The Drowned World: Diving into the pellucid depths of our racial memories

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The Drowned World (1962) is J.G. Ballard’s best apocalyptic work, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but if you are thinking of an action-packed adventure where a plucky group of survivors clings to decency amid the collapse of civilization, this is the wrong book. Ballard was interested in ‘inner space,’ and while he sometimes adopted SF tropes in his books and short stories, his works most often featured natural disasters, the collapse of civilization, lonely astronauts, grim future urban landscapes, and weird obsessions with technology and mechanization. His main intent was to explore the psychology of human beings trapped in modern urban societies (and what happens when these societies collapse), and most of his protagonists are fatalistic, detached, and not particularly concerned about saving the world. It would very interesting to compare this to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), since both are literary works that employ genre elements but have vastly different agendas and conclusions about the human condition.

J.G. Ballard is probably best known for his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), relating the story of when he and his family were living in Shanghai and were placed in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. The book was made into a film by Stephen Spielberg in 1987, which brought the author much greater attention than before. However, his importance to the SF genre dates back to the early 1960s and 1970s, when he was a pivotal figure in the New Wave movement (inspired by experimental writers like William S. Burroughs), known for his efforts to inject more literary themes to a genre previously known for rocket ships, robots, and aliens. In 1962 he said “science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extra-terrestrial life forms, (and) galactic wars”. However, his focus on bleak psychological inner landscapes was certainly not always welcome to SF readers looking for fun, exciting escapes to exotic worlds. So there are plenty of people who don’t want Ballard associated with the genre, and my impression is that the author himself didn’t have a particularly close relationship with traditional SF fandom. He was, however, closely associated with New Worlds, a British SF magazine edited by Michael Moorcock from the early 1960s. Other major New Wave writers include Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, Thomas M. Disch, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and many others. Ballard said in a 1962 New Worlds article:

I’ve often wondered why s-f shows so little of the experimental enthusiasm which has characterized painting, music and the cinema during the last four or five decades, particularly as these have become wholeheartedly speculative, more and more concerned with the creation of new states of mind, constructing fresh symbols and languages where the old cease to be valid. …

The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that need to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. In the past the scientific bias of s-f has been towards the physical sciences – rocketry, electronics, cybernetics – and the emphasis should switch to the biological sciences. Accuracy, that last refuge of the unimaginative, doesn’t matter a hoot. …It is that inner space-suit which is still needed, and it is up to science fiction to build it!

Although I cannot describe the full impact of New Wave SF on the genre itself in the context of this review, suffice to say that it had a strong reaction among SF readers and writers. It introduced new literary approaches to the traditional Golden Age stories and imagery, so the field now features a wide range of themes and styles, both old-school and experimental. Regardless of why type of SFF you prefer, it’s undeniable that the field matured and expanded tremendously during that period of the 60s and 70s. It’s no coincidence that society and the world itself were also undergoing profound changes as well.

In any case, let’s get back to The Drowned World. The story outline is quite simple. An increase in solar flare activity has melted the polar ice caps, increasing ocean levels and flooding most cities and coastlines around the world. Mass migrations, starvation, conflicts, and chaos have reigned, but Ballard dispatches that period in a few pen-strokes, taking us far into the future of 2154 and a flooded London dominated by lagoons, tropical plants, lizards, bats, and intense heat and humidity. The city is deserted other than a scattering of human scavengers and eccentric holdouts. Our protagonist is biologist Dr. Robert Kerans, who is part of a small scientific survey team sent to catalog the flora and fauna of this transformed landscape. Here is a description from the book:

All the way down the creek, perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores, the iguanas watched them go past, their hard frozen heads jerking stiffly… Without the reptiles, the lagoons and the creeks of office blocks half-submerged in the immense heat would have had a strange dream-like beauty, but the iguanas and basilisks brought the fantasy down to earth. As their seats in the one-time board-rooms indicated, the reptiles had taken over the city. Once again they were the dominant form of life.

Along with fellow scientist Dr. Bodkin, his only other companion is Beatrice Dahl, a woman who occupies one of the abandoned hotels and lives a life of bored decadence and ennui, living off the stored food supplies of a collapsed civilization, along with portable generators to power the A/C systems that can sustain comfort amid temperatures that reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. The two scientists languidly catalog their discoveries, but it is clear that this activity is pointless, because humanity will likely never reconquer the lost cities of its peak. There is also a military unit dispatched with them, partly for protection and partly to explore. However, Dr. Kierans and his companions begin to experience strange dreams of ancient lagoons and jungles, which they theorize come from humanity’s racial consciousness of events as far back as the Triassic Age. It seems far-fetched, but Ballard writes about it with conviction and detail:

And how else can you explain the universal but completely groundless loathing of the spider, only one species of which has ever been known to sting? Or hatred of snakes and reptiles? Simply because we all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form.

These are the oldest memories on earth, the time codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories. From the enzymes controlling the carbon-dioxide cycle, to the organization of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the pyramid cells of the mid-brain. Each is a record of a thousand decisions taken in a chemical crisis.

Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.

Ballard dives deep into his understanding of the human unconscious, and while it may not be in keeping with current schools of thought, and I unfortunately am not familiar with Jungian or Freudian psychology, I certainly found his ideas intriguing and seductive while listening to the audiobook, to the point where I went to the trouble to transcribe these passages for your reading pleasure: 

The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.

The further down the Central Nervous System you move, from the hindbrain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae… is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and the air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory ribcages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and the Triassic Eras.

If you like, you could call this the psychology of total equivalence, let’s say neuronics for short, and dismiss it as biological fantasy. However, I am convinced as we move back through geophysical time, so we reenter the amnionic corridor, and move back through spinal and archeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch, each with a distinct ecological terrain, its own flora and fauna, as recognizable to anyone else as they would be to a traveler in a Wellsian time machine. Except that this is no scenic railway, but a total reorientation of the personality. If we let these buried phantoms master us as we reappear, we’ll be swept back helplessly in the floodtide like pieces of flotsam.

When the military unit insists on returning north, Dr. Kierans and his companions contrive to remain in the enervating, intense heat of London. They encounter a sinister group of scavengers led by a diabolic but charming figure named Strangman, who takes a liking to Kierans and Beatrice in the hopes that they will share knowledge of where to find the best treasures in the drowned city. They dive to explore a submerged planetarium, which is described in hypnotic detail that explicitly recalls a return to the womb, but Kierans also experiences a near-death incident, which does not seem to overly concern him. When Strangman finds a way to shore up a lagoon and drain it, the exposed city is like the unveiling of the unconscious and breaking of the dream state that Kierans and his companions have fallen into. Fellow biologist Bodkins describes it well: 

To use the symbolic language of Bodkin’s scheme, he would then be abandoning the conventional estimates of time in relation to his own physical needs, and entering the world of total neuronic time, where the massive intervals of the geological timescale calibrated his existence. Here, a million years was the shortest working unit, and the problems of food and clothing were as irrelevant as they would have been to a Buddhist contemplative lotus-squatting before an empty rice bowl under the protective canopy of the million-headed cobra of eternity.

That wasn’t a true dream, but an ancient organic memory millions of years old. The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm have been awakened. The expanding sun and rising temperatures are driving you back down to the spinal levels into the drowned seas of the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronic psyche. This is the lumbar transfer, total psychic recall. We really remember these swamps and lagoons. 

Finally, Kierans and Beatrice find themselves alone, freed from both the military unit and Strangman’s gang, and instead of the credits rolling as they look hopefully into the future, planning to rebuild civilization and learn from the mistakes of the past (like every ridiculous Hollywood post-apocalyptic fable), they instead languidly slip back into their neuronic past, satisfied to lose themselves in antiquity.

The continued increase in temperature and the enervating humidity made it almost impossible to leave the hotel after ten o’clock in the morning. The lagoons and the jungle were filled with fire until four o’clock, by when he was usually too tired to do anything but return to bed. All day he sat by the shuttered windows of the suites, listening from the shadows to shifting movement of mesh cage as it expanding and contracted with the heat.

Already many of the surrounding buildings had disappeared beneath the proliferating vegetation. Huge club mosses and calamites blotted out the white rectangular faces, shading the lizards in their window lairs. Beyond the lagoon, the endless tides of silt had begun to accumulate into enormous glittering banks, here and there overtopping the shoreline like the immense tippings of some distant goldmine. The light drummed against his brain, bathing the submerged levels below his consciousness, carrying him downwards to warm pellucid depths, where the nominal realities of time and space ceased to exist. Guided by his dreams, he was moving back into his emergent past, through a succession of ever stranger landscapes centered on the lagoon, each of which seemed to represent one of his own spinal levels.

At times the circle of water was spectral and vibrant, at others slack and murky. The shore apparently formed of shale, like the dull, metallic skin of a reptile. Yet again the soft beaches would glow invitingly with a glassy carmine sheen, the sky warm and limpid, the emptiness of the long stretches of sand total and absolute, filling with an exquisite and tender anguish. He longed for this descent into psycheoneuronic time to reach its conclusion, repressing the knowledge that when it did, the external world would become alien and unbearable.

There’s no question that The Drowned World is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s also fair to say that he wrote some of the strangest and most challenging books that have been associated with SF, even though many would reject them. The New Wave movement has left its mark on the genre.

The most extreme examples of Ballard would be Crash (1973), his bizarre tribute to the eroticism of the car crash that was filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996, and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), an experimental collection of ‘condensed novels’ that was so controversial that Nelson Doubleday has the entire first US printing destroyed out of concerns for legal action, since stories had titles like “Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” “Love and Napalm: Export USA,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” I doubt I would ever want to read these books, but it is important to note that they were written.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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5 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    Another very fine review, Stuart! I really enjoyed this novel when I read it several decades back, but recall liking Ballard’s later novel, “The Crystal World,” even more. It was a bit more hallucinatory than this one, if memory serves….

  2. I can see Ballard has to be added back onto my “must re-read” list!

  3. Sandy, that’s interesting that you liked The Crystal World better. I listened to both books back to back twice, and I far preferred The Drowned World! You can see my reasoning when I post my next review.

    Marion, sorry to add to your re-read list, but it’s short and has deep depths~

  4. I see what you did there, Stuart!

  5. You know I like to dive deep beneath the surface to those pellucid depths, Marion~

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