“Soon it would be too hot.” Thus begins J. G. Ballard’s cli-fi classic, The Drowned World. And, indeed, soon it would be too hot.
Published in 1962, Ballard’s lyrical, if uneven, novel describes a world that is almost entirely underwater. The melting of the polar caps and glaciers have transformed Europe into a mass of lagoons and jungles, while the American midwest has become a gulf that extends to Hudson Bay. And because of this redistribution of water, the median temperature at the Equator is 180 and rising. Ironically, the most habitable areas for humans are now the Arctic north and Antarctica.
The Drowned World is a strange read, full of lush description yet occasionally atonal. Ballard’s style recalls the weirdness of Anna Kavan’s imaginative prose and the cynical perspicuity of W. Somerset Maugham’s tropical fiction. Yet there is an undertone of the technicality of an engineering manual, passages that seem purely mechanical. One senses that Ballard approached this novel from a scientific hypothesis rather than plot or character.
Not all the characters are enthusiastic about the prospect of human survival. The hero, Robert Kerans, a marine biologist, is languidly philosophical about the doomed world. For years he has worked with a group of scientists on biological surveys of the world’s harbors. He thinks the work is pointless, and is sure that human beings cannot reclaim the cities.
At the moment the scientists are in London, where the primary inhabitants are oversized iguanas, alligators, basilisks, and mosquitoes. But the drowned, deserted cities are not without comfort. Kerans lives in a luxurious air-conditioned penthouse at the Ritz. His charming girlfriend, Beatrice, has a sumptuous apartment in a high-rise. They plan to stay behind when the scientists and military leave.
Why do Robert and Beatrice want to stay in the drowned world? These two seem like characters in a D. H. Lawrence novel. It seems right to them to stay; they know how to handle themselves around the lizards, but they also accept the fact that the drowned city is their home. And, though this is unstated, they feel that, now that the Earth is regressing into the Triassic age, humans have already done enough damage.
And they see great beauty in London, despite the odorous water. Robert observes from his balcony:
In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the somber green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion broken when a giant water-spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.
There isn’t much plot, but something does happen in the book: Robert’s well-meaning military colleagues attempt to force them to leave London when they pull out. And immediately after their departure a brutal gang moves in.
But the plot does not matter much. The strange philosophical underpinnings and the occasional poetic descriptions are at the heart of the book.