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In which Netty is waving, not drowning …

August 11, 2010

Conversation in a bar*, earlier this month.

Me: “You know, we should do some science fiction for next year’s Reading Challenge. We haven’t done any yet.”

Andy: “Der, what about Ballard?”

Which kind of sums up yours truly’s relationship with science fiction. When I think of it in broad brushstrokes, I don’t think I like it and I don’t think I’ve read any (although I quite enjoyed a Philip K. Dick novel once. Of course, it was one of his “mainstream” books.) So I was surprised to find I was barely  into the first chapter of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World  when the sense of déjà vu became overwhelming. “I’ve read this before,” I thought to myself. Except I hadn’t. But what I had read – long, long ago – was George Turner’s The Sea And Summer,  which has such heavy echoes of The Drowned World that I had to check to see if it was dedicated to Ballard (after much searching I eventually located it at the back of a book shelf in my study. It isn’t).

But if I was going to categorise The Drowned World – and bearing in mind that I’m something of a sci-fi nuffy – I would say it was post-apocalyptic fiction, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t a genre back in 1962 when it was written. I’ve been reading a bit of this sort of stuff in the past couple of years, sometimes unwittingly (I’m in a book group whose members keep selecting it), and if I was filing my book collection by genre, The Drowned World would slot nicely next to Atwood’s Oryx And Crake or Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, even McCarthy’s The Road. Ballard is widely considered primarily a sci-fi writer, although I’ve also seen his work described as dystopian fiction – and if you’re into labels, that one definitely works in this case.

So  it’s no surprise that the most fascinating aspect of The Drowned World is the imagining of a future thrown back into a Triassic-type era, thanks to unsurmountable climate change, and the social regression that ensues amongst an ever-dwindling population that has managed to survive a host of litanies including solar radiation, new and emerging malarial diseases and its cities being transformed into near-uninhabitable tropical, jungle-choked swamps.

The book opens with a military crew stationed in a series of giant lagoons and smaller lakes that was once the city of London, on a months-long project of mapping the area’s flora and fauna. Orders come through for unit head Colonel Riggs to evacuate his crew as temperatures soar (50 to 60C-plus), water levels rise and rain-belts encroach. Riggs is also alarmed at the strange, reptilian-infested dreams haunting his crew, with the increasingly unhinged Lieutenant Hardman – his mental faculties rapidly disintegrating – engineering his escape from the testing station.

Dr Robert Kerans, fellow scientist Dr Alan Bodkin and Beatrice Dahl – a civilian whom the crew discovers living in a penthouse in the lagoons during their tenure, and with whom Kerans consorts  – decide to defy orders and stay. The trio languish in and battle against their quickly-indistinguishable terrestrial and psychic landscapes, until the peace is broken by the arrival of the aptly named looter Strangman, his motley crew of Negro pirates  and – bizarrely – a troupe of seemingly trained alligators. In shades of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, Kerans, both fascinated and repelled by Strangman, is drawn into his web. The interaction culminates in a near-fatal diving incident, followed by a surprise party where the intruder reveals the true nature of his visit to the lagoon. This sets off a chain of events that forces Kerans to re-evaluate the path upon which he has set himself, and his mission, eventually bringing him full circle.

Now, it goes without saying the reader has to be prepared to make the leap of faith and suspend reality in order to fully enjoy sci-fi – yet another reason why this genre and I are uneasy bedfellows. I had a lot of trouble reading these pages without thinking, “Where are they getting their food from?”, “What about fresh water?”, “How are they powering their air-cons?”, et al. I also found myself getting bogged down – no pun intended – in Ballard’s heavily adjectival prose; I sometimes had trouble trying to imaginatively conjure up his world (I’m surprised some director out there hasn’t already tried it – but maybe after the abject failure of Kevin Costner’s 1995 disaster Waterworld, which mines similar territory, no one would dare). Finally, it’s a scant work, running to a mere 175 pages, which would have benefited greatly from the fleshing out of the back stories of the main characters. This is particularly so in the case of Beatrice, a potentially fascinating character who is ultimately reduced to mere window-dressing.

Ballard, who died just last year at the age of 78, was a prolific writer, publishing some 18 novels and the same again of short story collections during his lifetime. There is no doubt his is an oeuvre worth dipping into again; as Andy and I have said more than a few times about other authors on the Reading Challenge. While I can’t say I’d read my way through the entire list, my interest in piqued sufficiently to explore more Ballard and perhaps keep a more open mind to the much-maligned genre of science-fiction in the future (boom, boom). Watch this space.

NB: The bar* mentioned in the opening gambit to this blog was Little Creatures, located in Brunswick St, Fitzroy. If you’ve never gone, get yourself there pronto, and make sure you order the pork belly. Which is quite simply possibly the most fabulous pork belly I have ever had. Ever. So don’t think that interesting stuff about books is all we’ve got to offer in this blog, readers. Oh no …

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