Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Classic Sci-Fi- The Drowned World

For September's Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we discussed "The Drowned World" (1962) by J. G. Ballard.

Set in a future where the world has been radically transformed by increased solar radiation and things seem to be reverting to a dinosaur-era biome, "The Drowned World" follows a small cast of characters attempting to survive and perhaps adapt themselves to these new conditions.

An easy read, a deeply problematic book, a good discussion. Possible spoilers below!

The most prominent connection we would draw throughout our discussion was the riffs that "The Drowned World" makes on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1899). The theme of losing one's civilized side when immersed in primeval wilderness, and Strangman as a Kurtz figure, were just two of the parallels we drew.

Most of us encountered "Heart of Darkness" in the context of "Apocalypse Now" and Achebe's assertion that Conrad is a "bloody racist"—so we're used to thinking of "Heart of Darkness" and works that refer to it with a certain armature of critical thought about race and politics. That's one of the weirdest parts of reading "The Drowned World", because that kind of response, repudiation, or even parody of Conrad is completely lacking. "The Drowned World" is a racist SF work, make no mistake. Its black characters are repeatedly described as bestial and sub-human; they talk in a caricatured dialect; their lives have no meaning for the important (white) characters. We talked about the state of racial awareness in Ballard's childhood—minstrel shows, films like "Queen of the Amazons" (1947), etc.—but the overt racism here is still very striking and, in my mind, a little hard to excuse historically even granted the publication date. We talked for a bit about his biography—in China, as a Japanese internee, and how that experience affected—or perhaps, weirdly, didn't affect—his perception of racial otherness.

Oh yeah, sexist too—if you wanted a prime example of a purely sex-appeal, empty character to be rescued at need, look no further than "The Drowned World".

To take a different angle on the work, there's also something really odd about the science deployed here. Now, to be fair, this didn't bother some readers at all, but Ballard's scientific ideas are so conspicuously bad that some of us wondered what he was up to. The way the world would change with rising temperatures (nothing like this), people and indeed any life form's ability to survive the temperatures he describes—these are errors that not only would have been caught by any reader of the time with even a little scientific education, they're also coming after science fiction works that attempted more realism in climate science & planetology—Fred Hoyle's "The Black Cloud" (1957) springs to mind, or Hal Clements' work. It also occurs to one that the writing of this novel roughly coincides with Herbert writing "Dune" (1965), which draws on ecological facts and theories that surely must have been available to Ballard if he'd been interested.

But, he's not—so why does he take the approach he does, using a very Hard SF format to infodump kind of hilariously bad science? I want to put forward a theory that he's actually being a bit parodic, or at least conspicuously flippant about all this. We all agreed that he's definitely not interested in the science, just slapping together a backdrop to the issues he wants to talk about.

However, talking about the climate science here led us off on a rollicking group-panic over the state of the actual world, which is always fun. Talked about the London tidal defenses, "sunny day flooding" in Miami, and the difficulty of ocean-proofing NYC, among other things.

Moving past the things that are problematic or not done well—we really liked the writing here. Ballard is particularly good here at evoking atmosphere—we noted that this is an extremely wet, mossy, damp book—and his infodumpy bits are so dry that actually work well, a kind of unintrusive matter-of-factness. Where he really shines is in both Keran's introspections and the action & scene descriptions, where the prose has a kind of stream-of-conscious fluidity and surreal vividness. We noted some connections between Ballard and the actual Surrealists, and his includion of a Max Ernst painting in the novel (which made me think of Mieville's latest, BTW).

Getting into what Ballard's really interested in, we talked a bit about class distinctions, particulary as realized in dress and manners, and noted that these are themes he returned to in much of his work—juxtaposing fairly high-class signifiers with a fall to savagery. We talked about the British colonial program and the code of "dressing British" even when that made no sense for local conditions. The elaborate parties in drowned London at the end of the novel reminded us a bit of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show".

The novel's biggest strength, and the area we explored the most, are psychoanalytic ideas—the collective unconscious, the regression to a primitive state, the separation of different parts of the psychic identity—Strangman in this case representing the id, for instance. I also noted that the idea of recapitulation—that organisms have within them the history of all their ancestors, and the ability to recreate those stages—was kind of a hot idea for a second there, and taken up by other SF writers, including James Blish. "Ontology recapitulates philology" is the phrase.

For a novel so concerned with psychology, the motivation of the main characters is really bizarre. Or perhaps "absent" is a better word—they seem to be doing dumb, even suicidal things for no reason, despite being somewhat aware of the situation. Ballard's trying to set up some kind of primal drive thing, but it often comes across as characters just being manipulated by the author rather than anything internal to the story. Those of us familiar with Ballard said that his later works become more character-driven, and at any rate we again noted that Ballard here is more interested in the situation he wants to set up—a kind of anti-cozy catastrophe, contra-Wyndham—than in how he actually gets there.

Interesting book, good discussion. Not included here: a ton of good 50th-anniversary-prompted Trek discussion, and a long listing of our favorite (bad) climate disaster books & films, of which "Slipstream" is now the one I want to look up.

Next month, Classic Sci-Fi is discussing Bujold's "Shards of Honor", followed by King's "The Tommyknockers" in November.

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