Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

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14 thoughts on “Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

  1. I’ve yet to read Ballard–although I have a couple on titles on the shelf. What about a complete change of pace next with Jonathan Coe?

    • I’m surprised you haven’t read Ballard – he’s very good. Coe – I love and have read lots of already, so I won’t include him this time, but you’re right, a change of pace would be a good idea.

  2. I’m a big fan of Ballard’s work, but I’ve never read this one. I read The Drought, but didn’t like it as much as say Cocaine Nights, High Rise or Super Cannes. I have The Last Runaway in the 746 so I’d like to hear what you think of it, but if I had to recommend one it would be The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay!

    • Chabon definitely goes on the short list, Chevalier – maybe, but I read a few of hers before and the aim on my first run through the alphabet is to concentrate on authors I’ve not read so much.

  3. Italo Calvino! Italo Calvino! (she screamed). I can see If On a Winter’s Night and The Complete Cosmicomics there, both of which are utterly fantastic and I would take on a desert island!!! As for Ballard, I’ve read some of his works but not enough. I have two huge volumes of his collected short stories and those I’ve read have been superb – I really admire his writing. I have this one but haven’t read it yet – maybe I should go on a Ballard Binge!

  4. Do no consider any other choice than one of your Calvino’s!! Ms Kaggsy has explained the reason – I second it. Nothing else on there comes close and that’s a very biased and unscientific opinion but I don’t care 🙂

  5. Pingback: The Southern Reach Trilogy – final part | Annabel's House of Books

  6. Colin Cotterill’s the Coroner’s Lunch offers a wry kind of CSI story.
    A murder forces Laos to create it’s first Coroner, an elderly battlefield doctor called out of retirement, to solve the murder with zero forensic resources or infrastructure and at the bottom of a tricky political hierarchy.
    The author has lived in this part of the world and this shows in his story of the man and his helpers struggling to reveal the truth against massive odds.

  7. Will have to come back to read this post. By coincidence, just happened to start this very novel earlier today. Nice to have found your blog though!

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