The Drowned World is a quantum leap forward from Ballard’s first novel. Mature, confident, and with a prose as rich, dense, and tasty as a fruit cake.
The book follows the events surrounding a survey team moored in a lagoon on a world where sea levels have risen due to an increase in the sun’s radiation. What has been created is a Mesozoic outer landscape, matched by an inner landscape experienced by some of the characters. It is that inner landscape and its relation to the environment that is explored in the novel. The lagoon is like a giant womb and many of the characters have their own private hidey-holes which are also womb-like. Within these wombs people experience strange dreams in which they regress in psycho archaeological voyages. When the lagoon is drained by treasure hunters, it is a harsh birth for some.
Whilst on the surface this may be considered sf, it does what Ballard and so many of his contemporaries were doing – making use of sf tropes and themes to liberate the conventional novel and take literature into new areas. And not just new areas of content, but of style as well.
This may seem a grand claim, but you only have to look at the recent spate of books by the literati that make use of sf tropes and themes to the acclaim of lit critters. These books (of which more in a minute) would probably not have been published had it not been for the groundbreaking work of Ballard, Aldiss, Moorcock, Harrison, Russ, Lessing, and others in the 60s and 70s.
The difference is that those early works were genuinely ground breaking and led to exciting developments in writing that continue to this day; whereas the recent spate of work is, on the whole, dreary and self-congratulatory, with little awareness of what has gone before or how far behind the times they really are. Unfortunately, so are many publishers who seem to have little awareness of how much of all this has been done before.
A case in point is The Children of Men. Lauded by critics and made into a film, it is a dull, moralising book that hasn’t the wit to improve on all the preceding books that tell the same story. Brian Aldiss told this story so much better in the early 60s. He is certainly a better writer, a better story teller, and believed so much more in the intelligence of his readers – allowing them to draw any conclusions.
I suspect that what has happened is that certain books have been written off because they have been cast as genre works. Ballard is forgiven his early works as he has become a ‘proper novelist’. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (a fact unsurprisingly not officially acknowledged by a British parliament happy to promote yob culture by example), yet the fact she writes sf is quietly forgotten. Joanna Russ, one of the finest writers of fiction and an astute literary theorist rarely gets a mention – oh yes, science fiction.
But Ballard, along with those I have mentioned and many other writers of that vintage (and since) do not simply steal sf ideas because they couldn’t think of anything else. They are immersed in a tradition that has given us some of the finest fiction in the world. It is only in recent times that certain subjects have been deemed out of bounds by the ‘literary’ world. Which only goes to prove that the ‘literary’ world is populated by pompous fools.
The Drowned World begins in earnest the unpeeling of the modern western psyche. It is a journey in which Ballard, through all his work, shows us both the worst and the best of humanity. It is a journey made with a guide who is not afraid to take us into the darkest places, a guide who is erudite, a guide who is literate, a guide who is a great story teller. Given the subject matter, it is a journey that could continue forever. Sadly, like all of us, J G Ballard is mortal. But his example and his legacy are to be found in his books and it is our loss if we ignore them.