The Drowned World is the second of J. G. Ballard’s four “natural catastrophe” novels, following The Wind from Nowhere (1962) and preceding Burning World (1964; revised as The Drought, 1965) and The Crystal World (1966). The Drowned World projects the results of major changes to both the physical world and the human psyche, in keeping with Ballard’s consistent focus on “inner space.”
Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist, is monitoring a testing station floating over the largely submerged city of London. Solar storms have stripped the atmosphere, and Earth’s temperatures have been rising gradually for the past seventy years. World population and reproduction rates have declined radically, and humanity survives primarily within the Arctic and Antarctic circles. With Kerans in London are Dr. Alan Bodkin, his assistant; the party leader, Colonel Riggs; and Riggs’s men. Beatrice Dahl, a beautiful eccentric, has refused to evacuate and lives nearby in a partly submerged apartment tower. The action centers on the gradual changes in Kerans, Bodkin, Dahl, and others as they dream of the great archaic Sun and develop a desire to move south into the new and virtually impenetrable tropical jungle of mud, mosquitoes, and sixty-foot-high ferns. Bodkin explains the dreams and desires as a subconscious recapitulation, at the cellular level, of an “archeopsychic past.”
Hardman, a helicopter pilot, is the first to succumb to the powerful dreams; escaping from the party, he forges south into the jungle. The party abandons the station, but Kerans, Bodkin, and Dahl remain. A party of black looters with two thousand alligator-watchdogs, led by Strangman, a vicious white pirate king, takes over the site, captures Kerans, and subjects him to humiliation amounting to torture. Strangman’s men erect dikes in order to drain Leicester Square to loot the area. Bodkin is killed by Strangman’s men after his futile attempt to dynamite the dikes.
Kerans escapes and tries to rescue Dahl from Strangman. He fails and is rescued in turn by Riggs and his men, who have returned on patrol. Kerans then dynamites the dikes and moves off to the south, toward the burning Sun. He encounters Hardman, a blackened husk of a man, and tries to help him, but Hardman flees to the south. At the novel’s end, Kerans continues to struggle south, apparently moving toward death but also toward a strange reconciliation with his inner nature.