The Drowned World – JG Ballard

Published in 1962, The Drowned World is JG Ballard’s second novel, which is set in a world reverting to its prehistoric nature. Post-apocalyptic in style, this relatively short story follows Dr Robert Kerans, a biologist who is part of a team researching the ongoing changes in a flooded London. Solar radiation flares changed the Earth’s atmosphere, melting ice caps and creating a world which is mostly uninhabitable. Vast swampy lagoons now form the landscape, with most of London far beneath the surface of the water and just the topmost floors of some buildings visible.

Kerans lives in the Ritz, in a specially climate-controlled pod, whilst the once highly glamorous furnishings of this famous hotel rot and decay in the heat and humidity, useless to everyone. He is supposed to be monitoring the flora and fauna of the environment, but his urgency is fading as he becomes more and more inward-looking. The scientific team are called back north to where most of the remaining population are now living but he, a reclusive woman called Beatrice Dahl who spends her time frozen in her once upper-class existence, reading old copies of ?, and fellow scientist Dr Bodkin, refuse to leave and they settle in the lagoon as it regresses into a neo-Triassic period.

It’s a very dreamlike experience, and it seems to go against what you imagine to be their innate survival instincts. The food they have will run out eventually, as will the fuel powering the generators which are keeping their climate-controlled rooms conditioned. Yet they are becoming increasingly affected by the landscape, with strange dreams plaguing their sleep. This suspended existence continues for a while before it is shattered by the arrival of Strangman, a pirate leading a band of bounty-hunters looking for the lost treasures of the civilised world. It’s a very powerful interruption, where the characters were slowly losing themselves in the landscape, their ‘evolved’ natures draining away as crocodiles and giant iguanas slowly cruise their way between the waterways, Strangman is a completely alien presence. Despite the strength of the sun he is startlingly white, a colonial-type figure who wants to dominate not only the three people who are left, but also the landscape itself, dredging the flooded cities to find old masterpieces of sculpture, …. resolutely surrounding himself with these treasures and eventually draining the lagoon to find what’s left in the once majestic buildings of London.

Kerans and Strangman eventually clash, as Kerans and Bodkin are horrified by this wanton destruction and plundering of their world, but who will prevail, nature or humanity?

As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction this is a really interesting idea, usually it’s a virus of some sort that wipes people out like in Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, or a nuclear-type disaster such as Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I found it a shame that it isn’t discussed how people are living now most of the world is uninhabitable, and the apocalypse itself is seemingly fading into the past, so it’s a very narrowly-focused book. However, this does suit the increasing self-imposed isolation of Kerans, Dahl and Bodkin who all seem indifferent to their future, or the future of the human race. Have they resigned themselves to the end or merely adapting to their landscape?

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