The Drowned World

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

The Drowned World is a 1962 science fiction novel by British writer J. G. Ballard. The novel depicts a post-apocalyptic future in which global warming has caused the majority of the Earth to become uninhabitable. The story follows a team of scientists researching ongoing environmental developments in a flooded, abandoned London. The novel is an expansion of a novella of the same title first published in Science Fiction Adventures magazine in January 1962, Vol. 4, No. 24.

In 2010, Time Magazine named The Drowned World one of the top 10 best post-apocalyptic books.[2] The novel has been identified as a founding text in the literary genre known as climate fiction.[3]


In the late 21st Century, a series of sudden violent and prolonged solar storms lasting several years enlarged the Van Allen belts and diminished the Earth's gravitational hold upon the outer layers of the ionosphere. Solar radiation bombarded the planet, causing temperatures to rise and a global tropical climate to form. The polar ice caps melted, causing sea levels to rise. With most of the planet no longer habitable for humans, the survivors migrated to the newly-hospitable poles.

In 2145, Dr Robert Kerans is part of a scientific survey unit under the leadership of Colonel Riggs sent to catalogue the flora and fauna of a lagoon located within what was once the city of London.[4] The members of the expedition begin to experience strange dreams. Amidst talk of the army and scientific team moving north, Lieutenant Hardman, the only other commissioned member of the unit, flees the lagoon and instead heads south, a search team unable to prevent his escape.

As the other inhabitants of the lagoon finally flee the searing sun and head north, Kerans and two associates, the reclusive Beatrice Dahl and fellow scientist Dr Alan Bodkin, opt to remain. A team of pirates, led by an individual named Strangman, arrives to loot treasures within the deep. 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 their fate, Strangman pursues Bodkin and kills him in revenge.

Strangman and his team grow tired and suspicious of Kerans, and with Beatrice now under Strangman's web of control, Kerans is imprisoned and subjected to bizarre punishments intended to kill him. He survives, although severely weakened by the ordeals, and attempts to save Beatrice from her imprisonment, to little avail. With Kerans and Beatrice facing the guns of Strangman and his men, the army under Colonel Riggs returns to save them at the last moment. The authorities co-operate with Strangman rather than punish him 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, Kerans flees the lagoon and heads south without aim, meeting the frail and blind figure of Hardman along the way. After he aids Hardman back to some amount of strength, he soon continues onwards on his travels south, "a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun".


As with many of Ballard's later works, the novel depicts characters who seize on apocalyptic or chaotic breakdowns in civilization as opportunities to pursue new modes of perception, unconscious urges, or systems of meaning.[5] Writer Travis Eldborough stated that Ballard's work, and this novel in particular, allows us to "ask whether our sense of self—and of self as independent, sovereign, irrevocable—is itself a construction, and a temporary one."[6]

Critic Brian Baker states that The Drowned World "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] Scholar Jim Clarke stated that in the novel and its 1966 successor The Crystal World, "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]


Following the novel's release, writer Kingsley Amis called Ballard "one of the brightest new stars in post-war fiction," and described the book as containing "an oppressive power reminiscent of Conrad." Galaxy Science Fiction writer Algis Budrys mocked The Drowned World as "a run, hide, slither, grope and die book".[9]

In a retrospective piece for The Telegraph, writer Will Self noted that Ballard's work was unappreciated during his life, and that following a critical reappraisal of his work, "The Drowned World shows him to be the most important British writer of the late 20th century."[10] Writer Martin Amis states that "it is the measure of [Ballard's] creative radicalism that he welcomes these desperate dystopias with every atom of his being," but criticized the novel's perfunctory plotting, stating that "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]


  1. ^ "JG Ballard's The Drowned World Reviewed".
  2. ^ "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". Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  5. ^ "Will Self on JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World'". 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. "The Geometry of the Space Age: J. G. Ballard's Short Fiction and Science Fiction of the 1960s". J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  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. "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.

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