The Drowned World

The Drowned World Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. G. Ballard

Ballard's father was a chemist at a British textile firm who became the managing director of the firm's subsidiaries in Shanghai—so Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai. In 1943, Ballard and his family were interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center, an internment camp for Allied civilians. He spent the remainder of the war there, and his experience in the camp inspired his most famous novel, Empire of the Sun. After the war, Ballard moved to England with his mother and his sister. He began studying medicine at King's College in 1949 with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist. However, while at school, Ballard wrote a great deal of avant-garde fiction, some of which was published in university magazines and newspapers. He soon abandoned his medical studies, completed a year at Queen Mary College to study literature, and after leaving the program, joined the Royal Air Force. He trained in Canada, where he was introduced to American science fiction. After marrying his wife in 1955 and returning to England, he published several short stories in the magazine New Worlds. He published his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, in 1960 after deciding to write fulltime. He published The Drowned World next, in 1962, which established him as a prominent figure in New Wave science fiction. His wife died suddenly in 1964, and Ballard raised their three children alone after her death. Ballard continued to write until his death from prostate cancer in 2009.
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Historical Context of The Drowned World

The term "New Wave" was coined in the early 1960s to describe science fiction writers like Ballard. Many of them were born around the time of World War II and as they came of age they rejected the linear and formulaic plotlines of Golden Age science fiction. Many New Wave science fiction writers were inspired by the art movements of the ‘50s and ‘60s (Ballard in particular was involved in the Pop Art movement and even exhibited some collages of his own) and wanted to see the same kind of experimentation taking place in literature. It's also worth noting that The Drowned World was published the same year as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was an important game changer in the way that people and governments thought about climate change and the environment. Silent Spring, however, focuses on actual, recorded, manmade environmental destruction caused by pesticides, whereas in Ballard's book climate change seems not to have been brought about by human activity. Furthermore, the book was written and published at about the same time as the Cuban missile crisis was unfolding, not long after the world witnessed the effects of the first nuclear bombs, so it’s reasonable to assume that the threat of global nuclear catastrophe may have influenced Ballard’s vision of a future in which solar radiation has ravaged human civilization.

Other Books Related to The Drowned World

Other notable New Wave figures were the editor Michael Moorcock (of the magazine New Worlds) and the author Brian Aldiss (Hothouse, Greybeard). Ballard wrote about the world's destruction from several angles throughout his life. While environmental catastrophe in The Drowned World is not manmade, in his novel The Burning World (which was later expanded and republished as The Drought), industrial waste runoff causes an atmospheric condition that prevents rain from falling, leading to a worldwide scarcity of water. More recently, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) imagines a future in which natural disasters brought about by climate change threaten to destroy New York City.
Key Facts about The Drowned World
  • Full Title: The Drowned World
  • When Written: 1962
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1962
  • Literary Period: New Wave
  • Genre: Dystopian fiction; Science fiction
  • Setting: London, 2145
  • Climax: Kerans destroys Strangeman's dam, re-flooding London
  • Antagonist: Strangeman; nature
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Drowned World

A Musical Influence. J.G. Ballard's work has inspired a number of musicians. The Drowned World inspired Madonna's song "Drowned World," while the songwriters for The Buggles's hit song "Video Killed the Radio Star" credit Ballard's short story "The Sound-Sweep."

"Terrifyingly Ordinary". Neil Gaiman met Ballard at a party in 1985 after spending his entire life reading and loving his work. However, he was shocked by how very ordinary Ballard was, a sentiment echoed by others who knew or interviewed him.