The global warming novel from l962: The Drowned World

In 1962, in his second novel, The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard told a story of steadily rising global temperatures, of ice caps melting and rising seas, of humidity and rains and lizards moving into skyscrapers. It's an extraordinary book, for its imagination and artistry and language, but also for its vison of global warming.

Might a reader want an example? Here's the first paragraph:

Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o'clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. even through the massive olive-green fronds the relentless power of the sun was plainly tangible. The blunt refracted rays drummed against his bare chest and shoulders, drawing out the first sweat, and he put on a pair of heavy sunglasses to protect his eyes. The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out acros the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turning the dead leaded surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield. By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn.

On SFSite, Victoria Strauss discusses the book insightfully:

The Drowned World posits (presciently, as it turns out) that the world has been overwhelmed by a catastrophic greenhouse effect. It differs from our own impending disaster in that it's natural rather than man-made. In Ballard's scenario, violent solar storms have depleted the outer layers of Earth's ionosphere; as these vanish, temperature and solar radiation begin to climb, melting the polar ice-caps. This enormous outflow of water carries with it tons of topsoil, damming up the oceans and entirely changing the contours of the continents, drowning some parts of the world and landlocking others. At the same time, the increased radiation produces freak mutations in Earth's flora and fauna, initiating a new biological era reminiscent of the Triassic period, in which reptiles and giant tropical plants were the dominant forms of life.

Strauss gives us a sense of how the book develops, which is more about a compelling idea than a plot. At one point, dreams overtake the narrative:

…some of the expedition members begun having strange dreams, of a primeval swamp dominated by a huge burning sun that pulses to the rhythm of their own heartbeat. 

These dreams, it turns out, aren't random occurences or signs of stress, but the first warming of a much deeper process. Human beings, responding to stimuli embedded in their genetic makeup billions of years earlier, are beginning to devolve. The dreams aren't dreams at all, but memories…

DrownedworldAnd the book offers much, much more.

The writing blends the surreal and the futuristic. The characters surprise us with their actions; for example, not wanting to leave the flooded city, though life there is unsustainable. The book flies by. But even if the book werenot brilliantly written, it almost wouldn't matter. Ballard's idea alone would be enough to carry us into the future, and to the end. 


On the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the book,Warner Brothers just optioned the rights for producer David Heyman, best known for his production of the Harry Potter series. 


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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