The Drowned World

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For the 1998 song by Madonna, see Drowned World/Substitute for Love. For the 2009 Doctor Who audio story, see The Drowned World (Doctor Who audio).
The Drowned World
Cover of first edition (paperback)
Author J. G. Ballard
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Berkley Books
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 158 pp

The Drowned World is a 1962 science fiction novel by J. G. Ballard. In contrast to much post-apocalyptic fiction, the novel features a central character who, rather than being disturbed by the end of the old world, is enraptured by the chaotic reality that has come to replace it. The novel is an expansion of an out of print novella of the same title published in Science Fiction Adventures magazine in January 1962, Vol. 4, No. 24.

Plot summary[edit]

The Drowned World opens within the conventions of a hard science fiction novel, as the catastrophe responsible for the apocalypse is explained scientifically – solar radiation has caused the polar ice-caps to melt and worldwide temperature to soar, leaving the cities of northern Europe and America submerged in beautiful and haunting tropical lagoons. Yet Ballard's novel is thematically more complex than is immediately apparent. Ballard uses the post-apocalyptic world of the story to mirror the collective unconscious desires of the main characters.[2] A theme throughout Ballard's writing is the idea that human beings construct their surroundings to reflect their unconscious drives. In The Drowned World, however, a natural catastrophe causes the real world to transform itself into a dream landscape, causing the central characters to regress mentally.[2]

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… 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 Drowned World, J.G. Ballard, Millennium 1999, p. 41.

Set in the year 2145 in a post-apocalyptic and unrecognisable London, "The Drowned World" is a setting of tropical temperatures, flooding and accelerated evolution.[3] Ballard's story follows the biologist Dr Robert Kerans and his struggles against the devolutionary impulses of the environment. As part of a scientific survey unit sent to map the flora and fauna in the boiling lagoon, the tranquility and banality of their role is soon upset by the onset of strange dreams which increasingly plague the survivors' minds. Amidst talk of the army and scientific team moving north, Hardman, the only other commissioned member of the unit, a "burly, intelligent but somewhat phlegmatic man of about 30", flees the lagoon and instead heads south, a search team unable to find his whereabouts.

When the other inhabitants of the lagoon finally flee the searing sun and head north, Kerans and two associates, the beautiful but reclusive Beatrice Dahl and fellow scientist Dr Bodkin, settle down in the swamp into an isolated existence. Kerans is still tormented by his psycho-analytical tendencies, ever analysing and debating the regression of the environment into a neo-Triassic period, but the brief quiet is ended by the arrival of Strangman. A chaotic leader of a team of pirates seeking out and looting treasures within the deep, Strangman defies the remaining civilised reasons of Kerans' mind and disrupts the world that the survivors have grown to know. When Strangman and his team drain the lagoon and expose the city beneath, both Kerans and Bodkin are disgusted; the latter attempts to blow up the flood defences and re-flood the area, but without success. With Kerans and Beatrice resigned to his fate, Strangman pursues Bodkin and kills him in revenge.

Strangman and his team grow tired and suspicious of Dr Kerans, and with Beatrice now under his web of control, Kerans is imprisoned and subjected to bizarre and tribalistic rituals intended to kill him. Kerans survives, though severely weakened by the ordeals, and attempts to save Beatrice from her own imprisonment, to little avail. With the doctor and Beatrice facing the guns of Strangman and his men and no apparent excuse, the army returns to save them. With no reason or evidence to prosecute Strangman, the authorities co-operate with the captain, and Kerans once more grows frustrated by the inaction, finally taking a stand and succeeding in re-flooding the lagoon where Bodkin had failed. Wounded and weak, the doctor flees the lagoon and heads south without aim, meeting the frail and blind figure of Hardman along the way. Though he aids Hardman back to some amount of strength, he soon continues onwards on his travels south, with little idea of an aim or objective, a "second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn Sun".


  1. ^ "JG Ballard's The Drowned World Reviewed". 
  2. ^ a b "Will Self on JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World'". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  3. ^ "The Drowned World | W. W. Norton & Company". Retrieved 2016-02-06. 


  • 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.

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