Science fiction and fantasy

Cover of The Drowned World

The Drowned World

by J. G. Ballard

Written in the early 1960s, J. G. Ballard's novel of an overheated world seems uncannily prescient. Back then global warming wasn't a topic on everyone's lips, but his descriptions of rising sea levels, fierce storms and ever-rising temperatures seem to caricature our current situation.

It is a case of predicting the right disaster for the wrong reasons, since in this novel increased solar activity has caused the Earth to warm up. It's an accident of nature, entirely beyond the realm of mankind's responsibility or ability to fix. Many of the characters in The Drowned World are struck by a kind of resigned torpor as a result of this. The fate of humanity is out of their hands.

Robert Kerans is staying beside a lagoon in what was once London, now overrun by swamps and suitable only for iguanas. He is supposed to be monitoring the new flora and fauna that have moved in. He's staying in the Ritz, although the heat, humidity and insects are so intense that it's hardly the luxurious holiday that the hotel's name implies. But his work seems pointless. Temperatures are still rising, and the writing is on the wall for mankind.

Not that there will be anyone to read this or any writing in the future. People have fled to the poles to escape the heat and flood waters, and the human population is dwindling. Those who choose to remain in the lost cities face a multitude of hazards including malaria and radiation sickness from the increasingly intense sun. The author describes this environment in vivid detail, with lingering scenes that only just manage to stay on the right side of florid.

Kerans is accompanied by a small group of scientists and military personnel. They are planning to leave the area as the human-habitable parts of the Earth shrink year by year. However a creeping madness is affecting some of the group, manifesting itself in strange dreams and unsafe behaviour. As the landscape returns to the way it was during the Triassic period it is as though people are also returning mentally to that era.

On one level The Drowned World is an allegory full of references to rebirth and Biblical beginnings. The main character is often given to languid navel-gazing, preoccupied with "his emergence into the brighter day of the interior, archaeopsychic sun", and so on. This is a novel heavy on metaphor, and with literary pretensions that it struggles to live up to.

However, the self-obsessed journeying into the past and towards the inner self is tempered by some of the more venal characters with their more immediate concerns. Strangman is something of a rogue: quirky, cruel, piratical and fickle, he is rooted firmly in the here and now and is more interested in looting and partying than anything else. He livens the story up, injecting it with a purpose and sense of danger that allows Kerans to develop as a character. This ensures that The Drowned World always moves ahead at a reasonable pace, that it's an adventure as well as a metaphor. So in spite of a certain tendency to dwell too long on symbolism and to take itself too seriously, this novel works. It's an intriguing and thoughtful novel which manages to layer several levels of meaning into a captivating narrative.

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

Book Details

Decade: 1960s

Categories: Books
Science fiction

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