The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Title: The Drowned World

Author: J.G. Ballard

Genre: Science Fiction

Year: 1962

Soon it would be too hot.

Global warming has messed up the planet’s equilibrium. In less than a century, the polar caps have melted, most of the planet is engulfed in violent rains, and man’s largest cities lay at the bottom of huge lagoons, with the top floors of skyscrapers lining their edges. Gigantic tropical plants litter the few strands of silt and ground still above the waterline, while reptiles are reclaiming the planet for themselves.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist working with a team to analyse and categorise the changes, but the quiet peace of the submerged cities seems to call to him, and strange dreams afflict everyone who spends too long in the lagoons.

A closer look

The Drowned World is one of Ballard’s first novels, and I believe it really shows. While the idea is brilliant and more actual than ever, the executions is lacklustre to say the least.

The cause of the global warming in this novel is not the emissions and pollution caused by humans, but a series of abnormal solar storms that basically fried Earth’s atmosphere, to the point were the average temperature in the London area is around 100 degrees fahrenheit (a little under 40° C) and most of the places are entirely submerged. There is also a belt of tropical-like rains that is expanding from the equator toward the poles, significantly reducing the inhabitable land.
Mammals are struggling to survive, the human race itself is highly reduced and having difficulties reproducing, while reptiles are absolutely thriving. It’s a pretty messed up situation overall.

In this setting, we explore what’s going on through the perspective of Dr Robert Kerans, a forty years old biologist. Ballard tries to keep us anchored to him at all times – there are no scenes in which he’s not present himself, for once – but at the same time he rarely gets into his thoughts and from time to time slips in bits of information that Kerans shouldn’t possess.

We are also informed that most of the people on staff are plagued by haunting dreams, explained to Kerans by a colleague of his as dreams of the deep time. What is deep time, I hear you ask?
Well, apparently there is a set of ancestral memories (called organic memory by the characters) embedded in our DNA, that are being triggered by the Earth returning to conditions similar to those of prehistoric times. These dreams are not fully explored, sadly, but by the few snippets we get it’s mostly jungle and a big bright sun in the sky, pulsing to the dreamer’s own heartbeat. At the same time, people experiencing these dreams grow more and more detached from reality, perceiving it only as a veil beyond which lies the real “time”, ie the one they experience in the dreams. The vagueness is effective in creating unease, at least, but I would have loved to know something more about this.

And this is where the good of the book ends, and the problems start. I’ll try not to go into spoilers, even though the book has been out for more that fifty years already, so it’s hardly fresh news.

First of all, the plot seems to be going in one direction, but then a new character – or group of characters – is introduced and the plot takes a U turn for a whole section of the book before remembering where it was supposed to go. I don’t feel like all of that really made sense or added much to the plot, and I am still perplexed. The last part of the novel – maybe the last thirty pages or so? – return on track to finish the story that we were following in the first half, but the ending feels almost rushed by that point, and it makes you question why the protagonist had to go through all of what happened, if none of it really affected the ending – aside from postponing it a little longer, I guess.

The characters are also not well developed. Aside from the protagonist, there are three who are present more than the rest.
One of them is Bodkin, a colleague of Kerans, whose usefulness is debatable. I’m convinced the novel would have worked the same way, had he not be there.
Then there’s Beatrice, the love interest, even though it’s never exactly clear her relationship to the protagonist. She spends eighty percent of the time being alarmed about something and the rest being apathetic. She’s also described as having “supple” body or skin at least three times in the first scene she appears in. Another character whose usefulness eludes me.

And then we get to the villain, Strangman. He is a caricature of a bad guy, an albino guiding a group of black people from submerged city to submerged city, scavenging for valuable memorabilia of the times before the warming. He’s the one who derails the plot and I’m still wondering what was the point. He takes an interest in Beatrice and Kerans, and all the time you’re left wondering if he likes them or means them harm. It’s pretty confused, and the fact that his mood swings wildly doesn’t help at all. The part of the novel where he was present was my least favourite, with the exception of a couple of scenes in total where Ballards managed to recapture the wonder of the setting for a little while. I really don’t see what the meaning of the whole Strangman situation was, and they way it gets resolved smells strongly of Deus Ex Machina.
Also, the way the black people are portrayed is not the best, so go in knowing that if you’re planning on reading this novel.

The technology present in the story is very dated – there’s talk of radio communication, for example, but not even a phone in sight – and that’s very unrealistic considering the novel is supposed to take place around the year 2145.
The writing style was also a bit hard to follow at times, at least for me, and in general the plot lacked any kind of tension. I daresay that this is one of those scifi classics that haven’t aged well at all.

Read it for the imagery and the idea at the base of it, if it sounds interesting, but if you’re looking for a sweeping tale about a possible future, this might be the wrong choice.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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