THE DROWNED WORLD – J.G. Ballard (1962)

The Drowned World (Powers)“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. 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.”

At times, I read up on books while reading them, and this time my explorations of other reviews significantly colored my reading, in particular the review of BlackOxford on Goodreads.

In that review, BlackOxford develops a mostly symbolic reading of the text that accuses Ballard of racism. The arguments are interesting, but the reading might be reductive. On the other hand, Ballard seems to encourage this interpretative method of searching for latent symbolism.

Before I will add my two cents to the debate – and I’ll keep it short – let me do the non-political part of the review.

While The Drowned World is often named as a climate change novel, maybe even the first one, it doesn’t fully fit the bill: in Ballard’s debut novel, climate change is not man-made. It just happens, the sun becomes unstable – a bit like the moon exploding at the onset of Seveneves. The Drowned World is not a cautionary blame game like so much of contemporary clifi, and as such more a disaster story than a book on climate. The main character, biologist Robert Kerans, is simply not interested in the world before – he grew up after the floods and the rising temperatures, and is indifferent to the history of the abandoned cities they are stationed in – he doesn’t even know their names.

It’s also low tech science fiction, of the post-apocalyptic breed – Time lauded it in 2010 as one of the 10 bests post-apocalyptic books ever. The setting is 2145, London transformed & submerged into a near-Paleozoic wet jungle, and Ballard is more interested in describing the scenery and the effect of the disaster on individual humans. 

The novel is firmly in the camp of psychological 60ies science fiction. It shares with Dune an interest in something akin to ancestral memories, what Ballard calls “neuronic memory”.

These are the oldest memories on Earth, the time-codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories – from the enzymes controlling the carbon dioxide cycle to the organisation of the brachial plexus and the nerve pathways of the Pyramid cells in the mid-brain, each is a record of a thousand decisions take in the face of a sudden physico-chemical crisis. 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. 

The basic idea is this: because nature is again resembling our prehistoric past, humans react to that with an obsessive tendency to some kind of psychological regression, first apparent in their dreams.

So if you are after spaceships or an adventure romp, look elsewhere: this is about inner space instead of outer space, as Martin Amis notes in his excellent introduction. The problem, however, is that for a novel that supposes to examine a certain psychology, Ballard’s hypothesis obviously is ludicrous. So what is he examining here? A mere speculative effect, that doesn’t offer much insight in the human condition, because it is totally unrealistic? For a psychological novel, there’s not that much characterization, let alone character development, even though there are glimpses of brilliance on the matter.

Paintings of Paul Delvaux and Dalí serve as props in the story, and they offer a way to get a better grip on what Ballard was trying to do, which is write a surrealist/symbolist novel. The Drowned World shouldn’t be read for psychological realism, but rather for psychological symbolism – a tangent to the fact that what is psychologically real is not always the same as reality in this book. Once I realized that, it seemed a pretty straightforward affair: a tale about regression, about the mere veneer of civilized society, and the heart of darkness underlying all. It is as if Ballard’s nature imagery might serve as a simile for the human condition:

Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

It’s a very familiar concept I don’t fully buy, and in the end, I’m not that interested in novels that try to paint a picture of humanity I don’t subscribe to. Not that cruelty & violence & hate don’t exists, but most people live peaceful lives, are master cooperators. We are more social than cruel, if you want an absolute per se. And true, certain contexts might bring out certain behavior, but I don’t think there’s something like an irreducible primitive core that needs to be held in check. The days of Freud are over – but who can blame Ballard for writing stuff like this in the sixties? Besides, dichotomies remain ever popular today.

Ballard’s youthful experience of being forced to live for nearly 3 years in a Japanese internment camp in China have shaped his outlook on humanity inexorably, so much is clear from a 1963 interview with Travis Elborough.

The experience of spending nearly three years in a camp, especially as an early teenage boy, taking a keen interest in the behaviour of adults around him, including his own parents, and seeing them stripped of all  garments of authority that protects adults generally in their dealings with children, to see them stripped of any kind of defence, often losing heart a bit, being humiliated and frightened – and we all felt the war was going to go on forever and heaven knows what might happen in the final stages – all of that was a remarkable education. It was unique, and it gave me a tremendous insight into what makes up human behaviour.

Even though I’m not very sympathetic to the philosophical underpinnings of the book, Ballard has managed to write an engaging novel. There are some great bits & pieces of various nature, and fantastic imagery at times. What most characterized the book for me was its oppressive nature: it is monolithic in its themes and setting, and the prose has some kind of claustrophobic, alienating quality.

As you can guess from the first quote, Ballard’s vocabulary is often high-register – Amis calls it “enriched by a wide range of technical vocabularies” – and his prose is both rewarding as it is though. I’ll quote two more examples, so you can decide for yourself if this is something you would enjoy.

Overhead the sky was dull and cloudless, a bland impassive blue, more the interior ceiling of some deep irrevocable psychosis than the storm-filled celestial sphere he had known during the previous days. At times, after he had dropped one burden, he would totter down into the hollow of the wrong dune, find himself stumbling about the silent basins, their floors cracked into hexagonal planes, like a dreamer searching for an invisible door out of his nightmare.


The olive-green light refracted through the heavy fern-fronds filled the lake with a yellow, swampy miasma, drifting over the surface like vapour off a vat. A few moments earlier the water had seemed cool and inviting, but now had become a closed world, the barrier of the surface like a plane between two dimensions. The diving cage was swung out and lowered into the water, its red bars blurred and shimmering, so that the entire structure was completely distorted. Even the men swimming below the surface were transformed by the water, their bodies as they swerved ad pivoted turned into gleaming chimeras, like exploding pulses of ideation in a neuronic jungle.

Add to all that ennui, isolation, lethargy, and characters that don’t understand themselves, and you understand that this isn’t a happy happy feelgood book, but that doesn’t mean diving in won’t be rewarding.

The rest of my text deals with accusations of racism, so if you don’t feel like another episode of Culture Wars, feel free to jump ship.


ps – There is a reference to The Water-Babies in this book as well. That makes me wonder if I’ll discover more relations with Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again if I read that again someday?


Ballard was an “avant garde provocateur” as David Pringle wrote in his excellent obituary, but does that mean this book might be too provocative for today’s sentiments? BlackOxford’s arguments to call this a racist book are twofold.

On a surface level, there is the depiction of some black characters that are scavenging pirates. They indeed aren’t depicted positively: a wild bunch, speaking English that’s not RP, drinking, partying. I would argue that their behavior in the book isn’t attributed to them being black, but to them being pirates in a deprived, primal world. It is like Pierre Van den Berghe wrote in the excellent The Ethnic Phenomenon:

The issue, therefore, is not the validity of the stereotype. Most stereotypes have some experiential basis. Of course, members of middleman minorities cheat, are nepotistic, and so on. They would not be human if they did not behave that way. The essence of stereotypy and prejudice is not the falsity of the belief, but the misattribution of the observed behavior to particularistic rather than universalistic causes.

What happens in BlackOxford’s review could be seen as a similar misattribution: it is not because certain characters are black, that their characteristics are so and so because they are black. The Drowned World simply has a too small sample rate to make any meaningful statement on that. There’s only one bunch of pirates, and hardly any other characters. Suppose it had a wide cast, and each and every black character would be depicted negatively, BlackOxford’s case would be much stronger. I would argue that to truly settle this debate, one would need to read much more of Ballard, and check his other works for possible recurring patterns on the matter.

On a sidenote, the same goes for people that call this book “sexist”: there is only one female character, which is perfectly realistic given the book’s settings, and although her sexuality plays a role – again, realistically – she is also fiercely independent, so, again, hardly enough to base such a negative claim on.

The other argument BlackOxford gives is of a more interpretative nature, ascribing meaning to parts of the novel in a way that simply can’t be falsified. He writes that the evolutionary regression comes from the South – i.c. the threat of more rain and even higher temperatures that forces the military operation Kerans is part of to retreat to a city above the arctic circle. The South in BlackOxford’s reading stands for black people, and the fall of the British Empire and the end of civilization is what they bring about.

As I noted in the introduction, Ballard himself doesn’t seem to oppose such a method:

I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seem obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind. (…) they are often time-sculptures of terrifying ambiguity. (from an article in The Women Journalist, 1963)

But again, I think the evidence is flimsy. For the demise of the empire doesn’t originate from the South: it originates from the Sun. That sun is called a “black sun” once (only once!) in the novel, true, but it fits the context, and the sun has many other iterations throughout the novel too. The imbue every utterance of the adjective ‘black’ with a political meaning is problematic in itself, in my opinion. Moreover: London was already destroyed at the beginning of the book, and nowhere is it suggested the original apocalypse came from the South. Maybe even more importantly, none of the characters seem to mind the destruction, not even the remnants of civilized humanity such as Riggs, or Bodkin. Bodkin is a bit melancholic, yes, but the general tone of the novel is an embrace of devolution, not a lament about what once was.

As such, while BlackOxford’s reading might be valid, I think it is unlikely, and, again, it should be examined through the lens of Ballard’s entire oeuvre. I have read only one other title, so I’m not the person to do this. For the moment however, I lean more to Darran’s response on Goodreads, who seems to have read more of Ballard. I’ll quote it fully.

You may have a point. I haven’t read the book in years and perhaps I would see it differently if I read it today. But, the notion that the flooding of the earth is a metaphor for the decline of the British Empire doesn’t seem correct. Ballard wrote a number of books about the world being destroyed by some kind of element. There’s this, the Crystal World and the Wind from Nowhere. Ballard’s whole body of work is about exposing how false and pretentious our notions of civilization are. He had no fondness for the British Empire. As I understand it when he moved from China to the UK after spending WW2 in a Japanese internment camp he viewed Britain and the culture and conventions that people lived by with contempt. I would interpret Ballard’s depiction of ‘the primitive’ in context. He was inspired by Surrealism and much of surrealism and Dadaism is an all out attack on the idea of Western civilization. Ballard’s characters are always pretty interchangeable and undeveloped. I have never thought that when Ballard portrays a character as upstanding, rational and ‘civilized’ it’s because he approves of them or wants the reader to admire them. That’s totally antithetical to how I understand his work. If I were to sum up Ballard’s work in the most reductive possible way I would say the message is ‘civilization is an illusion. Human’s are animals with a thin veneer of rationality who have somehow fooled themselves that they are above nature. We are lead far more by our instincts, biology and unconsciousness than we are by reason. And many of our biggest problems and our greatest unhappiness is caused by not realizing this’. I’m not saying that Ballard isn’t racist, or didn’t hold some racist beliefs. As a upper middle class white British man of his time I’m sure he probably did. But I think you’re misinterpreting this book, or at least reading it reductively.

BlackOxford’s response hinges primarily on the metaphor of the black men in the book, but I’ve pointed out my beef with that above.

This is not to say putting novels to such a scrutiny is unwarranted or wrong. I think BlackOxford’s text is very interesting and deserves discussion. There’s other remarks to be made about other bits in the review, but that would take more time than I want to spend here on the matter, and besides, a more definitive, thorough discussion would need a reread of both The Drowned World and – at least – his next three novels and the short stories of the 1960ies.

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews only, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.


28 responses to “THE DROWNED WORLD – J.G. Ballard (1962)

  1. After submersing myself in Ballards mammoth short story collection, I’ve had more than enough of him.

    Glad you had such a good time exploring various aspects of the book that you thought were important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I don’t think I could take 1000 pages of his short stories in one go. Maybe it doesn’t come across as such from the review, but this wasn’t a 100% successful read for me, yet I’m intrigued enough to want to read more. I think me next Ballard (but that probably won’t be for 2021 or even 2022) might be The Atrocity Exhibition. (Anybody reading this that wants to offer other suggestions: feel free!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was definitely a mistake to try read that collection the way I did. But I don’t think I would have finished even one of his novels, so at least I got a good taste of his writings so I’m not tempted to “try again”.

        Would you consider dipping your toes into his short stories or does a full length novel just appeal to you more?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve read one early collection, and I liked that. The Atrocity Exhibition is also a kind of collection of short stories, I’m quite intrigued by its formal premise, and it seems to be of a later period in his writing thematically. At the moment I’m not that interested in reading his earlier sixties novels.

          In general, I’m more of a full length reader, but I do read short story collections occasionally. I might end up reading that mammoth collection someday, we’ll see.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Ballard a racist? That’s completely odd to me and the first thing I hear.
    Thanks for this great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good review, nicely in depth! I remember liking The Drowned World and The Crystal World but I was a bit young and didn’t really get what Ballard was doing with it. PS it is a bit hard to make out sometimes which paragraphs in your reviews are quotes and which are your own comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Crystal World might be one I’d like to read. Did you read in the app? It erratically shows and doesn’t show paragraphs at times. Maybe I should include ” ” to remedy that in future posts, thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah no I read it on the pc. The paragraphs come out fine but maybe put the quotes in italics or something. I use the special quotes block in the block editor that tabs a quote to the right. Not saying that you should do that but it is confusing sometimes when a quote ends and the review continues. Anyway just letting you know. I understood that The Drowned World was one of a “series” of three books about environmental disasters, including The Crystal World and the… Burning World I believe it was. Maybe there are thematic linkages between them.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this discussion, Bart, for though I’ve yet to tackle Ballard I’ve yet to decide what to start with and you make a good case for this as being paradoxical enough for me to find worth consideration.

    I follow some of BlackOxford’s reviews because he’s seldom boring, generally acerbic, but mostly provocative, and though I rarely fully agree with what he writes he is usually insightful. Or, as here, probably wrongheaded!

    I’d certainly be interested to see in what context he introduces Kingsley’s The Water-Babies other it it being, erm, about water. If you haven’t read it (and apologies if I’ve already introduced you to it) here my review:

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d thought you would’ve read Ballard already, but this is a good place to start indeed – or possibly a short story collection.

      I follow BO too, always interesting indeed, and he’s so widely read that I’m always a bit envious of that, but there’s only so much time…

      As for The Water-Babies, I don’t think I’ve read your review, heading over now, thanks…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Like many of the “classics” I read The Drowned World in my late teens, early twenties, and the passing decades have – as usual – fogged up my recollection of it, apart from the core concept of a world dominated by water and jungles and the fact that what most impressed me was the overall claustrophobic feeling you mentioned at some point.
    I had to smile when you wrote “”if you are after spaceships or an adventure romp, look elsewhere”” because that’s what I was mainly looking for back then, so it would be interesting to revisit this book and see how I react now, with my changed tastes and (hopefully) more mature outlook.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Aonghus Fallon

    I read two collections of Ballard’s short stories back in the day – ‘The Four Dimensional Nightmare’ and ‘The Terminal Beach’. Both were excellent. Although I read a few of his full-length novels subsequently, including (I think) ‘The Drowned World’, they didn’t really stick in my memory. My impression was that the longer works didn’t accomplish anything that hadn’t been accomplished by the short stories.

    I should qualify this by saying I bought the same mammoth short story collection a few years back and couldn’t get into it at all. One of us had clearly aged badly – Ballard or me. I’m not sure which.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read The Four Dimensional Nightmare too, loved that, more than The Drowned World, which had brilliant moments but overall was just an okay read. Maybe you are right and Ballard is best in short form. That’s why I want to read The Atrocity Exhibition.

      But at the same time, I have the feeling I won’t read that much more from him. I don’t feel like reading 1000 pages of his short stories either. If they publish a best of of about 30 pages, I’ll read that for sure.


  7. Ballard as a racist? Hadn’t thought about it… Looking at the evidence provided by BlackOxford on The Drowned World, I don’t know… If portraying a couple extremely minor characters of color as not being entirely virtuous is considered broadly discriminating, then… I don’t know what to say. And looking into the symbolism of the environment as such, it seems to be more making the evidence fit a crime, then the crime the evidence. Symbolism can be such a subjective thing…

    I still recall my days as a philology student, learning about the variety of ways with which to parse a book – the environmental, the psychological, the post-colonial, and on and on. And while the door may be theoretically open to using any tool from this set to dissect a book, the practical reality is that each book has one or two or three filters that offer the best interpretation – the best means of getting to the substance of the text. I’m not convinced reading Ballard through the lens of race is of any revelatory or culturally significant value given how few and weak the touch points are. In fact, it feels more like a witch hunt – excellently worded, but a witch hunt nonetheless. Psychology on the other hand seems to reap a harvest with Ballard…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are absolutely right, when I was at uni the dominant mode was the kind deconstructive reading Derrida & Barthes & Foucault became famous for, and when I first read BlackOxford’s review I thought of that too: with enough sophistry, you can turn whatever text into proof of whatever. Not saying BlackOxford’s review is sophist, I think he was honest in his attempt, but like you, I’m not convinced by the evidence.

      As racism is such a strong accusation, I think the standards for evidence should be higher than what is presented, because presented like this I think it only enhances the hairtrigger mode of being insulted in some people, and I don’t think that’s a welcome development, because it makes debate about the problems of racism harder.

      It’s a kind of political Boy Who Cried Wolf situation – just like the few reviewers that accuse Ballard of sexism in this book.


  8. This review chimes with my memory of the novel, and indeed with my feeling toward most Ballard novels. He sets up a great premise, and a great sense of place (cities overrun by jungle, jungles overrun by crystals, the malls, apartment buildings and traffic islands of his later novels, which trap and sequester humans into little urban cages they can’t escape), but he seems to lose interest with his own stories by the third act.

    His characters or heroes are also rarely interesting. He seems caught in a unique space, on one hand offering the hokey, white, reserved, macho character of early scifi, but only to ridicule and critique these tropes. The classic Ballard hero is often intelligent, strong, urbane, but also an increasingly dysfunctional loser.

    Still, I like the intellectual edge of Ballard. I’ve never loved any of his novels, but I’ve found all extremely interesting; there’s a modern, transgressive, avant garde quality to him which I find appealing. Sort of like a scifi William S. Burroughs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting but not love, that seems to be a good summary of my own reaction to this book.

      I think his transgressive nature is what appeals me most too, and that’s the reason why the The Atrocity Exhibtion will be my next Ballard, because from what I can gather from reviews that book is his most transgressive one both formally and thematically.

      I might not subscribe to the whole ‘society as thin veneer’-trope, but there is definitely something to Ballard’s observation that humans are less ‘clean’ than they might think of themselves.


  9. I don’t believe I heard of Ballard. I might have come across his books here and there. The Drowned World sound interesting. I might check it out.

    As for calling Ballard racist. It seems like a lot of authors that wrote books years ago are called racist. Perhaps some of them are but, they are all a product of their time. Books written today are going to be products of their time 50 years from now.

    From my observation I notices male sci-fic and fantasy author get called sexist for writing a lack of females or writing female characters flat. I never seen it the other way around where female authors get called sexist for writing a lack of male characters or writing male characters flat. Has anyone else notices this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree that we should judge books taking their time and context into account, but obviously, racism 50 years ago was still racism, and that in itself should not be an excuse – there were people who knew better back then as well.

      But I agree 100% that a lack of female characters in itself is not sexist – it all depends on the story. As you say, male characters are written flat as well, but an author might be sexist if all his male characters have depth, and none of his female characters. Then again, it’s hard to talk in absolutes about these matters, it all depends on the story itself.

      It’s true the culture wars distort things – e.g. if you read The Left Hand of Darkness, one could even accuse Le Guin of sexism, just as you could accuse Noami Novik of sexism in Uprooted (see my reviews for arguments on that), but given the power dynamics in the debates, female authors don’t seem to be criticized as much on these matters. I guess that might change in the future, when a more gender-balanced equilibrium is reached in publishing and society at large.

      To reach such an equilibrium, further debate & action will be necessary, so all in all I sympathize with people who call out racism & sexism when they see it, even if there will inevitably be cases of boy cried wolf at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. RestlessHarry

    By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced amongst the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown……..I found that after spending the sixties in the cloistered privilege of an officer’s villa in Singapore, the return to Blighty was a profound shock; the base savagery of the inhabitants, the freezing fog and revolting barbarism of the public school sadist… I was filled with a digust of the world and those who had escaped the country but allowed it to descend into chaos. This despair coalesced into writing that stank of revulsion and threatened to drown the inhabitants of the barbaric world I had landed in.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: PERIHELION SUMMER – Greg Egan (2019) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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