The Drowned World
Review by Nickolas Cook
Traditionally, the bulk of recently deceased (April 19th 2009) J.G. Ballard’s works have been classified as sci-fi, but in reality his works transcend the usually conservative ranks of such narrow labels. His fiction is, in most cases, about mankind, not their machinery (Crash, his classic and disturbing work about auto-erotica, is less about cars than the animism/sexuality we attach to them).
In The Drowned World we have a continuation of Ballard’s excellent apocalypse quartet, which also include The Wind From Nowhere (1961), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966). The year is 2145 and London is under water, due to a slight rise in the worldwide temperature (yeah, does that sound familiar, folks? This novel could be prophetic, trust me). In fact, a lot of the world has become either swamp or desert as the landmasses have altered, driving the bulk of humanity into the ever shrinking habitable regions of the earth.
Our story picks up with a small research science team who are about to pull out of what’s left of London – a virtual swamp, populated by giant sized lizards and man-eating alligators. Dr. Robert Kerns and several members of the team are having strange dreams in which they are devolving into something more than lizards, less than human, and being driven instinctually to remain in the swamp and make it their home. When the other scientists and military personnel finally leave, Kerns, a fellow scientist, Dr. Bodkin, and Kerns’ lover, reclusive Beatrice Dhal, hide away and watch them depart. They settle down to see what will happen as they succumb more and more to their dreams of devolution.
But along comes an albino called Strangman, leading a band of near savage pirates into their new bay home-riding on a wave of killer crocs and gators, no less. How’s that for subtlety? Strangman has his own ideas of the new world, and he plans to loot as much of the old world as possible before it comes about. An uneasy tension develops between them: Strangman wants Dahl for himself.
Finally, when Bodkin tries to stop him from draining the lagoon so he can raid the underwater remains of London, Strangman justifies placing Kerns under arrest and hunting down Bodkin and killing him. He wants to make an example of Kerns, so he crucifies him for the enjoyment of his men, allowing them to perform strange and symbolic tribalistic rituals on his body, torturing and starving him to a slow death.
Kerns manages to survive the ordeal, and tries to rescue Dahl from Strangman. But the albino gets the upper hand and is about to murder them both when the military returns to save them. Strangman allies himself with the military, still intent upon raiding the remains of London. Kerns grows frustrated and manages to flood the lagoon and escaping Strangman and the military commanders. We are left with Kerns fleeing into the swampy wilds in search of the new world, driven by his dreams and instinct.
In The Drowned World Ballard has created, at least partially, a horror narrative of the mind, where man is falling to the wayside as the world slowly destroys the old flesh in favor of the new flesh. There are scenes that are horrific, brutal – not what you’d expect in what is nominally referred to as sci-fi. But, as stated above, that goes for most of Ballard’s works. If you can find a copy of The Drowned World, get it, read it, and discover why Ballard was one of the most important speculative writers of this century.