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Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

Where did I get this book? The library. I love my library.

In J.G. Ballard’s hypnotic, nightmarish 1962 novel The Drowned World, the planet is heating up, the seas have risen to cover the world’s cities, and the last remnant of humanity clings to survival in Greenland. If this sounds like a prescient take on climate change, that’s not quite the point; the throbbing sun in Ballard’s surreal vision heralds the world’s devolution into a reptilian-dominated lagoon and man’s return to a more primitive state.

Kerans, a scientist born after the cataclysmic floods, is attached to a military squad tasked with visiting the once great cities of Europe and testing the environment. He holds himself apart from the other men, choosing to reside in an air-conditioned suite in the ruins of the Ritz, traveling by boat to the testing station and to visit the city’s lone resident, a mysterious woman named Beatrice Dahl.

Beatrice lives in a state of dazed inertia in a high-rise hotel suite, surrounded by the last trappings of her family’s formerly opulent lifestyle. When the military unit, headed by Colonel Riggs, announce their imminent departure, it is expected that Beatrice will leave with them. The temperature is going up, massive rainstorms are headed straight for them, and soon the area will be completely uninhabitable. Yet Beatrice is resolved to stay behind, and Kerans is inclined to stay with her.

Haunting dreams of a pulsing, ancient sun call to Beatrice, Kerans, and his colleague, the much older scientist Bodkin. Bodkin remembers the city from his childhood, before the floods forced his family to flee. Ultimately all three refuse to leave, eluding the efforts of Colonel Riggs to compel their departure. The three spend their days in torpor and isolation, sleeping through the worst of the heat and ceding the lagoons to the giant iguanas, until the arrival of a brutal scavenger named Strangman and his crew.

Strangman believes Bodkin, Kerans, and Beatrice have information about hidden treasures in the swamped city and his initial creepy hospitality quickly turns to menace once he realizes they have no secrets to reveal. Strangman’s African crew are depicted as little better than beasts, and Kerans is eventually offered up as a sacrifice to appease their bloodthirst.

While the plot includes scenes of action and violence, events take place in such a suffocating atmosphere of tropical torpor that even the prospect of death is viewed through a heat-stroked haze of indifference. Ballard describes the lethargy that overcomes Kerans and the others in terms that evoke a return to the womb, and the scientists discuss man’s descent along the “spinal levels” of evolution, a change foretold in their dreams and one they apparently accept as inevitable.

The moody drowned world of this novel possesses the mind like a fever dream. I was happy to finally shake it off, but its unsettling effects linger on.

Genre: Surreal tropical dystopia.

Read it if: You live somewhere really cold and/or dry; you wish Heart of Darkness had included an army of crocodiles; you fantasize about having an air-conditioned suite at the Ritz during the end of the world.

Skip it if: Your malaria meds are already giving you vivid waking nightmares; your air conditioner isn’t working; you prefer dystopias with a young “chosen one” protagonist who will eventually save the world.

Movie-worthy: It would be a super-trippy movie, very artsy, possibly French.