I much preferred this to The Drought - the settings turn out to be more familiar and the characters seemed somewhat easier to relate to (though likeable would be going too far). The central idea of regression to thought patterns displayed millions of years ago by earlier life forms is a fascinating and quite sobering one.
on 9 November 2013
Some of the reviews on this novel are completely misleading. This is a great work of (early) sci-fi. I found it very difficult to put aside when I needed to, I just wanted to carry on reading it. It is an absorbing experience, with excellent character development, and a planet (Earth) subjected to extreme climatic influences from its own mother star. I'm not going to get into the usual spoilers that somehow manage to infiltrate these types of reviews, but I would suggest that all serious sci-fi readers should really need to get hold of a copy of this book. If you can find it, the hardback (50th anniversary edition) is a real treat, the intro by Martin Amis is an additional (essential) quality of this work
on 5 September 2014
This science fiction novel may be over fifty years old but it retains its neurotic potency even today with the descent into archeo-psychic madness of its few protagonists during fateful months in the Triassic neo-world of a submerged London.
It is a novel where every word seeks to counter the titular sea; where the “colossal fireball” that is the sun makes certain that “the water would seem to burn”. The prose style is symptomatic of the earlier novels of Eric Ambler, the descriptive passages dig further back into the brilliance of Jules Verne. It is an orgiastic feast of adjectives that lend to the chronic introversion of the main characters.
The story is centred on the biologist, Kerans, who chooses to stay in the lagoon that is a London swamped under rising sea levels on an Earth that is sixty of more degrees hotter than the temperate environment of the modern reader. His decision to stay is linked to a uterine dream-state that is best explained by the concept of DNA memories, dormant but increasingly active in a human cerebral cortex forced to respond to the massive change in climate. Once he has decided not to join Riggs, who has been ordered to leave their solitary scientific existence, he stays with his casual partner, Beatrice Dahl whilst she becomes “a mad queen in a horror drama”.
It is a drama that is breathed life by the appearance of the Dr No-esque figure of Strangman, a man on the verge of his own insanity with his band of ‘pirates’. A leader ruling through both voodoo-istic charisma and a psychotic understanding of leadership through fear, his draining of the lagoon allows the group to investigate the sewer that is London all the while fighting both inner demons and the caiman predators. “Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.” With a nightmare comes pain and death, and it is this that Strangman brings as he seeks to “drown Neptune [Kerans] in an even more magical and potent sea.”
The powerful descriptive narrative is what holds the isolationist science-fiction theme of this novel up. It is rich, eloquent, bold, erudite…it is from a time where stories showed you what the world looked like, where the action was secondary to the belief.
“the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails.”
By the end, Shakespeare’s Caliban has defeated Prospero and the tempest is free to cascade water back into the corpse of London, washing away the stain of Strangman’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Kerans heads south, the only place he can go, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”
If you are an introvert, you will truly understand this novel in all its isolationist glory, understand that the eternal lonely quest south is an enduring metaphor for seeking a kind of benevolent misanthropy. As Kerans’ acknowledges: “ Much as he needed Beatrice Dahl, her personality intruded upon the absolute freedom he required for himself. By and large, each of them would have to pursue his or her own pathway through the time jungles , mark their on points of no return…their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams.”
on 21 March 2008
The setting of this novel - a flooded, tropical London of the future - made me seek it out. However, despite being prepared to read a book that was not a fast-paced adventure (this is Ballard, after all), I was disappointed by the muffled stuffiness of the prose. I have heard it described as 'controlled' but this is really is too complimentary. I was similarly disappointed on reading Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (strangely, published in the same year, 1962). In that novel too the author takes a great 'sci-fi' concept but his treatment of it is likewise oddly dull and blunted.
The opening follows the conventions of hard sci-fi, explaining scientifically how the world got to be in this state. However, right from this plain facts opening the novel is muddled. The explanation lacks clarity and doesn't make sense. We are told that the melting of the polar ice caps would only raise global sea levels by a few feet, yet London is 20-30 feet underwater. There is some explanation of this involving 'silt', but this is not clear. Even when describing events, Ballard fails to clearly demarcate the geographical space in which his characters live. Mention of a 'shoreline' just doesn't make sense.
The central character, Kerans, and his two friends decide not to resist change and live in the relatively cooler poles with the rest of the survivors of humanity, and choose instead to try and adapt to the new conditions, as the planet's other life forms have. However, if London is only 20 feet underwater, there must be lots of places that are above the sea level, even in southern Britain. Why don't Kerans and co. settle in some of these places instead of a filthy water world where they have to get around by boat and are constantly threatened by mutating marine creatures?
As well as these problems, the novel also suffers from some confused writing, for example using "apart from" instead of "including" in one place. This completely muddles the meaning of the prose and is, I think, a mistake. I had trouble working out clearly what was going on in plenty more passages, and I suspect that similar occurrences are answerable for it. Other details are ludicrous. Strangman and his pet crocodiles and alligators, for a start. I can't believe Ballard put them in here.
However, the novel does have its strengths. The hallucinatory descriptions of the physical reality, mirroring the internal consciousness of the characters, is done very evocatively and, I think, memorably. The study of the effects on the human consciousness the return of a pre-historic phase in the planet's climate would have is novel. Time has been effectively turned back and this awakens all sorts of long-dormant genetic memories in the characters. This is all very interesting, but not developed as fully as it could be.
The ending, however, is much better than the beginning, and it does consolidate a lot of what's gone before. We are left with the haunting spectre of a new epoch literally superimposing itself on our own age, as floodwaters and huge banks of silt overlay city streets and the former outlines of the continents. Humanity, no longer suitable to the new conditions, is dying out, being replaced once more by reptiles and amphibeans. The book shows how precarious all that we take for granted is. That it can be swept away as easily as the swatting of a fly.
JG Ballard's first novel hits the ground running, already focusing on one of the authors recognisable themes of the relationship between characters psychological condition and their environments: here with a global warming-style flooded Earth leading humanity back into an earlier reptile mindscape. Good solid early Ballard, The Drowned World may be fairly light in terms of conventional SF narrative drive but it is rich in haunting imagery and insight.
on 2 May 2004
To look for conventional plot mechanisms in Ballard is to miss the point of his writing. To generalise from having read a few of his works, his common theme is human nature and how it evolves/mutates under different circumstances. Kerans, his main character here, is a taciturn biologist who finds his own nature reverting to the concerns of a more primordial time, as the drowned world he studies itself reverts to the triassic era. Having chosen to cut himself off from his expedition, he and his two companions are confronted by a charismatic buccaneer, Strangman, and his crew. And though it is Strangman (Strangeman??) who is more recognisably conventionally human, it is Ballard's achievement that in this strange jungle future-world, he is the devil and Kerans is the character you empathise with.
And if that's not clear - think the films of Herzog, or even the darkness of human nature in Apocalypse Now (and Strangman most definitely has echoes of Conrad's Kurtz - this book predates Coppola's film).
This isn't a fast-paced nor plot-heavy narrative, no - but why should it be? It's a brilliant exploration of what might be, what could be. That's what great SF is, to my mind. Ballard can make us glimpse the uncharted depths in human nature - what could be more important for a reader or a greater achievement for a novelist?
on 7 February 2013
A classic tale that manages to avoid the usual pretentions that creep into Ballard's works. Well written with characters you care about.
on 9 October 2009
A massive fan of Empire of the Sun, I was seriously disappointed by (what is supposed to be) J.G. Ballard's sci-fi masterpiece.
Though acknowledging a fantastic imagination and a fertile recreation of a London sinking into reptilian swampland, I found the characterization childish and the dialogue risible. The beginning is taut and promising, but by the time the reader has lasted--against all odds--to p. 150, one is entitled to hope for stronger dialogue than this:
'Beatrice,wait! Don't move yet!'
'Robert, be careful! What happened to you? Strangman wouldn't let me watch. . . Darling, leave me here and get away.
'Strangman's capable of anything, Beatrice. He's insane. They were playing a sort of mad game with me, very nearly killed me.'
'But Robert, even if we get out--'
In other words, life is short, far too short to read such drivel, despite it's being leavened with such prose as this:
'The endless banks of the inland sea stretched out in front of him, merging at their edges into the incandescent sky so that to Kerans he seemed to be walking across dunes of white-hot ash into the very mouth of the sun.'
In other words:
'Reader! We have a problem!'
'No! Reviewer, what is our problem?'
'The situation is grave, reader: the author has a fantastic imagination and a lovely prose style combined with--wait for it--a leaden ear for dialogue!'
'Reviewer, what can we do?'
'Not a helluva lot, reader, frankly.'
on 28 November 2009
"like explosions frozen in time" this is the way Ballard describes a shattered mirror, I think that's just the most perfect way to describe it and is an indication of the quality of the writing. If you've read any of his better known novels this is has a lot of the concepts which recur in his other work, it's like getting a peak at a famous artists A level project.
on 29 January 2008
Plenty of superlatives have been thrown around to describe Ballard. In order to avoid that, my opening gambit will be a quote by Christopher Priest. "I'm not quite sure what Ballard is doing, but it's a lot of fun trying to figure it out."
If you want a summary of the plot read the other reviews, my intention here is just to note the pleasure and excitement of reading this book. In the novel, Ballard's obvious intention is to explore what we can do with the genre normally referred to as sci-fi. In a traditionally British way he decides not to make everything as big as possible but instead reduces the elements of the catastrophe to the psychology at play.
As you would expect from any Ballard book there's a twisted longing to become the centre of the catastrophe and an uncomfortable thrill in enjoying the world going to hell.
The Chapter 'A NEW PSCHOLOGY' is almost a manifesto in itself with regards to how Ballard would go on to create a whole new take on what H.G. Wells called scientific romance. The novel covers biological manipulation, time travel, ecological disaster and all in ways so original that it makes the mind whirl. It's dream like in so many ways, but most interestingly in that 'it seemed logical in the dream but now...' feeling so common when trying to relate your inner mental journeys to someone else.
This is the first book by Ballard that I have read an actually got the whole 'Ballard is a genius' thing. The prose is controlled and effective and after I had finished i went back to re-read some chapters again, just for the hell of it.