The Drowned World by J G Ballard

Water crashing over rail


Ballard’s The Drowned World was published in 1962. That’s a long time ago.

Set in 2145 in a tropical flooded London, it follows the biologist Dr Robert Kerans as his deals with the changed environment. The ice caps have melted. Plant and animal life is reverting to those of an earlier prehistoric age.

It’s not just the lower life forms that are changing. Men suffer from strange dreams and weird things stir in their subconscious minds. When the military mission wraps up, the doctor and two companions remain behind.

Their isolation is broken when a salvager and his band of pirates come to loot the city. Certain sensibilities of the time leak through. It may even be considered racist in parts, but that’s putting modern norms on a book more than 50 years old. In reality it’s more of a Conrad, Heart of Darkness vibe. Much of the book’s conflict and tension concern the interactions with the salvage crew.

I do not want to give away too much of the book. For me, the plot isn’t even the main driver of the story. In my opinion, it’s the devolution of man that matters -our deep subconscious dreams made manifest.

When I first read the book decades ago, it was enjoyable for the most part. The ending, however, did not sit well with me. Reading the book now, it has a totally different feel. Back when I first read it there was no layman’s discussions of climate change. Having reread the book after seeing the massive destruction of recent hurricanes, it felt almost prophetic.

There are other S/F books about a changed an flooded world. Kim Stanley Robinson’s, New York 2140 is a recent example. While it’s a good book, it lacks the depth of Ballard’s much shorter book from the 60s. The books are set just five scant years apart. Robinson’s book deals more with how the world is coping using technology and new financial structures. Ballard’s story is hardly about technology at all. It’s more about how the mind and humanity is changing.

Ballard’s book had an ending that was too ambiguous for me as a young man. My older self is more at peace with it. The Drowned World is now a classic. It holds up better than most S/F books over fifty years old. It’s the grandfather of climate change books, well worth reading.

-Raymond M. Coulombe

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