8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Haunting novel, not entirely successful as either science fiction or serious literature,
This review is from: The Drowned World (Paperback)
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.