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The Drowned World

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The Drowned World
Cover of first edition (paperback)
AuthorJ. G. Ballard
GenreScience fiction
PublisherBerkley Books
Publication date
Publication placeUnited Kingdom
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

The Drowned World (1962), by J. G. Ballard, is a British science fiction novel that depicts a post-apocalyptic future in which global warming, caused by increased solar radiation, has rendered uninhabitable much of the surface of planet Earth. The story follows a team of scientists who are researching the environmental developments that occurred in the flooded city of London. The novel is an expansion of the novella "The Drowned World", which was first published in Science Fiction Adventures magazine, in the January 1962 issue, Vol. 4, No. 24.

In 2010, Time magazine named The Drowned World one of the ten best novels about a post-apocalyptic world on Earth.[2] In science fiction literature, The Drowned World is considered one of the founding novels of the climate fiction sub-genre.[3]


In the mid-22nd century, violent and prolonged solar storms enlarge the Van Allen radiation belt, which deteriorated the ionosphere of the Earth. The solar radiation bombarding the planet increased surface temperatures, raised the levels of the seas, and so established a tropical climate throughout most of the planet; with most of Earth no longer habitable by humans, the survivors migrate to the North Pole and to the South Pole, which the planetary tropical climate has rendered fit for human habitation.

In 2145, under the command of Colonel Riggs, Dr Robert Kerans is part of a scientific expedition sent to catalogue the flora and fauna of the lagoon that covers the city of London.[4] In the course of their scientific work, the members of the expedition begin to experience strange dreams. Amidst talk of the army and the scientists moving north, Lieutenant Hardman, the other officer in the expedition, flees the London lagoon and heads south; a search team sent to fetch him failed.

As the other inhabitants of the lagoon finally flee the overheating sunlight and head north, Kerans and two other scientists, the reclusive Dr Beatrice Dahl and Dr Alan Bodkin, decide to remain. A group of pirates led by a man named Strangman arrives to loot treasures from the deep waters of the London lagoon. After draining the lagoon, Strangman and his pirates expose the city of London, which disgusts Kerans and Bodkin; the latter attempts and fails to explode the flood defences and re-flood the London area. Afterwards, with Kerans and Dahl resigned to their fate, Strangman vengefully pursues and kills Bodkin.

Meanwhile, Strangman and his pirates become suspicious of Kerans, and they imprison him and Dahl. The pirates torture Kerans, which he survives; although weakened by the torture, Kerans attempts and fails to free Dahl from captivity. Kerans and Dahl are confronted by Strangman and his pirates, but Colonel Riggs and the army return to rescue them. Rather than punish Strangman, the military authorities co-operate with him, which angers and frustrates Dr Kerans, who then successfully re-floods the lagoon.

Weakened by a wound, Kerans flees the lagoon and heads southwards aimlessly, and encounters a frail Lieutenant Hardman, who has become blind. After aiding Hardman, Dr. Kerans continues travelling south, like “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun”.


In The Drowned World (1962) the novelist J.G. Ballard presents characters who take advantage of societal and civilisational collapse as opportunities to pursue new modes of perception, unconscious urges, and systems of meaning.[5] In the Humanities Review, the writer Travis Eldborough said that literary works of Ballard in general, and The Drowned World in particular, allow the readers to "ask whether our sense of Self — and of the self as independent, sovereign, irrevocable — is, itself, a [social] construction, and a temporary one."[6]

The critic Brian Baker said that in the thematic subjects of The Drowned World, the novelist Ballard "explores the deep implications of time, space, psychology and evolutionary biology in order to dismantle anthropocentric narratives and, in turn, open up alternative ways of experiencing, and conceiving of, contemporary human subjectivity."[7] The scholar Jim Clarke said that in The Drowned World and in The Crystal World (1966), "Ballard's solitary protagonists traverse liminal states, often as psychological as physical, in which civilization recedes to the status of memory, and existence comes to be dominated and defined by the environment."[8]

Critical reception[edit]

In 1962, upon publication of The Drowned World, the novelist Kingsley Amis said that J.G. Ballard is "one of the brightest new stars in post-war fiction", and said that the story contains "an oppressive power, reminiscent of Conrad." In 1966, the science fiction writer Algis Budrys mocked The Drowned World as "a run, hide, slither, grope and die book".[9]

In 2018, in a retrospective assessment of the work of J.G. Ballard, the writer Will Self said that Ballard's literature went unappreciated during his life, and that, following a critical reappraisal of his work, The Drowned World shows Ballard to be the most important British writer of the late 20th century.[10] Moreover, the novelist Martin Amis said that "it is the measure of [his] creative radicalism that [Ballard] welcomes these desperate dystopias with every atom of his being", but criticized the perfunctory plot of The Drowned World, from which "we conclude that Ballard is quite unstimulated by human interaction — unless it takes the form of something inherently weird, like mob atavism or mass hysteria. What excites him is human isolation."[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "JG Ballard's The Drowned World Reviewed". jgballard.ca.
  2. ^ Romero, Frances (7 June 2010). "Top 10 Post-Apocalyptic Books". Time Magazine. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  3. ^ Clarke, Jim (2013). "Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard". Critical Survey. 25 (2): 7–21. doi:10.3167/cs.2013.250202.
  4. ^ "The Drowned World | W. W. Norton & Company". books.wwnorton.com. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  5. ^ "Will Self on JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World'". Telegraph.co.uk. 31 August 2013. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  6. ^ Elborough, Travis. "Reality is a Stage Set: Travis Elborough talks to J. G. Ballard".'" (PDF). Humanities Review. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  7. ^ Baker, Brian (March 2008). The Geometry of the Space Age: J. G. Ballard's Short Fiction and Science Fiction of the 1960s. Continuum. pp. 11–22. ISBN 9780826497260. Retrieved 2 April 2018. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help)
  8. ^ Clarke, Jim (2013). "Reading Climate Change in J.G. Ballard". Critical Survey. 25 (2): 7–21. doi:10.3167/cs.2013.250202. JSTOR 42751031.
  9. ^ Budrys, Algis (December 1966). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 125–133.
  10. ^ Self, Will (31 August 2013). "Will Self on J.G. Ballard's 'The Drowned World'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  11. ^ Amis, Martin. "Rereading The Drowned World". Retrieved 2 April 2018.


  • McCarthy, Patrick A., (1997). "Allusions in Ballard's The Drowned World", Science-Fiction Studies #72, 24:2, July, 302–10.
  • Rossi, Umberto, (1994). "Images from the Disaster Area: An Apocalyptic Reading of Urban Landscapes in Ballard's The Drowned World and Hello America", Science-Fiction Studies #62, 21:1, March, 81–97.

External links[edit]