Friday, May 01, 2009

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), R. I. P.

When the news of J. G. Ballard's death came across the wires, I happened to have just finished reading Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), and it was only natural to find myself comparing Harrison's novel to the two Ballard catastrophe novels I've read, The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964).

The difference was stark: Harrison's novel, which presents 1999 Manhattan, teeming with people and scrapping for resources, is perfectly fine science fiction, its occasional striking image--like the rusting hulks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard re-imagined as secret freshwater lagoons--balancing its structural problems and didacticism. But that's all it is: a fairly straightforward working-out of the problems that might face a 35-million-strong Manhattan in a world of depleted resources. Harrison's New York remains recognizably our own world, populated by people we know living lives we easily understand. Their environment has changed, even turned on them, but they remain fundamentally the same.

Ballard's catastrophe novels argue that there is much more at stake: where Harrison is content to imagine the physical consequences of changes in our way of life, Ballard wants to explore how those changes affect the very core of our being, how the radical alteration of society can't help but generate a radical alteration in the self. I wrote about the pair of novels last year for the New York Moon, so I won't go into great detail here. I think a couple of passages from The Drought will suffice to give a sense of the strangeness with which Ballard invests his dystopias.

First, because Ballard's landscapes were always lavishly--if coldly--described, here's a depiction of the coast in this future where rain has forsaken us:
Under the empty winter sky the salt-dunes ran on for miles. Seldom varying more than a few feet from trough to crest, they shone damply in the cold air, the pools of brine disturbed by the inshore wind. Sometimes, in a distant foretaste of the spring to come, their crests would be touched with white streaks as a few crystals evaporated out into the sunlight, but by the early afternoon these began to deliquesce, and the grey flanks of the dunes would run with a pale light.

To the east and west the dunes stretcehd along the coast to the horizon, occasionally giving way to a small lake of stagnant brine or a lost creek cut off from the rest of its channel. To the south, in the direction of the sea, the dunes gradually became more shallow, extending into long salt flats. At high tide they were covered by a few inches of clear water, the narrowing causeways of firmer salt reaching out into the sea.

Nowhere was there a defined margin between the shore and sea, and the endless shallows formed the only dividing zone, land and water submerged in this grey liquid limbo.
The precision of that description is what impresses me most, the way that Ballard offers not just the view, but a sense of its changes through the day, as salt crystals evaporate and "pale light" touches the dunes; the dunes are fully realized in space and time, to the point that you can immediately imagine trudging over them in search--you immediately assume--of the sea.

So we are prepared for the figures who soon come over the rise--but nothing could prepare us for their unsettlingly odd appearance and actions:
At this moment, a shout crossed the air. A dozen men rose from behidn the bank surrounding the lagoon and with long paddles of whalebone began to shovel the wet salt into the breach. Sliding up to their waists in the grey slush, they worked furiously as the crystals drained backwards towards the sea. Their arms and chests were strung with strips of rag and rubber. They drove each other on with sharp cries and shouts, their backs bent as they ladled the salt up into the breach, trying to contain the water in the lagoon before the tide turned.

Watching them from the edge of the bank was a tall, thin-faced man wearing a sealskin cape over his left shoulder, his right hand on the shaft of his double-bladed paddle. His dark face, from which all flesh had been drained away, seemed to consist of a series of flint-like points, the sharp cheekbones and jaw almost piercing his hard skin.
It's a chilling scene, one into which the reader is plunged with almost no foreknowledge, no guidelines with which to interpret the people or their actions, and the effect is frighteningly dislocating. If Harrison's book is a warning of what might go wrong, Ballard's novels are closer to reminders that, when something eventually does go very wrong, no warning is going to be able to help us.

I finished those two novels last summer determined to read much more Ballard, and the many tributes to his work--far more able than mine--that appeared last week have only strengthened my resolve. I recommend the one by Simon Reynolds at Salon and Martin Amis's in the Guardian; the reviews of Ballard that Amis collected in his The War Against Cliche are also well worth seeking out.

In the meantime, U.S. publishers take note: there's a lot of Ballard that's out of print and ripe for republishing . . .

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