Sunday, 6 July 2008

Page Turners: The Drowned World

Our Page Turners book for July was The Drowned World, by JG Ballard. It's a 1963 Science Fiction novel set in a world where solar flares/radiation have caused dramatic climate change leading to the melting of the polar ice caps. The seas have risen, coastlines have changed owing to massive silt deposits, and tropical jungles have encroached further and further north/south.

Dr Robert Kerans is a scientist attached to a military team based in one of the abandoned 'drowned' cities. He is living in the penthouse suite of the Ritz hotel -- it and all other buildings are sunk into the jungle up to around the 7th floor. He's having a relationship with a woman, Beatrice Dahl, who didn't evacuate, and despite a military order for the whole entourage to leave for the north, he decides to remain behind with her (although not for romantic reasons) and his fellow scientist, Dr Bodkin. Before the military leave, one of their pilots, Hardman, goes crazy and escapes south to where the radiation is dangerously high, and Kerans find himself empathising with this. Some weeks later, a group of scavengers led by the unpredictable Strangman, who keeps a flock of sentinel crocodiles, arrives to shake everything up. In the very end, Kerans finds himself on his own crazy journey south, seeking paradise.

In truth, the storyline is very difficult to describe. Just about every character has 'gone troppo', owing to the searing temperatures they're experiencing. The writing is extremely circular, making it difficult to make sense of anything, a feature we decided was intentional. This was not a book to rush through. There are many layers of meaning, although I confess not all of them were apparent to me!

One key theme of the book was the idea of regression of civilisation. This was not limited to social aspects, although these were rife. The Drowned World, being Sci-Fi, actually played with the idea of physical regression/transmutation/evolution, to the point that flora and fauna reminiscent of the Triassic period had emerged as dominant, plus (possibly) the devolution of humans with the formation of gills etc. Part of this involved the idea of cellular memory and a collective consciousness -- as the characters went crazy, they all started having the same dream.

We had an animated discussion about this book, because there is an awful lot to interpret and different people saw different things in it.From my personal point of view, I respect the book more having had our discussion. I finished the book frustrated, having just 'not got it'. I didn't understand any of the character motivations, felt no emotion from any of them, and found the writing style pretentious to the max. It just didn't hit any of my buttons and I didn't care what happened.

This made me ponder the well-coined phrase: "Science Fiction is literature of the mind; Fantasy is literature of the heart".

This is most definitely a 'mind' novel, which is not where I usually choose to read. However, after hearing what other people got out of it, and being exposed to different interpretations, I get more out of it as well. It's a classic case of feeling enriched after a group discussion. There is a lot in this book if one chooses to take the slightly mad journey!

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