Swimming through words

The Drowned World

By J.G. Ballard

Ballard offers up one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of a lost world, where giant dragonflies flit between the buildings that have not yet been flooded but are still now part of a lagoon. This is London, according to Ballard, after a series of freak solar events have super-heated the planet, returning it to the Triassic sweatbox it once was. The five million people remaining are huddled within the Arctic Circle where the temperature is a relatively tolerable 85 degrees.

But this new world should not be the focus of the book. Too much bad fiction concentrates on alluring creations and not enough on the effects of these places on the characters within them. Ballard does a passable job of divining some sort of psychological insight from his liana-entwined story, but it could be much stronger. The main idea is that the dreams of the scientists sent to survey the lagoons are disturbed, leading them to act strangely.

There are plenty of exciting set pieces and some nicely confusing narrative turns, reflecting the characters’ states of mind. But I got the feeling that Ballard was too tied up in his lianas than his characters. He can’t see the wood for the trees. His descriptions of the lagoon, the water, the creatures, the heat are so unique and so beautiful that there’s little time to nail the characters. And so the dialogue is clichéd, stereotypes are deployed and his characters’ experiences are obfuscated.

That’s a great shame, but the novel is still worth reading for its vivid descriptions and the playful connections to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

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