The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
Published in 1962
Genre: Science fiction
“Soon it would be too hot.”
This is a fitting first sentence for a book about the aftermath of intense sun flares. The Drowned World, written in 1962 by J. G. Ballard, answers the question of what life would be like if the jungles and wildlife were allowed to regain their control of the world in the wake of cataclysmic climate change. Following the life of a scientist studying the levels of water and jungle growth, the story looks into the psychological effect such a transformation would take on humans, in addition to the ways in which they would survive.
Sun flares have raised global temperatures and immense rainstorms have flooded much of the world; the remnants of humanity has moved toward the cooler climates of the poles in order to survive. In the wake of these global changes, jungles, reptiles, and insects have flourished and established dominance over the world. The Drowned World follows Robert Karens; a scientist travelling to different lagoons in Europe that used to be cities. Soon, many people on the expedition begin having the same recurring dream of giant reptiles, the sun, and a pulsing beat. Doctor Bodkin has a theory that it is because they are reverting psychologically to a state of ancestral perspective. They are told that they will be leaving to head back north, and while Kerans wants to, he isn’t as sure once he speaks with his colleague and once-lover, Beatrice.
Kerans, Beatrice, and Bodkin decide to stay behind, and six weeks after the others leave, a scavenger in a white suit named Strangman arrive to seek treasure. Strangman is able to dam and drain the lagoons in order to reclaim cities and their plunder, but then becomes psychotic and tries to sacrifice Kerans, who saved by the skin of his teeth.
The Drowned World definitely has an interesting premise, but it is bogged down by a personal story, which wouldn’t be an issue of the main character were written better. He isn’t very well-built; we don’t know about much of his history, just enough to get us where we are and start the action. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the ending less impactful. We don’t know much about the reason for being in lagoons other than seeing if water level/animals are changing. What is life like back at the poles and why don’t the people want to go back? A lot of unanswered, and probably more interesting, questions.
This lack of overall world building makes it seem like the story could have been told in the jungles that already exist. Perhaps a scientific station loses contact for some years and a recovery team comes back to find it covered in vines and surrounded by more reptiles. Not the best premise, but many of The Drowned World’s subplots could spin off from there, showing that its execution isn’t specific to the situation of a drowned world. Ballard’s writing is very summary heavy; there is not a lot of dialogue in comparison to action which works due to solitary nature of characters. His writing is vivid and makes use of multi-syllabic images, often smacking of poetry in his descriptions before ending a section or chapter.
Overall, The Drowned World is a decent science fiction story that puts forth a perplexing premise. It does get sidetracked from what makes it interesting by minimal world-building and is bogged down by rather flat characters. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this story, but I will say that it was enjoyable while I read it. It is a shorter novel that ends in a way that is appropriate to its execution; if nothing else, it may serve as the jumping off point for one of my own stories, and there is much worse to take away from a book than that.
Verdict: 3 London lagoons out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of science fiction, those who like the little buildings that are put in fish tanks, reptiles, fans of the word “lagoon”, people who enjoy adverbs, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and fans of post-war English science fiction.
Not recommended for: Those who dislike multi-syllabic words, fans of character driven stories, those who dislike reptiles, or the easily bored.