As you read this book you can almost feel the heat and are scared to look up at the sun as the destructive nature of solar power is described in a way that is almost prophetic.
Ballard sets the story in a world where the polar ice caps have melted and the oceans have risen and London is underwater with just the tops of the buildings visible and liveable.
In that environment a biological and military team are collecting samples before following the rest of the global population to the only cool place at the pole. But the power of the sun, the power of nature to regain a manmade environment and the primeval urge that some people experience makes it a battle to leave.
Add to that mental strain, with the dreams of a primeval world, the letargy caused by heat and it becomes a life of crablike scuttles in the heat from building to building, lagoon to lagoon.
At the heart of the story is a biologist Kerans who is not sure if he will leave. He escapes the moment when the military crew depart and is left with a fellow biologist Bodkin and a rather cold woman Beatrice Dahlo, who seems determined to cling to her apartment. Her selfishness is one of the potential responses that an individual could have to the situation.
Another is to take Bodkin’s path and be lost in a haze of sentimentality and longing for the drowned world that can still be glimpsed below the water but not recaptured.
At that point it feels like a very well written short story that could have ended with a question mark but Ballard introduces the bizarre and frightening character of Strangman who has the technology to drain parts of the city and return London to its pre drowned state. He is fighting the drowning world.
That throws up the biggest challenge to those unsure of where to go. The ghostly world of the past potentially could restore them but it makes the moment of choice even more inevitable. Either you fight nature or you abandon yourself to it.
That choice, set against a brilliantly described world or water, crocodiles and heat, is so well played out that even at the end you are not quite sure what Kerans will do. Having made that choice the reader is given a glimpse with the discovery of a character Hardman who previously made the escape towards the equator what lies ahead. Despite that Kerans carries on South and carries onto the point where he will join nature and the drowned world in every sense.