Don’t be fooled by the car crashes and explosions in J.G. Ballard’s writings.  
Or by the descriptions of flesh wounds and injuries that read like extracts from
a coroner’s report. In particular, don’t pay any attention
to the techno talk that might lull you into thinking that you
are reading a science fiction story.  

All that’s just there to distract you.

The really
weird stuff in a Ballard book always takes place
inside his characters' heads.  At a time when other sci-fi
writers were obsessed with outer space, as Martin Amis
has wisely noted, Ballard was fixated on
inner space. And
the psychic space of a Ballard protgaonist is a cabinet of
horrors, filled with neuroses that make Freud’s clinical
studies read like
The Boy Scout Handbook by comparison.

See Also
Crash by J.G. Ballard (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard (reviewed by Ted Gioia)
The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard (reviewed by Ted Gioia)

The Drowned World is a case in point. At first glance, this book seems
to be one more forerunner of the increasingly popular global warming
novels now lined up on the sci-fi shelves at your local bookstore. Ballard
described many variants on the apocalypse in his early fiction, apparently
believing, along with Robert Frost, that the world might end in fire or ice,
and that various other elemental forces would also suffice. But Ballard
was especially fond of global warming, and covered both the man-made
hypothesis (in his novel
The Burning World) and the naturally-caused
alternative (in this volume). Solar activity sends the temperatures rising
The Drowned World, melting the polar caps and raising midday
temperatures in central Europe up to a toasty 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

But here's where Ballard deviates from the rest of the sci-fi pack. His
main characters love the new inferno.  While everyone else is heading
north, where temperatures stay in the cool nineties, these fanatics want
to go south.  Towards the equator.  

And I thought my wife's sweat yoga class was strange.

But readers familiar with Ballard's oeuvre will not be surprised. We've
seen these creepy masochists in his other works, ready to slice off a
limb or crash their car into a brick wall. Where Ballard usually fails us
is in providing reasons for these obsessions. His characters typically
come across as little more than automatons, following the directions
programmed into their heads by their peculiar author, but never able to
articulate the fascination of, say the “lungs of elderly men punctured by
door-handles.” Yet in
The Drowned World, Ballard actually attempts to
offer an explanation for the ever-present 'death wish' in his stories.  A
strange explanation, needless to say, but at least our author finally
acknowledges, in
The Drowned World, the legitimacy of probing into
the warped reasons for his characters' twisted actions.

Let's allow Dr. Bodkin to explain:  "Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs
the original traumatic explanation in order to release the repressed
material, so we are now being plunged back into the into the archaeo-
psychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been
dormant for epochs….You descend back into the neuronic past."  In
other words, we all carry within ourselves some Jungian remnants of our
collective past, and when the atmospheric shifts create a new world that
resembles the Triassic age, latent impulses are triggered and we find
ourselves caught up by the irresistible appeal, ecstatic and horrifying at
the same time, of the impending destruction.  As it gets hotter and hotter,
we are drawn to the heat.  It is like a womb that we crave to return to,
although now historical rather than biological.  

Did you get that?  When the world starts to burn, we act like moths heading
for the flame.

The Drowned World opens in a flooded, deserted London, where a
small contingent of soldiers and scientists are preparing to retreat to
the relative comfort of the Arctic Circle.  But many in the group have
started experiencing nightmares akin to
Jurassic Park in the 3D re-
release.  At first these dreams are terrifying, but after a while the
nighttime visions exert a strange gravitational pull on a small cadre
of the unit.  They are mesmerized by the power unleashed by the
triggering of the "neuronic past." The distinction between dream life
and lived reality begins to blur, and the allure of the visions overwhelms
the rational elements of their day-to-day routine.

One of the soldiers disappears, and a search party eventually finds him
heading south in a makeshift raft, resisting all attempts to 'rescue' him.  
Soon our main protagonist, biologist Robert Kerans, begins to feel the
same urge to move toward the equator—as do Beatrice Dahl, the last
lady in London, and Keran’s colleague Dr. Bodkin.  But this trio of
renegades are so caught up in their dream-coming-true visions, that
they can hardly manage to complete a conversation, let alone plan an

The Drowned World may not be Ballard's most flamboyant or
transgressive book.  If you are coming to this author for sheer
shock value (as many do), skip this volume and head straight for
The Atrocity Exhibition….if you can stand it.  But The Drowned World
is his best written sci-fi novel, and an excellent entry point into his
worldview for those who care about plot, narrative arc, character
motivation and those other stalwart yeomen who are often missing
in action on other Ballard outings.  

But I still have some reservations about this book. The writing may
sometimes be grand, at other times wearingly grandiose. Ballard
can be too heavy-handed with high-falutin’ modifiers. This man
adjectives, and especially compound adjectives. The sentences
have weight, but it seems more like flab than muscle  Our hero feels
an urge to dive into the water, but isn't just any body of water—it's
a "luminous, dragon-green, serpent-haunted sea."  You get the idea.  

Yet at his best moments, Ballard shows how these modifiers can work
their magic, especially when he draws on metaphors and images that
deliberately blur external and internal reality.  When the first  deranged
character heads off for the south, we find him moving toward "the lost
but forever beckoning and unattainable shores of the amnionic paradise."  
It's a bulky phrase, and (as often with Ballard) bordering on the rudely
pretentious, but ultimately captivating us with its bravado and poetry.   
When the sky clears after a storm, it reveals to Kerans "an impassive
blue, more the interior ceiling of some deep irrevocable psychosis than
the storm-filled celestial sphere he had known during the previous days."   
When he spots clock towers in the London sky, Kerans sees them as
"temple spires of some lost jungle religion," and he can't help comparing
their broken-down measurement of scientifically-measured chronology
with the "myriad-handed mandala of cosmic time" embedded in his brain.

This is Ballard at his most lyrical.  Still heavy-handed—face it, nothing is
done with a light touch in his books—and in-your-face, but with a mystical
prose-as-poetry ambiguity that gives his books a different ambiance than
you will find in other writers, especially authors of science fiction, where
a slapdash aesthetic often predominates.  If Ballard is a master at
presenting nightmare scenarios in his novels, much of the victory is
gained via descriptions of this sort, through his control of phrases and
images that broach the barrier between private delusion and precise data.  

It's hard to believe that this book is more than a half-century old.  And
I'm not talking about the global warming theme, which gives this book a
superficial resemblance to various current-day volumes, fiction and
non-fiction.  It's Ballard writing style and worldview that refuse to mellow
with the passing years.  We expect things that are abrasive to soften
over time. But Ballard's books still rub at us, often rubbing the wrong
way, with just as much roughness as ever. The wonder of
The Drowned
, perhaps preeminently among his books, is how beguiling he can
make this journey into the abyss.   

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, will be published by Oxford University Press.

This essay was published on June 11, 2014
Revisiting J.G. Ballard's
1962 Global Warming Novel

A look back at The Drowned World

By Ted Gioia
To purchase, click
on image
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

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A Case of Conscience

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Dandelion Wine

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Fahrenheit 451

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The Illustrated Man

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

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Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

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The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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