Is a Dystopia a Multiple of Today’s Troubles?

Bought for £2.49 at Oxfam Hillhead, Glasgow.

Bought for £2.49 at Oxfam Hillhead, Glasgow.

The Drowned World envisages a future in which the polar ice caps have melted and human life has moved away from the rising oceans to higher ground. This is prophetic because this novel was written in 1962. Except Ballard envisaged a polar melt occurring through freak solar flares rather than global warming.

The story follows a couple of scientists working at a lagoon as they prepare to leave it with a long-term resident. They soon encounter a group of mobile salvage people and their charismatic though ominous leader. What’s particularly engrossing about Ballard is the vivid descriptions of the way that reality is changed because of the conceit he sets up. In this case, it’s the tropical jungle and prehistoric flora and fauna, along with the need to retreat from the stifling heat of the sun. The further threat is of psychological regression to a state that is supposedly locked away deep in the human psyche so that memories of the early days of human evolution come to the surface and take over the modern minds of the protagonists. The novel is a bit too short to fully explore this. Just at the point when the brain-stem heatstroke starts up, a new portion of the plot takes over. This partial-idea aside, The Drowned World is an imaginary excursion that can’t help but transport you from your everyday troubles into a world that’s crammed with them. Perhaps this is a classic account of a dystopian novel?

Global warming makes the story further unsettling in a way that you might feel resistant to. What’s at stake here is greater than the usual microcosm that Ballard is known for such as social breakdown in a tower block or a localised crimewave that is part of a social experiment in living.

The nice thing about buying his novels secondhand is that they’re neither so rare that you’ll seldom see them nor so commonplace that you’ll put them off. They come up here and there. On this occasion, I’d bought three of them during the same visit to Glasgow. Discovering a writer’s oeuvre through secondhand bookshops makes for patchy discovery when you don’t research in advance. The re-issues have a range of designs that prevent preconceptions about what to expect from where a book sits in respect of the author’s development. For example, The Drowned World has a touch of sexual and racial stereotyping that creeps in from time to time. It’s nothing severe – the characters’ roles and turns of phrase are a bit 1950s – but it’s enough to make you aware of how immigration and changing gender expectations would have been new phenomena to grapple with in early 1960s Britain. In a sense, the future in sci-fi is imbued with the present it’s written in.

See also Ste J’s piece about this book, which got me finishing mine sooner than planned. Apologies to the 1 or 2 people looking forward to reading about Rod Liddle’s book!

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5 Responses to Is a Dystopia a Multiple of Today’s Troubles?

  1. I reviewed this back in May as it happens! I loved it, but then I adore post-disaster dystopias. It felt very Graham Greene-ish to me.

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  2. Ste J says:

    I look forward to reading the The Burning world and The Crystal World as well, I like a theme of bad things happening that are only real in a subtle way like The Drowned World. I do enjoy seeing the slightly questionable (in today’s world) assertions of race and gender, it feels gloriously archaic despite the subject matter being topical. it’s this sense of dislocation that makes me appreciate this time of book more, it may be slightly unfair but I like to term them B-lit, which is equally as valid as B-movie in my opinion.

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    • Jeff says:

      Ah yes, this one’s part of a series. Will no doubt come across the others – I just buy a secondhand Ballard as soon as I come across one.
      The enjoyment of the archaic feel is a good point. There’s often a liberal priggishness that assumes the right to veto this by default. I commented somewhere recently about how the new leftist PC comedy in the 1980s was a breath of fresh air in its day, but watching it on YouTube can be toe-curling. Some of it is over-reachingly holier-than-thou by today’s standards. I once met a social worker who said that she sometimes has a night in with social worker friends and they end up drunk, ordering a ‘chinky’, singing along to rap songs with ‘nigga’ lyrics etc. to let off steam because they spend their days walking on terminological eggshells.
      I found Ballard’s (1962, not yet post-)colonial portrayals of the black crew members surprising, yet because they’re not intended as deliberate racial slurs – they’re just undeveloped, stock characters – they become quaint and, as you suggest, an enjoyable historical dislocation. Maybe part of the enjoyment also is the sense that recognising things like this shows that there’s been *some* progress?

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