When I lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo in downtown Miami, I became preoccupied with the idea that the city surrounding me and the writings of J.G. Ballard were inexorably linked. That they endlessly fed upon each other, ouroboros-style, that any attempt to understand one led back again to the other, and, in understanding them, they tightened, resulting first in a nice erotic charge, an unexpected connection, and then distention, shock, and strangulation. Absurd, sure, but it makes a kind of sense. The highways and the homeless, the condos, climate change. It’s all there. Cocaine Nights on The Terminal Beach.
Consider the images coming out of South Florida the past few weeks—sailboats capsized and clotting on the shore; high-rises looking on, humiliated by their reflection in the flooded streets; palm carnage. These could easily be used to illustrate J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World. Though he considered the novel his first, it was preceded by the apprentice work The Wind from Nowhere, which he wrote in two weeks the previous year. It is also one of his best.
The year is 2145, and it’s way too hot. The ozone has disappeared, icecaps have melted, and what land hasn’t flooded has been hopelessly altered by rising bogs of silt and radioactive flora. The birthrate has dwindled, with only one in ten couples producing a child, and the five million people who remain do so within the Arctic Circle. Our story begins in London, though, as it is underwater, it could really be anywhere. Dr. Robert Kerans is part of a United Nations military unit surveying Earth’s former capitals, “which had long since slipped and slid away beneath the silt.” He is joined by a crack team of stock characters: Riggs, the abrupt military man; Dr. Bodkin, the aging doctor; and Beatrice Dahl, the soused heiress love interest. You don’t read Ballard for the characters.
Soon it would be too hot, it begins, perfectly lining up the story’s diegetic time with historic time of our world like a sundial at noon. Distance, perspective, and time, flattens. In the novel, the sentence refers to the fact that as the day goes on, the temperature will rise until it’s too balmy for Kerans to do anything except lay about the abandoned Ritz, cranking the generator-powered AC and drinking purloined scotch while thinking about the mysterious woman sunbathing across the lagoon. But in the real-world time that Ballard’s writing so often leaks, soon it would be too hot scales up to a global rise in temperature, scales up to, obviously, global warming.
Often, writers become yoked to a specific adjective. For Ballard it’s prescient. He was surgically apt at identifying the fetishes and concerns of a generation, stretching them to their logical conclusions, then describing his findings as matter-of-factly as possible. Rev up the sexiness of the sports car until it’s redlining and you have the premise of Crash: people who have sex in, around, and with car crashes. His 1977 story “The Intensive Care Unit” prophesied the rise of social media. In the story, people lead totally isolated lives, with every experience and relationship mediated by screens. One man breaks through and meets his family face to face, only to set off an Oedipal catastrophe involving incest and scissor wounds. Ten years earlier, his “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” predicted the presidency of the Gipper, the political-celebrity confluence which has brought us to this dark curve of American history.
Still, for all his dystopic soothsaying, Ballard only scores half-points on global warming. In The Drowned World, the phenomenon is due entirely to some solar glitch; humans aren’t to blame. And so, as Martin Amis points out in his 2011 introduction to the book’s fiftieth anniversary edition, Ballard unwittingly lends credence to today’s GOP. (That said, pollution is to blame in the next novel, The Drought, which has basically the same premise except that there’s not enough water, instead of too much.)
As the story gets going, we soon learn that members of the envoy are experiencing strange dreams. The idea is that, with the climate reverting back to prehistoric conditions and the sun’s unfettered radioactivity contributing to the return of species last seen in the Triassic era, the human psyche devolves as well, returning to the panic and brutality of prehistory. When one of the suffering crew members suffers a psychotic break, escapes, and heads south—where the sun is even hotter, the jungle thicker, and the dreams dreamier—Kerans realizes that “a more important task than mapping the harbors and lagoons of the external landscape was to chart the ghostly deltas and luminous beaches of the submerged neuronic continents.”
This lines up with Ballard’s own predilections as a budding SF writer. Forgoing the space operas of the day, he embarked upon an inward journey—attempting from the very beginning to chart inner space instead of outer. This interest in psychology, in these “new malarias” of modernity, propels all of his later work, from the paraphilia in Crash to the mob violence in Super-Cannes.
It is this fascination with the interior murk that places Ballard’s writing in a class unto itself. It is this that led to Ballardian, as applicable an authorial adjective as Kafkaesque if one is trying to describe what it felt like to be alive in the twentieth century. It’s not only his preoccupation with the landscapes and psychological effects of social atomization—that stuck-in-traffic feeling—but how beautifully he describes the dead ends and oil slicks of contemporary life. The estrangement, the inversion, getting trapped in an environment.
Formally, this sense of entrapment might explain Ballard’s long embrace of the genre model, from his pulp science fiction days to the detective stories of his later years. His books turn on the turgidness of character and plot, yet in doing so they shock us with glints of vivid poetry. Take this line, from Chapter Four: The Causeways of the Sun. Beatrice has been drinking, and dreaming, too much:
Kerans tried to take the glass from her hand but she steered it away from him. “Leave me alone, Robert,” she said in a tired voice. ”I know I’m a loose, drunken woman but I spent last night in the time jungles and I don’t want to be lectured.”
Yeesh. But, then again, time jungles is really good. So are the “rectangular cliffs” of the submerged skyscrapers, the “scaly oil” leaking onto the surface of the lagoon, or how “at times the circle of water was spectral and vibrant, at others slack and murky, the shore apparently formed of shale, like the dull metallic skin of a reptile.” Or how, Kerans, gazing up at the ceiling of the abandoned planetarium, he “watch[ed] it emerge before his eyes like the first vision of some pelagic Cortez emerging from the oceanic deeps to glimpse the immense Pacifics of the open sky.”
Besides the obvious diluvial premise, it’s passages like these that bottle the essence of cities during floodtime—the synthesis of animal and environment, of prehistory and future, and, with that, ruin and rebirth. However, on this past read, it is counterintuitively one of the characters who seems most apt.
Halfway through, a privateer named Strangman speeds into town on a hydroplane, all “bright eyes and teeth,” blasting flares and blowing up alligators. He’s the white-suited leader of a group of scavengers on the lookout for gilt, some of which they sell back to the besieged governments to the north, and most of which they festoon their boat with in times of revelry. He is charming and dangerous, petulant and fun, Dennis Hopper in Waterworld.
In Ballard, the characters are usually just an environmental outcropping with a pulse; they are because the world is. While others have responded to climatic shifts through subconscious devolution, booting up the old lizard brain that lurks within us all, Strangman has become stronger (or stranger? One certainly doesn’t read Ballard for the names of characters) exercising dominion over all that he touches. Toward the end, when he manages to drain the lagoon that had submerged Leicester Square, we have something akin to Floridian real estate development.
Ballard takes extra time with Strangman’s physiognomy: his bright smile surrounded by deep wrinkles, and the lack of pigmentation on his face (as opposed to the sunburned members of the original unit, or the pirate’s African crew): “Strangman’s chalk-white face was like a skull, and he had something of the skeleton’s jauntiness.” If one finds oneself this hurricane season looking for real-world analogues, I would like to posit that this smiling, devious skeleton brings to mind none other than Rick Scott, a man whose many practices—including, say, forbidding staff from using the words climate change—have resulted in the vast and unequal accumulation of wealth.
Early in the book, Kerans encapsulates the relationship between psyche and environment as this:
Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
When asked to describe what is happening in this country’s “radically new environment” (social, political, ecological, take your pick), one could do much worse than Ballard’s “dormant schizophrenia.” Yet is literature, prescient or not, up to the task of making sense of this world, of offering explanation, and solace? Or is it just another old category of thought, merely an encumbrance? The Drowned World, with its swamp-draining strong men, its poetics of disaster, makes more sense now than ever before.