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The Drowned World (1962)

Author: • Oct 10th, 2006 •

Category: bibliography, deep time, enviro-disaster, inner space, urban decay

Ballardian: The Drowned World

“Soon it would be too hot.”

From Amazon UK:

In the 21st century, fluctuations in solar radiation have caused the ice-caps to melt and the seas to rise. Global temperatures have climbed, and civilization has retreated to the Arctic and Antarctic circles. London is a city now inundated by a primeval swamp, to which an expedition travels to record the flora and fauna of this new Triassic Age. This early novel by the author of CRASH and EMPIRE OF THE SUN is at once a fast paced narrative, a stunning evocation of a flooded, tropical London of the near future and a speculative foray into the workings of the unconscious mind.”

On the back of my 1974 Penguin edition, there’s no blurb, simply this:

Ballard is one of the brightest new stars in post-war fiction. This tale of strange and terrible adventures in a world of steaming jungles has an oppressive power reminiscent of Conrad (Kingsley Amis).”

The Drowned World’s relevance endures, as Umberto Rossi demonstrates with his comparison of urban landscapes in Drowned and Hello America:

J.G. Ballard has dealt at least twice with the apocalyptic image of the Dead City. This somewhat disturbing landscape is the background of his novels The Drowned World and Hello America. The two mark different points on the axis of time—namely, 1962 and 1979, respectively—cutting a segment on the line of Ballard’s evolution as a writer, but also defining a period of literary history during which many significant events took place, both inside and outside SF. Between 1962 and 1979 Ballard wrote important works such as The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and The Crystal World; SF literature “came of age” thanks to P.K. Dick, K.W. Jeter, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and Brian Aldiss; and, as for North American literature, the postmodernist wave reached its zenith.”

On the other side of the coin, Justina Robinson takes Ballard to task for those old bugbears: characters as cyphers, and stylisation over emotion…

…stylisation continues throughout all the personal action in the book; a kind of old code, which to my modern eyes seems almost quaintly peculiar… A final criticism would be that the characters are all too much like ciphers acting out symbolic roles, and not sufficiently humanised to ring entirely true. Their remove from the reader and from each other, finally makes the entire story seem as though it’s been viewed through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.”

Although she does end with this:

As a whole…this book deserves its place on the masterworks’ shelf and in the history of SF and literature. It shows, even from thirty-seven years ago, that artistic and literary aspirations could be brought together with SF ideas in a seamless whole…it’s worth reading for the sheer pleasure that the scenes of opulence and decay can provide, and in the wonder of the drowned world images that Ballard was able to completely master.”

..:: ELSEWHERE ON BALLARDIAN (selected posts)
+ BBC Radio 7 adapts Drowned World
+ Flooded London
+ Munich Round-Up: An Interview with JG Ballard
+ Jon Cattapan’s Drowned World


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6 Responses »

  1. “At the end of The Drowned World the reader can only witness the ultimate divorce between humans and city, between human being as biological entity and civilization.” –Umberto Rossi

  2. The only thing I don’t like about much of his 60’s work (short stories included) is the seemingly gratuitous scientific explanations for what happens. I realize this was a product of the times but I feel it detracts in some way from the poetic flow of these pieces. Also, one could fault the Conradian racism inherent in the novels. However, The Drowned World in particular is a surrealist painting come to life and I could see a visionary film-maker doing wonders with this aspect of the novel.

  3. Hi,

    im doing a essay on this book in my university course, i really dont understand how he came up with this book?, was it his own life? how does the book reflect his life? did these things take place in his time?

  4. […] at the account of Magwitch’s flight into the marshlands. J.G. Ballard’s sci-fi work The Drowned World is included alongside these classics, looking at a post-apocalyptic London, and addressing […]

  5. […] trololololololololololo / Submerged is an upcoming game set in a drowned urban landscape, shades of Ballard, of course, but also a long-running apocalyptic theme / sort of related: Protect and Survive / […]

  6. Finally realising a long-delayed yearning: to read all of Ballard in chronological order instead of the as-available nature of how I’ve read it in fits and starts over the last 30-odd years. Thankfully now we have eBay and Amazon, it’s not hard to come by even the more obscure books (my library only ever had 4 or 5 titles that I could find).

    Anyway, chronological order already disrupted, as while waiting for The Wind From Nowhere to arrive via some tortuous surface mail route that must have involved teams of horses being changed on the postal carriage, I spotted The Drowned World at Oxfam, so got it and read it in two intense, absorbed days. And it’s Ballard’s self-acknowledged first, so I guess I’m OK.

    I recall the Dragon’s Dream illustrated edition in which I first read it, and the clever way in which the pastel illustrations made visual the limpid, pellucid prose, but in all honesty the text-only read is better. All Ballard’s hallmark stylisations of the physically strange, and its effect on the psychology of his characters, all there in one blinding cataclysm of heat and damp and silt and decay. It’s interesting to compare it to Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (which I coincidentally also read recently) as two apocalyptic watery world novels. Where Wyndham focusses on the jolly, BBC-style stiff upper-lip British post-war character, you can sense Ballard is already off on a trip into the inner mind. A clearer distinction between the 50s and 60s it’d be harder to find. I think The Drowned World remains one of my top 5 Ballardian books, purely in the sense in which he set out his stall so forcefully.

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