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Ballard's Drowned World

Updated on August 27, 2014

‘The one hazard facing science fiction, the Trojan Horse being trundled towards its expanding ghetto ... is that faceless creature, literary criticism.’ JG Ballard

One of the catastrophe novels Ballard wrote during the 1960s, The Drowned World presents an earth where ‘rising temperatures and melting icecaps have caused worldwide flooding and inverted the balance of nature. Swamp conditions encourage the proliferation of reptiles and tropical flora, while mammals are in decline. It is as if time were turning back to the Triassic. Dwindling humanity gathers at the poles, from which the UN sends out scientific expeditions to explore the new coastlines and monitor biological developments, with a view to resettlement when the climate stabilises.’ (Greenland)

In much of his fiction, Ballard depicts places of dereliction and decay—empty hotels, rusty launching platforms, the half-submerged, vegetation-choked, abandoned cities of The Drowned World—all hives of activity, now deserted. James Cawthorn describes the heartland of ‘Ballard country’ as being ‘where small communities crouch on the fringe of ancient deserts, interminable landscapes of repetitive geometrical forms burned and scoured of all irrelevancies, the naked bones of Time. Looking outward, the eye sees not Space, but deepening time-layers like Pythagorean shells of crystal. The two-fisted technologist of Astounding’s heyday is replaced, in this setting, by a figure it is tempting to label The Dissolving Hero. Faced with the breakup of the Universe he does not fight, but instead seeks, literally, to be absorbed.’ (cited in Greenland)

Many of his stories use the catastrophe form. When asked why, Ballard answered: ‘I wanted to deal with a large canvas. I was interested in events, if you like; systems of a very large area. The entire biological kingdom viewed as a single organism, as a single continuing vast memory. In fact I’ve never thought of them as being disaster stories, because I don’t see them as having unhappy endings. The hero follows the logic of his own mind; and I feel that anyone who does this is, in a sense, fulfilling himself. I regard [them] as stories of psychic fulfilment.’ (cited in Greenland)

‘Ballard’s choice of the catastrophe mode for his first four novels was a wish to destroy the manifest form of the external world and release the deep desires latent in it. He suspected that the desires would be anti-social, selfish, aggressive, exploitative, ultimately self-destructive. In this respect The Drowned World is indeed closer to Golding than to Wyndham, and it is easy to see why critics thought Ballard had been reading Conrad, though he extends a heart of darkness to the entire human race.’ (Greenland)

Ballard feels ‘the writer of fantasy has marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of the mind...’ (Ballard, ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’) In his work, Ballard employs disastrous external conditions to reflect psychological crisis. He explores the worlds of vision, dream and nightmare rather than character in the usual sense. His ‘landscapes are projections of psychic space’. (Luckhurst) In The Drowned World, Dr Bodkin speculates to Kerans: ‘Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all tis before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well... most biological memories are unpleasant ones, echoes of danger and terror... Everywhere in nature one sees evidence of innate releasing mechanisms literally millions of years old... their power undiminished... we all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when... the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form.’ (TDW, 42) Neuronics, Bodkin’s theory of cellular memory, links humans back into the ecology as participants, not rulers and supports Kerans own observation that the ‘growing isolation and self-containment’ of the members of the survey team resembles ‘the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis... old categories of thought would be merely an encumbrance.’ (TDW, 14)

As a genre, catastrophe is upbeat in that the human spirit usually triumphs in the face of hostile, inhuman conditions. Ballard subverts this convention. In The Drowned World, Kerans deliberately deserts the cause of civilisation. To him, the ‘tacit assumption made by the UN directorate—that... life would continue much as before with the same domestic and social relationships, by and large the same ambitions and satisfactions—was obviously fallacious... A more important task than mapping the harbours and lagoons of the external landscape was to chart the ghostly deltas and luminous beaches of the submerged neuronic continents.’ (TDW, 44) Obeying the siren call of this new logic, Kerans heads south on a ‘neuronic odyssey’, disappearing into the primeval jungle of the infernal, water-riddled tropics.

Ballard wrote: ‘ is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. In the past, the scientific bias of s-f has been towards the physical sciences ... the emphasis should switch to the biological sciences... I’d like to see more ... synthetic psychologies and space-times, more of the sombre half-worlds one glimpses in the paintings of schizophrenics... instead of treating time like a sort of glorified scenic railway, I’d like to see it used for what it is, one of the perspectives of the personality, and the elaboration of concepts such as the time zone, deep time and archaeopsychic time. I’d like to see more psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private time systems...’ (Ballard, ‘Which Way to Inner Space’)

Convinced that reality itself needs psychoanalysing, Ballard has no place for novelistic conventions of verisimilitude, whether of things or people. His narrative viewpoint is often a clinically neutral affair. ‘To be honest the relationship between my characters doesn’t interest me very much. There is only one character I am interested in by and large. All my fiction is in a sense about isolation and how to cope with isolation. I’m talking about man’s biological isolation in relation to the universe, his isolation in time, the sense of his finite life in the face of this panoply of alternatives from which he is largely excluded, and latterly the isolation between man the individual and this technological landscape, which offers more hope perhaps.’ (cited in Greenland)

For Ballard, an unconscious compulsion to burst apart the confining boundaries of ego is latent in the nature of the psyche. The Drowned World’s central motif is the transcendence of the mundane—the drive buried deep in the unconscious mind drive to banish time and space. Indeed, ‘Ballard’s overlapping, interlocking themes describe a crisis of consciousness that obtains at levels of the personal, the social and the universal. The consistent aim implicit in this body of work is to redeem the self from the ego, to deliver the human from repressive, reductive systems of control, and to liberate consciousness, both individual and collective, from confinement in the material, temporal universe.’ (Stephenson)

Ballard talks of how the characters’ journeys in The Drowned World reflect his fears about investigating the ‘dangerous ground’ of his own childhood: ‘How far do the landscapes of one’s childhood, as much as its emotional experiences, provide an inescapable background to all one’s imaginative writing? Certainly, my own earliest memories are of Shanghai during the annual long summer of floods, when the streets of the city were two or three feet deep in brown silt-laden water, and where the surrounding countryside, in the centre of the flood-table of the Yangtse, was an almost continuous mirror of drowned paddy fields and irrigation canals stirring sluggishly in the hot sunlight. On reflection, it seems to me that the image of an immense half-submerged city overgrown by tropical vegetation, which forms the centrepiece of The Drowned World, is in some way a fusion of my childhood memories of Shanghai and those of my last ten years in London.

‘One of the subjects of the novel is the journey of return made by the principal characters from the twentieth century back into the paradisal sun-filled world of a second Triassic age, and their gradually mounting awareness of the ambivalent motives propelling them into the emerging past. They realize that the uterine sea around them, the dark womb of the ocean mother, is as much the graveyard of their own individuality as it is the source of their lives, and perhaps their fears reflect my own uneasiness in re-enacting the experiences of childhood and attempting to explore such dangerous ground.

‘Among the characteristic fauna of the Triassic age were the crocodiles and alligators, amphibian creatures at home in both the aquatic and terrestrial worlds, who symbolize for the hero of the novel the submerged dangers of his quest. Even now I can vividly remember the enormous ancient alligator in a concrete pit half-filled with cigarette packets and ice-cream cartons in the reptile house at the Shanghai zoo, who seemed to have been jerked forward so reluctantly so many tens of millions of years into the twentieth century.

‘In many respects, this fusion of past and present experiences, and of such disparate elements as the modern office buildings of central London and an alligator in a Chinese zoo, resembles the mechanisms by which dreams are constructed, and perhaps the great value of fantasy as a literary form is its ability to bring together apparently unconnected and dissimilar ideas.’ (Ballard, ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’)

About Jungian influences in The Drowned World, Ballard commented: ‘I wanted to look at our racial memory, our whole biological inheritance, the fact that we’re all several hundred million years old, as old as the biological kingdoms in our spines, in our brains, in our cellular structure; our very identities reflect untold numbers of decisions made to adapt us to changes in our environment, decisions lying behind us in the past like some enormous, largely forgotten journey.’ He also said: ‘I accept the collective unconscious—I don’t think it’s a mystic entity, I think it’s that whenever an individual is conceived, a whole set of operating instructions, a set of guidebooks are meshed together like cards being shuffled.’ (cited in Luckhurst)

In The Drowned World, evolution moves backwards as temperatures soar. The plant life reverts to that of the Triassic. The flooded cities are engulfed by steamy jungles and swamps where threatening reptiles proliferate. Why should the human psyche be exempt from this regressive trend? Bodkin explains: ‘The further down the CNS you move, from the hind-brain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae... is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and the air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Palaeozoic and Triassic eras.’ (TDW, 43)

Pictorial rather than literary surrealism is a major influence on Ballard’s work. Like painters such as Delvaux, Dali, Ernst and Tanguy, he is interested in mindscapes. ‘This zone I think of as ‘inner space’ the internal landscape of today that is a transmuted image of the past, and one of the most fruitful areas for the imaginative writer. It is particularly rich in visual symbols, and I feel that this type of speculative fantasy plays a role very similar to that of surrealism in the graphic arts. The painters Chirico, Dali and Max Ernst, among others, are in a sense the iconographers of inner space. ...the awareness that the landscapes and themes are reflections of some interior reality within our minds, is a pointer to the importance of speculative fantasy...’ (Ballard, ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’)

There is a scene in The Drowned World, where Strangman (who can be seen as Kerans’ Jungian ‘shadow’) arranges a ‘diving party’ down into the submerged ruins of London. As Kerans puts on the helmet of his diving suit, Strangman says: ‘It suits you, Kerans, you look like the man from inner space... But don’t try t reach the Unconscious, Kerans; remember it isn’t equipped to go down that far!’ (TDW, 102) Ballard adapted this phrase from an incident involving Salvador Dali. The artist, dressed in a diving suit, was about to deliver a lecture in London. ‘The workman sent along to supervise the suit asked how deep Dali proposed to descend, and with a flourish the maestro exclaimed: ‘To the Unconscious!’ to which the workman replied sagely: ‘I’m afraid we don’t go down that deep.’ Five minutes later, sure enough, Dali nearly suffocated inside the helmet. It is that inner space suit which is still needed, and it is up to science fiction to build it!’ (Ballard, ‘Which Way to Inner Space’)

The Drowned World has the frame of Delvaux and Ernst’s ‘phantasmagoric jungles’ (TDW, 29). The book takes readers on a journey through surreal psychological landscapes and subverts the usual disaster form. As a science fiction catastrophe novel, it shows that genre fiction is definitely not inferior fiction.


Ballard, J G (1996) ‘Which Way to Inner Space’ and ‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’ in A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews, Harper Collins, London

Ballard, J G (1962) The Drowned World, Penguin, Harmondsworth

Greenland, Colin (1983) The entropy exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘new wave’ in science fiction, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London

Hall, Chris ‘Extreme Metaphor’,

Luckhurst, Roger (1997) The angle between two walls: the fiction of J.G. Ballard, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool

Stephenson, Gregory (1991) Out of the night and into the dream: a thematic study of the fiction of J G Ballard, Greenwood Press, New York


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