Book #33 (October 2, 2010): The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard
Book #34 (October 6, 2010): The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
Book #35 (October 10, 2010): The Burning World (AKA The Drought) by J.G. Ballard
Book #36 (October 12, 2010): The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard
For some reason, in the 1950s through the 1970s, British science fiction writers became obsessed with the idea of global disaster and wrote novel after novel in which the entire human race falls victim to some horrible shift in the balance of nature. I suppose one could argue that this trend really began with the 1906 H.G. Wells novel In the Days of the Comet, where mysterious gases from a comet’s tail put everyone on earth to sleep for three hours, or even his 1898 The War of the Worlds, where England is devastated by a Martian invasion, but the movement got underway in earnest with John Wyndham’s 1951 The Day of the Triffids, where not only does everyone on earth go blind from meteor light but the planet is simultaneously invaded by sentient plant life. It was as though Wyndham wanted to combine the two Wells novels into a disaster two-fer, with the invaders and the comet conspiring together to end civilization. And then there was John Christopher’s 1956 No Blade of Grass (AKA The Death of Grass), about global famine, and John Brunner’s one-two ecological punch of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) andThe Sheep Look Up (1972), where the earth is devastated by overpopulation and pollution, respectively. (One could also argue that this trend in British SF has never really ended and that P.D. James’ 1992 The Children of Men belongs to it as well.)
No writer, British or otherwise, has ever become quite so obsessed with the disaster novel as James Graham (J.G.) Ballard. These days the late Mr. Ballard is better remembered for his 1973 flight of surrealism Crash, about people with a sexual fetish for automobile accidents (made into a 1996 movie by David Cronenberg, not to be confused with the 2004 Academy-Award-winning Crash by Paul Haggis), and his semi-fictionalized autobiographyEmpire of the Sun, made into a film by Stephen Spielberg with the young Christian Bale as the teenage Ballard’s avatar. He also became part of the New Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 70s, based around the British short story magazine New Worlds, where a group of young writers, both British and American, tried to demonstrate that science fiction could be a form of avant-garde literature, a movement that eventually died but that immeasurably elevated the writing level of most science fiction that followed even as Star Wars was trying to dumb it back down. However, his writing career began in 1961 with the apocalyptic science fiction novel The Wind from Nowhere, which was followed by three more remarkably similar works of apocalyptic science fiction. It was almost as though Ballard were trying to write the same novel over and over again until he finally got it right. I read the first of these when I was in high school and found it enjoyable, but the other three sat on my shelf in their original paperback editions unread for many years. I finally decided to simply read all four in one long session to see just what the hell Ballard had been up to.
The Wind from Nowhere (1961) was supposedly written by Ballard over a two-week vacation from work just so he could establish himself as a writer. It has a simple but startling premise, that all over the world the wind has started blowing faster by five miles per hour every day. It’s as though the earth and its atmosphere have developed different rotational speeds, eventually turning the atmosphere into a giant slipstream capable of blowing down entire buildings and rendering the surface of the earth uninhabitable. The novel starts well, with the wind already blowing fast enough to cancel all air travel and run the Queen Mary ocean liner aground off the coast of France. Even in this first novel Ballard’s writing is crisp and intelligent, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s writing too fast. The characters fail to become three-dimensional and the plot consists of too much scurrying from one underground or underwater location (including submarines) to another, though the conceit of winds blowing across the remains of great cities at hundreds of miles per hour, speeds that grind even the most massive of structures into flying rubble, makes the book sustainably readable over its relatively short length. Still, Ballard would later omit this book from many of his bibliographies and pretend it had never happened.
The Drowned World (1962) is in many ways the same novel, but by the time it was written Ballard had quit his day job and was writing full time. The extra care and effort show. This time, instead of a runaway windstorm, solar flares (the same culprit he vaguely fingers in The Wind from Nowhere) have triggered runaway global warming. The melting of the ice caps has drowned much of the continental shelves in warm lagoons and altered the shape of the remaining land by carrying great deposits of silt southward (or northward in the southern hemisphere) along swiftly rushing rivers. Most of the story takes place in a series of three connected lagoons over what used to be London, though the story is set so long after the disaster that most people have forgotten the city’s name and only a few stragglers remain at such a sweltering southern latitude, most having moved inside the arctic circles where the weather is closer to that of present-day Miami. It’s here that Ballard begins to discover his penchant for surrealism. The changed climate resembles that of the Permian era, when reptiles and mammals first evolved into separate taxonomic groups, and the few people who remain in these super-tropical latitudes find themselves dreaming each night of an era when their reptilian ancestors lived in a similar environment. One by one they develop an urge to head suicidally toward the suffocatingly hot equator instead of back to the temperate poles.
The Burning World (1964; also published as The Drought) is about a near future time when a pollution-induced shift in the surface characteristics of the oceans has disrupted the hydrologic cycle and rain stops falling. In effect, it stands The Drowned World on its head. Rivers and lakes start to dry up and a mass (but ultimately fairly fruitless) migration to the seashore begins. The story follows a group of people who live in a community around an unnamed lake, many of whom refuse to leave for the shore as the lake dries up, knowing that things won’t be much better there; saltwater, after all, is undrinkable, and the process of distilling it is too slow and the breakdown of society too rapid to make it worth the effort of moving. Eventually the trek to the ocean becomes unavoidable and Ballard sends the characters on a double odyssey, one to the ocean and one, a decade later, back to the small town where the story began. In this novel you can see Ballard’s interests beginning to shift away from the disaster itself to the interactions of the community that’s thrown together by it. The relationships within these communities are uncomfortable but inevitable and often what holds the characters together is the need to defend themselves from the feral remains of the rest of the human race.
The Crystal World (1966) is something quite different and in it you can feel Ballard losing interest in the disasters altogether and realizing that the real power of his writing is in the surrealistic imagery that the disasters provide. In The Wind from Nowhere this is the image of the dust-darkened wind carrying trucks and eventually entire buildings through the air like autumn leaves caught in a gust. In The Drowned World it’s the image of an underwater London glimpsed from above through water. In The Burning World it’s the eternal fires of burning cities on the horizon and the great salt dunes forming alongside the increasingly inaccessible oceans. The Crystal World is almost entirely about images. Some kind of never explained process begins turning all physical objects, dead or living, into multicolored crystal representations of themselves, as though the world were becoming a three-dimensional stained glass window. Ballard’s protagonist, a doctor who specializes in leprosy, begins a Heart of Darkness-like voyage down a river in Africa to find his ex-wife and her husband, discovering instead a jungle of crystallized trees, crocodiles and occasionally people. Ballard gets carried away a bit with confused symbolism in this one: the crystallization process seems analogous to leprosy yet also cures it, and the protagonist becomes a kind of Christian priest, carrying a crystallized cross that heals native lepers with its touch. And yet this is easily the best of Ballard’s first four novels and well worth reading. The crystallized environment (which Ballard mentions in passing has also appeared in Florida and Russia and even seems to be extending into outer space) is a fascinating literary creation and for once his characters don’t seem totally overshadowed by the disaster into which they’ve fallen. Nearly half a century after its writing, The Crystal World still seems fresh and not an artifact of its time, perhaps because at this point Ballard’s writing had become so much his own that no other writer has ever come close to imitating his strange combination of sharp descriptive prose, real world characters and unearthly apocalypse.
I still wonder what it is that drives British science fiction writers toward disaster novels, though. I’ve heard it explained as a reaction to the World War II blitz and the ever-present threat of annihilation from German bombs, but Ballard spent World War II as a teenager in Japanese internment camps for displaced noncombatant Allies. Though, come to think of it, living in the shadow of Hiroshima may have provided him with a far worse view of apocalypse than any of his countrymen got back home.