The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. To my knowledge this level has yet been attained by only two American writers, Algis Budrys and Walter M. Ballard may well turn out to be the most imaginative of H. Plant and animal life is reverting to the giant bamboos and reptiles of the Triassic Age.
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London has been flooded many times. Even after the embanking, in , a flood breached the parapets in Westminster and surged into the impoverished streets around Millbank, drowning 14 people. During the great North Sea floods of , London was relatively unscathed — although in the East End, Canning Town went under the waters, while still further downriver Canvey Island was entirely inundated, with the loss of 58 lives.
This event led directly to the construction of the present Thames Barrier, the centrepiece of which is a series of silver-cowled sluice gates ranging across the river between Silvertown and Charlton; structures that resemble — for all their obvious utility — sections of the Sydney Opera House, disarticulated and marooned on the riverbed.
The barrier was completed in the early Eighties , and since then has been employed with greater and greater frequency as combinations of storm surges and high equinoctial tides have threatened the city. Many believe these historically high water levels are a result of global warming, a climatologic phenomenon widely thought to be caused by human activity, specifically the release of so-called greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. But whatever the new, physical threat to London, the city has felt itself to be psychically vulnerable for centuries.
In his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds , published in , Charles Mackay recounted the great panic of Bea Ballard: These terrible lies about my father have sullied our lives. Tash Aw on five great books about China.
A love affair with speed and violence. The biblical root of this desire to sluice the streets of their infective inhabitants and so purify the city is obvious. In fiction, the inclination to flood London has remained perennial, reaching its modern apogee during the upsurge of scientific romances published in the last decades of the 19th century.
His mind was partly in abeyance; it acted, but only after some time had elapsed. He now at last began to realise his position; the finding of the heap of blackened money touched a chord of memory. These skeletons were the miserable relics of men who had ventured, in search of ancient treasures, into the deadly marshes over the sight of the mightiest city of former days.
The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet. It was unique, and it gave me tremendous insight into what makes up human behaviour. But if in The Drowned World — as in so much of his fiction — we are exposed, as readers, to the skull beneath the skin of civilised humanity, we are also introduced to a psychological phenomenon at once disconcerting and oddly heartening.
In the characters of Lieutenant Hardman, the protagonist Dr Robert Kerans and his nominal superior, the visionary biologist Dr Alan Bodkin, are embodied a curious form of negative capability: responding to the extreme environmental changes wrought on the Earth by the solar storms that have created this drowned world, these men undergo a phylogenetic regression, travelling back down their own evolutionary pathways to become primordial inhabitants of a revivified, Triassic Eden.
To begin with there is the flooded city itself: in his air-conditioned penthouse in the abandoned Ritz hotel, Kerans reprises a sybaritic lifestyle he himself has never known: dressing in the silk monogrammed shirts of the millionaire who once leased the suite, Kerans sallies out by boat to cruise over the flooded landmarks of central London and visit his lover, Beatrice Dahl, in her own equally exotic habitation — a luxury apartment furnished by her tycoon father with canvases by Paul Delvaux and Max Ernst, surrealistic compositions that mirror the bizarre environmental mutations without.
That Kerans and Dahl are themselves this foundational pairing is implicit, just as the other main characters in the novel — Bodkin, Colonel Riggs the commander of the survey team to which the two scientists are attached and latterly Strangman, the diabolic leader of a gang of looters — have a pervasive quality of being not individuals per se, but hieratic figures whose existence has preceded the fictional vehicle within which they find themselves transported.
This is not a matter of their having their own back stories, as in a work of realist fiction — ones that might be supplied by a conventional writer in the form of cod depth psychology, childhood traumas and so forth — but of their being instantiations of generalised human responses to extreme situations.
And then of course, coming as it does in a long tradition of fictional London sousing, The Drowned World partakes of a collectively watery unconscious. Throughout the novel we are exposed to a doubling of the uncanny. Thus, as the city is described in greater and greater detail — and especially after Strangman has drained its central core, the better to ransack its principal buildings — readers have the uncomfortable sensation of dredging their own historic impressions from the mire of futurity, with the result that both sets are sullied.
Throughout, the text is studded with images of doubling, and of the intersection of reflective visual planes — watery and vitreous. The profusion of antediluvian animals — the rampant iguanas, the giant mosquitoes, the screaming bats — and the blanketing of the silt-mounded sunken buildings by rainforest flora; the extreme heat and humidity of this newly tropic realm, and the roiling of the rainclouds overhead — none of it is as significant as the metaphoric vertices that Ballard hammers into his at once workmanlike and curiously beautiful prose parquetry.
The central conceit of The Drowned World — if we can term it such — is that under pressure of an environmental change tantamount to a new Triassic age, the human mind might itself regress. And it is genre that is the operative word here: for decades, until Empire of the Sun , he was regarded as primarily a science-fiction writer, with all the literary condescension that this implies.
Subsequently his work was accorded an increasing — but still grudging — respect. Follow TelegraphBooks. Love puzzles? Get the best at Telegraph Puzzles. Books on Amazon.
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The Drowned World
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The Drowned World by JG Ballard – archive, 27 January 1963
London has been flooded many times. Even after the embanking, in , a flood breached the parapets in Westminster and surged into the impoverished streets around Millbank, drowning 14 people. During the great North Sea floods of , London was relatively unscathed — although in the East End, Canning Town went under the waters, while still further downriver Canvey Island was entirely inundated, with the loss of 58 lives. This event led directly to the construction of the present Thames Barrier, the centrepiece of which is a series of silver-cowled sluice gates ranging across the river between Silvertown and Charlton; structures that resemble — for all their obvious utility — sections of the Sydney Opera House, disarticulated and marooned on the riverbed. The barrier was completed in the early Eighties , and since then has been employed with greater and greater frequency as combinations of storm surges and high equinoctial tides have threatened the city. Many believe these historically high water levels are a result of global warming, a climatologic phenomenon widely thought to be caused by human activity, specifically the release of so-called greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution.
Will Self on JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World'
The Drowned World is a science fiction novel by British writer J. The novel depicts a post-apocalyptic future in which global warming has caused the majority of the Earth to become uninhabitable. The story follows a team of scientists researching ongoing environmental developments in a flooded, abandoned London. The novel is an expansion of a novella of the same title first published in Science Fiction Adventures magazine in January , Vol. Set in the year in a post-apocalyptic and unrecognisable London, The Drowned World is a setting of tropical temperatures, flooding and accelerated evolution.