J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World
Does Science Fiction have to be believable to be meaningful?
Should science fiction have predictive power? In plotting the vast unknowns of the future, should authors aim for prescience? Will people be able to say of the best SF novels in five hundred years time that some novels were right about some things and that these novels are better than the ones that didn’t?
I would say no, otherwise we would be remarkably unfair on an awful lot of good writing. That said, I doubt that SF is read for the futurology. As with all literature, SF is at it is best when it has something to say about the world around us now, no matter when it may be set. And if SF has any kind of predictive record, it does better when the psychological issues arising from continued technological development are considered over the mere technology of that advancement. In the long run, a fictional account of space dog Laika (does one exist?) that rings true emotionally will probably endure longer than a pulp novel entitled “Dogs In Space!” (though that is a great title!).
After all, our very perception of the future is influenced by events as they happen. As a philosophical concept, the future has specific meaning to any given person or group of people at any given time. As a result, a ‘good’ prediction for the future is often grounded in a realistic description of the world as it is now or some universality of the human condition. “War of the Worlds” still has something to say today despite all of the wonky science precisely because it speaks to our innate fears of invasion and our fear that what lies beyond us may also lie beyond our capability to resist it. Asimov’s “Foundation” is interesting reading because the desire to present a way of reading the future and controlling political chaos emerges from the time that it was written with the cold war powers facing off, what better escapism than to a society of the future that shaking free from the various caprices of political ideology?
So how does Ballard fare with The Drowned World? Well, if you made a film of it, it would be full of Harryhausen claymation monsters, dodgy models of swamped metropolises and wooden acting performed on wobbly sound stages. It is a fantastic story but utterly utterly of its time. For a novel that sets time in amber with an apocalypse, the problem for the modern reader is that the wrong time is set in amber.
As I have said, it is a ripping yarn and Ballard’s writing is excellent despite some rather dated tropes concerning societal mores and such. The science too is rather quaint, an increase in solar radiation has made the sun warmer, causing the ice caps to melt and the oceans to rise along with the temperatures. The resulting effect on flora and fauna is the rapid (re)establishment of Cretaceous era species, including giant iguanas and the like. This is rather risible but at this point, Ballard’s second novel, he is still thrashing out the means by which he will discuss the matters that are important to him.
In fact, the plot takes off only once a suitable human antagonist has been found for the character that Ballard has the reader invest in. It is only once the apocalypse has been swallowed up into the psyche that it starts to take on meaning (I’d say ‘to take on water’ but, dear reader, it’s a deadly pun) and so any attempt to posit “The Drowned World” as some sort of description or prediction of ecological disaster doesn’t really work.
I might save a discussion of the Strangman character until a bit later on, perhaps until after I’ve re-read “Crash”, and I would like to deal with the three apocalypses together in their own post once I have finished “The Drought” and re-read “The Crystal World”. I have a feeling that we’ll re-visit Kerans’ tropical haze over and over again too, there’s the stillness and inertia that I remember from the short stories, not to mention that euphoric conclusion. We will have to discuss at a later date too.