Ice caps have melted and most of the planet is submerged. The majority of the surviving human population has relocated to the Arctic, now a land of more moderate temperatures. In London only the tallest buildings rise out of the water and it is overrun with huge, overgrown plants and giant lizards. This is “The Drowned World” by J.G. Ballard, where a warming climate is either pulling life on Earth backwards into a more primitive state or triggering a new stage in evolution.
This book was written in 1962, before terms like global warming or climate change were commonplace, and the climate change in this book does not appear to be human caused. Regardless, the change has been devastating to humanity. What remains of civilization is primarily relegated to a state of survival. The plot follows Dr. Robert Kerans, part of a scientific and military team that has traveled to London to study the flora and fauna that have overtaken the city. It’s unclear how much progress he has made in studying the life populating the lagoons that were once city streets. When the book begins Kerans no longer resides on the research vessel the team arrived on but is staying by himself in one of the half-submerged skyscrapers. He spends the days there hiding from the oppressive heat and being haunted by strange dreams.
Kerans is not the only one haunted by these dreams and soon one of his colleagues suffering from them goes AWOL, last seen headed towards the inhospitable south. As the heat rises the research team decides to pack up and head north. Kerans and two others, seemingly placed under a spell by the Triassic climate, make the strange decision to stay behind. Their brief idyll is eventually interrupted by the arrival of a group of pirates there to loot submerged treasures.
The pirates are lead by Strangman, a sociopath thriving on the chaos in this world. At first his approach to Kerans and the others is friendly, although they are all unnerved by him and his intimidating crew. Kerans and the others simply hope to wait for the pirates to gather their loot and move on but the relationship between them becomes antagonistic and the inevitable violence the reader has been dreading happens.
The experience of reading this book has the feel of a dream, perhaps one of the strange dreams plaguing Kerans and the others. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is an obvious influence, and Strangman shares a lot characteristics with the iconic Kurtz from that novel. The theme of regression, or devolution, and the question of what we become as civilization recedes is central to the book. As civilization becomes subsumed by water, plants and animals, humans are being drawn back to a more primitive state. Much of the tension in the book is wondering how far Kerans will pursue or resist the direction the world is being pulled in.