What images do the words "science fiction" conjure in your mind? Do you think of spaceships, lasers, phasers, light-sabres? Rockets, robots, and radon gas? Green chicks and blue boxes? Science fiction is a genre built upon difference. Science fiction stories are essentially thought experiments in which the author asks what would happen if the world were different in one or many ways.
We often (rightly) associate science fiction with fantastic technologies, but that kind of mental picture is a rather poor description of the entire genre. There's so much science fiction that emphasizes the psychological over the physical, taking us on a journey deep into our minds instead of out among the stars. I have to confess to having a bias toward the former type, even though I know that many examples of the latter type are truly outstanding. Perhaps that's the problem though. Perhaps the former type of science fiction, in emphasizing a technological apotheosis, permits us to marginalizing it as a form of acknowledged fantasy, whereas the latter is more "literary," more "mainstream," more "down-to-earth," if you will.
The Drowned World is rooted firmly in this camp. The technology seems little different from that of contemporary Earth. Rather, the change comes from the external environment, a result of massive global warming caused by solar radiation. Earth's equatorial regions are reverting to "Triassic age" climates, and the transformation has reached as far north as London. The main characters are at home among an alien landscape, but aside from this change of scenery, the people and their devices are much like that available in the present day, right down to .38 revolvers.
The scenery is merely a catalyst for the true source of the science fiction. The Drowned World chronicles three people's attempts to process the genetic memory of the Triassic age, passed down to them by their mammalian ancestors. The similarities in environment stimulate their brains, first causing intense dreams that soon transform into a sort of waking sleep. The minds of the characters are, in some ways, regressing back toward the Triassic, even while their physical forms remain human.
In that sense, The Drowned World raises the question—as much of its ilk in this type of science fiction do—of how much of the events in the story actually happen. How much is "real" and how much is a half-remembered, half-hallucinated waking dream of the protagonist? Ballard emphasizes the unreliable nature of the narrative by drawing attention to actions of Kerans' that he questions after the fact, concluding that he has no explanation for why he acted that way.
Particularly, in one of the most lugubrious and haunting scenes of the book, Kerans has dived to the bottom of a lagoon to explore a deserted planetarium. He secures his air line around a door handle to keep it from dragging in the silt, and when he goes too far, the line snags and chokes off his air, causing him to black out. After being rescued, Kerans realizes he doesn't know if the incident was an accident, foul play by the people on the surface, or a suicide attempt. Constantly questioning his motivations, Kerans always seems to be on the cusp of metamorphosis, striving constantly toward a transformation that eludes him. In contrast, Bodkin's emotional closeness to London, considering it home, seems to maroon him in the near past instead of allowing transcendence toward the Triassic; and Beatrice . . . well, I don't know what to make of Beatrice.
Although The Drowned World has much in the way of atmosphere, by its very nature it is somewhat inscrutable, and thus frustrating. It reminds me of the work of H.G. Wells, particularly The Island of Dr. Moreau. Like Wells, Ballard's protagonist is a competent, well-educated male who engages in a struggle for survival in an isolated, technologically-limited setting. Along the way, the book explores environmental and social themes (more environmental in this case). Both books examine the nature of humanity through the nature of mind and memory. And The Drowned World has a similar narrative style—while not first person, it has that same mixture of factual, journalism-like tones and artistic, surrealist overtures.
Ballard's capacity for description, whether it is mood or setting, is by and large the strongest part of this book. Not only does he give a good account of the new, lagoon-filled London, but he simultaneously delves into the minds of his characters (or at least, Kerans) and scrutinizes their motivations. It is a good thing too, because the relative isolation of the characters means there is comparatively little dialogue. Ballard's description and narration keeps The Drowned World moving, even when he spends pages depicting the stillness of a scene.
Unfortunately, The Drowned World doesn't always sustain the tension it tries to build. Ballard raises intriguing questions, but he never seems to take them to a satisfactory concluding point—or at least, if he does, he does not convince me. At the end, I'm left questioning the point of the journey. How exactly has Kerans changed? What is the significance of this surrender to the pre-uterine memories? The psychology underlying the book is interesting but not as fleshed out as I would want.
Likewise, I found the conflicts between Kerans and Strangman lacklustre. Part of the reason I draw the comparison with Wells is because the conflict seems there because it's expected, like Ballard is following a well-tread plot and grafting his psychological themes to the existing structure. This unsuccessful melding is a crack that begins to undermine my confidence in the rest of the book. Suddenly I wonder about Kerans' indecisiveness—he doesn't want to leave, then he does want to leave, then he doesn't want to leave, then he leaves . . . like many stories, it is a difficult—and subjective—call: is this a brilliant illustration of learned helplessness or indicative of great writing married to a mediocre story?
Despite its environmental themes, The Drowned World is not post-apocalyptic, nor does it really look at how the rest of society has adapted to the mass exodus induced by global warming. It is, at its core, a look at the psyche of the individual, especially the isolated one. And that's cool. I was expecting something more, though. I was expecting profound—and I got profound. Yet I was expecting something moving, something that professed purpose . . . and that has eluded me here.
The Drowned World reads like a classic, channelling the style of H.G. Wells to conjure a different, somewhat eerie atmosphere of otherness. But the style lacks enough substance to support it; ultimately, the story falls flat.