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In 1923, a year before his disappearance on Everest, Mallory answered a question with, “Because it's there.” Dr. Robert Kearns, the protagonist of this novel, might very well repeat these words when asked why he's driven South with its 150-degree temperatures, malarial jungles, and iguanas the size of Bentleys. The Himalayas and Ballard's “nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past” (Doubleday & Co., Book Club Edition doubled with The Wind From Nowhere, c.1965, p.16) have one thing in common: they are hostile environments to man. They are not enemies, nor are they some forgotten by-product of an earlier generation's ecological exploitation and abuse. They simply happened.
However, in The Drowned World, the Death Zone of 20,000 feet probably has no snow left because even the polar caps are melting from a vanished ionosphere causing rivers to swell and swamp all inland continents, leaving much of mankind's legacy under billions of tons of topsoil and silt, and a hundred feet of water. This story takes place 70 years into a disaster that makes hurricane Katrina seem like a leaky faucet.
While the human population congregates at the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, biology professor Robert Kearns is part of a mop-up operation boating over abandoned London. Along with Beatrice Dahl, an upper-crust society type, and fellow biologist Dr. Bodkin, Kearns chooses to stay behind and embrace the environmental changes that are turning back the clock to the Triassic Age. It is not the work of documenting the new plant and animal life, nor a spirit of adventure to explore the changing world that motivates this trio of insurgents. They share a “powerful mesmeric pull” (p.64), a buried genetic trigger that Dr. Bodkin calls “the lumbar transfer, total biopsychic recall” (p.67) that opens a mental time tunnel into the rapidly-encroaching past. “Everywhere there's been the same avalanche backwards into the past” (p.37), Bodkin explains. “Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom” (p.39). Concerning their powerful, shared dreams of the teeming, insufferable jungle and its braying, reptilian behemoths, Bodkin shrugs, “After a few nights you won't be frightened of the dreams, despite their superficial horror. We really remember these swamps and lagoons” (p.67).
One of the mesmerizing strengths of the novel is that the reader remembers them, too. Through unrelenting command of the atmosphere, Ballard traverses this primeval swamp, as fascinating as it is fetid, in a moribund quest that is more of an engulfment than a presentation. The landscape is seen with “festering gleam[s]” and “corneal cancers” (p.158). The boiling sun thrusts “its fingers . . . like a ravenous golden monster” (p.104) into every cranny of “the half-submerged white-faced buildings . . . still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water”, yet there is a “strange mournful beauty” (p.8) to the drowned cities. This suffocating tangle of a world with its insectoid and repitilian guardians is described as “beautiful and serene” (p.10) as much as an “immense putrescent sore” (p.47). Ambivalences aside, this is man's worst nightmare; a hostile fever that is sweating off his arrogance and dominance over the earth. Mammals are no longer in control, and man senses that “implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it” (p.15).
But it is not what happens, but what is done about it that determines character. Colonel Riggs, the military leader of the operation, maintains a custodial attitude left over from the Colonial Empire glory days, and thereby represents the traditional British viewpoint. Society must trench in and fortify the most inhabitable field around to survive this catastrophe. Any other action is illogical and out-and-out suicide. As scientists, both Kearns and Bodkin know this course leads to inevitable annihilation. Man must now consider himself part of the flora and fauna, not its overseer. Beatrice, suffering a terminal case of laissez-faire, is hiding deep in her depression, unable to act outside of her lifetime role as bored sophisticate. She stays behind because it requires the least of her. Strangman is the devil showing up in a white suit, driving a power boat and leading a gang of looting pirates. He is a de-evolving culture; a society gone to the jackals and drinking voodoo blood for power over the tribe's enemies. “Do you know why they fear me?” boasts Strangman. “Because they think I'm dead” (p.121).
Earlier in the novel, a lieutenant mutinies into the jungle. The ensuing chase reveals his monomaniacal intensity and inhuman strength to follow the sun toward certain death. Later, as Kearns struggles South upon his own “neuronic odyssey” (p.161), he stumbles onto what's left of the lieutenant. Blind, emaciated, and “no more than a resurrected corpse” (p.158), he still turns his hollowed eyes to the blistering sun out of some instinctual assignment. It is a shocking look into Kearns' own future.
For the question is whether he has free reign over his destiny or is trapped to the genetic conditioning of his species. Is he adapting to the new order, subconsciously trusting that a mutating evolution will provide him with the biological armor to survive? Or is he merely another lemming splashing under the vast, indifferent canopy, driven by an unconscious chromosome to his natural extinction? Ballard doesn't take sides, but his saturnine vision of “a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn Sun” (p.162) will haunt you for a long time.