Similar to the movie “Waterworld” in premise, “The Drowned World” opens in a future where the temperature has risen so high that the icecaps have melted, sinking most of the major cities and forcing the surviving humans to live in the now-temperate arctic bands. Kerans is a scientist conducting studies in a flooded, abandoned London on changes in the flora and fauna. Insidiously affected by the isolation and environmental dislocation into conditions similar to the Mesozoic era, Kerans begins to drift into a curiously regressive psychological state.
J. G. Ballard manages to write an apathetic protagonist in an admirably interesting way. The author is equally talented at plumbing the depths of the human psyche as he is in exploring the “Heart of Darkness” style brooding jungle that pervades the future-lagoons of London. The atmosphere and imagery is dark and intense despite Keran’s tendency to view it with boredom and detachment, a combination which sets a very unique and effective mood.
Half way through the book, Ballard semi-awkwardly introduces a very traditional over-the-top villain, an element fully unnecessary given the power of everything that precedes it. Perhaps because this was Ballard’s first novel, he felt compelled to draw clearer good/evil lines and to move towards a more tradition “strange new world” type adventure. While he does it fairly well, it hardly advances the book thematically and backs off of the psychological nature that distinguished the book from its contemporaries.