Another view of a ruined London in a distant future. Like Will Self’s The Book of Dave, J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World also considers a vastly changed city. With global temperatures soaring, London is drowned by advancing waters as giant alligators, snakes and other primeval nasties slither into view to reclaim the world. A band of scientists decide to stick around, charting the changes to a just about recognisable landscape of submerged department stores and tower blocks. Where Self uses modern landmarks to sketch out his future – the wheel on the South Bank features prominently – Ballard has his cast seeking refuge at the top of tall buildings, and the Planetarium – perhaps a more potent symbol in the early 1960s of Man’s imminent conquest of the stars – is reduced to a dark and menacing underwater cavern. The celebration of outer space becomes trapped in inner space, explored by divers in space age protective suits.
The Drowned World is a well written science fiction novel, but I was disappointed by its lost opportunity to exploit the landscape of London just that little bit more. The premise reminded me of one worthy of H.G. Wells, but – like the devastation in War of the Worlds – the Master would have relished in the chance to describe the city, district by district, as it was claimed by the sea. Ballard also doesn’t delve deeply into why this ecological disaster has occurred; it’s a natural one caused by solar flares (or something equally vague), rather than Mankind bringing it upon himself (he fails to predict the concerns of climate change that a modern novel would eagerly seize upon). Ballard’s interest lies in suggesting human degeneration, something that would have certainly interested Wells. Deep within us all lie fears of the primeval swamp, an innate terror of the reptiles and insects that lived on the Earth millions of years before us. As London is engulfed in water and rising temperatures, these fears also rise in Ballard’s cast – making interesting reading as they slowly succumb to nighmare and madness.
All these years on, The Drowned World survives as a worthy effort to produce a celebral and quality science fiction novel, a hard objective in the sci-fi weary world of the early 1960s. Maybe because of this Ballard treats his subject a little too seriously, there’s room for humour in even the most inhospitable of landscapes – at least on the page. There is also an uncomfortable shift into Heart of Darkness territory towards the end of the novel; an unwise move as it will always be impossible to emulate Conrad. But The Drowned World does have an effective ending, and it’s worth reading, especially as its author had boldly chosen to stick with a genre unfashionable at the time. Admirable.