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on 20 April 2007
The world is heating up as a result of solar instability. Ice caps have melted and oceans have risen, flooding low-lying areas. Once temperate zones remaining above sea level have become areas of lush, tropical jungle. Surviving populations have had to migrate to the cooler, polar regions. A party of soldier and scientist representatives of these exiled people, have travelled down from the north to study the new flora and fauna that is mutating and evolving rapidly back towards ancient Triassic forms. Some members of the party start to have disturbing dreams of belonging to a hotter, wetter climate and feel drawn in the direction of the equator by some sort of ancestral memory of living in a primeval swamp. The bloated sun and steaming jungle start to feel like a fond memory of the womb to those who are most susceptible and the hypnotic pull of it dominates even their waking hours.

Some reviewers have complained that this is not proper science fiction, not hard science fiction, not fast-paced, not plot-driven. Ballard places it in an area on the fringe of science fiction that he calls `speculative fantasy' - an area where `dream and reality become fused together'. When I started the book I hoped it might be something like John Wyndham's `The Kraken Wakes', but it's different in almost every way, apart from the flooding. There's no enemy to defeat in order to re-establish normality. There are no solutions to the problem, other than avoidance in the shrinking cool zone. A few individuals are making mental adjustments to the catastrophic climate change that seem superficially like a sort of Lamarckian evolutionary adaptation, but the chances of their survival, in isolation, in the crocodile populated swamp areas look doubtful. The reader has to adopt a fantastic amount of suspension of disbelief to swallow the notion of race memory and reverse evolution. Even so, I sank into the story and festered happily away in its swamps and lagoons right from the start and was reluctant to slurp out of it at the end. Ballard's descriptions are, to use one of his own descriptions, like a fata Morgana: shimmering and evocative.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 12 January 2013
Overarching Ballard's novels is a fascination with what happens to otherwise civilised people when placed under extreme stress by the breakdown in their living environment. Ballard's stories effectively assert that the better angels in our nature will just not prevail, for they invariably chart the reversion of modern men and women to a predatory hunter-gatherer mode of living.

The war-like tribe is presented as our primary state across the range of books by him I have previously read, from High-Rise to Kingdom Come and even Empire of the Sun. Humans do not evolve: they `devolve', reverting to a prior psychological and social condition.

The post-war idea that due to environmental breakdown man can revert into a uncivilised hunter-gatherer had, of course, inspired not only French existentialism, but a range of disturbing speculative British novels from William Golding's Lord of the Flies to John Christopher's The Death of Grass. They all mirror a belief and deep fear of Ballard's generation, which had witnessed the inhuman attrocities of the Second World War, indeed, he had lived through and experienced this breakdown at first hand as a child (as Empire of the Sun reveals).

Ballard's earliest novel "The Drowned World" takes matters in another direction by proposing that, perhaps, under the right circumstances, people will cease even to be tribal humans, and revert back to pre-hominid behaviour patterns. They will act as creatures from a prehistoric age. This is not so much a warning about climate change and global warming, as a speculative story delving into what might happen to humanity mentally - to our minds and thought - if the physical environment degrades.

Aspects of the book mirror commercial fiction of the late 1950s, and the names `Hardman' and `Strangman' for two characters are clumsy. However, Strangman is ultimately more than the eccentric evil adversary found in, say, popular 'James Bond' and 'Modesty Blaise' novels of the day. He is one of those cultured psychopaths who emerge in war zones, looting museums and leading private companies of bandits across territory in which law and order has disintegrated. Indeed, Strangman's bizarre costumes recall Hermann Goering, who likewise looted Europe and built his own bizarre collection of riches.

And there is that solar motif than governs all, the blazing sun - might it be a cryptic allusion to the Japanese flag? Is this the first appearance of an emblem that will eventually become Empire of the Sun?

Somehow I've missed reading "The Drowned World" until now. I wish I had done so years agao. I have enjoyed it immensely, and for me it revealed much about where Ballard's fictional ideas started.
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VINE VOICEon 15 October 2010
Every time I read Ballard I am struck by how utterly brilliant, scarily accurate and chilling his writing is, whether speaking about our contemporary world or an imagined future. In The Drowned World Ballard imagines a future where solar flares have destabilised the sun, burning off our ionosphere and causing the Earth's temperature to soar, melting the polar ice caps, flooding much of the land mass and returning life on the planet to Paleozoic conditions. Under these conditions vegeation returns to tropical and swampy and reptiles and gigantic insects replace mammals as the dominant species. Dr Kerans is part of a scientific expedition sent from mankind's last outpost in the Arctic to map the new geography of the flooded planet, a futile effort as the sun's temperature continues to increase and floods and storms change the shape of the land. His narrative tells of the descent of the psyches of the expedition crew from their apex of evolution back down into their evoluationary past, reminding us as the best dystopias do of the flaws of our so-called civilization and the fragility of our dominance over the planet
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In 1961, J.G. Ballard published a key work of the British New Wave of Science Fiction, his debut novel 'The Drowned World.' This is a minor lie, as Ballard's first novel was entitled 'The Wind from Nowhere' and something that he wrote on a holiday - a book now deleted Orwell style from his oeuvre and likely to be a novel/lla of curio value rather than literary merit. 'The Wind from Nowhere' did predict the themes of Ballard's initial wave of novels published alongside those groundbreaking short-stories (see 'The Terminal Beach' & 'The Voices of Time'). Ballard's initial concerns hinged around ecology and entropy...
'The Drowned World' focuses on a 21st Century world where fluctuations in solar radiation have lead to the polar ice-caps melting & the sea levels rising. Coming just a few years after the Millhaven disaster, 'The Drowned World' is a prescient book (it's only George Bush and his oil engorged cronies who really believe this isn't happening, isn't it?) - and one that might make sense when experiencing something surreal like a whale in the Thames (though here the species are more tropical).
'The Drowned World' like many Ballard novels takes a central idea and runs with it, already those key titled chapters are apparent ('The Drowned Ark', 'The Pool of Thanatos', 'Descent Into Deep Time', & 'The Paradises of the Sun' - the latter not far from the title of Ballard's most famous book 'Empire of the Sun'!). 'The Drowned World' doesn't offer much in terms of plot - the drowning world is what happens and central character Kerans (a precursor of Travens et al) embraces this new world. The feeling of the book is one that's advancing on earlier works by Joseph Conrad and Aldous Huxley - and it's a book of profound imagery that you can literally get lost (...drown?) in. This is probably a love or hate book and certainly far from Ballard's best work - which novel wise would probably be 'Empire of the Sun', 'High Rise','Super Cannes' & 'The Unlimited Dream Company.'
'The Drowned World' is deserving of discovery/rediscovery in this Harper Perennial reissue alongside 'Empire of the Sun' - the ecology/entropy thing has been detailed since (most recently with the movie 'The Day After Tomorrow'), in many ways this is science fiction in its most reductive sense: Ballard taking a central idea in science then and writing a fiction. It's far from the kiddy-drivel that sci-fi has been seen as, e.g. George Lucas' tedious world of cod mythology. (I'm surprised no one has wanted to make a film of this...). 'The Drowned World' is a very good debut, one that Ballard built on with the equally good 'The Drought' (...makes me thirsty thinking about that one) and the best work of the ecology-entropy trilogy 'The Crystal World' - which surely deserves to be reissued in the near future?
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on 13 March 2008
In a series of 36 stunningly beautiful watercolours - some double spreads - Dick French (born 1946) manages to perfectly evoke the claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere of Ballard's novel.

The flyleaf to this larger than A4 sized edition reads:
'The sun has gone mad and stripped the earth of its ionosphere. For decades blasting radiation has poured upon earth, melting the polar caps and turning permafrost into streams, rivers, oceans. Huge deltas have been built, lakes formed, seas have risen. The continents have been entirely altered. Jungles have crept and then rushed from the equator to Greenland. Siberia is a tropical nightmare. Mosquitoes the size of dragonflies carry horrendous new malarias. Mammals are on their way out and iguanas have grown as large as horses. Ferns and clubmosses smother those parts of ancient cities - New York, Berlin, Moscow, Peking- that are not drowned and offering steaming shelter to gigantic alligators and other saurians. As for humanity, well, there are only 5 million men and women left, living in the sub-tropical confinement of the Arctic and Antarctic circles.
It is as if history were rolled backward, as if the Triassic Age were here again. Man's science is useless against the solar furnace. And man's mind? Is that also slipping backward, far backward, to before the apes, to before the mammals, to the Triassic terror itself.
This novel- written in lucid, convincing, matter-of-fact prose - is both fierce and unsensational. It has a compelling authority which grips the reader at once and keeps him in its power long after the book is read. This is an unforgettable work.'
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on 31 May 2000
The book lacks a plot, as the characters are not going anywhere. It is a book of atmosphere rather than action. The novel centres on a group of last scientists and soldiers as they prepare to leave a lagoon created by an old city square, as it is slowly swallowed by the rising jungle, heat and the impending tropical rains.
Almost all the characters are plagued by disturbing dreams of a Triassic period. It is only when they allow themselves to be carried back by these dreams that they cease to be a nightmare and become more of a revelation. The central character eventually flees into the jungle in a reversion not just to nature but also to the planets past.
This novel preceded Ballard's second book, 'the wind which came from nowhere'. That book followed a similar theme of nature reasserting itself, in that case by a wind which only abates when the last man made structure has been blown flat. The same is true of this novel, in that the characters only find peace when they accept the inevitability of nature, although this entails an end, which most readers would regard as an escape into the most nightmarish option for the central character.
The book is strangely lush and disturbing in the intensity of the characters dreams with their oppressive heat and nature of their daily reality. I would recommend it to anyone who appreciates atmosphere as much as action.
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on 7 July 2013
I loved this vignette of a novel that describes London almost totally submerged in water, with just a few buildings poking above the waves. The ice-caps have melted, the temperature is in the high 120Cs, and a handful of survivors of a new world order is at a testing station, keeping an eye on the giant iguanas and weather gauges.

They're ordered out to head northwards - high command believes it's hopelessly hot - but a few decide to disobey orders and remain. They have been infected by heat sickness that seems to encourage them to reverse their evolutionary development and to revert to an earlier state of being in mankind... a dreamlike state short of 'rationality' as we know it.

Mad bandits arrive, as do giant crocodiles. Treasures of the past are plundered - though even the 'pirates' aren't quite sure why they're doing it.

The world has gone crazy and the feeling of wanting to retreat somewhere sane is prevalent - though when everything has gone upsidedown (quite literally) it's hard to know what makes sense and what doesn't.

It's a book full of ideas and will no doubt survive the test of time, perhaps for the wrong reasons (as far as human kind and climate changing are concerned). The writing is sharp and witty; the main character, has taken a top floor suite at the Ritz and often ponders whether it is 'only the external landscape which is altering' as the 'luminous, dragon-green, serpent-haunted sea' laps at his window sills.
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on 13 April 2016
Read as part of the prestigious BTW Book Club

Genuinely one of the worst books I have ever started to read. Gave up at 25% through so it might well get better, but I am in disbelief at the high regard for this book and, presuming a similar standard across other publications, this author. If you like suffering through over descriptive and unnecessarily complicated vocabulary as the author repeatedly smacks you in the face with his intelligence - possibly hoping that you don't notice the lack of plot development, pacing or interesting characters - then this is the one for you. If I had the audacity I would ask for a refund under the reasoning that this is not a book, but a communicable disease that will rot your eyes and liquefy your brain.

And, yes, I understood the 'unnecessarily complicated vocabulary" just fine. I am fine with words. Words are our friends. But within the only quarter of the book I finished before wanting to die two characters are on a boat, chilling out and heading off to somewhere nobody really cares about. One says to the other:

"The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time"

This was SAID during an off hand conversation. Reminds me of chats I used to have. That has a certain realism that rings true.
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on 29 August 2013
My first Ballard book, and I adored immersing myself in the richness of this vivid landscape, repulsive as it was, and strangely beautiful as it was. This disconnect and battle between the sublimity of nature again reclaiming the planet (eg where humans are no longer number 1) and replusion of such an alien and terrifying environment, was the hook of this book to me. The conflict, and the stifling and increasing narrowing of the choices for the protagonist stirred up for me more of a sense of existential angst and resignation to fate. Those who were chased by circumstances, fled further up north, trying to reclaim the cities by massive impossible structures, loaded in denial, being chased by their fears, versus those who embraced the horror and went deeper into the inevitable, with a 'bring it on' mentality. Ultimately, both sides are doomed. But in the larger sense, isn't this what human life is all about - vis our own mortality? This novel is almost like watching a horror movie, in that it brings catharsis and a sense of relief that we are here, not there.

Anyhow, I found some sort of comfort in this book, and embraced the lush, hyper-reality of it.
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on 20 February 2010
Everything you've ever heard about Ballard's view of the world is here in his first novel: distopian, lyrical and prophetic - all from a man bringing up three children on his own in a semi-detached house in Middlesex. JGB uses rich language to conjour a vivd sense of a broken planet and the pull of our more primordial tendencies. Dark and beautiful all at once.
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