The novel introduces the reader to a world where civilization as we now know it is merely a memory: global water levels have risen and all cities south of the Arctic Circle are underwater. The year is 2145 and few people remember what the world was like when humans lived in the cities of Europe and America. However, Dr. Bodkin suggests that all humans share a biological or evolutionary memory, which is encased in the human spine. He theorizes that the entire history of the world and of human evolution is instinctively "remembered" by all humans. Bodkin therefore believes that as the earth effectively returns to the way it was during the Triassic period, humans will also regress as memories surface of a time when they weren't the dominant species. The novel creates an opposition between this idea of a shared evolutionary memory and the vastly different worldview of characters like Colonel Riggs, who seeks to protect the supremacy of human beings and ensure a future in which humans continue to rule the earth.
The platoon in London is there for a very specific reason: to observe the changing plant and animal life, as well as changes to the various bodies of water that now occupy London, so that humans have the necessary information to later recolonize the cities. This represents a hopeful view of the future, as it shows that the governing bodies believe that humans will indeed be able to conquer the changing environment and remain the dominant species on earth. Dr. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin appear to share some of this hope, at least initially: their field notes from their early days in London are dense and detailed, showing their dedication to their project. However, their belief in a human-centric future is challenged when they begin experiencing dreams of the very distant past, when lizards ruled the world and mammals, including humans, weren't the dominant life forms. Dr. Bodkin theorizes that these dreams are triggered by the intense heat of the new climate, which is similar to the earth's climate during the Triassic period. Furthermore, he believes that the dreams are not simply dreams, but are instead actual memories of a very distant evolutionary history. The dreams are horrifying at first, but after a few nights of experiencing them, the dreamers become entranced by, and ultimately accepting of, these ancient memories. This shift causes Kerans, Dr. Bodkin, and Beatrice to decide to stay in London rather than return to Camp Byrd, and even brings about a mental breakdown for Lieutenant Hardman. Most importantly, the dream memories create a desire in those who experience them to move south, and in doing so, to return to the very distant past they experience in their dreams. The dreamers become disenchanted with the possibility of a civilized future and instead, give themselves over to their "biological memories."
The conflict between memory and the future comes to a head when Colonel Riggs returns to London to save Kerans and Beatrice from Strangeman, the mysterious looter. The narrator states that looters and pirates are common in the drowned cities, but Strangeman takes the act of looting to another level: rather than just dive for treasure, he actually drains one of the lagoons that covers London, exposing the city and allowing him to loot on foot. It's important to note that draining the drowned cities represents both a return to the past as well as a vision of the future. Exposing the city allows Dr. Bodkin, who grew up in London, to visit landmarks from his past. Although it initially transfixes him, he soon joins Beatrice and Kerans in their horror that the world as they see it in their dreams is being returned to a civilized state. For them, the ancient memories they experience in their dreams have become so powerful that they can't stand the idea of the world returning to its recent past. When Colonel Riggs insists to Kerans that Strangeman will be honored for draining London, Kerans understands that there's no way to bridge the gap in understanding between those who experience the dreams (such as himself) and those who don't (like Colonel Riggs). For Kerans, re-flooding London and heading south is a final testament to the power of the biological memories he experiences. By accepting what they see in their dreams as both past and the inevitable future, Kerans and the other dreamers show that the history of the world isn't linear: it's cyclical. Thus, the novel shows that the only way for the characters to truly move forward is to accept that, for humans, the future might resemble a return to the past.
Memory vs. The Future ThemeTracker
Memory vs. The Future Quotes in The Drowned World
... 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...
Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic...of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
All this detailed mapping of the harbors for use in some hypothetical future is absurd...the whole place is nothing but a confounded zoo.
Looking up at the ancient impassive faces, Kerans could understand the curious fear they roused, rekindling archaic memories of the Paleocene, when the reptiles had gone down before the emergent mammals, and sense the implacable hatred one zoological class feels towards another that usurps it.
For a few moments Kerans stared quietly at the dim yellow annulus of Ernst's sun glowering through the exotic vegetation, a curious feeling of memory and recognition signaling through his brain.
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.
Nor had he tried to follow up any of Bodkin's or Riggs' oblique remarks about the dreams and their danger, almost as if he had known that he would soon be sharing them, and accepted them as an inevitable element of his life...
Distantly in his ears he could hear the sun drumming over the sunken water. As he recovered from his first fears he realized that there was something soothing about its sounds, almost reassuring and encouraging like his own heartbeats.
"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.
Yet he had a further neuronic role, in which he seemed almost a positive influence, holding a warning mirror up to Kerans and obliquely cautioning him about the future he had chosen.
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.
Dimly he realized that the lagoon had represented a complex of neuronic needs that were impossible to satisfy by any other means. This blunting lethargy deepened, unbroken by the violence around him, and more and more he felt like a man marooned in a time sea, hemmed in by the shifting planes of dissonant realities millions of years apart.
"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!"