Some of the most successful science fiction has gone back to the past in imagining the future. 2001 a Space Odyssey starts in the earliest days of human history before catapulting out to a space station in Earth orbit. Jurassic Park brings back dinosaurs. Then of course, there’s Back to the Future.
J.G Ballad’s story The Drowned World is an archetypal story of the future that includes a vision of the past. The sun has become hotter, creating a flooded, tropical Earth. The climate has returned to a state that prevailed during the Triassic period. Human survivors of this watery apocalypse find themselves drifting back in dreams to an earlier incarnation of life on Earth. Life has a buried memory of all that has gone before, and those buried memories begin to emerge during sleep.
This is a great premise for a story that can range from past to future. I would also say that the idea has biological accuracy. I once read a book by the evolutionary theorist and writer Lynn Margullis tracing the echoes of ancient life in our own cells. She points out, for example, that the salt balance of human tissue fluids mimics the salt balance of the ancient ocean from which life first emerged onto the land. (See Microcosmos by Lynn Margullis for more.)
So this is a fascinating scenario for a book, which in many ways is poetically explored. There are a few downsides, however. The dialogue between the characters can be that of “British schoolteachers hoisted out of the 1930s”, as Martin Amis puts it in an introduction. The middle part of the story, centred on an evil looter, also becomes very conventional – the rescue of a damsel in distress trapped in the bad guy’s lair. The damsel herself is vapid and lifeless, trying to hang on to the superficial cosmetics of her former self, even as she sinks into her Triassic dreams. All of the characters, for that matter, are somewhat two-dimensional.
Then again, Ballard is a clever writer who uses conventional structure while giving it a twist. The conventional part of the story coincides with people trying to hang onto a world that has gone – during a section when the evil looter drains part of flooded London. In this way it’s as if the creaky old world emerges from the flood in hackneyed old plot devices. As for the characters, Will Self makes an interesting suggestion in an essay written for the reissue of The Drowned World in 2013. Self writes that Ballard is not creating characters in the normal sense, with backstories designed to make us identify with them and read on. Instead, these are archetypes of people responding to change. Some are vigorous in their resistance, wanting to hang onto what they know. Others are accepting, waiting to see what the new situation will bring. The damsel in distress is a combination of these reactions. In that sense The Drowned World is more of a myth or a fairy story than a novel, despite aspects of the novel that are straight out of the Ian Fleming style of writing.
I don’t know if I buy this idea entirely, but I buy it enough to see that this is a fascinating book, interesting more for what lies beneath the water than for what floats on the top.