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The Drowned World

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

"The next morning he dismantled the craft, ported the sections one by one up the enormous sludge-covered slopes, hoping for a southward extension of the waterway. Around him the great banks undulated for miles, the curving dunes dotted with cuttlefish and nautiloids. The sea was no longer visible, and he was all alone with these few lifeless objects, like the debris of a vanished continuum, one dune giving way to another as he dragged the heavy fifty-gallon drums from crest to crest. Overhead the sky was dull and cloudless, a bland impassive blue, more the interior ceiling of some deep irrevocable psychosis than the storm-filled celestial sphere he had known during the previous days. At times, after he had dropped one burden, he would totter down into the hollow of the wrong dune, and find himself stumbling about the silent basins, their floors cracked into hexagonal plates, like a dreamer searching for an invisible door out of his nightmare."

- The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard, 1962

"As I wrote Empire of the Sun I could see the way in which the landscapes of Shanghai had permeated all my previous novels in disguised form, and it always struck me as odd that I should have waited 40 years to write about my wartime experiences. But I realise now that I probably was writing about them all the time, and that one of the reasons I chose to write science fiction at the beginning was that it offered me a way in which I could remake the landscapes of the England I knew in the 1960s and 1970s, in the way that the surrealists worked, to make them resemble unconsciously the landscapes of wartime Shanghai. I could flood London and the drowned world, I could reshape the everyday reality of Britain, western Europe and the United States."

- Great voices of science fiction, The Guardian, 14th May, 2011

Despite being an early work for the writer J.G. Ballard, "The Drowned World" (1962) is nonetheless characteristic of the themes and interests that would go on to define and dominate the author's later, more celebrated books. Books such as "Concrete Island" (1974), "High Rise" (1975) and his final novel, "Kingdom Come" (2006), where microcosms of contemporary culture break down into scenes of tribal violence, or where characters isolated from the accepted niceties of polite society, find liberation in their regression to a more lawless, primordial state.

The Drowned World [J.G. Ballard, 1962]:

Originally published as a short novella in the January 1962 issue of the magazine "Science Fiction Adventures", before subsequently being expanded by Ballard into its current form, "The Drowned World" builds on the still timely issue of global warming, depicting the landscapes of Northern Europe turned by ecological disaster into a tropical lagoon overrun by exotic reptiles and dangerous creatures. However, the book eventually reveals itself to be more concerned with the standard 'Ballardian' themes of contemporary existentialism, civil disobedience, hysteria, and the descent of humanity into expressions of primal aggression.

Having spent his childhood years in Shanghai during The Second World War, and at one point finding himself a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp, Ballard recognised how thin the line is that separates societies from order into lawlessness. Wars, crises and catastrophes turn people desperate, backing them into corners, elevating the need for survival and self-preservation over rationality and reason. His characters, like so many people he must have encountered during his youth, descend in the face of this desperation, into brutality; as tribalism and general anxieties and fear wash over them like a wave.

Ballard's characters frequently embrace this degeneration into primalism, seeing themselves as modern-day (or even futuristic) variations on "Robinson Crusoe", part anthropologists, part survivalists. In this sense, the book will be of interest to fans and devotees of the author, as we can recognise where ideas that later formed the basis of remarkable books, like "Crash" (1973) and the aforementioned "Concrete Island", first bloomed into consciousness. "The Drowned World" isn't a remarkable book. It's a goodbook, with remarkable moments, but it finds Ballard as a merely talented young writer, before the quantum leap he would later make with The Atrocity Exhibition (1970); that endlessly controversial and experimental work that would go on to define the general cultural perception of Ballard's fiction, his imagery and his themes.


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