Dark Futures Book 10: The Drowned World

Dark Futures is a 20-book exploration of the fears of our futures, an odd sub-genre of Science Fiction that draws in on the society of the time and projects it forward, into uncomfortable visions of the world to be. The idea is the same across many books, the results, very different. This week we the sun-baked tropic future of risen seas and returning reptiles.

My overwhelming feeling at the end of The Drowned World was a pretty simple one – “why the hell has no-one filmed this?” It’s not the story, to be honest – which I shall come to later, just the visuals of the setting and the evocative picture that J G Ballard paints throughout the book. It’s worth briefly paraphrasing, although I am sure I won’t be able to do it justice.

In the future solar activity has warmed the planet massively, causing the icecaps to melt, raising sea levels and silting up the oceans. Humanity is now clustered at the still-warming poles, as the uninhabitable zones move inexorably northward, leaving only scattered bands of scientists surveying the now flooded and abandoned cities, now networks of Triassic lagoons ringed by the slowly decaying stumps of the once-dominant skyscrapers.

This is a book of baking sunlight, tropical dives into ruined, sunken cities, modernist, well-equipped militaries and science stations alongside rusting and recovered hulks. At any point in the book you can close your eyes and picture it – it’s an amazing thing. Also, it’s about Global Warming, for heaven’s sake, how zeitgeisty can you get? Film It! Film it now!

That said, I suspect the actual story may be a bigger obstacle. The Drowned World starts off during an exploration of ruined London, a pair of scientists and their escort documenting the changing flora and fauna of the area. The there’s a gentle building tension from strange dreams, disappearances, and unexplained yearnings to “stay” once the word come down from the North that they are to withdraw. There is an appropriately “dreamy” feel to the text that really comes through, especially when the characters start talking about Deep Time and racial memory.

I was however less keen when the “plot” turns up about half-way through. The military depart, and a couple of characters stay, but the arrival of a bunch of freebooters feels a little generic and uninteresting – a straight from central casting gang of not-quite-ethnic-stereotypes-but-uncomfortably-close pirates and their charming-yet-psychotic-cos-aren’t-they-all pirate leader. The visuals come to the rescue again, sunlight dives and torch-lit revels they felt like they’d escaped out a different book and really that was a shame. As was the army coming back like the Cavalry over the hill. The final denouement at least falls back into the pattern of the first half, so at least it ends on a satisfying note.

If that last paragraph sounds harsh it’s not meant to – overall I enjoyed the book immensely and it has such a distinctive feel in both the future it is presenting, and the existential qualities of its storyline, that it is hard to be engaged. A bit like I am Legend, it is doing its own thing regardless and that is to its eternal credit.

Next time: Every good reading list needs a good bit of Phillip K Dick, so upcoming is his contribution to this one – the wonderfully titled Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus. Earlier Reviews in this series can be found using the tag “Dark Futures” or the column name “Tolkien Gestures”.

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