The world created by nature versus the world constructed by humans

On to The Drought by JG Ballard in my ongoing quest to read and review all of his novels. This is his second novel, if we assume his convention of never acknowledging “The Wind From Nowhere” as being his first novel. “The Drought” itself was renamed from “The Burning World” and additional content added later on. This was quite common practice in SF in the 50s and 60s where novels were serialised in magazines like Amazing SF and Interzone. It is evidence though of Ballard finding his voice as he wrote and from The Drought it is easy to see that he is iterating his thought processes and subject matter with each novel.

“The Drought” is marvellous in a way that “The Drowned World” is not. Here Ballard has cut away much of the ropy science of that novel and left us with a much more realistic scenario of global drought without having to worry about all the outré trappings of giant iguanas and dragonflies the size of your head. Instead, all the magnetic and mesmerising elements of Ballard’s work are beginning to take form: the eccentric recluse with possible sinister intent, the confused and detached protagonist, the ambivalently regarded woman of standing, the encroachment of nature and the human tendency to defile pretty much all it touches, including all that it has constructed and lived alongside.

The action begins in the painful death throes of a drought that has caused those living further inland to escape to the sea. There is no rain and only some water, all mention of water assumes that there is a finite supply that will eventually be exhausted. The water cycle has been disrupted due to the sea being covered by a skin of monomeric compound that prevents evaporation, its presence due to industrial pollution.

The scenario is much more prescient than that presented in “The Drowned World” but it does not make “The Drought” any more of an ecological novel. It even blurs the line as to whether it is science fiction, instead it is more of a hallucinatory mirror held up to a suburban life that is left to quiver as though it were a mirage. There are a number of almost mythical characters and signifiers strung throughout the narrative. Quilter, the sinister autistic boy; Philip Jackson - a young boy who is a sort of cross between Peter Pan and Mowgli living alone and unsupported on the river; the mad Reverend; the madder millionaire Lomax, who sets off fireworks as an attention seeking gesture during fireworks; the widow who runs the zoo; a headless peacock; the Christian fish symbol scrawled into dust; a dead aquarium; fishermen who capture people with nets led by a man who dreams of a new river. (This will probably tie in with “Day of Creation” later on, so watch this space…)

To begin with, the takes place in a setting that might be familiar to us, a well-heeled suburb by a river. The church community, the zoo and the mansion belonging to Lomax all paint a picture of somewhere that would perhaps be idyllic in other circumstances. However, in the unrelenting sunlight and under the cloudless sky, with the soil turned to dust and the taps run dry, it is not the green-lawned and white-picked-fenced utopia we would like to imagine: it is instead abandoned and dusty and faded. Traditional roles have been skewed and everyone has a new agenda (p. 31):

“Johnstone drummed a fist on the wheel. ‘That’s not for us to decide! There are too many people now living out their own failures, that’s the secret appeal of this drought. I was going to give the fellow some water Charles, but I wanted him to show some courage first.’ ‘Of course’ Ransom said noncommittally. Five minutes earlier he had been glad to see Johnstone, but he realized that the clergyman was imposing his own fantasies on the landscape, as he himself had done.”

Eventually, packs of vigilantes move in, calling themselves “fishers of men” who are press-ganging people into a trip inland to find a river that they are convinced exists. Ransom comes to realise that the city must be abandoned (p. 60):

“…he had realized that the role of the recluse and solitary, meditating on his past sins of omission like a hermit on the fringes of an abandoned city, would not be viable. The blighted landscape and its empty violence, its loss of time, would provide its own motives.”

In advance of the characters’ journey to the beach. Ballard foreshadows a description of what awaits them there with a description of what has happened to the fish that lived in the aquarium at the zoo. The description is marvellous and really captures the horror of the situation. The contrast between the terrible scene described and the beauty of the language used is really quite clever (p. 66):

“Suspended in the dim air above him, their pearly bodies rotating like the vanes of elaborate mobiles, were the corpses of hundreds of fish. Poisoned by their own wastes, they hung in the gloomy water, their blank eyes glowing like phosphorous, mouths agape. In the smaller tanks the tropical fish effervesced like putrid jewels, their coloured tissue dissolving into threads of gossamer. Gazing at them, Ransom had a sudden vision of the sea by the coastal beaches, as clouded and corpse-strewn as the water in the tanks, the faces of the drowned eddying past each other.”

And sure enough, when reached, the beach is not the salvation it was thought to be (p. 115):

“He had expected the beach to be crowded, but not the vast concourse below, a meaningless replication of identity in which an infinite number of doubles of himself were being generated by a cancerous division of time.”

I especially like that quote because I think it really sums up how difficult it is to feel empathy for others when part of a large crowd. In one sentence Ballard sums up the psychological basis for hatred of large crowds.

After the arrival at the beach, the story skips forward ten years with the main characters established on the beach, living out a harsh existence of harvesting water from the sea and living only on kelp and fish. The salt driven out of the sea has formed its own landscape and the sea itself has retreated further and further from the dunes. Ransom is isolated from the rest of the community, on the grounds that his negativity about the future is preventing him from working hard. However, when the corpse of one of the lions released from Mount Royal zoo is found dead, Ransom and friends realise that there must still be water inland and set off back to find it. Ballard uses the journey to explore what is a common theme in his books, that of whether our perception of the physical world around us is influenced by the mental world that we inhabit (p. 181):

“The unvarying light and absence of all movement made Ransom feel that he was advancing across an inner landscape where the elements of the future stood around him like the objects in a still life, formless and without association.”

I shall not say any more, as I do not want to spoil the ending. I really enjoyed “The Drought” probably as much as any other JG Ballard novel I’ve read. It’s “The Crystal World” next, but probably after a break to read something different, all this Ballard is making me thirsty for other writing!