Christopher Hitchens condemned multitudes: Henry Kissinger, the Clintons, aggressive sommeliers, God, even science fiction. The late critic loathed the stuff. But one day, friend and novelist Martin Amis delivered unto Hitchens a care package containing three works in the genre by the English writer J. G. Ballard. “Any one of these,” Hitchens later wrote, “would have done the trick.” A sci-fi skeptic had been converted.
One of Amis’s picks, The Drowned World, turned 60 this year. It helped launch not only Ballard’s career back in 1962 (the older Amis, Kingsley, loved it, too) but also a modern subgenre of sci-fi about climate disasters (later called “cli-fi”) that’s now almost as prevalent as carbon. Recent entries include Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel, The Ministry for the Future, Jon Raymond’s Denial, out this month, and the forthcoming story anthology Terraform.
But The Drowned World, one of several early Ballard novels about climate, is not concerned with raising its readers’ consciousness or sounding the alarm about humanity’s carelessness. In the novel, it is solar storms, not fossil fuels, that have warmed the Earth’s atmosphere, dissolved glaciers, and displaced vast quantities of silt. Europe and North America have become sweltering, half-submerged jungles, and what’s left of our species—about five million people—has retreated to the polar caps. The sub-tropical Arctic Circle now clocks in at a balmy 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the start of the book, a team of scientists has been mapping London, which is steeped in stagnant water. There’s room to stretch languidly out; Robert Kerans, the book’s protagonist, occupies a suite in the abandoned, half-submerged Ritz, “the rich blue moulds sprouting from the carpets in the dark corridors adding to its 19th-century dignity.” Solar radiation has had a curious impact: Kerans’s suite overlooks a lagoon rife with giant mosquitoes, bats, iguanas, and “freak botanical forms,” all resembling their prehistoric antecedents.
But when the scientists and their military escort are instructed to head north to avoid rising temperatures and storms, Kerans and a few colleagues find themselves oddly resistant to leaving—and decide to linger. They’ve acclimated to the drowned world; the solar radiation, it seems, has kicked up a layer of primordial silt in their minds.
There’s a heavy-handed scene in Bruce Sterling’s otherwise fascinating 1994 cli-fi novel, Heavy Weather, in which someone wonders aloud, “When do you think the human race conclusively lost control over its own destiny?”—prompting other right-thinking characters to reel off various real-world culprits, including wars and failures of political will.
But there’s no such moralizing in Ballard; his approach is as cool as a pair of calipers. Asked by an interviewer if there was a “moral purpose” to his work, Ballard replied, “I am not sure about that. I see myself more as a kind of investigator, a scout who is sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not.”
Robert Kerans, the book’s protagonist, occupies a suite in the abandoned, half-submerged Ritz, “the rich blue moulds sprouting from the carpets in the dark corridors adding to its 19th-century dignity.”
In one of The Drowned World’s many stunning set pieces, a looter named Strangman is draining one of London’s lagoons in search of sunken treasure. Kerans’s colleague Beatrice is horrified at the result:
“She gazed out at the emerging city, an expression of revulsion on her tense face, physically repelled by the sharp acrid smells of the exposed water-weeds and algae, the damp barnacled forms of rusting litter. Veils of scum draped from the criss-crossing telegraph wires and tilting neon signs, and a thin coating of silt cloaked the faces of the buildings, turning the once limpid beauty of the underwater city into a drained and festering sewer.”
One reads The Drowned World with dread and then, increasingly, fascination: it’s hard not to find Ballard’s contemporary ruins and irradiated jungles seductive. Ballard has suggested that the sight of annual floods in Shanghai might have inspired the novel’s landscape. During World War II, he spent part of his childhood in a Shanghai internment camp, which became the setting of his best-known book, the 1984 novel Empire of the Sun. “I remember looking from our camp, Lunghua, eight miles out, towards the French concession which occupied the south half of the city,” he once recalled. “I would see the apartment houses rising from these great sheets of water.” Primal memories appear to have propelled the author as well as his characters.
Ballard, who died in 2009, is less a prophet than, as Hitchens came to consider him, “our great specialist in catastrophe.” Like Kerans, “a second Adam” in the book’s closing beats, The Drowned World stands uneasily near the start of a lineage. It won’t compel you to curb your carbon emissions, but it will keep you reading. Come on in, says the catastrophist. The water’s fine.