Dystopian Fiction: Part 3
For the sake of this blog, and not relying totally on memory, I have used a brief synopsis of each novel mentioned here courtesy of Wikipedia.
If you’ve read parts 1 and 2 of this blog, you’ll have gained some idea of the older novels of dystopian fiction on which I grew up reading, novels that surely inspired many other writers . . . novels I’d hate to see get tossed in a pile or in a corner to collect dust with all the other forgotten novels. Today I’m going to talk about one writer in particular: J. G. Ballard.
Ballard’s memoirs of being a kid during WWII were made into a fairly good film by Steven Spielberg, starring Christian Bale, when he was just a kid: Empire of the Sun. Film director David Cronenberg turned Ballard’s strange, disturbing and haunting novel, Crash into a strangely haunting and disturbing film. I have read most of Ballard’s short stories, and a number of his other novels, but my personal favorites are his “Quartet of Elemental Apocalypse,” as one critic dubbed the series. To me, they depict very different dystopian futures than so many other novels.
The Wind from Nowhere is Ballard’s debut novel, published in 1961; he had previously published only short stories, which I also highly recommend. This is the novel that launched his Quartet of Elemental Apocalypse — his “series” dealing with scenarios of natural disaster. In this novel, civilization is reduced to ruins by prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds. As an added dimension, Ballard explores how disaster and tragedy can bond people together in ways that no normal experiences ever could. A wind blows worldwide: it is constantly westward and strongest at the equator. The wind is gradually increasing, and at the beginning of the story, the force of the wind is making air travel impossible. Later, people are living in tunnels and basements, unable to go above ground. Near the end, “The air stream carried with it enormous quantities of water vapor — in some cases the contents of entire seas, such as the Caspian and the Great Lakes, which had been drained dry, their beds plainly visible.” (Since his next novel was The Drowned World, that novel could be considered a sequel to The Wind from Nowhere.)
The Drowned World was first published in 1962, and the novel features a central character who, rather than being disturbed by the end of the old world, is enraptured by the chaotic reality that has come to replace it. Set in the year 2145 in a post-apocalyptic and unrecognizable London, The Drowned World is a setting of tropical temperatures, flooding and accelerated evolution. At the beginning of the novel, the catastrophe responsible for the apocalypse is explained scientifically: solar radiation has caused the polar ice-caps to melt and worldwide temperature to soar, leaving the cities of northern Europe and America submerged in beautiful and haunting tropical lagoons. Ballard uses the post-apocalyptic world of the story to mirror the collective unconscious desires of the main characters. In this novel, Ballard examines how a natural catastrophe causes the central characters to regress mentally. New societies emerge, with strange rites and primitive rituals. This is a pretty grim novel, and while there is a spark of hope throughout the story, it is always under the shadow of this “new world order.”
The Drought was published in 1965, and is an expanded version of his 1964 novel, The Burning World. In contrast to Ballard’s earlier novel The Drowned World, The Drought/The Burning World describes a world in which water is scarce. After an extensive drought, rivers have turned to trickles and the earth to dust, causing the world’s populations to head toward the oceans in search of water. The drought is caused by industrial waste flushed into the ocean, which form an oxygen-permeable barrier of saturated long-chain polymers that prevents evaporation and destroys the precipitation cycle. Ballard liked to put normal people in times of crisis and destruction, so as to explore their limits, their morals, and often their basic humanity — or what’s left of it. Weird, mesmerizing, and quite grotesque, this novel tells a chilling story of the world on the brink of extinction, where violence erupts and insanity reigns as the human race struggles for survival in a worldwide desert of despair. For me, Ballard knew how to paint a picture of total despair, and yet he manages to keep me reading to find that one glimmer of hope.
Finally we have my favorite, The Crystal World. This 1966 novel tells the story of a physician trying to make his way deep into the jungle to a secluded leprosy treatment facility. While trying to make it to his destination, his chaotic path leads him to try to come to terms with an apocalyptic phenomenon in the jungle that crystallizes everything it touches . . . plant life, animal life, human life. It’s an unsettling story with a very unique premise, and as in all his short stories and novels, Ballard is more concerned with telling the tale through his characters, how the events shape them, and how they deal with it and with each other. Ballard is more concerned with examining the human condition than he is with telling us how and why this “crystallization” is taking place. This is human drama, and this is what I like about his writing. This is a surreal novel, almost a magical fantasy in its setting. But the dark undercurrent of humanity at wits’ end, how some characters embrace what’s happening, only succumb to the inevitable, while others continue to fight the good fight to persevere, survive and triumph is the heart and soul of this wonderful novel.
These are Ballard’s first four novels, and they are strongly based on elemental themes, showing global destruction by Air, Water, Fire and Earth.
Tune in next time for Part 4, when I'll talk about "post modern" dystopian fiction, some recent novels, and a number of films of this and the last century. Thank you!
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