The Drowned World

In which I review The Drowned World, J G Ballard’s 1962 novel set in a post-apocalyptic world where global warming has caused mass flooding. 

What it’s about: London, the year 2175. A series of solar storms have melted the polar ice caps, drastically raising the Earth’s temperatures and flooding Europe’s cities. The world’s surviving population have migrated north to the Arctic Circle. Dr Robert Kerans is part of a delegation of scientists studying plant and animal life in London, now a tropical lagoon populated with lizards and insects. Kerans and his lover Beatrice Dahl live on the top floor of the Ritz Hotel, eking out their remaining food and energy supplies, while Kerans’ colleague Dr Bodkin undertakes studies of their dreams. The army, led by Colonel Riggs, insists that they abandon their mission. Keran’s colleague Hardman disobeys orders and escapes south, while Kerans and Beatrice decide to stay, despite their slim chances of survival. Their serene isolation is disturbed by a ship of looters led by the charismatic Strangman, who drain the lagoon to find abandoned treasure. Bodkins attempts to blow up the flood defences and thwart the bounty-hunters, but is shot on Strangman’s orders. Kerans is taken captive and left to die in the hot sun, while Beatrice becomes Strangman’s subordinate. Riggs leads an armed battalion to save Kerans, but finding no evidence to convict Strangman, decide to cooperate with the pirates. Kerans succeeds in destroying the flood defences, reflooding the city, and tries to persuade Beatrice to escape with him. She refuses, and he travels south, meeting up with Hardman who is now blind and near death. After helping Hardman recover, he continues his lone journey, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun“.

Why it’s a classic: James Ballard published The Drowned World in 1962, his second novel after many years of writing short stories. Kingsley Amis, at that time one of the lions of the British literary scene, hailed Ballard as “one of the brightest new stars in post-war fiction“. Along with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, The Drowned World spoke to a post-war generation traumatised by the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and impending atomic war between Russia and America.

The Drowned World marked a radical shift in Ballard’s theme and style. Up until then, his work had mostly followed the conventions of Cold War-era science fiction – white-bread male heroes beset by malevolent alien forces and struggling to survive with their essential humanity and authority still intact. In The Drowned World, Ballard turned inwards to explore Freudian notions of dreams and the subconscious as the ultimate unmappable terrain. His protagonist Kerans is an anti-hero who does little to resist the nightmarish circumstances of the drowned world, offering himself passively to his hostile new environment, and allowing himself to evolve (or regress) as human control over the Earth declines. If Ballard’s earlier stories spoke to social anxieties about the loss of masculine power in the post-Atomic Age, in The Drowned World, he offers a startling alternative – a post-apocalyptic universe in which human consciousness is reimagined in disturbing new ways. Ballard himself coined the term “anti-Crusoeism” to describe his characters – unlike Defoe’s Crusoe who longs to be rescued from his island, Kerans embraces his isolation.

Ballard returned to these themes again and again in his later work, culminating in his 1973 novel Crash, portraying a band of car crash survivors who become sexually aroused by restaging car accidents. Critics and reviewers were horrified – the New York Times reviewer called Crashhands-down, the most repulsive book I’ve yet to come across” – which was both stating the obvious and missing the point. Crash and The Drowned World offer visions of nightmarish future worlds that are also strangely compelling, since they posit a new way of being human. In this sense, Ballard’s work is closer to Existentialist novels like Camus’ The Outsider and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, presenting alienated characters within a hostile world who reject conventional human behaviour.

Time has been kinder to Ballard’s work than the New York Times was, largely because the environmental catastrophe he described in the early 1960s – melting ice caps, global warming, mass flooding – is now closer than ever to becoming our lived reality. In his Introduction to the 2014 reprint of The Drowned World, Martin Amis continued a family tradition, calling Ballard “the most important British writer of the latter half of the 20th century” for the eerie prescience of his work, with “a genius for the perverse and the obsessional“. The novel also received a brief, somewhat random flicker of celebrity interest when Madonna borrowed the title for a song on her 1999 album Ray of Light and named her subsequent world tour “The Drowned World” (though with fewer lizards than Ballard’s book).

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, made of seaweed from the lagoon and the tropical vines that festoon the walls of the abandoned Ritz. Reading Ballard is always an oddly seductive experience, especially given the horrors he describes. You’d have to be a psychopath to “enjoy” The Drowned World, but it holds a hypnotic spell that once experienced is very difficult to shake off.

Much of the book’s appeal comes from Ballard’s ability to suspend “normal” human reactions of fear and anxiety and invite you to look at death and destruction in a perverse new way. Martin Amis writes that Ballard “loves the glutinous jungles of The Drowned World” and “welcomes these desperate dystopias with every atom of his being“, which is, disturbingly, true. Ballard’s re-imagining of a London as a tropical lagoon laden with iguanas, crocodiles and mosquitos is dazzling to behold, as are the scenes where the characters walk through the deserted city streets, newly revealed after Strangman’s henchmen drain the waters away. Ballard’s writing here is astonishingly good: Kerans watching “the countless reflections of the sun move across the surface in huge sheets of fire, like the blazing faceted eyes of gigantic insects“, or his memory of “one ghastly cemetery over which they had moored, its ornate Florentine tombs cracked and sprung, corpses floating out in their unravelling winding-sheets in a grim rehearsal of the Day of Judgement.” It’s horrifying but also transfixing, and like Kerans we feel the weird serenity of being alone in the remnants of a once-great city – an experience not entirely unlike walking through London’s deserted streets during this last year of COVID lockdown.

Contemporary readers of The Drowned World also now have the benefit of reading Empire of the Sun, Ballard’s extraordinary 1984 novel based on his own childhood in 1940s Shanghai, and the creation myth that explains Ballard’s vision and aesthetic. As a child who saw his comfortable middle-class life destroyed, then spent years starving in an internment camp, Ballard understood better than most people that the comforts of modern life could be dismantled overnight, and that human “civilisation” was simply a veneer covering our savage animal natures. Like the boy Jim in Empire of the Sun, Kerans has an almost Zen-like ability to adapt to the realities of the present moment, and finds beauty in images of death and destruction.

These moments are breathtaking, though they are weighed down by Ballard’s clunky expositional style and his tendency to underline his thematic obsessions. Early on, Dr Bodkin proposes that the survivors are regressing to a prehistoric mindset, that the ascent of the reptiles has rekindled repressed collective memories of “the terrifying jungles of the Paleocene” era when humans were similarly helpless. It’s a fascinating idea, but one that Ballard repeats over and over until it sounds banal and pretentious. In a rare moment of humour, Strangman mocks Kerans for his belief in repressed trauma, which gives the readers something of an out clause – we too can roll our eyes at Kerans’ abstract theorising, or even dismiss them as the desperate longings of a crazed man to impose order on chaos.

Ballard’s love of metaphor, coupled with his tendency to repeat himself, can also make for some heavy-handed scenes. “Perhaps these sunken lagoons simply remind me of the drowned world of my uterine childhood“, Kerans remarks in a particularly groan-worthy moment. Just in case you didn’t catch the Freudian mummy/rebirthing significance of that moment, Ballard has Kerans don a wetsuit and aqualung and go diving in the womb-like ruins of the London Planetarium, surrounded by thick sludgy water that reminds him of – you guessed it – amniotic fluid. As is often the way with science fiction writers, Ballard is so interested in his ideas that he doesn’t trust his readers to draw associative links on their own. In one scene, Strangman shows Beatrice a painting of Queen Esther that’s been salvaged from a gallery, only to have Strangman (and then the narrator) point out the similarities between Beatrice and the painted figure. While Ballard never becomes didactic, he can’t quite bridge the science-geek tendency to explain with a novelist’s ability to show rather than tell.

By comparison, the novel’s action-packed second half is surprisingly dull. Ballard is enraptured by his quiet glittering images of tropical decay, but much less interested in telling a story. The entrance of Strangman pushes the novel into schlocky sci-fi/action adventure territory, with the white-suited albino Strangman as an early prototype of a Bond villain. It also goes without saying that the book’s racial and sexual politics are horribly outdated, even for the early 1960s. Beatrice is literally a shell of a character, who exists solely to give Kerans someone to save at the end, though the lack of any erotic spark between them makes this feel forced and unconvincing. And the less said about the racist stereotypes of deformed “Negro” and “mulatto” henchmen, singing “Dem Bones” as they dance around a fire at the Feast of Skulls, the better.

All the violence and torture and gunplay feels rather forced on the book, as if Ballard thought he needed to thrill to keep his readership hooked. As Martin Amis writes, “Ballard is quite unstimulated by human interaction – unless it takes the form of something inherently weird, like mob atavism or mass hysteria. What excites him is human isolation.” Ballard seems to understand this himself – early on, Kerans reflects that “[m]uch as he needed Beatrice Dahl, her personality intruded upon the absolute freedom he required for himself…. [E]ach of them would have to pursue his or her own pathway through the time jungles, mark their own points of no return.” I wish that Ballard had had the courage to follow through that conviction, even if it had meant spoiling the commercial appeal of the novel. Like Kerans, we want to be done with the inconvenience of dealing with Strangman and Riggs and Beatrice and get back to that penthouse apartment at the Ritz, watching the scorching afternoon sun and admiring the lizards.

Those failings aside, The Drowned World holds its own, even all these years later, as a remarkable piece of dystopian fiction, that dares to ask what might happen if we stop thinking of the world as dystopian, attempt to take our new circumstances as we find them, and allow ourselves to be fully shaped by our environment. Writer Travis Eldborough argues that The Drowned Worldask[s] whether our sense of self – and of self as independent, sovereign, irrevocable – is itself a construction, and a temporary one.” I’d argue that this is less a question and more a hard-won truth. Ballard’s insistence on sending Kerans into the sun-scorched southern lands, where he will surely die, is a disturbing provocation that gives the book a haunting power. Ballard never flinches from the ugly, the disturbing or the catastrophic. As we teeter on the brink of a climate crisis, and rethink the way we live in the light of a global pandemic, his work is, scarily, more relevant than ever.

Quotable Quote: “This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.”


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