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The Drowned World

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First published in 1962, J.G. Ballard's mesmerizing and ferociously prescient novel imagines a terrifying future in which solar radiation and global warming have melted the polar ice caps and Triassic-era jungles have overrun a submerged and tropical London. Set during the year 2145, the novel follows biologist Dr. Robert Kerans and his team of scientists as they confront a surreal cityscape populated by giant iguanas, albino alligators, and endless swarms of malarial insects. Nature has swallowed all but a few remnants of human civilization, and, slowly, Kerans and his companions are transformed—both physically and psychologically—by this prehistoric environment. Echoing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness—complete with a mad white hunter and his hordes of native soldiers—this "powerful and beautifully clear" (Brian Aldiss) work becomes a thrilling adventure and a haunting examination of the effects of environmental collapse on the human mind.

198 pages, Paperback

First published June 30, 1962

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About the author

J.G. Ballard

440 books3,587 followers
James Graham "J. G." Ballard (15 November 1930 – 19 April 2009) was an English novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Ballard came to be associated with the New Wave of science fiction early in his career with apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels such as The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966). In the late 1960s and early 1970s Ballard focused on an eclectic variety of short stories (or "condensed novels") such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), which drew closer comparison with the work of postmodernist writers such as William S. Burroughs. In 1973 the highly controversial novel Crash was published, a story about symphorophilia and car crash fetishism; the protagonist becomes sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car crashes. The story was later adapted into a film of the same name by Canadian director David Cronenberg.

While many of Ballard's stories are thematically and narratively unusual, he is perhaps best known for his relatively conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy's experiences in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War as it came to be occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. Described as "The best British novel about the Second World War" by The Guardian, the story was adapted into a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg.

The literary distinctiveness of Ballard's work has given rise to the adjective "Ballardian", defined by the Collins English Dictionary as "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments." The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes Ballard's work as being occupied with "eros, thanatos, mass media and emergent technologies".

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,409 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book82k followers
January 26, 2020

Although today J.G. Ballard is perhaps better known as the author of two books which became major films—Spielberg's Empire of the Sun and Cronenberg's Crash —he was first praised for a quaternity of post-apocalyptic novels published in the early '60's. The Drowned World (1962), the second book in this series—as well as Ballard's second published novel—was greatly admired by readers of speculative fiction and caused Ballard to be considered one of the great lights of the “New Wave.”

The Drowned World is often described as a sci-fi version of Heart of Darkness, but if so, it is a topsy-turvy take on the Conrad classic. The world is warming due to an atmospheric erosion caused by events in the sun, and a heat-wave, accompanied by floods, is moving slowly toward the poles. With the heat comes a luxuriance of tropical vegetation, reminscent of the Jurassic period; it seems the Heart of Darkness has come to Old England, not the other way round. When Kurtz (here ”Strangman”) arrives from the south in a motorized yacht filled with dark henchman, he is no spent madman expelling a last breath, but an energetic, grinning sociopath intent on looting the last waterlogged treasures of London.

The plot is merely serviceable, the character development sketchy, but plot and character are beside the point. What is important here is setting and theme, perfectly realized by Ballard's precise yet poetic prose. His descriptions--of the pitiless sky, of a ghostly submerged observatory, of the flooded streets of London rife with gargantuan plants, and of a collective nightmare where iguana calls to iguana through an eternal tropical forest--remain in memory long after the book is done.

Of course, for those enlightened enough to believe in global warming, this is scary stuff, and close attention to Ballard's themes make it into something even scarier. He postulates a world where extreme climate change may act not only upon our superficial behaviors but also upon the neurological structures of the brain. Could the heat and wetness of an atavistic jungle awake the ancient reptile within? Are the iguanas of our dreams calling to each other? Or are they calling to us?
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
August 8, 2019
”The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turned the dead leaden surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield. By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn.”

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Solar radiation has melted the polar ice caps, and the oceans have risen to engulf most of the major cities of Europe and America. These cities have become tropical lagoons with only the upper floors of the tallest building sticking up out of the water and silt. Flora and fauna baked by radiation have grown to enormous sizes reminiscent of the Triassic era.

A team of scientists have come to investigate and analyze the changes that have occurred in London since humans were forced to flee North. Some of the members of the team start to have strange, primordial dreams.

”’What are these nightmares you’ve having?’

Beatrice shrugged. ‘Jungle dreams, Robert,’ she murmured ambiguously. ‘I’m learning my ABC again. Last night was the delta jungles.’ She gave him a bleak smile, then added with a touch of malicious humour: ‘Don’t look so stern, you’ll be dreaming them too, soon.’”

Ballard explains what is happening to the scientists with a bit more detail beyond just calling them jungle dreams.

”Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs… Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

Beatrice Dahl is a beautiful woman made more lovely by the fact that she is the only female on the expedition. She has found an exquisite apartment that with the help of a generator still has air conditioning and ice. She has a sexual relationship with Dr. Robert Kerans, but she seems rather apathetic about her lover. Of course, it could be the heat.

Temperatures climb to 140 degrees by midday.

There is a Max Ernst painting on the wall of Beatrice’s apartment, and the longer they are there, the more the painting reminds Kerans of the real world.

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I wonder if the Max Ernst painting was something like this.

As the day approaches that they will have to leave, Robert and Beatrice become more convinced that they are going to stay. It doesn’t make any logical sense. Within a matter of months they would be out of fuel to drive the air conditioning and food would begin to be a problem, but the desire to stay and become part of their jungle dreams clutters their thoughts.

This novel has a Conradian feel, specifically one of my favorite books Heart of Darkness, so Ballard had my attention from the very first page.

I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic books, and J.G. Ballard was obsessed with the worlds that are created by the chaos of destruction. The characters in this novel go against the norm for post-apocalyptic novels. They aren’t resisting the apocalypse. They are intent on joining it. The novel becomes even stranger when some scavengers show up led by the pale, thin man aptly named Strangman.

Ballard explores the urges that are normally repressed by civilized human beings. The call of the wild is in our DNA. When we are dipped in the primordial soup of a tropical lagoon, we feel the need to escape the bondages of civilization. Something on a cellular level is telling us that we are missing the fundamental purposes of life. Kerans is intent on escaping the clutches of all that is trying to bind him and head South into the uncertainty of a new world.

 photo Drowned20World20Kerans_zpsz42aaley.jpg

”His commitment to the future, so far one of choice and plagued by so many doubts and hesitations, was now absolute.”

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews928 followers
March 4, 2020
Image result for ballard drowned world

The Drowned World is my first JG Ballard novel, but it won't be my last. Civilization is swallowed up by encroaching oceans. The lavish scenes of nature reclaiming the world belie the apocalyptic overtones. Life is shown adapting to a period on earth comparable to the Triassic Period. That is, all forms of life (including plants) adapt to the changing world except for man. People seem out of place even alien in the newly formed landscapes. De-evolved nature is inhospitable to man; it feels like man is being kicked out of paradise, but now with nowhere to go. Aspects of this book reminded me of Annihilation, but I'm sure I could find lots of novels influenced by Ballard's work. Not sure which Ballard novel to read next, but they'll make it onto my to-read list soon.
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
469 reviews3,258 followers
February 24, 2021
The future looks grim as the relentless Sun's rays beat down on poor old Earth of the 22nd century , hotter and hotter the temperature rises and the polar ice caps begin to melt causing the tides to come in but will not stop inundating the hapless citizens of the saturated world as the waters hundreds of feet high fall they cannot survive the crushing weight and are breathing their last mouthful of air so much destruction buildings collapse and vanish beneath the wetness, civilization ceases to be as a few million travel north when the oncoming rains engulf the land most disappear under the liquid death. The restless Dr. Robert Kerans a fine biologist is investigating the catastrophe... London lies silently under the sea the former great city looks like a ghostly mirage a few air bubbles float up the eerie sight sends goose bumps to the scientists from northern Greenland as alligators swim around in a space originally meant for streets full of cars , iguanas inhabit all the dry land, now seaweed thrives the new masters at the bottom, constantly growing. An old era has come back the Triassic, steaming jungles spreading their leaves forward in the rare islands on the surface not minding the intensity they feel quite comfortable. The biologist has a girlfriend who imbibes, Beatrice Dahl living in a towering penthouse but can't escape reality no matter how many drinks she takes, the bottles pile- up, Kerans sees the slow devastation however nothing he says changes the actions of the woman she needs alcohol to refresh her spirits and that will end existence , the nasty ocean continues its upward climb soon reaching here. Colonel Riggs a tough man with a heart and a few soldiers guards the site, as savages, roaming marauders kill anyone in their way the only importance is to survive , anything else is superfluous.The soldiers leave yet Kerans, Dahl and another biologist Alan Bodkin stay , they like the chaotic atmosphere and freedom, can't be persuaded to exit as Lieutenant Hardman also did fleeing into the dense jungle. What about the bands of criminals not to worry they arrive quickly enough their leader Strangman like his name is strange, enjoying wild ritualistic insane dances before the inevitable noxious deeds.The three friends need much skill to not go under the liquid then become just another piece of jetsam, food for the very ravenous fish . The story while imaginative, the plot loses its way, Mr. Ballard focus too, he has much to say about the universe but is unclear, still this is worth reading for the premise alone, how would you react to the new situation, be a survivor or a casualty the best option is it may never happen.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
June 8, 2019
Goodbye to All That

The end of the British Empire was not a sudden event, more a slow burn over decades. For many around the world, its progress was masked by the rather more terrifying facts of the Cold War and its potential for the destruction of life on Earth. Nonetheless the disintegration of the Empire was not without its loss, in the opinion of some, to global culture. But how to express such a sentiment without jingoistic intimations of sour grapes? A fiction about the effects of global warming and the retreat of civilisation might do the trick. The British Empire is the eponymous Drowned World or I’m an evangelical Republican.

In 1962 global warming would have been considered an entirely natural, and non-political, phenomenon, not one brought on by industrial development but a condition brought about by ‘circumstances.’ Ballard was not scientifically prescient; he was establishing a vaguely plausible process by which the world order was undergoing rapid transformation.

So global warming serves nicely as a subtle metaphor for the twilight of the accidental realm on which the sun had not set for two centuries or so - the British Empire. Just as accidentally it was being destroyed - progressively from the South - and bit by bit returned to its ‘primitive’ state. London, the nerve-centre of this global government, is literally submerged along with the rest of the ‘developed world’, that is to say the Northern hemisphere. There is more here than an account of change. There is a judgment that what is happening is unfortunate, retrograde, and purely destructive.

The characters that Ballard presents are the ‘types’ of imperial decline. Riggs is the stalwart old colonial hand who still dresses for dinner and knows the responsibilities imposed by duty. Kerans on the other hand, along with many others, is seduced by the allure of the jungle, its heat, and its vegetative fecundity - not to mention its rather looser moral code. Beatrice is (literally) the entire indigenous population - beautiful but somewhat resentful and slightly mad. Kerans is in love with Beatrice but both know that they really can’t live together happily: “their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams.”

The climate itself is causing an evolutionary regression which is irresistible except by those with real cultural backbone. It is not only the flora and fauna which are adapting to new conditions. The most primitive parts of the human nervous system, the reptilian brain, have been activated by these same conditions. To survive it is necessary for human beings to ‘go native,’ that is to climb back down the evolutionary ladder. The only alternative is to rapidly retreat to the healthier environment of the Mother Country. This is located in the relatively cool North of course, where cohesive government and advanced technology are still in control.

The retreat of imperial government officials like Riggs creates a power vacuum which is quickly filled by commercial pirates who are interested in profiting from the new ecosystem of now-defenceless territories. The freebooter Strangman is the leader of gang of black treasure-hunters, portrayed in barely concealed racist language as without either aesthetic taste or good manners (the racism made rather more explicit by references to the oxymoronic “black sun” which is the ultimate source of the global malaise). They loot and vandalise entirely without appreciation of the value of what they acquire and desecrate. Clearly they already occupy that inferior evolutionary niche to which the white ‘remainers’ are attracted in their dreams.

Strangman pursues Beatrice with an sort of vulgarity equalled in his plundering, showering her with jewels and booze. Kerans‘s response is not one of affectionate jealousy but alienated suicide, a desire to dissolve himself in the Triassic miasma in which he finds himself rather than confront the fate of his beloved - a post-colonial head-in-the-sand response par excellence. Strangman meanwhile restores a sort of quasi-order by draining part of the encroaching swamp. Just enough really to complete his stripping any remaining assets. This reveals a travesty of the old civilisation, the decaying remnants of submerged, long-defunct institutions are now useless ruins. “I'm afraid the magic has gone,” Kerans admits to Beatrice. Indeed it had, but for Beatrice the magic had died many years before.

But violence is still necessary, apparently as a sort of residual obligation of civilisation. Bodkin, the aloof intellectual (no doubt a Lefty), tries to destroy the Strangman regime by blowing it up. He’s ineffectual, of course, and himself ends up dead. Tempted by wealth and opulence, Beatrice is saved by Kerans on the brink of being ravaged by Strangman. Kerans‘s pluck and inherent sense of righteousness have overcome his retrograde evolution, at least temporarily.

With the aplomb of a Flashman, he eludes the evil black mob long enough to see the arrival of Riggs and his trusted Sergeant Major, McCready, at the head of an armed force (my vision is of Richard Attenborough as RSM Lauderdale in the 1964 film Guns at Batasi) . They have returned to intervene in the uncivilised chaos. It was their duty, indeed their burden, as Mr. Kipling said.

But ultimately, Kerans no longer fits either with the local culture of Beatrice or with the civilisation Riggs represents.* He is an outcaste, a man without a country. He has devolved into an inferior species, less than human, who lives “in the South” with the other relics of Empire. He is a lesson to us all about what we will become if we forget our roots in a ‘civilised’ society. The triumph of the South is an unqualified disaster for the planet. Farewell Britannia.

*Ballard describes Kerans as having a “lean ebony body.” I doubt this refers to a healthy suntan. He is setting the character up for his consignment to inevitable racial inferiority.

Postscript: Because I found it strange that few reviewers took Ballard’s apparent racism seriously, I put a comment on a number of reviews: “I think you may have missed the import of this story which is profoundly racist at its core.”

While many responded positively, there were also many who found my remark insulting, sometimes profoundly so, even after my protestations and apologies. For example, as one respondent writes: “Oh you weren't trying to be insulting when you said to me. I think you may have missed the import of this story ? I would hate to see what you would say to a veteran reader such as myself if you were REALLY trying to insult me... Manners is something people seem to forget when they are online under an assumed name.”

So live and learn. Human beings are far more variable than one expects. The tendrils of racism are transparently thin but incredibly strong. Our ability to rationalise them seems infinite. Most commentators aver Ballard’s purported emulation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the literary reason for the ‘savage’ tone of The Drowned World. I don’t buy it. The book is about much more than the incidental use of dialect. And its relation to Conrad’s work is in any case questionable. It is self-evidently a statement of a world-view that is inherently grounded in racial superiority (and/or some really bad pseudo-sci-fi).

It’s one thing to recognise the potential for alternative interpretations of a piece of literature in the abstract. But sometimes what gets revealed through interpretation is almost mystically misdirected to avoid the obvious. And that revelation of the reviewer is often merely one of unjust prejudice. The Drowned World is a case in point. It doesn’t simply depict the incidental mores of the time. It is a lament for the loss of white supremacy in the world. Treating such casual racism casually, especially when it is exhibited so publicly, is reprehensible.
Profile Image for Fabian.
957 reviews1,624 followers
June 13, 2018
Oh, what's left to be said about J. G. Ballard? If you have yet to enter his cult, his realm--please do so soon. The man is dead, and so his sea of work is a limited lake--of placid doom, of absolute apocalypse. He is often imitated--M. Crichton & the new "Annhilation/Southern Reach" trilogy guy come to mind, but he is as unique a literary voice as any of the greats. He is, actually, currently under Canonization negotiations by the Crazy Cray-cray Literary Canon.

Oh, this dude is inspiring. In "The Drowned World", the prehistoric meets the apocalyptic, & the dioramas Mr. Ballard brilliantly forms for us are just so staggeringly real, that I hate the fact that this is not a screenplay. Although the lack of dialogue, & perhaps the clichéd villain and villain's plot overall, make it no better than some of his weaker short stories*--all immersive, all absolutely extraordinary, but still. I wholly love "Crash," "High-Rise," "Empire of the Sun" (which seems to me the most apocalyptic of all his novels, although it's set in W.W.II), and consider his complete short story collection to be one of the best of all time (its entire 1100 or so pages). There is a heftiness of prose here, and the description is so cinematic that, like I mentioned, I found the medium to be more suitable for a rip-roarin' script. The environment is so lush that it reminds one of "Fantasia," or "Jurassic Park", or other cool concoctions of the child-like imagination. It will remain in your subconscious as a worthwhile deposit. As a glorious cancer made of amethyst...

Let's just get this dude up on his deserved pedestal.

*they are few
Profile Image for Robin.
495 reviews2,736 followers
April 26, 2021
It's 2045 and due to the sun becoming unstable, Earth's temperatures have been rising to Triassic-era levels. Humans have fled to the arctic poles. Civilization as we know it has been heated up, and gradually covered - in water, in silt, in frighteningly fecund plant life. The animals that dominate are lizards, crocodiles and huge, malarial mosquitoes.

That's where this strange, apocalyptic novel starts. In a jungle that used to be a city. At first, I felt like I, too, was hacking through strangling vines and murky sludge. The text is so dense, almost entirely comprised of descriptive passages. My inadequate brain took a while to adjust to the style, requiring a slowing down, and re-reading of paragraphs, re-reading of sentences.

Because to miss a sentence here, friends, would be a bit of a tragedy.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, J.G. Ballard blew me away. I don't think I've read prose quite like this before. Something so alive, so wild, so technicolour, a true embodiment of the jungle. It's extraordinary. Look:

Although it was well after four o'clock, the sun filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blow-torch and forcing them to lower their eyes to the water-line. Now and then, in the glass curtain-walling of the surrounding building, they would see countless reflections of the sun move across the surface in huge sheets of fire, like the blazing facetted eyes of gigantic insects.


And here:

The deep cradle of silt carried him gently like an immense placenta, infinitely softer than any bed he had ever known. Far above him, as his consciousness faded, he could see the ancient nebulae and galaxies shining through the uterine night, but eventually even their light was dimmed and he was only aware of the faint glimmer of identity within the deepest recesses of his mind.

What about this? Seriously, what about this:

The last sunlight was fading over the water, the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon sun giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails. A slack oily swell disturbed the surface of the lagoon, the water clinging to the leaves of the ferns like translucent wax.

I could go on, and on, and on. Every page has a paragraph (or four) like this, which is where the pleasure lies for a reader like me. I fell for the genius description of Ballard's visionary world.

What I mean by "reader like me" is I don't usually go in for books that spend a lot of time in the depths of baroque descriptions. I am pulled in mainly by human psychology. Ballard doesn't seem terribly interested in people (the characterizations are non-existent). He's operating out of an intellectual idea, and the people are just puppets to act out said idea. I get what he's doing, and it seems very much inspired by Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but I don't think I could get on board if it weren't for this blow-my-mind writing, consistently and deliciously out of proportion, on every page of this 200 page novel.

The jungle haze causes Ballard's characters to behave in completely bewildering ways. Their lizard brains, spawned by ancient biological memory, strengthen with each white hot blast of heat from the insane ellipse of a sun. One moment living in the abandoned decaying luxury of the Ritz penthouse, next moment embracing the jungle with nothing but a few chocolate bars in hand.

Ballard brings his readers to this place, this nightmare world. What is worse, I wonder - the insufferable heat, the knowledge that it will never get better, the loss of everything once held dear? Or, the horrifying acceptance of it all?

So his descent into the phantasmagoric forest continued....
Profile Image for Ben.
184 reviews234 followers
March 28, 2008
Dull plotting.

Duller psychology.

Shallow characters.

Improbable coincidences galore.

Pretty racist.

And yet almost entirely saved by some great descriptive work in painting the submerged world.

Worth reading, barely.

Profile Image for Leonard Gaya.
Author 1 book937 followers
September 16, 2020
There is something special in Ballard’s Drowned World, and it is all about the setting: in the aftermath of some cataclysmic event, London has been turned into some prehistorical lagoon. Only the tops of the tallest buildings still emerge, half-swallowed up by the profuse tropical vegetation, and giant reptiles slither everywhere in the sultry swamps that have invaded the collapsing Westminster and Covent Garden. Even more surprising is that this is not some 21st-century SF novel taking advantage of the climate change and rise-in-the-sea-level trend: Ballard wrote this in the early 1960s.

This vision of a world after the apocalyptic flood would, alone, make a unique work of science fiction. In a way, this makes our Western world look like the mysterious ruins of ancient Chichen Itza, abandoned by men and engulfed by the primaeval jungle. The protagonist, troubled with doubts and nightmares and obsessed with Jungian psychology, is interesting enough. But, as Martin Amis pointed out in his introduction to the novel, the rest of the characters and plot — a sort of Treasure Island story, with an unoriginal pirate villain and a formulaic peach blond — feels somewhat artificial and futile, as if the author needed to stick it, like a veneer, on top of his prescient and petrifying vision of a drowned civilisation. Perhaps this had better remained within the bounds of a poem or a short story and got deeper into the character’s collapsing sense of Self.

This book, probably inspired by the mythical floods of Gilgamesh, Genesis and Atlantis, can be considered as the second instalment of Ballard’s post-apocalyptic “classical elements” series (from The Wind from Nowhere to The Crystal World). There are, in Ballard’s wordy sentences and convoluted storytelling, some hints of Conrad’s Nostromo and, incidentally, of Alejo Carpentier’s wonderful novel Los pasos perdidos. I am guessing Margaret Atwood was, in some way, influenced by J. G. Ballard when she wrote her The MaddAddam trilogy.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,621 reviews991 followers
July 27, 2023
Published in 1962, The Drowned World sees Ballard create a post climate crisis devastated overheated Earth. This is the tale of biologist Dr. Robert Kerans and his team as the venture out into the jungle ridden cityscape lush with vegetation and evolved life forms such as insect swarms and a new age of reptiles! Ballard's genius is on actually focusing on the effects of an environmental apocalypse on the mind as well as the body! 6 out of 12, Three Star drowning world read.

2010 read
Profile Image for Susan Budd.
Author 6 books226 followers
June 16, 2022
The Drowned World was my introduction to Ballard. I don’t know what I liked more: the lavishly described landscape with its swollen sun, primeval jungle, and shrieking iguanas or the inner landscape of recurring dreams, instinctive impulses, and psychological obsessions. It’s the combination of these two worlds—the outer and the inner—that give The Drowned World its depth and hypnotic air.

The outer world is described in such poetic prose that a narrative is nearly unnecessary. It is a “voodoo jungle” (27) with a “strange dream-like beauty” (30), “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past” (31), an “unending succession of green twilights” (31) surrounded by “the luminous, dragon-green, serpent-haunted sea” (70).

The world is undergoing a regression, a devolution to an earlier stage in Earth’s history. In this world of lagoons and equatorial heat, reptiles rule. It is a world without consciousness. This is the world to which Kerans and the others are adapting. This is the world in which each character finds himself in his dreams.

As each member of Kerans’ team succumbs to insomnia and isolation, dreams and déjà vu, the pull of the outer world on the inner world becomes stronger. Everything is sinking back into a pre-conscious state. This self-imposed isolation is “preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance” (25).

Dr. Bodkin offers a psychological theory for what is happening to them all. He explains to Kerans that the jungle dream they are all having is not a dream “but an ancient organic memory millions of years old” (89). All the bizarre behavior is the result of “being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs” (56).

Ballard’s prose is at its finest when he uses metaphor to merge the outer and inner worlds: “A more important task than mapping the harbours and lagoons of the external landscape was to chart the ghostly deltas and luminous beaches of the submerged neuronic continents” (58).

This is where I went from being spellbound by the prose to being fascinated by the theories of consciousness, dreams, and memory. As a poet and a philosopher, these are the areas that most intrigue me and inspire my creative work.

But for all my delight with the first half of Ballard’s novel, the second half left me wishing he had written it as a novella, leaving out the ninety or so pages about Strangman and his crew. The book didn’t need these action scenes. It already had atmosphere and ideas. I believe these chapters detract from the phantasmagoric quality of the novel. Yet they do have some redeeming value.

The behavior of Strangman’s crew is atavistic, primitive. It is the behavior of men only just emerging from their pre-conscious origins, their emerging consciousness still half-submerged in the swampy amniotic fluid of the collective human race—instinctual, tribal, and superstitious. But instead of evolving, Strangman’s men are devolving. Instead of emerging from their pre-conscious origins, they are slipping back into it.

Towards the end, the novel returns to the theme of isolation and the dream-like unreality that accompanies it. And this brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion. The “dormant magic and mesmeric power” (59) of The Drowned World has cast its spell over me.
Profile Image for Kathy.
475 reviews6 followers
March 16, 2012
Dear Kerans, Here's an idea - go up to Hampstead. It'll be dry there and you can walk about.

The first couple of chapters of this book are quite intriguing, but as soon as you realise that this is central London and the buildings aren't even fully submerged, you know that the rest of Britain IS STILL THERE. So why is everyone acting like the world has been drowned? Didn't JG Ballard have the first notion of physical geography? DUH! Schoolboy error. When London drowns, you can say goodbye to East Anglia, Holland, Belgium and Denmark, but most of the rest of Britain and mainland Europe won't even have it's feet wet. Birmingham, for example, is 140 metres above sea level. Go figure.

Even if you can get past that one, you will probably be tripped up by some other little problems - like there is no effort made to create plausible characters, the only woman is portrayed in a completely sexist way, the whole thing is deeply racist and nothing much happens - at great and tedious length. Or maybe it's that whatever happens seems to make you feel like you couldn't care less. In a world where men mess about in boats without any evident purpose. Detail. Detail. More and more descriptions of water and seaweed and silt. WHAT FOR? Just to bore me further and further out of my skull with the utter, utter tedium of this book.

If you're wondering whether to read this book, try this phrase:
'an unconscious acceptance of the logic of his own devolutionary descent, the ultimate neuronic synthesis of the archaeopsychic zero'.
If you yawned, or laughed or lost the will to live part way through, then please be warned that this book is chock-full of this kind of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Another alternative might be to try staring into a bucket of muddy water for a few hours. Bored? Well, this book isn't for you. A deeply depressing waste of ink and paper. I cannot think who would find this book of any interest in any way.


Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,732 followers
January 18, 2019
'Nothing endures so long as fear."
J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World


I promise God. I promise I've learned my lesson. I'll review these books sooner. I loved this book, dear God, but now I have to go back to my lizard brain memory to recall why. Oh, yeah, because nobody figured out our 21st-Century global clusterfuckery as early in the 1960s as J.G. Ballard (ok, perhaps PKD, or Pynchon). He seemed to be writing our nightmares now 50+ years ago. It is hard to read this and not feel strapped-on-squeezed between Heart of Darkness and some "global meltdown conference" on Global Warming (oh, Hell, was that another piece of the Antarctica that just banged into the ocean?). One of my favorite things about Ballard is even in the early 1960s the guy was the masterglazier of setting. I mean he could nail a swollen river with plants, iguanas, lagoons, alligators, and swollen biological memories. This book is a warm freakshowdream that oozes a dystopian anxiety hiding just around the corner.
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
September 29, 2015
J.G. Ballard, what an interesting author, they broke the mold when they made him. When I started reading sf in the 80s I had the impression that Ballard specializes in global ecological disaster scenario, what with The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World. A sort of go-to guy for a “dot-dot-dot World” apocalyptic fiction. Then I read Concrete Island and Empire of the Sun and realized Ballard cannot be pigeonholed so simply.

The Drowned Worldis one of his earlier novels from his apocalyptic phase. If you are looking for an ecological thriller where masses of people are stampeding away from a gigantic tidal wave, you will need to find a new tree to bark up. While there are some thrilling moments toward the end, on the whole, I would describe the mood of this book as contemplative. From the first chapter most the world has already been submerged, thanks to solar radiation that melted the polar ice-caps. This bit of hard sci-fi is quite well written in the book but subsequent to this exposition the novel is more concerned with the psychological impact on the main characters, particularly Dr. Robert Kerans, through whose point of view the (third person) narrative is focused.

For some reason, the environment of the flooded world is causing a gradual regression or devolution on the creatures living on it. People are having bizarre nightmares sparked by racial memories. Later on a piratical villain named Strangman shows up and the beginning of mankind’s mental devolution can be seen through him.

This is an intriguing, but not easy to read, book. Something about this book’s narrative tone comes across as rather detached and I could not feel much involvement in the plight of the characters. They are not uninteresting, but none of them is sympathetic. I wonder if this is typical of Ballard’s prose style. I have read a few of his books, but that was decades ago when I was in my teens and I cannot remember much about those books. I do know that he is not a sf author I ever find easy to read like Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, he is more akin to Le Guin though somewhat less accessible. There is clearly a literary quality to his writing and he often has me reaching for the dictionary.

The world of this book is quite vividly described, the image of the drowned cities is quite evocative, and the drained city even more so. There is an odd kind of beauty to it. There are mutated animals and giant insects in this book, but they are a part of the novel’s props rather than monstrosities to be battled.

The Drowned World is well worth reading as something unusual and unpredictable. It is one of those rare books that I enjoy more in retrospect when I think about it than while I was actually reading it. It certainly makes want me to read Crash and other Ballard novels I have read and forgotten about.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,137 followers
June 28, 2023
Whenever I read a Ballard novel I keep ping-ponging back and forth, as I read, between thinking 'oh gosh this is so over-the-top ridiculous,' and just plain 'wow.' Eventually I get lost in the vivid technicolor imaginings of these worlds, and surrender to them, and lose my sense of how to define 'ridiculous'. They are a little psychedelic. You need to surrender any sense of propriety or good taste to enter into them fully.

The Drowned World is my favorite so far. It feels like a silly mash-up of Heart of Darkness with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, complete with a lascivious-albino-nihilist-sadist-petty-dictator, a deformed black henchman armed with machetes and knives, and three virtuous White Folk, who are fighting the emergence of their reptile-brain memories while at the same time drinking excellent whiskey, wearing formal evening clothes, and trying to survive the steaming jungle swamps of post-global-warming London.

Both race and gender stereotypes abound but the story is so over-the-top that the novel feels like Ballard is poking fun at me for caring. Or maybe it feels like he is literally poking me. Or slapping me across the face. Or something.

The novel is at its best when Ballard paints a picture of London drowning in silt--no longer a city, but instead a series of lagoons, thick with ooze, and populated by iguanas and crocodiles and giant mosquitos.

The novel is at its hilarious, deeply readable worst whenever any humans come into the picture--here is a sample:

He started to walk towards the curtain when two of the strands parted fractionally, something moved with snake-like speed and a whirling silver blade three feet long cleft the air and spun towards his head like an immense scythe. Wincing with pain, Kerans ducked and felt the blade skim past his right shoulder, tearing a shallow three-inch weal, then impale itself with a steely shudder in the oad paneling behind him. Voice frozen in her throat, Beatrice backed wild-eyed into one of the occasional tables, knocking a chest of jewels across the floor.

Darn those occasional tables! They are always in the way!
Profile Image for Duane.
828 reviews433 followers
June 22, 2017
This was my introduction to J.G. Ballard. How to best describe this book? I would call it apocalyptic realism. I thought I invented that term until I looked it up, and yes it exists. It's an apocalyptic future that I can see happening, and I imagine it very much like Ballard does here, except my version is tied to climate change and his is caused by a changing sun. Also, it has an eerie similarity to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I'm certainly looking forward to reading more of Ballard's work.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
February 12, 2018
The Drowned World is one of four novels J. G. Ballard wrote about the same time about the environment. Published in 1962, it seems prophetic, in that it proposes that global warming would melt the polar ice caps, and the resulting raised sea level would drown cities. One interesting thing about the book is that the cause as Ballard has it in this book is that solar storms—known to affect Earth weather—become so severe that they scorch the planet. This theory roughly aligns with the current 1% (or right-wing, pro-biz) view that climate change (if it exists at all!) is not man-made, it’s just a part of What Happens. Ballard tries out the man-made theory in his next book, Drought (1964).

The Drowned World introduces us to Dr. Robert Kearns, as the world heats up. It’s 180 degrees at the equator, and in London, it approaches 130 degrees at each mid-day. The roughly five million remaining people in the world are mostly heading north, to the remaining Arctic and Antarctic circles, where the average temperature is 85 degrees. A group of military men connected to Kearns are heading north. Kerans, who has a kind of vague relationship with Beatrice, lives in the Ritz, tenth floor, though the rising water is at the seventh floor. They—and a fellow scientist, Dr Bodkin--decide to stay, though this is suicide, on some level.

They have some supplies, but the heat is getting unbearable, back to Triassic Age levels. Flora and fauna are burgeoning; animals such as iguanas and alligators are getting huge. The theory is that the combination of heat and more water would create a kind of hothouse effect, not hospitable for humans. Many of these folks also seem to be dreaming similar dreams, of swamps and lagoons from ages past, connecting as Ballard has it to the Collective Unconscious, a sort of weird psycho-biological ideology.

“That wasn’t a true dream, but an ancient organic memory millions of years old. The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm have been awakened. The expanding sun and rising temperatures are driving you back down to the spinal levels into the drowned seas of the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronic psyche. This is the lumbar transfer, total psychic recall. We really remember these swamps and lagoons.”

Kerans sees the clock turning back through Deep Time to something primitive, but also something spiritually purer than contemporary society. Here’s another taste of this kind of thinking from Kerans:

“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.”

After the others leave, a group of pirates, scavengers, “savages,” show up, led by a guy named Strangman. Until then, I think all of the people are white, but many of these wild drunken looters are black; seems possibly racist to me, in a kind of Heart of Darkness kinda way. Until then, Kerans, Beatrice and Bodkin have romanticized staying in dying London, until Strangman and his Wild Boys come in. No more sixties romantic vision of the future return to Hothouse Eden:

“. . . we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.”

This is suddenly Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues turning into the dark, sinister world of Lord of the Flies, or the Heart of Darkness, where Kerans is lost, wandering, a "second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn Sun.”

I like the world building in this more than the story or mystical ideas. I liked the references to painting throughout, especially Ballard’s focus on the work of surrealists from Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux and others. Unreason reigns. As the madness of Strangman ruins Kerans’s happy vision of psycho-biological devolution, we can see that some of the darkest dimensions of surrealism are an influence on Ballard. This becomes a pretty scary short dystopian book I am glad I finally read with my Cli-Fi (for Climate Change Fiction, you wannabe hipsters!) students. I liked it early on, thought it was too weird for awhile, then liked it as it got darker, actually. 3.5, rounded up.
Profile Image for Simon Fay.
Author 4 books154 followers
December 21, 2020
(You can watch my video discussion of the book here: https://youtu.be/CQrrMtwZioY)

There was a time in science fiction when scientists were attractive square-jawed types. Not quite as cool as James Bond, but certainly as confident in their abilities, and no less successful with the women they met.

J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World comes on the heels of this trend - while one foot is rooted firmly in the past, another is stretched well into the future, even beyond what a lot of contemporary science fiction writers would attempt to accomplish today.

The protagonist of the piece is a geologist.

The world around him has melted and become a swampy tropical ocean. However, the apocalyptic conditions have not created a dystopia that one man will find himself crushed under. There is no totalitarian government to rebel against and no great cause to fight for. Survival and escape are the only objectives a rational man can hope for. That alone would make for a compelling premise, but Ballard elevates it beyond its B-movie tropes with a delicious twist... his classic protagonist is not necessarily a rational man.

The Drowned World is dripping with doom.

Every sentence on every page oozes with the condensation of a planet sweltering to death. The page count must be close to 300, and even as Ballard layers the prose with evocative descriptions of the sultry climate, the sheer repetitiveness of the environment transforms the reader to a quivering pulp. As we travel with the geologist down the river to find his heart of darkness, we don't observe him grow as a person or solve the global disaster, but rather, we become pummeled, as he does, by the baking heat and tranquillized by the madness that surrounds him.

It's been a while since I read the book. By the nature of it, I'm sure I was bored at times. But over the years the lasting impression it made on me has been one of blistering enchantment.

Ballard had me stare into the sun for hours on end and it's been seared into my retinas ever since.

(Don't forget to watch my video discussion of the book: https://youtu.be/CQrrMtwZioY)
Profile Image for Katie.
279 reviews359 followers
April 29, 2019
The Drowned World is set in the future in a world where the ice caps have melted and only the tallest buildings stand above the water and the earth's temperature has increased significantly. The premise is that the extreme weather conditions turning the planet into primeval swamp are inducing in the characters a return to a more primitive form of consciousness - think of the Marlon Brando character in Apocalypse Now (worth noting Ballard wrote this long before Coppola's film was conceived). This troubling altered consciousness first arrives through nightmares; later it is personified, or perhaps exacerbated, by the arrival of a band of marauding murderous pirates who engage in primitive rituals. Our hero, Kerans, has to find a way of escape.
There's a lot of (fabulous) descriptive writing in this book. And it's admirable how lucidly Ballard imagined a world that doesn't (yet) exist. But there wasn't quite enough story for me. And the characters were a little too sketchy which kept me at an emotional distance from the narrative. Hugely admirable but I didn't feel the love.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,566 reviews1,894 followers
December 5, 2014
At it's best when it achieved a cloying dreamlike atmosphere. It takes something of his Empire of the Sun experiences of a world turned upside down and crosses it with Heart of Darkness with a similar sense of a journey both back in time and into the psyche.

J.G. Ballard's experience in a Japanese interment camp near Shanghai while in his early teens comes through in The Drowned World his first novel in the idea that the life we lead is a stage set. Once the set is changed, then the actors start to play different parts.

In the camp the adults lost their authority but for the children this was simply a new world. They were adaptable and through themselves in to the new situation with abandon. Ballard and his family only ended up captured by the Japanese because they were part of the European expatriate community in Shanghai and Ballad notes in the edition of the novel I read the influence upon him of seeing the flat countryside transformed in to a great inland sea during the spring floods - the stage set of human society is subject to ecology and the environment an idea which plays out in The Drowned World but also in The Drought and maybe some of Ballard's other early novels. These early experiences might have shaped how he constructs his principal characters. They are rarely heroic, instead like Ballard as a boy, they bear witness or partake in chains of events that are beyond their own control.

The changed stage set in The Drowned World is that rising sea levels and temperatures are forcing humanity to migrate to the polar regions. The climate of the planet is reverting to that of a much earlier stage of the earth's evolution. The characters of the novel are a survey team mapping and exploring the remains of London, now a literal fetid steaming swamp. Under the influence of the changing climatic conditions the characters experience strange dreams.

However beyond that it is not very satisfying. The sense of the unheimlich is not as sustained as in Crash - by then Ballard doesn't feel the need to change the stage set in a dramatic manner simply to show it to us from a different angle to show us it's oddness and spin the heimlich into its opposite - and the Black and White Minstrels style pirates are jarring, though if one were feeling generous one could with the passage of time point to that as another example of evolutionary regression embodied in the text.
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,496 reviews2,383 followers
August 31, 2022

The Drowned World felt a bit like the old school adventure tales of Jules Verne mixed with some David Attenborough. Strangely, despite it's serious nature of global catastrophe, I found it quite funny in places. Of the characters I found Strangman - a pirate leading a band of bounty-hunters on a search for the lost treasures of the civilized world - to be the highlight.

No doubt this novel blazes with a stifling heat and humidity that you can truly feel, as well the striking imagery - from wolf spiders and large hammer-nosed bats at The Ritz hotel, to champagne cocktails by a blue lagoon surrounded by giant iguanas, lizards, and exotic vegetation, to an eerie swamp-like Leicester Square - but I've always much preferred Ballard's satirical non post-apocalyptic work, so I was never going to be fully bowled over by this. For fans of this genre though, there is much to savour.

It's the sort of book that Greta Thunberg would read to a group of eight-year-olds (not that it's suitable for children because it isn't) and then scare them to death by saying - "Look kids, if you don't stop eating McDonald's, travelling in cars and flying in planes, and using anything made of plastic, you're going to be living in a world like this by the time you're middle-aged."
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews269 followers
October 30, 2015
The Drowned World: Diving into the pellucid depths of our racial memories
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
The Drowned World (1962) is J.G. Ballard’s best apocalyptic work, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but if you are thinking of an action-packed adventure where a plucky group of survivors clings to decency amid the collapse of civilization, this is the wrong book. Ballard was interested in ‘inner space,’ and while he sometimes adopted SF tropes in his books and short stories, his works most often featured natural disasters, the collapse of civilization, lonely astronauts, grim future urban landscapes, and weird obsessions with technology and mechanization. His main intent was to explore the psychology of human beings trapped in modern urban societies (and what happens when these societies collapse), and most of his protagonists are fatalistic, detached, and not particularly concerned about saving the world. It would very interesting to compare this to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), since both are literary works that employ genre elements but have vastly different agendas and conclusions about the human condition.

J.G. Ballard is probably best known for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), relating the story of when he and his family were living in Shanghai and were placed in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The book was made into a film by Stephen Spielberg in 1987, which brought the author much greater attention than before. However, his importance to the SF genre dates back to the early 1960s and 1970s, when he was a pivotal figure in the New Wave movement (inspired by experimental writers like William S. Burroughs), known for his efforts to inject more literary themes to a genre previously known for rocket ships, robots, and aliens. In 1962 he said “science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, (and) galactic wars”. However, his focus on bleak psychological inner landscapes was certainly not always welcome to SF readers looking for fun, exciting escapes to exotic worlds. So there are plenty of people who don’t want Ballard associated with the genre, and my impression is that the author himself didn’t have a particularly close relationship with traditional SF fandom. He was, however, closely associated with New Worlds, a British SF magazine edited by Michael Moorcock from the early 1960s. Other major New Wave writers include Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, Thomas M. Disch, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and many others. Ballard said in a 1962 New Worlds article:

I’ve often wondered why s-f shows so little of the experimental enthusiasm which has characterized painting, music and the cinema during the last four or five decades, particularly as these have become wholeheartedly speculative, more and more concerned with the creation of new states of mind, constructing fresh symbols and languages where the old cease to be valid.

The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that need to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. In the past the scientific bias of s-f has been towards the physical sciences – rocketry, electronics, cybernetics – and the emphasis should switch to the biological sciences. Accuracy, that last refuge of the unimaginative, doesn’t matter a hoot. …It is that inner space-suit which is still needed, and it is up to science fiction to build it!

Although I cannot describe the full impact of New Wave SF on the genre itself in the context of this review, suffice to say that it had a strong reaction among SF readers and writers. It introduced new literary approaches to the traditional Golden Age stories and imagery, so the field now features a wide range of themes and styles, both old-school and experimental. Regardless of why type of SFF you prefer, it’s undeniable that the field matured and expanded tremendously during that period of the 60s and 70s. It’s no coincidence that society and the world itself were also undergoing profound changes as well.

In any case, let’s get back to The Drowned World. The story outline is quite simple. An increase in solar flare activity has melted the polar ice caps, increasing ocean levels and flooding most cities and coastlines around the world. Mass migrations, starvation, conflicts, and chaos have reigned, but Ballard dispatches that period in a few pen-strokes, taking us far into the future of 2154 and a flooded London dominated by lagoons, tropical plants, lizards, bats, and intense heat and humidity. The city is deserted other than a scattering of human scavengers and eccentric holdouts. Our protagonist is biologist Dr. Robert Kerans, who is part of a small scientific survey team sent to catalog the flora and fauna of this transformed landscape. Here is a description from the book:

All the way down the creek, perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly… Without the reptiles, the lagoons and the creeks of office blocks half-submerged in the immense heat would have had a strange dream-like beauty, but the iguanas and basilisks brought the fantasy down to earth. As their seats in the one-time board-rooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life.

Along with fellow scientist Dr. Bodkin, his only other companion is Beatrice Dahl, a woman who occupies one of the abandoned hotels and lives a life of bored decadence and ennui, living off the stored food supplies of a collapsed civilization, along with portable generators to power the A/C systems that can sustain comfort amid temperatures that reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The two scientists languidly catalog their discoveries, but it is clear that this activity is pointless, because humanity will likely never reconquer the lost cities of its peak. There is also a military unit dispatched with them, partly for protection and partly to explore. However, Dr. Kierans and his companions begin to experience strange dreams of ancient lagoons and jungles, which they theorize come from humanity’s racial consciousness of events as far back as the Triassic Age. It seems far-fetched, but Ballard writes about it with conviction and detail:

And how else can you explain the universal but completely groundless loathing of the spider, only one species of which has ever been known to sting? Or hatred of snakes and reptiles? Simply because we all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form.

These are the oldest memories on earth, the time codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories. From the enzymes controlling the carbon-dioxide cycle, to the organization of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the pyramid cells of the mid-brain. Each is a record of a thousand decisions taken in a chemical crisis.

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.

Ballard dives deep into his understanding of the human unconscious, and while it may not be in keeping with current schools of thought, and I unfortunately am not familiar with Jungian or Freudian psychology, I certainly found his ideas intriguing and seductive while listening to the audiobook, to the point where I went to the trouble to transcribe these passages for your reading pleasure:

The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.

The further down the Central Nervous System you move, from the hindbrain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae… is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and the air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory ribcages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and the Triassic Eras.

If you like, you could call this the psychology of total equivalence, let’s say neuronics for short, and dismiss it as biological fantasy. However, I am convinced as we move back through geophysical time, so we reenter the amnionic corridor, and move back through spinal and archeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct ecological terrain, its own flora and fauna, as recognizable to anyone else as they would be to a traveler in a Wellsian time machine. Except that this is no scenic railway, but a total reorientation of the personality. If we let these buried phantoms master us as we reappear, we’ll be swept back helplessly in the floodtide like pieces of flotsam.

When the military unit insists on returning north, Dr. Kierans and his companions contrive to remain in the enervating, intense heat of London. They encounter a sinister group of scavengers led by a diabolic but charming figure named Strangman, who takes a liking to Kierans and Beatrice in the hopes that they will share knowledge of where to find the best treasures in the drowned city. They dive to explore a submerged planetarium, which is described in hypnotic detail that explicitly recalls a return to the womb, but Kierans also experiences a near-death incident, which does not seem to overly concern him. When Strangman finds a way to shore up a lagoon and drain it, the exposed city is like the unveiling of the unconscious and breaking of the dream state that Kierans and his companions have fallen into. Fellow biologist Bodkins describes it well:

To use the symbolic language of Bodkin’s scheme, he would then be abandoning the conventional estimates of time in relation to his own physical needs, and entering the world of total neuronic time, where the massive intervals of the geological timescale calibrated his existence. Here, a million years was the shortest working unit, and the problems of food and clothing were as irrelevant as they would have been to a Buddhist contemplative lotus-squatting before an empty rice bowl under the protective canopy of the million-headed cobra of eternity.

That wasn’t a true dream, but an ancient organic memory millions of years old. The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm have been awakened. The expanding sun and rising temperatures are driving you back down to the spinal levels into the drowned seas of the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronic psyche. This is the lumbar transfer, total psychic recall. We really remember these swamps and lagoons.

Finally, Kierans and Beatrice find themselves alone, freed from both the military unit and Strangman’s gang, and instead of the credits rolling as they look hopefully into the future, planning to rebuild civilization and learn from the mistakes of the past (like every ridiculous Hollywood post-apocalyptic fable), they instead languidly slip back into their neuronic past, satisfied to lose themselves in antiquity.

The continued increase in temperature and the enervating humidity made it almost impossible to leave the hotel after ten o’clock in the morning. The lagoons and the jungle were filled with fire until four o’clock, by when he was usually too tired to do anything but return to bed. All day he sat by the shuttered windows of the suites, listening from the shadows to shifting movement of mesh cage as it expanding and contracted with the heat.

Already many of the surrounding buildings had disappeared beneath the proliferating vegetation. Huge club mosses and calamites blotted out the white rectangular faces, shading the lizards in their window lairs. Beyond the lagoon, the endless tides of silt had begun to accumulate into enormous glittering banks, here and there overtopping the shoreline like the immense tippings of some distant goldmine. The light drummed against his brain, bathing the submerged levels below his consciousness, carrying him downwards to warm pellucid depths, where the nominal realities of time and space ceased to exist. Guided by his dreams, he was moving back into his emergent past, through a succession of ever stranger landscapes centered on the lagoon, each of which seemed to represent one of his own spinal levels.

At times the circle of water was spectral and vibrant, at others slack and murky. The shore apparently formed of shale, like the dull, metallic skin of a reptile. Yet again the soft beaches would glow invitingly with a glassy carmine sheen, the sky warm and limpid, the emptiness of the long stretches of sand total and absolute, filling with an exquisite and tender anguish. He longed for this descent into psycheoneuronic time to reach its conclusion, repressing the knowledge that when it did, the external world would become alien and unbearable.

There’s no question that The Drowned World is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s also fair to say that he wrote some of the strangest and most challenging books that have been associated with SF, even though many would reject them. The New Wave movement has left its mark on the genre.

The most extreme examples of Ballard would be Crash (1973), his bizarre tribute to the eroticism of the car crash that was filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996, and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), an experimental collection of ‘condensed novels’ that was so controversial that Nelson Doubleday has the entire first US printing destroyed out of concerns for legal action, since stories had titles like “Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” “Love and Napalm: Export USA,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” I doubt I would ever want to read these books, but it is important to note that they were written.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
July 18, 2022
I’m so very disappointed with this one. The Drowned World has such a dark tone, and the post-apocalyptic imagery of a sunken world is hauntingly eery, but the novel suffers because of a lack of plot and direction.

Indeed, there’s something off about The Drowned World. It should be a good book. Most of the vital parts are here, though it fails to come together. The prose is heavily descriptive and almost poetic at points. The setting is certainly the book’s strongest point, and the way it’s so vividly captured is striking. The images will stay with me because they have a dream like quality to them: they’re almost haunting in effect. However, the book just didn’t seem to go anywhere.

And that’s the problem because it so easily could have been sorted out through a process of revision. There just needed to be a little more direction in the beginning, and an idea of where the story might go, for the novel to be a success. Frustrating is the word that comes to mind because this really could have been a great book. I realised around halfway through that the book was just layering descriptive setting on descriptive setting without any sense of movement forward. It became repetitive and dull. A plot did eventually emerge, but it was rushed and shoved into the final few chapters of the book.

On the surface, I don’t think this is a very well written novel at all. However, what makes it worthy of note is its anticipation of the modern climate crisis. It’s what drew me to it. Sure, in the book man hasn’t caused the problems, solar radiation has caused a global warming here, but the effects are the same: a rise in sea levels and a sunken world. It’s a speculative future and it’s quite visionary. Though it must be noted that Ballard wrote numerous novels like this where he created future scenarios, some anticipate modern concern and others are wildly off the mark. So, it would be remiss to hail him as a writer greatly concerned with ecology and the future. He got lucky here.

The world-building is undeniably clever. The setting is good, but without any real sense of plot the characters failed to distinguish themselves and become interesting. Reading this was a real effort, I was not drawn in and I was immensely glad to finish. For a short novel, it’s quite a chore to get through. Ultimately, it’s worth a read but don’t expect much from it.


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Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
875 reviews2,273 followers
November 9, 2019
1960's Thrillers

The style of this novel reminded me a lot of the type of thriller that I read at school as an early teenager, in particular the works of Alistair MacLean. His thrillers were mostly written in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Ballard's novel was written in 1962.

Third Millennium Eco-thriller

"The Drowned World" is set about sixty or seventy years after a naturally occurring environmental catastrophe. "A series of violent and prolonged solar storms lasting several years caused by a sudden instability of the Sun" has caused the temperatures on Earth to increase by about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

The action of the novel is set in and above what was once the city of London. The temperature at noon is approximately 150 degrees. Most of the ice caps have melted, and London is now submerged by water that reaches up to ten storeys up office blocks and residential towers. The city now consists of three principal lagoons. The suburbs are vast swamps and outlying jungle, inhabited by bats, snakes, eels, crocodiles and iguanas. Only five million people seem to have survived the floods and moved north to a settlement called Camp Byrd in Greenland. "What had once been known as the Arctic Circle was now a sub-tropical zone with an annual mean temperature of 85 degrees."

The principal characters are part of an ecological research team that is trying to investigate the natural conditions and their effect on the survivors. The protagonist, Robert Kerans, is 40 years old and has never lived in any of the European cities before they were flooded. He has no urban, civilised memories of his own. He is "indifferent to the spectacle of these sinking civilisations", the "drowned world" of the book's title.

The Emergent Past

The growth of all plant forms has accelerated, while higher levels of radio-activity have increased the rate at which mutations occur. Freak botanical forms have replicated the giant tree-ferns of the Carboniferous period. Billions of tons of silt and topsoil have been discharged into the oceans, damming them up and filling them.

"The entire planet is rapidly returning to the Mesozoic Period."


Paul Delvaux - "City Worried [La Ville Inquiete] (1941)"

A Total Reorientation of the Personality

The survivors of the apocalypse start to suffer from peculiar nightmares. "Everywhere there's been the same avalanche backwards." A new psychology emerges, "a total biopsychic recall":

"Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurons and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time...

"We all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form...These are the oldest memories on earth, the time codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories...

"As we move back through geophysical time, so we re-enter the amnionic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct geological terrain, its own unique flora and fauna, as recognisable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine. Except that this is no scenic railway, but a total reorientation of the personality."

Kerans starts to lose his bond with his girlfriend, Beatrice Dahl. "Her personality intruded upon the absolute freedom he required for himself."

Paradoxically, while she seems to be relatively strong and independent, Ballard describes her primarily in terms of her appearance and her preoccupation with her appearance.

A Recurring Fascination with the Reptilian

It's tempting to conclude that, in Ballard's subsequent novels (like "Cocaine Nights" and "Super-Cannes" ), some of this reptilian quality would survive in the inner space of third millennium man and submerge his civilised self, no matter how modern and sophisticated he appears to have become.



The Saints - "All Times Through Paradise"

Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
February 19, 2016
The problem with writing a racially-charged tale of madness and death, lost deep in an alien and antagonistic jungle is that you're going to draw comparisons to 'Heart of Darkness', and that's not a comparison from which many novelists are going to emerge unscathed. The white men lose themselves in the brutality of the primordial past, going 'native', or even beyond native, but Ballard cannot match the furious voice or psychological insights of Conrad.

Ballard distinguishes himself as a competent and bold author, his style easily outdistancing his sci fi contemporaries. His prose is strong, his use of science thoughtful and inspired, and his setting intriguing. Of course, the very notion of a 'drowned world' is a bit suspect, as any researches into Nasa's water level software show: even with the most generous estimates, there just isn't enough water to cover it all. In a more fantastical book, like Kavan's Ice, we can take for granted that the setting is symbolic, not literal, but Ballard takes a more realistic approach. His use of constant, running floods alleviates some of that problem, and there still is land, made remote not just by water, but by temperature.

Generally, as temperature rises grow more extreme, they tend to affect colder regions more than warm ones. In the Eocine, when the poles were warm year round and the ice caps entirely melted, the temperature variance from equator to pole was relatively slight--a continuous rainforest ran from pole to pole. The temperature increase had a more pronounced effect on the cold areas than the warm ones, meaning temperatures at the equator rose a small amount, while those at the poles rose a great amount.

In the Mesozoic, a great deal of the high temperatures were the result of a combination of carbon effects and the fact that there was only a single landmass surrounded by water. Coastal regions always have less temperature variance, especially with the sorts of constant storms described in Ballard's book. These storms would also act to deflect a great deal of the sun's heat, especially as they seem to be concentrated around the equatorial regions. But these are relatively minor concerns, and Ballard's setting was strong enough to suspend disbelief, and did not delve too deeply into explanation or theory.

His sweltering jungle world is reminiscent of Armina's Garden: the place which is too green, too full of life, so vibrant and pulsing that it grows dangerous. Everything is wet, overgrown rot, the sort of place that birthed malaria, an overabundance of frantic, competitive live for which soft man is hardly suited. His sci fi contribution to this trope is the metaphor of the primordial womb: the return to an earlier state. In this he evokes the early Twilight Zone notion of 'reversible evolution', though his depiction is less ridiculous.

But Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' also posits a return to an earlier psychological state, a reversion in which the 'civilized' white men grow even more brutal and depraved than they imagine the natives to be. And like Conrad, Ballard tries to trace this reversion through the psychology of his isolated, increasingly inhuman characters.

But Ballard's psychology is not as variable, not as complex. The characters all speak in the same tones, all make the same sorts of observations, and all seem instantly to comprehend one another's minds. He seems to be trying to build a continuous, shared psychology for these latter men, to paint his reversion in absolute terms, but it is all a bit convenient, and undermines the conflicts between the characters. Their inner thoughts are explained to us, their speech prefaced by redundant adverbs.

And this exposition is a part of his general style. His great central metaphor is also brought up often, then explained matter-of-factly. It is not an undercurrent but a tangible presence in the book, something overt which all the characters seem to understand implicitly. Yet each time we see it, we are not getting a new, contrasting view, as Conrad would give us, but the same images and observations, over and over.

His use of figurative language is mixed. Though it sometimes hits the right mark, the constant repetition means that much of it becomes stale. some authors use such repetition to lull us, to create a poetic style where certain words, through repetition, gain more meaning over time. The author can use the word to invoke a series of related ideas and then add another layer or provide a contrasting observation.

Through such a style, authors can create a dreamlike feel, pervaded with ideas. While Ballard can be dreamlike, he breaks up this mood by his over-explanation. The problem is, if a motif must be explained every time it is brought up, that indicates that the author has not properly established it. Instead of progressing through the idea as the story goes on, the author keeps dragging us backward.

It felt like Ballard wanted to talk about it, but every time he returned to it, he found he had nothing new to say. Part of this might be because the book was expanded from a smaller story, but I'm not convinced it needed expansion. If anything, it could use some editing down.

Ballard does have a literary sensibility that I respect, and I appreciated his mythological allusions, but I didn't feel like this book was a concise exploration of the concepts he brought up. We start off hard sci fi, then quickly drop into what seems like a mystical exploration of the mind, then Ballard leaves that on the back-burner for a bit of suspenseful adventure.

There isn't really a good balance between the slow, psychological introspection and the basic adventure plot, and due to repetition, the introspection rarely elevates the story above what it might otherwise be.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,219 reviews1,962 followers
February 19, 2017
Ballard wrote this dystopian novel in the early 1960s, but it is still resonant today and it deals with a drastic increase in temperature on the earth; it is set in 2145. The premise is fairly simple; temperatures have greatly increased and the polar icecaps melted; temperatures around the equator can reach well over 150 degrees. Most life is centred on the polar areas. Jungle proliferates and evolution has goes into overdrive with some insects, reptiles and plants developing and changing very quickly. Great banks of silt have also developed with great lagoons surrounded by jungle. At the start of the book a team of scientists and military personnel are studying a series of lagoons set in jungle over what was the city of London; which is many feet below the lagoons.
The main character is Robert Kerans, a biologist. He has moved up from the makeshift camp to the top floor of the Ritz, the top floors being above water. He spends time with two others in particular; Dr Bodkin (a scientist) and Beatrice Dahl who is rather reclusive and has taken the top floor of another hotel. There are plenty of descriptions of heat and exotic wildlife. A number of members of the staff start to get dreams which seem to draw them to the sun and the south and which seem to point to a collective unconscious and impulses which go back to prehistoric times. Obviously Ballard is playing with Jungian ideas about the unconscious.
Kerans, Bodkin and Dahl remain when the main party leaves and they continue to lead a fairly solitary existence. This is disrupted when a large boat arrives captained by Strangman; a white man, dressed all in white, with an all black crew. Strangman is dangerous and unpredictable. Some high jinks ensue, but the primeval instincts are strong. I thought I had laid Heart of Darkness to rest last year; but here we are again!! Ballard has denied being influenced by it, but it’s clearly there for all to see. It is also possible that the influence is early H G Wells, as Conrad was also influenced by Wells; novels such as The Time Machine. The main characters are also like time travellers transported back to primeval times. Although the contrast here is different to Heart of Darkness where the jungle is threatening and other. Here the impulse is to return to the jungle, the primeval home.
There are links to Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe and Strangman can be seen as a parody of Crusoe. Strangman is looting the treasures of the submerged city. Water and the sea are potent symbols here and Ballard puts words from Eliot’s The Waste Land (Death by Water) into Strangman’s mouth;
There's nothing much left now—I can tell you,
I sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician.
Though that's really your role, isn't it?
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers.
As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool."
Strangman also quotes Donne (Eliot was a great promoter of Donne) and alludes to the following;
“Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”
Ballard makes reference to a number of other works; Camus, Kierkegaard, Ulysses and Homer to name a few. There are elements of the Grail Quest as well. There sometimes seems to be an element of, to adapt a rather British saying, throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.
It’s clever stuff and Ballard’s vision is very prescient. It is also well written and the impulse is to move back into the Darkness as if going back to the womb or back to primeval impulses. However we still have a white man in charge of a ship with a crew of black men dancing to his tune. Perhaps we have not moved on so far after all. That really irritated me.
Profile Image for Dax.
253 reviews121 followers
August 11, 2021
There is a fine line with regards to descriptive writing. Some authors ignore it completely and their passages start to become overwrought. In his construction of submerged London, Ballard toes that line wonderfully. His descriptive prose is the strongest aspect of this novel. It is also an intellectually stirring work. I could not quite get on board with the biological memory thing (at least all the way back to Cretaceous and Pennsylvanian timeframes, since homo sapiens and even our ancestors were not around to develop a biological memory dating that far back), but I enjoyed Ballard’s devolution concept as depicted by his characters’ adaption to their new reality.

In short, this is a dense novel that requires slow reading. For one, the prose cannot be savored if the reader rushes through this, and secondly, the concepts Ballard is exploring here requires consideration. Some details of the plot are ridiculous (thousands of semi-trained crocodiles for one) and detract from the novel, but other strange elements and characters fit the novel well. Overall, I think I can call this very good. High three stars.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
793 reviews19 followers
July 19, 2011
I am sitting here wondering if I made a mistake reading The Drowned World as my first J.G. Ballard novel. My edition includes the novel The Wind From Nowhere and I am tempted to read it as well before returning the book to the library but I have so many other books I desperately wish to finish, books I am truly enjoying. If this were not a library book and soon due, then I am afraid I may never have finished The Drowned World, which does not bode well for my reading of the second selection.

This is one of the driest and strangely beautiful books I have ever read. Ballard has a talent for putting me into a deep dreamy sleep but I still marvel at the setting he created. I keep thinking about the passage of how our bloodstreams are tributaries of our memories (too lazy tonight to find the exact quote) and I become further lost in Ballard's ideas. This is a book I could grow to love, but I am not ready to, for a few reasons.

First, maybe I am missing something, some connection between the characters, but I did not care a whit about any of them. Though I loved the setting, I found the characters to all be deeply misplaced. Maybe this was intentional. Maybe this is a reflection of the book being written in the early 60's. Both are probably excuses. The end of the world is nigh and the characters are traipsing around in ball gowns and eating foie gras? Why would anyone be looting for art? Who would care? I could see maybe one man (Strangman) and a few others following along but so many simply because ?

One thing I do understand was Kerans . Such crazy behavior is more of what I would expect, instead of the gowns and foie gras.

Second, the entire book was painfully predictable. Every major moment was clearly visible chapters ahead. And I must say that Beatrice is one of my least favortie (female) characters of all time.

It pains me to rate this book higher than 2 stars but when I think of the surreal animalistic setting and the acquiescence of Kerans, I warm to the book slightly more and once again imagine how I could fall in love with it. This might be worth a reread in a few years.
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,197 reviews116 followers
December 29, 2021
I liked this quite a bit more than I was expecting. There was something compelling in the bleak pictures it paints of man's psyche crumbling as the world around us succumbs to the blistering heat and reptile infested swamps of a future afflicted by intense climate change (brought about by nature, not man). A reversion to the primordial. Ballard suggests an innate connection between man and environment, transcending consciousness and driving to the core of ancient organic memories in our very DNA. Generally I find Ballard's writing amorphous and irritating, but if you go in not expecting much in the way of plot, action, or character development as you'd get from most authors, you might actually be surprised.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,293 followers
June 24, 2010
What images do the words "science fiction" conjure in your mind? Do you think of spaceships, lasers, phasers, light-sabres? Rockets, robots, and radon gas? Green chicks and blue boxes? Science fiction is a genre built upon difference. Science fiction stories are essentially thought experiments in which the author asks what would happen if the world were different in one or many ways.

We often (rightly) associate science fiction with fantastic technologies, but that kind of mental picture is a rather poor description of the entire genre. There's so much science fiction that emphasizes the psychological over the physical, taking us on a journey deep into our minds instead of out among the stars. I have to confess to having a bias toward the former type, even though I know that many examples of the latter type are truly outstanding. Perhaps that's the problem though. Perhaps the former type of science fiction, in emphasizing a technological apotheosis, permits us to marginalizing it as a form of acknowledged fantasy, whereas the latter is more "literary," more "mainstream," more "down-to-earth," if you will.

The Drowned World is rooted firmly in this camp. The technology seems little different from that of contemporary Earth. Rather, the change comes from the external environment, a result of massive global warming caused by solar radiation. Earth's equatorial regions are reverting to "Triassic age" climates, and the transformation has reached as far north as London. The main characters are at home among an alien landscape, but aside from this change of scenery, the people and their devices are much like that available in the present day, right down to .38 revolvers.

The scenery is merely a catalyst for the true source of the science fiction. The Drowned World chronicles three people's attempts to process the genetic memory of the Triassic age, passed down to them by their mammalian ancestors. The similarities in environment stimulate their brains, first causing intense dreams that soon transform into a sort of waking sleep. The minds of the characters are, in some ways, regressing back toward the Triassic, even while their physical forms remain human.

In that sense, The Drowned World raises the question—as much of its ilk in this type of science fiction do—of how much of the events in the story actually happen. How much is "real" and how much is a half-remembered, half-hallucinated waking dream of the protagonist? Ballard emphasizes the unreliable nature of the narrative by drawing attention to actions of Kerans' that he questions after the fact, concluding that he has no explanation for why he acted that way.

Particularly, in one of the most lugubrious and haunting scenes of the book, Kerans has dived to the bottom of a lagoon to explore a deserted planetarium. He secures his air line around a door handle to keep it from dragging in the silt, and when he goes too far, the line snags and chokes off his air, causing him to black out. After being rescued, Kerans realizes he doesn't know if the incident was an accident, foul play by the people on the surface, or a suicide attempt. Constantly questioning his motivations, Kerans always seems to be on the cusp of metamorphosis, striving constantly toward a transformation that eludes him. In contrast, Bodkin's emotional closeness to London, considering it home, seems to maroon him in the near past instead of allowing transcendence toward the Triassic; and Beatrice . . . well, I don't know what to make of Beatrice.

Although The Drowned World has much in the way of atmosphere, by its very nature it is somewhat inscrutable, and thus frustrating. It reminds me of the work of H.G. Wells, particularly The Island of Dr. Moreau. Like Wells, Ballard's protagonist is a competent, well-educated male who engages in a struggle for survival in an isolated, technologically-limited setting. Along the way, the book explores environmental and social themes (more environmental in this case). Both books examine the nature of humanity through the nature of mind and memory. And The Drowned World has a similar narrative style—while not first person, it has that same mixture of factual, journalism-like tones and artistic, surrealist overtures.

Ballard's capacity for description, whether it is mood or setting, is by and large the strongest part of this book. Not only does he give a good account of the new, lagoon-filled London, but he simultaneously delves into the minds of his characters (or at least, Kerans) and scrutinizes their motivations. It is a good thing too, because the relative isolation of the characters means there is comparatively little dialogue. Ballard's description and narration keeps The Drowned World moving, even when he spends pages depicting the stillness of a scene.

Unfortunately, The Drowned World doesn't always sustain the tension it tries to build. Ballard raises intriguing questions, but he never seems to take them to a satisfactory concluding point—or at least, if he does, he does not convince me. At the end, I'm left questioning the point of the journey. How exactly has Kerans changed? What is the significance of this surrender to the pre-uterine memories? The psychology underlying the book is interesting but not as fleshed out as I would want.

Likewise, I found the conflicts between Kerans and Strangman lacklustre. Part of the reason I draw the comparison with Wells is because the conflict seems there because it's expected, like Ballard is following a well-tread plot and grafting his psychological themes to the existing structure. This unsuccessful melding is a crack that begins to undermine my confidence in the rest of the book. Suddenly I wonder about Kerans' indecisiveness—he doesn't want to leave, then he does want to leave, then he doesn't want to leave, then he leaves . . . like many stories, it is a difficult—and subjective—call: is this a brilliant illustration of learned helplessness or indicative of great writing married to a mediocre story?

Despite its environmental themes, The Drowned World is not post-apocalyptic, nor does it really look at how the rest of society has adapted to the mass exodus induced by global warming. It is, at its core, a look at the psyche of the individual, especially the isolated one. And that's cool. I was expecting something more, though. I was expecting profound—and I got profound. Yet I was expecting something moving, something that professed purpose . . . and that has eluded me here.

The Drowned World reads like a classic, channelling the style of H.G. Wells to conjure a different, somewhat eerie atmosphere of otherness. But the style lacks enough substance to support it; ultimately, the story falls flat.

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