When the World reverts to a flooded, increasingly hot pre-historic primordial State, where do you go?
BOOK REVIEW J G BALLARD THE DROWNED WORLD 1962 Berkeley Books and other publishers.
This is a science fiction novel worth handing to anyone who assumes SF is all bug eyed monsters and robots with death rays. Ballard’s classic debut work is a stunning study not just of a tropical flooded London, but a deep look at the psychological state of mind of a small group of survivors of the natural catastrophe.
Solar flares have melted the polar ice caps and World temperatures have soared. The great cities of Europe and the US have ended up mostly under-water, in jungle swamps and lagoons. Reptiles, especially marine iguanas and alligators are the dominant life form. There are unforgettable images of iguanas nesting in office blocks, looking out from the windows once used by advertising executives and accountants. The temperature rising and still rising water is steadily pushing the decimated human populace North.
As the story starts, London has been mostly abandoned. A handful of humans are still there, but facing the need to move on as the conditions renders the city uninhabitable. A small army-scientific unit moves around making tests and monitoring the situation. Dr. Robert Kerans is a marine biologist assessing the new plant and animal species, and he draws strong comparisons with the Triassic period. He sees the World reverting to its primordial state, and believes strongly that the disturbed dreams of the humans indicate our genetically imprinted memories of the distant past we see reclaiming the World. To Kerans, it is as though we are time travelling into the remote past with every step through the present and future.
After one of the researchers deserts the team and heads South into the heat, the team prepares to move north. Kerans is given to erratic mood swings, and stealing a valuable compass from the team in his uncertainty about the directions he wants to go. He stays behind in his infatuation with a woman, Beatrice Dahl, who is aloof and also reluctant to leave the city. Kerans imagines himself and her as destined to be the new Adam and Eve, the last survivors in a new Eden, restarting the human race. She seems indifferent to such a vision. There is also Dr Bodkin, who has a nostalgic yearning for the pre-Flood World, and a fascination for the now under-water planetarium in the heart of the city. When the rest of the team depart, they have London to themselves for a short period.
The three live in isolation of one another, occasionally meeting and communicating and strangely happy in their freedom. This ends with the arrival of a group of looters, led by the crazed Strangman, who is plundering art treasures from the doomed cities. He drains the lagoon flooding central London, and throws wild parties of destruction and violence. Bodkins tries unsuccessfully to re-flood the city, by breaking the dam, seeing its draining effect as more of a threat to a World he has come to love than its possible salvation. Kerans, tortured and left for dead in reprisal for Bodkins’s failed attempt to stop the mavericks, embarks on a desperate rescue attempt for Beatrice who remains a captive of the pirates.
Ultimately, Kerans must choose whom to trust, to fight or flee, who if any to travel with, travel with and whether to remain in London, head north or South. His decisions and choices seem profoundly meaningful and existentially meaningless – noble but futile.
An amazing short novel, avoiding the clichés of conventional post-apocalyptic literature, and as fascinating in its insight into the minds of the protagonists as in its vivid description of a World swallowed up and re-conquered by the primordial jungles from which it once emerged.