The Drowned World – JG Ballard (1962)
One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.
Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’
These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.