Monday 19 December 2016

The Drought - JG Ballard (1965)

It seems to be an unlikely conclusion to make, but perhaps the most interesting and significant section of The Drought are the two essays at the back of the book. One is by Ballard himself, entitled Cataclysms and Dooms (1977), in which he ruminates over the tradition of world cataclysms in literature. Here he states that “Psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” The second essay is by British author Will Self, entitled The Ballard Tradition (2003), in which Self notes that “...Ballard has issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience.” Self goes on the conclude that “Indeed, the time has come to entertain the notion that one of the new seasons we are experiencing - dry spring, warm winter - should be named, simply, ‘Ballard’.”  During the post war period many of the possibilities offered up in science fiction have come to pass, from advanced computer driven technologies, medical breakthroughs, astronomical discoveries and most recently significant advances in the development of robotics and AI. Unfortunately the sad reality is that one of science fiction’s dominant tropes, a post apocalyptic world ruined by humanity’s short sighted hubris, is looking more and more likely to come to pass.

As Ballard himself noted, a novel such as The Drought does belong to the rich tradition of the cataclysmic, or post-apocalyptic novel. Human pollution results in the breaking the hydrologic cycle, creating successive years of drought, causing rivers to stop flowing and then civilization itself to collapse. Dr Charles Ransom, the novel’s principal protagonist is a typical Ballardian character, a brooding loner adrift in a situation in which he is more of an observer than an actor. An appropriate ensemble of eccentric and desperate characters surround him; Richard Lomax and his sister Miranda, wealthy eccentrics who exude a sophisticated kind of denial; Philip Jordan, denizen of a dying river; the brusque Reverend Johnstone, and Quilter, Lomax’s dwarf assistant. Rather than being a portrayal of a world-wide apocalyptic event, Ballard focuses the narrative on the lakeside town of Hamilton. As the drought progresses a sometimes surreal microcosm of civilization in decline plays out within the town. Fishermen hunt humans in the semi-deserted streets with nets, lions are let loose from the zoo, Quilter lurks in the half shadows and Ransom vacillates between leaving along with everyone else to the coast or staying with the Lomax siblings in their luxurious home whilst they blithely waste precious water keeping the lawns alive. Eventually Ransom does leave for the coast only to find the last vestige of civil order, in the form of the army, is attempting to keep the teeming hoards from leaving the mainland.

The Drought provides a timely reminder that from early in his career Ballard’s ability to explore human psychology under strain from unusual circumstances, and more significantly, under supposed normal circumstances, is one of his most enduring contributions to speculative fiction. It can be argued that The Drought stands as an early example of psycho-geography. Developed by Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist, psycho-geography is “...the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” Throughout the novel Ballard’s protagonists exist in a psychic limbo between the decay of humanity’s built environment and a natural environment rendered dysfunctional by human interference.

Although The Drought is a worthy read for Ballard fans, it is perhaps not a good place to start for novices. Often the novel seems unfocused, promising apocalyptic drama, only to have it resolve into a narrative plateau characterized by the psychological drift of Ransom. The writing is clunky at times and Ballard’s characteristically dry, almost emotionless tone is not yet fully formed, something that gives his subsequent work an almost unbearably pleasurable tautness. The novel’s endgame, although initially promising, passes by like a surreal dream during an afternoon nap on a hot day, leaving you feeling uneasy and then ultimately unsatisfied; as with most great and important artists and writers, the best was yet to come. The Drought makes up one part of a loose quartet of novels featuring cataclysmic natural phenomena; the others being The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966), which is where things really start getting interesting. Meanwhile a good place to start for the curious will always be The Complete Collected Short Stories of J.G.Ballard (2009).

I’m not sure whether it was some kind of subconscious decision on my part, but I began reading The Drought during the last month of the US presidential campaign. I’m sure that Ballard, who died in 2009, would have been fascinated by the election and the manner in which it was conducted. The concept of a ‘post truth’ era and the osmotic bleed between the hyper-realism of both cyber and broadcast media and what passes for ‘reality’ these days would have stimulated him enormously. As his daughter noted recently in an essay for The Guardian, we are living in Ballard’s world now (with some Philip K Dick thrown in for good measure I believe...). Perhaps the most unerring and frightening aspect of this era is the retreat into the irrationality of conspiracy theories, in particular those of the climate change deniers, whose voices are nightmarishly becoming louder and louder. The conspiracy theorist displays a special kind of narcissism that allows a retreat into the safety of the ego, from where they can proselytise what they believe to be the ‘real truth’, a ‘truth’ that irrationally counters the carefully researched scientific conclusions of the majority. It makes them feel special and powerful, giving them an agency over the world that they would not otherwise have; I’d almost feel sorry for them if it wasn’t so horrifying. Significantly the climate change deniers only confirm Ballard’s theory that ideas of world destruction are innate within the human psyche (or, pointedly, just those of the insane?). Meanwhile as I watch in horror climate change deniers do all they can to protect and reassert the status quo that is ultimately only steering humanity toward an apocalyptic future of its own devising, I’m going to prepare myself further by reading Ballard’s The Drowned World.