The Drowned World

Author: J. G. Ballard (1930 - )
First book publication: 1962
Type of work: Novel
Time: The near future
Locale: London, England
An apocalyptic novel in which rising temperatures create a flooded, increasingly tropical Earth, and the human struggle to survive is complicated by psychological changes.

Principal characters:
Dr. Robert Kerans: a biologist manning a testing station floating over London
Dr. Alan Bodkin: his assistant
Beatrice Dahl: an exotic eccentric who chooses to remain in London rather than seek safety in Greenland
Colonel Riggs: the director of Kerans' party
Hardman: the helicopter pilot who is the-first to succumb to the triassic sun
Strangman: the pale, swaggering pirate leader of a party of grotesque and dangerous black looters

By Peter Brigg

This characteristic example of J. G. Ballard's apocalyptic fiction, like his The Drought and The Wind from Nowhere, centers on a major "natural" change in the Earth's environment. The main character of The Drowned World is Dr. Robert Kerans, manager of a biological testing station monitoring the changes as the world, largely submerged under water, reverts to dense, virtually uninhabitable, tropical jungle. Ballard's interest does not lie simply in the usual apocalyptic concerns of how man is destroyed or finds a technology of escape. Rather, he penetrates the heart of the apocalyptic experience by integrating the changing physical universe with a changing psychic one, as his characters progress to an intense new relationship with nature, derived partly from uterine fantasy and partly from the genetic unconscious.

Thus a seemingly realistic scientific novel subtly becomes a macabre and surreal blending of the inner and outer worlds of Kerans and the other principal characters. Kerans is acutely aware of the actual psychological and biological changes taking place in human nature, and he speculates that the growing isolation and self-containment of those with whom he comes in contact correspond to the actions of insects preparing to undergo metamorphosis. Kerans' companions in the encroaching jungle of sixty-foot-high ferns include Colonel Riggs, nominally in charge of the mission combining the biological testing station with a quasi military sweep intended to pick up anyone still attempting to live in the gigantic swamps and forests; Kerans' assistant and colleague, Dr. Alan Bodkin, who enunciates the new psychophysical realities overtaking Kerans and the others; and Beatrice Dahl, a beautiful eccentric from whom Kerans grows apart as the changes occur and who finally chooses to stay behind in London.

The Drowned World depends for its considerable strengths upon both its story line and the carefully paced revelation of the deeply disturbing inner world that responds to the radical climactic change. Ballard offers a practical and adequate explanation for the climactic change early in the novel, describing how exceptional solar storms stripped the Van Allen Belts and allowed excessive solar radiation to slowly raise the Earth's temperature over a seventy-year period. What is remarkable about the "science" in both this novel and Ballard's other natural apocalypses is the very unremarkable way in which he chooses to present the changes. The simplicity of the change is awesome, and the factual tone of the descriptions of London submerged in water and surrounded by an encroaching tropical jungle creates a curiously calm sense of the inevitability and reality of the change. Ballard's characters are not scientific heroes who try to modify the inexorable progress of nature towards a world that disturbs and endangers man. Man can only react to the changes, attempting to modify the way in which he lives in order to survive. The power of The Drowned World comes from the oppressive sense of heat and crowded vegetation that becomes ever more assertive in the later portions of the book and from the revelation that a human adaptation is taking place which is beyond human control.

Ballard's vision is keyed to two paintings hanging in Beatrice Dahl's apartment, Delvaux's surreal image of ashen-faced women naked to the waist dancing with skeletons clothed in tuxedos, and the other of Max Ernst's wild jungles of living organisms which writhe about devouring one another under a tropical sun. The novel depicts an increasingly frenzied dance of death in a vegetable universe, but it is a dance that ends not in death but in a curiously optimistic assimilation.

At the beginning of the novel Kerans is occupying the penthouse suite at the Ritz Hotel in London, surrounded by such civilized comforts as air conditioning, silk shirts, and a very well-stocked bar. The reader sees the activities of Kerans' "normal" days, including his dealings with Bodkin, Riggs, and Beatrice, and his work at the research station. But even in the early chapters it is clear that the man as well as his environment is changing, and Kerans is early aware of the growing strength of his dreams of a powerful, primitive sun and of his desire to withdraw from the company of others in order to acquiesce to his internal change.

Bodkin tells Kerans that he believes the images in the dreams come from the subconscious cellular inheritance of mankind, a genetic pattern that is being reactivated by the return of the Triassic period and its immense, burning sun. Ballard has Bodkin describe this subconscious inheritance as the "archaeophysic past," embodying in the term the idea that it is a release of prehuman experience, coming not from the brain at all but from the cellular genetic pattern of a time before the brain took over the management and storage of experience. The first to succumb to this ancient stimulation is Hardman, the helicopter pilot on the mission, whose incessant dreams finally drive him to flee the base and move South towards the flaming sun. Hardman escapes pursuit 'from the base because he can function in the heat and fierce noonday sun which blinds the others.

After Hardman's escape, Beatrice, Dr. Bodkin, and Kerans manage to be left behind when the rest of the mission moves north and they then drift apart to dream their ways into their new realities. This pattern is broken by the arrival of the corpse-white Strangman, with his gaudy troupe of buccaneers and looters and two thousand alligator watchdogs. Ballard now moves into the realms of a bizarre and macabre surrealism where the physical events, while perfectly possible, take on the aspects of primitive nightmares. Strangman organizes a diving party to go into the sunken London planetarium: Kerans enters the womb like structure with its soothingly warm water and imagines he sees, in the cracks in the dome. a starmap of the ancient world. This disturbs him so greatly that he ties off his air line in an involuntary gesture, nearly committing suicide. Strangman grasps the meaning of this gesture immediately, and the reader sees how it reinforces Kerans' other acts, such as the theft of a compass that mesmerizes him with the concept of South. where Kerans finds himself surrendering control to his archaeophysic past.

In the closing chapters of the book there is an ever-increasing sense that Kerans is yielding to his inner forces. When Strangman dams a lagoon and pumps out Leicester Square, Kerans' waking life becomes increasingly nightmarish, until he finds himself nearly smothered by the fetid head of a dead crocodile that Strangman's men force him to wear. This final gesture, after Strangman has imprisoned Kerans in the sun for several days, literally puts Kerans in the skin of a prehistoric creature. Kerans then escapes from Strangman, dynamites the lagoon dam, and moves off to the south, nursing a bullet wound in his leg. In the jungle he gradually sheds all of his resources and discovers Hardman, a nearly blind, emaciated, blackened husk. He helps Hardman, who then wanders off further to the south. At the novel's close Kerans has moved 150 miles into the jungle and is continuing south. Ballard clearly implies that Kerans will die in his impossible quest, yet, like Shelley's moth seeking a star. the final description of Kerans as a second Adam suggests that he has done the right thing in following his burning dreams.

As Kerans becomes increasingly primitive, the sense of compulsion becomes the dominant characteristic of the entire narrative. It is this strong psychological basis which has led Ballard to narrow the focus to a single character's dissolution and which distinguishes this novel from other apocalyptic fiction. The movement of the story is reminiscent of that greatest of twentieth century probes of the soul, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, except that Ballard strips away any return from the dark journey and is totally unconcerned with the political and social connotations of the earlier novel. Kerans' "descent into the phantasmagoric forest" shares with Marlow's quest the flickering quality of being dream at one moment and realism at another, as the archaeophysic guidance surfaces and becomes the driving reality of the novel.

Both novels deal with going into the self, but The Drowned World, with the image of the womblike warmth of the water and the relentless sun -– giver of life, beating into the skull to the rhythm of the heartbeat – goes past the moral questions posed by Conrad to the scientific question of genetic inheritance and the possibility of its recapitulation should ancient conditions return. Ballard is concerned with the essence of biopsychic man, and his story contains the conviction of myth usually found in archetypal representations. Kerans' resolve to follow the sun to the south has about it that inevitability of mythic drive. Characters as bizarre as Strangman, as strangely attractive as Beatrice, or as sound and sensible as Riggs become as flimsy to Kerans as the collapsing structures of the drowning world in the face of the inner force that drives him towards the swampy wetness and the fiery pulsation of the mighty sun.

Indeed, Ballard has created in this novel a most pervasive demonstration of the frailty of "technological" man. He diminishes man in the face of the natural universe by establishing that he has no control over either the outer or the inner world. A tiny but implacable change in cosmic terms finds man all but destroyed by natural disaster and struggling against the mind. The mind and its complex cultural and technological by-products attempt to adapt for survival by tapping the same archaeophysic pool as do other animals and plants as they fecundly regress to their prehistoric natures. The tenuousness of Man's hold on mere survival lies in the fact that he cannot adapt quickly enough, and that his archaeophysic impulses destroy the body even as they produce a sense of unity with the changed world. Kerans is truly caught in a paradox at the close of the book. He is doing what his archaeophysic self requires, but, because man has progressed beyond the biological to the technological to support his survival, the inner self of the cells offers a guidance which is suicidal. Kerans and Hardman are more able than the others to withstand the intense heat and light of the sun, but the fact that they do not sweat as profusely and can stand the light serves ironically to remind us of their true frailty in the face of a need for total change. Their bodies cannot make the kind of significant response needed for survival.

The surrealistic grace and pervasive imagery of Ballard's writing are never more evident than in this story. He handles the scientific explanations with the casualness of a magician pulling handkerchiefs out of thin air and joins the twin ideas of an increase in the Earth's temperature and the biophysic regression like the same illusionist rejoining the halves of the sawn lady. He establishes the inevitability of Kerans' fate through a myriad of details placed throughout the book and through the omniscient narrator's detailed comments on what Kerans thinks and feels.

The sophistication of Ballard's storytelling is perhaps why he is not given credit for strongly original ideas. Yet there is a breathtaking moment when, at some point in The Drowned World, each reader suddenly grasps the daring of the concepts being carried to their true resolution. It takes only a moment to realize that a reprieve for Kerans or the drowning world would be entirely false. Neither science nor technology are the victors in The Drowned World. A very careful stoicism is at the core of Ballard's position, a stoicism strong enough to tolerate a conception of the human race being terminated by the reactions of its genetic materials to the implacable thrust of cosmic forces.

Amazing Stories. XXXVII, February, 1963, pp. 120-121.
Kirkus Reviews. XXXIII, January I, 1965, p. 22.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. XXIX, July, 1965, pp. 79-82.
New Worlds. CXXIX, April, 1963, p. 128 and CLI, June, 1965, p. 117.

This article was originally published in the 1979 Survey of Science Fiction Literature, ed. Frank N. Magill, (Salem Press, Englewood Cliffs, Cal.) in 4 vols pp. 634-638

Illustrations are by Dick French, shamelessly scanned from the exorbitantly visual reprint of The Drowned World by Dragon's Dream Press in 1981.