There was a time when science fiction was the most radical vein of American letters. Enabled by both its paraliterary status and the cheapness of the print medium, it was open to innovation both in format and content. From the 1950s into the late seventies it was possible to pick up accessible experimental literature of challenging ideas and perspectives for the price of a soda. Those days are sadly gone, but one of the long out-of-print gems from that era has been brought back, in a stylish hardcover from Liveright.
The late J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” fits in to the twin themes of much of his work: the destruction of the modern world by chaos and the acceptance of that chaos. In a future where solar flares have raised the Earth’s temperature, much of western Europe looks like a cross between the age of dinosaurs and the surface of Venus. Cities are flooded, and only those urban centers lucky(?) enough to have skyscrapers offer any sign of once having been human settlements. Into this environment, a military research team is sent into the remnants of what was once London for one final sweep of the area before retreating to the tropical Arctic to escape massive storms sweeping up from the equator. None of which is that exceptional; if the disaster was the result of someone attempting to make a scientific advancement which immediately went haywire it would be a Michael Crichton novel. But Ballard’s military and scientific personnel come to accept the catastrophe as a desired condition. It’s a theme that persists through Ballard’s later “mainstream” novels in which car crashes, expressways and office blocks become standalone symbols of the human psyche breaking down. He later came to find the catastrophic condition to be preeminent, but it was in a scalding submerged London that these ideas first took hold.
Ballard wrote with the methodical clarity of an autopsy report, made all the more surreal by the subject walking, talking and drinking Scotch. The descriptions of elegant bathroom fixtures in a five-star hotel are written in the same grammar and style as those of mosquitoes the size of bats and wrist-thick vines snaking up the crystal walls of high-rise office buildings; Jurassic Park comes to Hyde Park. Viewing the strange and the familiar through the same linguistic lens creates an alien dreamscape found on just the other side of the cafe window. (Greg Baldino)
“The Drowned World: 50th Anniversary Edition”
by J. G. Ballard
Liveright, 208 pages, $23.95