The characters in The Drowned World have a highly scientific way of thinking about the world around them. The story follows Dr. Bodkin, a biologist, and Dr. Kerans, a biologist and sometimes-medical doctor who are stationed at a military base in London. Their job is to map the changing landmasses and waterways, as well as to observe the new lifeforms of plants and animals that thrive in the newly tropical climate of London, with the hope that humans will be able to recolonize the drowned cities in the next ten years. However, both Kerans and Bodkin begin to question the role science can and should play in the new world as they're confronted with psychological problems and questions that science simply can't answer, as well as the overwhelming sense that the hope of recolonizing the cities is at best far-fetched—and at worst impossible.
The novel is quick to reveal that both Dr. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin aren't convinced that the fieldwork they conduct is at all useful. Ballard describes the doctors' scientific notes on the walls of their testing station as having been dense and detailed at the beginning of their three years in London, but in the present, the notes are few and lazily scrawled. Kerans explains the reason for this: the world simply did exactly what scientists predicted it would do twenty years before the present. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin's job for the three years prior to the start of the novel was, in essence, to confirm that prior hypotheses about global climate change were indeed correct. This instills the sense in both doctors that at this point in the world's history, science has become useless. They see that there's nothing they can do to stop what's happening or plan appropriately for a human-centric future, and thus they see little use in trying to document or make sense of the present.
Once the characters accept that the natural world is beyond their control and isn't worth attempting to understand scientifically, they turn their attentions inward. The characters focus on the more pressing psychological issues that plague the base—namely, the terrifying, recurring, and exhausting nightmares of a watery landscape filled with massive reptiles. Dr. Bodkin develops a new field of psychology to explain these dreams, which he terms "neuronics." Dr. Bodkin insists that evolution is somewhat reversible, and this becomes the central tenet of his theory of neuronics. He proposes that the dreams are triggered by "innate releasing mechanisms" that cause a person to instinctively remember a time when the world last looked like it does now. The dreams are then indicative of a return to the "archaeo-psychic past," and by allowing the dreams to take over the mind, the person will re-experience each moment in human evolution. Initially, Dr. Bodkin attempts to make neuronics empirical and scientific: he conducts experiments with Lieutenant Hardman, who is nearly driven mad by the intensity of his dreams. Once again, however, simply naming and understanding what's happening isn't enough to actually change what the characters experience. Dr. Bodkin doesn't propose a way to stop the dreams; rather, he simply tries to make it easier for Hardman to accept the reality of his dreams. When Hardman allows the dreams to take over his mind, he finds a sense of peace with the world and the change it's undergoing, but this ultimately leads to him fleeing London to go south, the logic behind which eludes nearly all of the people posted in London.
Hardman's escape—and later, Kerans' escape—both represent a rejection of the future that the government hopes for (i.e. mankind's return to the cities, facilitated by science). Going south alone symbolizes an acceptance that the future predicted in the dreams isn't something that can be changed or altered, it's just an inevitable reality that can either be accepted or ignored. In this way, the novel shows the characters rejecting the idea of science as a human-centric framework for understanding the world. Instead, they embrace science and psychology as tools for helping them understand and accept that humans aren't at the center of the new world order, and act accordingly.
Science and Psychology ThemeTracker
Science and Psychology 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.
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.
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.
A more important task than mapping the harbors and lagoons of the external landscape was to chart the ghostly deltas and luminous beaches of the submerged neuronic continents.
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.
By and large, each of them would have to pursue his or her own pathway through the time jungles... Although they might see one another occasionally... their only true meeting ground would be in their dreams.
"Dr. Bodkin, did you live in London as a child? You must have many sentimental memories to recapture, of the great palaces and museums." He added: "Or are the only memories you have pre-uterine ones?"
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.
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.