The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard


This British SF novel from 1962 depicts a London city centre which has been submerged by the sea following the effects of global warming. Here, Ballard presents many images where nature and the remnants of civilisation meet: iguanas in former board rooms, submerged planetariums, giant fern trees among high rise towers, pirates in tuxedos. Ballard’s detached and elegant prose renders these images vividly, in a surreal way.

The plot follows the psychological development of a close-knit group who choose not to go Northwards with the rest of humanity in search of cooler climes. Instead, they choose to remain in London, whose beating sun and warm waters begin a process of psychic metamorphosis:

“This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.”

The Drowned World lures Keirans and the group, as London becomes a place of beauty and quiet rapture, a place seeming to offer a womb-like homecoming for their subconscious. The story follows the attempts of Keirans and his small group to live the rest of their lives on these new personal terms. In their way are the meddling forces of civilised society: a stolid Colonel with his army detachment, and a professional looter/salvager. The latter is an intriguing antagonist, a white suited Kurtz-like figure who is characterised by his manic-depressive manner, and flotilla of giant alligators.

Overall this is a meditatively written book full of surrealist imagery and well observed psychological passages, to be recommended to readers looking for a post-apocalyptic tale that is more cerebral.

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