When I first got my Kindle a year ago, and before I got side-tracked by fantasy (thank you George R R Martin!), I set out to read the top 100 sci-fi books I found on an internet list somewhere. Fortunately for my bank balance, very few of them were then available for the Kindle, but this was one of the ones I downloaded, which has been waiting patiently in my 'to read' folder ever since.
This was first published in 1962, and has held up pretty well, on the whole. This is largely because it's far more on the fiction end of the spectrum than the science; in fact, it's really speculative fiction, I would say. The science is all a bit arm-wavy - the atmosphere is no longer protecting the earth from the full power of the sun, overwhelming the planet with heat and radiation, melting the ice caps and hurling the planet back into a steamy Triassic jungle populated with giant prehistoric-style plants and reptiles. And all this within a generation or two. But the reasons are beside the point. Ballard is much more interested in the psychological effects on humans of this sudden regression to an earlier age, and speculates that the mind will, if allowed, also regress, dredging up shared tribal memories.
This leads to some frankly weird behaviour on the part of virtually all the characters, as they fall into a passive dream-like state, or insanity (or perhaps both). There is a curious disconnect between the lassitude experienced by many of them (partly because of the overwhelming heat, and partly the need to feel the resonance of the distant past), and the bursts of frenetic activity. The protagonist, in particular, spends much of his time lying about, half-asleep and half-awake, too exhausted to move, and at one point is supposedly close to death, yet when the plot requires it he can climb fifteen stories, or clamber all over a boat, or run through deep silt. So a great deal of suspension of disbelief is required.
But realism is not the point. The book is an examination into ideas of consciousness and deep-rooted memories, and the plot, with its bizarre but still strangely wooden characters, is no more than a vehicle for that. And the long, beautifully drawn descriptions of the newly created (and still evolving) environment are exquisite. The suffocating heat, the exotic plant-life, the giant iguanas and snakes, the silted-up city streets with their abandoned buildings and cars, mostly deep under water (the drowned world of the title) - all of these come to life in an astonishingly effective manner. Three stars.