At its heart, The Drowned World is a story about humans fighting to survive in a wild and dangerous landscape. The story takes place on a planet that is rapidly changing and will soon no longer be able to support human life, both because of increasing global temperatures and the rapid evolution of massive lizards that prey on humans when given the chance. Although some of the main conflicts of the novel stem from characters doing battle with each other, the overarching conflict concerns the various ways in which the characters are forced to battle against an increasingly hostile environment.
Throughout The Drowned World, Ballard describes the natural environment as though it were a character in its own right, with its own consciousness and agency. When characters describe the "humped backs" of silt deposits, covered in a "fur" of giant bamboo, the earth itself takes on the characteristics of an animal. In the Ritz Hotel, where Kerans takes up residence, molds and fungi become living parts of the elaborate and rich furnishings, while the ever-present iguanas watch the platoon from the windows of abandoned buildings. In this way, the environment seems to conspire to defeat the novel's human characters and the man-made world. It's worth keeping in mind that although The Drowned World is a book about climate change, it was published in 1962, before the emergence of modern day climate science showed that human activity would be the single greatest driver of climate change in the 20th and 21st centuries. Unlike the climate change the earth is experiencing today, the dramatic increase in global temperatures that Ballard writes about wasn't brought about by human activity. Rather, the changes began with solar storms that destroyed the earth's barrier against solar radiation, something decidedly beyond human control. In this way, the novel portrays humans as the helpless victims of a changing climate as they attempt to adapt to the new landscape.
This idea that nature is beyond the control of humankind is reinforced in the way the characters talk about the science they conduct. Rather than attempting to change or reverse what's happening, Dr. Bodkin and Kerans are supposed to simply observe the many changes that are occurring as a result of the changing climate. Further, when Kerans hears that the officials at Camp Byrd have issued an order for the platoon to leave London and move north permanently, it represents a concession on the part of humans to the natural world, as it means that mankind has effectively been forced to surrender the city. All of this culminates in an overwhelming sense that humans have little control over their environment in the novel. They are at the mercy of nature and can only hope to survive its changes.
The characters' sense that they lack control over nature is challenged when Strangeman arrives in London. Interestingly, Strangeman doesn't appear to be plagued by the dreams that Kerans, Dr. Bodkin, and Beatrice experience, in which humans are no longer the dominant species on the planet. Rather, he seems to be unaffected by the dramatic changes that have taken place in the physical environment. Strangeman, then, represents the only character who truly confronts nature and believes himself capable of altering it. By draining the lagoon over part of London, Strangeman shows that he can actively shape the natural world to be the way he wants it to be. When Strangeman drains the lagoon, he returns London to a state in which man-made structures and buildings dominate the landscape. For the relatively short time that the lagoon remains empty, the characters have the opportunity to experience what the world was like 75-100 years ago, when humans ruled the world. However, this state is soon challenged by both Dr. Bodkin and Kerans: Dr. Bodkin unsuccessfully attempts to blast open one of Strangeman's dams, and Kerans later completes Dr. Bodkin's attempt. For Dr. Bodkin and Kerans, the only way to exist in the new world is to accept the superiority of nature over humans. Draining the cities is a direct threat to the future they see in their dreams, which is one where humans accept their subordinate position in the kingdom of life. By re-flooding the lagoon, killing Strangeman, and heading south, Kerans insists that things progress according to nature’s laws, not those of humankind, suggesting that the idea that humans could ever hope to truly exercise control over nature is extremely misguided. Rather, humans must accept their inferiority and understand that the very idea of “man versus nature” is a farce from the very beginning, since nature will triumph in the end with little regard for any life form, humans included, that can't keep up.
Man vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Man vs. Nature Quotes in The Drowned World
The biological mapping had become a pointless game, the new flora following exactly the emergent lines anticipated twenty years earlier, and he was sure that no one at Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland bothered to file his reports, let alone read them.
... the somber green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-faced buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time...
All this detailed mapping of the harbors for use in some hypothetical future is absurd...the whole place is nothing but a confounded zoo.
... the genealogical tree of mankind was systematically pruning itself, apparently moving backwards in time, and a point might ultimately be reached where a second Adam and Eve found themselves alone in a new Eden.
Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well.
"The trouble with you people is that you've been here for thirty million years and your perspectives are all wrong. You miss so much of the transitory beauty of life. I'm fascinated by the immediate past--the treasures of the Triassic compare pretty unfavorably with those of the closing years of the Second Millennium."
Kerans managed to take his eyes off Strangeman's face and glanced at the looted relics.
"They're like bones," he said flatly.
For some reason the womb-like image of the chamber was reinforced rather than diminished by the circular rows of seats, and Kerans heard the thudding in his ears uncertain whether he was listening to the dim subliminal requiem of his dreams.
No longer the velvet mantle he remembered from his descent, it was no a fragmenting cloak of rotting organic forms, like the vestments of the grave. The once translucent threshold of the womb had vanished, its place taken by the gateway to a sewer.
"Colonel, you've got to flood it again, laws or no laws. Have you been down in those streets; they're obscene and hideous! It's a nightmare world that's dead and finished, Strangeman's resurrecting a corpse!"
Obscured by the events of the past week, the archaic sun in his mind beat again continuously with its immense power, its identity merging now with that of the real sun visible behind the rain-clouds.