Doctor Robert Kerans is part of a military mission into the heart of darkness. The mission has two aims. Firstly, to clear out any stragglers from the local population before the area becomes uninhabitable. And secondly, to map out the swamps and lagoons in anticipation of people being able to return one day. Meanwhile overgrown reptiles are flourishing in this jungle, sitting, watching and waiting until the people leave for good and nature can take over again.
Though the story seems to be set in one of the deepest, most remote parts of South America or South East Asia, this is actually London, several decades hence. A catastrophic solar storm has led to prolonged global warming. The polar ice caps have melted and sea levels are still rising. Equatorial regions are already a dead zone where nothing survives, and the tropics are moving ever northward. Civilisation moves ahead of it, shifting to within the now-temperate Arctic Circle.
The insufferable heat, tropical infections, solar radiation and isolation take their strain on the men on Kerans’s mission. Many start to suffer from recurring nightmares, and most bizarrely of all, they seem to be having the same one. Driven crazy, some of them start to wander off into the jungle. Kerans begins to believe these dreams are actually inherited memories, in the same way small birds inherently know that the silhouette of a hawk represents a threat. But with the whole world devolving back to the Triassic era, he’s curious what that will mean for man, who didn’t exist back then.
Much of the story takes place in a lagoon where the dome of London Planetarium can be seen submerged in the deep swampy green waters. Though the novel has all the trappings of a post-apocalyptic story, it’s actually very much mid-apocalypse, even if most of the characters are in denial about that. They make detailed maps of the lagoons with the expectation that they will be useful in future, that there will be someone left to use them, but there’s a general sense that man is facing extinction. This is not apocalypse-as-spectacle, befitting an epic disaster movie treatment, but very much a look at the psychological impact of an existential threat.
J G Ballard displays his love for Joseph Conrad quite openly, especially when some quite amoral characters (who have adapted a bit too well to changed circumstances) show up out of the jungle. His descriptions frequently suffer from being somewhat overwritten, as if he’s a bit too keen for his readers to imagine his settings exactly as he pictures them. But the result is a vivid world that doesn’t seem too surreal thanks to the dishevelled, flawed characters grounding it.