Artworking JG Ballard’s The Drowned World
‘Guided by his dreams, he was moving back into his emergent past, through a succession of ever stranger landscapes centred on the lagoon, each of which seemed to represent one of his own spinal levels.’
—JG Ballard, The Drowned World
On the surface The Drowned World reads like a sci-fi disaster story, but anyone who knows Ballard knows that JGB never dwells on surfaces for very long.
Before becoming explicitly ‘Ballardian’ JG Ballard used science fiction to communicate his brand of surrealism. There’s more than a hint of Max Ernst in those post-apocalyptic wetlands, and with Ballard a disaster is not always what it seems. He’ll take a universal catastrophe and make it personal. This could have been about global warming but presenting humanity as a victim of its own excesses would be way too simplistic, a tad moralistic and not much of a story. In The Drowned World the reason for temperature increases and rising tides is almost perfunctory; increased solar flares. What really matters is the (potential for) alchemy, and Ballard has plenty of fun with that…
JG Ballard’s early character development, was famously lack-lustre. He was an ideas man and his players often suffered as a result. But his ideas were strong enough that they offered a different kind of identification — and not just for psychopaths (a little self-knowledge in the wrong hands can be dangerous). When Ballard makes us think harder and delve deeper into our darkness, we begin to mirror something lost, something previously hidden — something that might break or even make us. If his characters express some degree of victimhood it’s often a sign of impending transformation — or death — which in Ballard may amount to the same thing.
When Kerans decides to head south, to his certain end, he’s not giving up the ghost, he’s returning home. It’s our destiny he’s embracing. By sacrificing Kerans and proposing links between time, the body, evolution, and group consciousness, Ballard is throwing us a life-line. The least we can do is catch it… maybe even run with it a little, and assume some responsibility for investigating our darkness, our seeming capacity for self-destruction.
Perhaps this is about global warming after all…