Review of ‘The Drowned World’ by J G Ballard


This science fiction novel may be over fifty years old but it retains its neurotic potency even today with the descent into archeo-psychic madness of its few protagonists during fateful months in the Triassic neo-world of a submerged London.

It is a novel where every word seeks to counter the titular sea; where the “colossal fireball” that is the sun makes certain that “the water would seem to burn”. The prose style is symptomatic of the earlier novels of Eric Ambler, the descriptive passages dig further back into the brilliance of Jules Verne. It is an orgiastic feast of adjectives that lend to the chronic introversion of the main characters.

The story is centred on the biologist, Kerans, who chooses to stay in the lagoon that is a London swamped under rising sea levels on an Earth that is sixty or more degrees hotter than the temperate environment of the modern reader. His decision to stay is linked to a uterine dream-state that is best explained by the concept of DNA memories, dormant but increasingly active in a human cerebral cortex forced to respond to the massive change in climate. Once he has decided not to join Riggs, who has been ordered to leave their solitary scientific existence, he stays with his casual partner, Beatrice Dahl whilst she becomes “a mad queen in a horror drama”.

It is a drama that is breathed life into by the appearance of the Dr No-esque figure of Strangman, a man on the verge of his own insanity with his band of ‘pirates’. A leader ruling through both voodoo-istic charisma and a psychotic understanding of leadership through fear, his draining of the lagoon allows the group to investigate the sewer that is London all the while fighting both inner demons and the caiman predators. “Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp”. With a nightmare comes pain and death, and it is this that Strangman brings as he seeks to “drown Neptune [Kerans] in an even more magical and potent sea.”

The powerful descriptive narrative is what holds the isolationist science-fiction theme of this novel up. It is rich, eloquent, bold, erudite…it is from a time where stories showed you what the world looked like, where the action was secondary to the belief.

“the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails.”

By the end, Shakespeare’s Caliban has defeated Prospero and the tempest is free to cascade water back into the corpse of London, washing away the stain of Strangman’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. Kerans heads south, the only place he can go, “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”

If you are an introvert, you will truly understand this novel in all its isolationist glory, understand that the eternal lonely quest south is an enduring metaphor for seeking a kind of benevolent misanthropy. As Kerans’ acknowledges: “ Much as he needed Beatrice Dahl, her personality intruded upon the absolute freedom he required for himself. By and large, each of them would have to pursue his or her own pathway through the time jungles , mark their own points of no return…their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams.”

Categories: J G Ballard, Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

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1 reply

  1. You’ve succinctly encapsulated what I love about this novel – thanks!


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