The Drowned World

J. G. Ballard
The Drowned World Cover

The Drowned World


Spoiler alert.

The Drowned World is unlike any other science fiction book I can think of. It's not weird or outlandish, just different. It doesn't go into much detail to explain why, but the world is getting hotter, apparently the sun is expanding, and the seas are rising. Most of what remains of humanity has fled to the arctic and antarctic regions as the world has heated up over the last several decades. Our band of characters is on a militarily supported research mission in a warm region, which we eventually learn is in London. Only the upper floors of tall buildings are above the water level. The vegetation and animal life have devolved into the types one would find in a tropical Triassic period. The writing is engaging but, to me, seemed flawed. Would people really act that way under these conditions?

As they prepare to abandon the research station, Lieutenant Hardman disappears from sickbay where he was being treated for psychological issues. To explain Hardman's condition Dr. Bodkin has hypothesized that the human mind is devolving back to its ancestral prehistoric roots. This really didn't explain to me why Hardman didn't want to return to the group's northern base but would rather stay in the overheated, swampy, dangerous jungle. Several members of the group were having similar weird dreams that Bodkin also ascribed to his so-called 'neuronics' theory. At the last minute, Bodkin, Dr. Robert Kerans our protagonist , and Beatrice Dahl, a stunningly beautiful young woman whose father had owned much of the drowned local real estate, all refused to board the returning vessel and so Colonel Briggs, unable to wait any longer, left them.

Bodkin's neuronics explanation was unconvincing to me and so I attributed Hardman's disappearance to his being off his rocker, but when the three civilians all chose to stay in this deteriorating situation--well, I guess without it, it wouldn't have been the same story.

I kind of expected one of the men, Kerans in particular, to start hitting on Beatrice, but they lived more or less in individual isolation. Then one day a hydroplane shows up, skippered by Strangman, dressed in white, and crewed by his gang of black, mulatto, and quadroon machete wielding henchmen. Captain Strangman, pirate/treasure hunter, has the personality of a mix of Captain Nemo and Captain Queeg. He gradually becomes a mix of Captain Hook and Jack, from The Lord of the Rings. All this takes place in a lagoon formed by tall buildings and the silt that has collected in and around them. Strangman, blocks the only channel connecting the lagoon to the open sea and pumps out the water to gain access to the buildings for the purpose of looting. Bodkins is killed, Kerans is tortured, and Beatrice is made an unwilling guest. Kerans manages to escape and tries to rescue Beatrice, whom I expected to have been raped. But she remains unmolested. Colonel Briggs and his men show up just in time to rescue them from Strangman and his men. Briggs is somehow defensive of the nefarious Strangman, saying the law is on his side. Kerans blows up the dam, floods the lagoon, and takes it on the lam. He heads south. The temperature climbs to 150 degrees. Kerans discoverss Hardman, just barely alive and nurses him back to a semblance of health. Hardman disappears and Kerans continues his trek south.

The motivations of the characters is kind of a puzzle. I expected that Hardman might show up at the lagoon after Briggs and company left, but he didn't. I expected Beatrice to be the love interest, as she would have been in a movie made from this book, but she remained chaste and aloof. I had no clue why Dr. Bodkin tried to blow up the dam. I don't understand why Colonel Briggs sided with Strangman after he and his men intervened with a machine gun. I have no idea of what motivated Kerans to stay in the lagoon and then later to head south. The villain Strangman was probably the only character whose motivation I understood. It was a good read, kind of a head scratcher, but pretty intense.