J. G. Ballard: The Drowned World
The first book in a science fiction trilogy
Publication year: 1962
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 2011
Finnish translator: Mika Renvall
Page count: 176
Finnish Publisher: Jalava
Robert Kerans is a biologist in a science station in the remains of a city which has been almost submerged because the world’s temperature has risen catastrophically and in consequence, the water level has risen. The whole world is a similar state: only very few areas are still habitable around the North and South Poles. Kerans is part of a team whose mission is to the map the city, which we learn later is London. The other team members are a group of soldiers, lead by Colonel Riggs, and Doctor Bodkin. London also has one other inhabitant: Beatrice Dahl who has refused to leave her (father’s) apartment and spends her days reading old magazines and sunning herself.
Kerans’ work means that he has to spend a lot of time alone, but he has come to realize that he doesn’t mind it. In fact, he now prefers solitude and has trouble getting along with anyone else. He also spends a lot of time sleeping and not doing much of anything. He and Bodkins theorize that the changing environment is awakening long dormant instincts and memories from the human unconsciousness or racial memory, or perhaps from the womb. Unfortunately, this makes Kerans a pretty passive character.
When Riggs gets orders that the team has to get back to the Arctic Circle, Beatrice refuses to leave and Kerans starts to wonder, if he should stay, too. However, in order to live in the city where the temperature is only going to rise still, they would need petroleum and food.
The first half of the story is almost dreamlike. Ballard describes the sunken city and its inhabitants who are starting to see strange dream and become quite lethargic. There isn’t real conflict until the half-way point of the book and to me, it felt forced.
I would have liked to see how the larger society has changed. Ballard tells us this but doesn’t really show and it doesn’t affect the interactions of the characters. He tells us that, for example, most of humanity has died and the survivors have moved to the Arctic Circle. Clearly, there are still countries with their own military services because they are mentioned at the start of the story but we also told that otherwise, the people live clearly different societies.
Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by this book but maybe I had different expectations.