The Drowned World by JG Ballard – Review

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Robert Kerans lives in a haze. Heat and self-imposed isolation have his brain turning on itself, twisting into patterns foreign to modern civilisation. London seems to be going backwards in time, becoming engulfed by lizards and enormous plant-life. A world which he is too young to remember is being eaten by a world he is eons too late for.

And then there’s that drumming in his ears, calling him South…

One of the things that  intrigued me about The Drowned World was that if it came out now, its basic premise could cause it to be dismissed by as an on-the-nose and melodramatic eco-parable. Yet here it is, a climate change novel from more than fifty years ago. He had the freedom to go full-throttle about a topic many modern fiction writers would never touch with this sense of inventiveness for fear of seeming insensitive.

Ballard’s prose is evocative of eras long past, lagoons and heat and reptiles, and the post-apocalypse he’s created is an intriguing one. It’s more of a world long forgotten than one created by, say, nuclear war. This novel is, however, a product of its time, for both good and bad. There’s an interesting way in which the fading world acts as a stand in for the British empire: good. The only female character is paper-thin: bad. There’s fascinating conjecture on evolution and the primal nature of humanity: very good! It’s at times painfully colonial, bordering on racist: very, very bad.

It’s also painfully uneven. The first half dry, uneventful but occasionally fascinating hard sci-fi. The second half is some sort of absurd and pre-Lynchian fever dream, which an incredibly powerful ending that has some of the best imagery I’ve read this year. If you can grit your teeth and make it through the bumps in the road, the final pages will justify the time you spent with Ballard here.

The next time you’re cold, pick up The Drowned World. It’s an intense experience which will evoke both heat and an age best buried and leave you glad when there’s snow still falling.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe – Review

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“I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.”

The Shadow of the Torturer is an interesting but frustratingly inconsistent book. After a morbid tone for over one-hundred and fifty pages, with musings on the universe and the indifference to horrors such as torture which can be habituated during childhood, the narrator suddenly has a ridiculous monster-cart race through the centre of the city with a horny peasant girl. This was not a smooth or enjoyable tone shift.

Every time something in the novel impressed me it was followed by something objectionable: the world is imaginative while the characters feel stale; the setting is fascinating, but the plotting is tedious; the writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, while the characters are anything but.

Men and women come across as fundamentally disconnected from events that are unfolding around them, and I don’t think this was a narrative trick to make a point. They react with mute fascination and then swiftly move on from whatever trauma has been inflicted on them just to keep the plot rolling; they become horny instantly because Wolfe would like a sex scene, not because it might be an appropriate human reaction.

The universe of The Shadow of the Torturer is fascinating, and the society we’re introduced to really feels like it could have been around for millennia. It ends up seeming like a hollow ruin instead of a city, however, because it’s inhabited by broad caricatures instead of believable people.

 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin


“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”

This was recommended to me due to how much I like Margaret Atwood, which meant I went in with high expectations. Unfortunately, it just felt too dry to be to my taste in science fiction. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and I’m glad I read it as I can’t remember anything else quite like it. I just never became truly invested in what was happening.On a frozen planet of sexless androgynists, an envoy from another world arrives offering them membership in an interstellar partnership. In the wrong hands a premise like this could come across as a wacky “Planet of Hats” (re:TvTrope) attempt at hamfisted political exploration, but Le Guin has an impressive take on the actual ramifications of a society like this.

While The Left Hand of Darkness raises a number of interesting issues, I never grew all that invested in the story. The only part which I don’t think will meld together in my mind into a long description of dry conversations in cold rooms is an exciting expedition over a country-long stretch of ice.

The prose was at times thoughtful and measured, but everything moves along at a weird pace. The diary format results in the description of events like an attack on a farm lacking tension, which works in some moments as there is a lot of stuff to take in, and this allows for enormous exposition dumps without feeling too forced. But I only ever grew attached to one character, Estraven, and during the rest of the novel I felt like I was watching a slow-paced documentary. The subjects were interesting, and there were some intelligent observations made, but everything felt detached. I’d recommend it to people who are more interested in world-building than I am, though.