a resigned Bond girl. Bodkin, as frustrated as this reader by their inaction, makes a valiant effort to blow them all to kingdom come. Then the army return to take charge and tidy matters up.

It is this drama between Kerans and Strangman which most of all failed to convince. Although Beatrice and Kerans have a relationship of sorts this is not shown or in any way explained, only referred to obliquely. In their scenes together they seem almost as stilted actors in a fifties' drama - and this stylisation continues throughout all the personal action in the book; a kind of old code, which to my modern eyes seems almost quaintly peculiar. That said, there is no sense of any great emotion of any kind in any character despite their tremendous crises, save for Strangman who is at least prepared to act out his desires and is the only one not entirely and utterly repressed.

Most oddly the descent into Triassic memory and the physical change that goes with it do nothing to awaken less-than-civilised behaviour in the three original players. They become more insular, more secretive and less and less emotional, their entire obsession only the heat and the wilderness. It's a curious message - in the end I was left wondering what the point was; is it that in such a retreat to an almost reptilian level we slide to the apparently still and near-lifeless mental states of crocodiles? It's hard to say but it seems a lot to go through just for that.

Of the other symbolic elements: Ballard writes of Strangman's revels as he persecutes Kerans with a chilling flatness of statement. The crew are shown captured by the violence and glee that are so commonplace in times of unrestrained indulgence, as modern creatures, compared to Kerans' slump into saurian indifference. Strangman is a modern monster. Kerans and Beatrice are a different order of creature. In this the writing and stylisation, the use of symbols and the dreamlike, hypnotic quality of the story are beautifully effective, showing that Ballard was already a considerable talent in this, his first novel.

There are other, less major, points where this book failed to succeed fully, although in its failures it was still charming. First of all, on a Science Fictional note, Ballard populates his jungle with giant roaring Iguanas. These beasts are also reverting to their Triassic memories and have moments where they bay at the sun or roar in concert, despite the fact that of all reptiles I have never seen or heard one make anything more than a quiet rasping sound. So, that aspect didn't ring true, although it was a nice idea and the only way to evoke something like a dinosaur, which is of course essential. (I wondered if the Iguanas were lifted from the special effects of the time; you remember those black and whites, where some poor pet-shop beast had two rubber horns glued to its nose and was filmed in close-up while having its arse prodded with something sharp?)

The second slippage point was in the treatment of Beatrice, by the rest of the cast, who were all men and many of whom were in the height of pillage frenzy. Beatrice is a young, rich, spoiled woman, whose lanky beauty Kerans (and the author) often dwell musingly upon in a kind of fashion model way - she is always in a swimsuit, lounging and drinking a cocktail. She is the only woman for a thousand miles in any direction (so her lack of personality really isn't such an issue as it might have been). The world is retreating into an ancient chaos all around her yet she is politely and distantly respected by all. There is a hint, in that secret old code of we-can't-say-it-straight-but-you-can-guess of more going on by the end of their time with Strangman, but so faintly done that I nearly missed it. It stretches a modern sense of plausibility right to snapping point, although perhaps it wasn't an issue at the time of the book's first publication (1962).

A final criticism would be that the characters are all too much like ciphers acting out symbolic roles, and not sufficiently humanised to ring entirely true. Their remove from the reader and from each other, finally makes the entire story seem as though it's been viewed through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

As a whole however, this book deserves its place on the masterworks' shelf and in the history of SF and literature. It shows, even from thirty-seven years ago, that artistic and literary aspirations could be brought together with SF ideas in a seamless whole. The criticisms of it that I've had don't alter its success in this respect and it's worth reading for the sheer pleasure that the scenes of opulence and decay can provide, and in the wonder of the drowned world images that Ballard was able to completely master.

Review by Justina Robson.

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© Justina Robson 4 December 1999