We live in an age of dystopian fiction. It isn’t hard to understand why. Social inequality is at the forefront of a conversation that’s louder than ever and technology has advanced at a rate faster than any of us can comprehend. By exploring our fear of an uncertain future, we can model possible forms of resistance and remind ourselves to be vigilant for mistakes that could be made.
But instruction isn’t the only function that fiction can serve.
For those of us interested in stories that act as something other than political allegory, J.G. Ballard put forth visions to repulse as much as they served to draw his readers in.
The Drowned World is Ballard’s first book in a catalogue that grew to include The Drought and The Crystal World. Each of these stories described hellish environments where a tilt of the Earth could melt the polar ice caps, where mankind’s disregard for the ocean could cause our entire species to die of thirst, or where the unknowable machinations of the universe itself could cause the plant life of our jungles to be replaced with brittle shards of glass. As you might have guessed, doomsday scenarios are somewhat of a fixation for Ballard. In each of his early books, death for the species is a slow, agonizing ordeal and a solution to the problem is only of secondary interest to the deterioration of the people trapped beneath his pen.
Often, prescience is highlighted as the most important aspect of science fiction. When a writer like Ballard can predict the effects of global warming, his books provide a worthy justification for their place on our shelves. However, with Ballard’s fiction the potential future he maps out isn’t of the exterior, but that of an inner-space, deep inside his characters and yet connected to the disasters that afflict them.
In the Drowned World, we’re introduced to the first tool he uses to accomplish this: Repetition.
Every sentence on every page oozes with the condensation of a planet sweltering to death. Even when Ballard layers the prose with evocative descriptions of the sultry climate, the sheer oppressiveness of the environment reduces the reader to a quivering pulp. As we journey into the muddy swamps of Ballard’s imagination, we don’t observe his protagonist grow as a person or break free of his existential shackles, rather, we become pummeled, as he does, and tranquilized by the madness that surrounds him.
In The Drought, we dig deeper into the psychological complexity of being faced with our own extinction.
Ballard’s characters aren’t real because of the choices they make. They’re real because of the reasons that compel them. A woman who rebels simply to feel human again. A man who refuses to chase an ever receding ocean. Inspiration for these people seems to come less from Ballard’s daydreams of a sun bleached wasteland, and more from his own troubled childhood. In his later work, Ballard openly drew upon his past in Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women, and in Miracles of Life. Looking back, you can see how the biographical elements he injects his characters with could grant them life and by doing so how it makes the fantastical society around them a 3-dimensional place.
Finally, in The Crystal World, it’s clear that we shouldn’t mistake his plots as mere warnings for the future. After-all, while the decadent morbidity of our planet spontaneously transforming to crystal is enough to inspire any number of essays on materialism and spiritual rot, with the surreal imagery firmly under Ballard’s grasp, one thing is clear: He doesn’t just paint these pictures to set you on the path to enlightenment. He does it in a bid to entertain. At its most base level, this is all that’s required of a novel to do. Where Ballard makes people squirm is in creating pieces of fantasy that indulge impulses we don’t always acknowledge we have.
Dystopian fiction presumes that there is an ideal status quo. Sometimes it can illustrate our struggle to achieve this ideal. Others it can act as a dark mirror for the real-world dangers that threaten us. Whatever the case, it isn’t surprising that the dramatic thought experiments that populate our Netflix accounts have exploded in popularity. After-all, a huge part of the audience has grown up in a period of history where they can expect to be led through a universal education system, ushered along to their chosen careers, guided to their inevitable soul mates, and given a helping hand as they step into their neatly arranged graves. J.G. Ballard wasn’t lucky enough to experience this sense of security: Raised as a British citizen in World War Two Shanghai and sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp, it’s fair to say that his picture of the world was warped at a very young age.
How much of this trauma fed into JG Ballard’s writing is impossible to measure, but given the confused times that formed him, it’s tempting to draw a line between his personal experience and his unique take on genre fiction.
Many people think of the future for the human brain as something static. You could transport a personality from the 24th century and it wouldn’t look much different to the ones we know today. At best, when a typical science fiction writer imagines what’s ahead for the development of our minds, it’s only ever a clear advancement, such as the onset of heightened psychic abilities, or an extreme improvement in the average person’s IQ. But evolution isn’t about progressing to an objective form of perfection. It’s about adapting to the current environment you find yourself in. As such, JG Ballard’s characters are utterly transformed by the despair that surrounds them. This despair isn’t just the cause of their depression. Or even the root of their physical disease. It seeps into their pours, rewires their neural pathways, and induces a symbiotic relationship with the world whereby the heroes of his writing can no more be removed from their barren landscapes than a fish could be taken from water.
JG Ballard started out as writer of apocalyptic fiction. You won’t find his political views outlined his early novels. Though you will discover that the last thing he can believe in is an ideal status quo.
In The Drowned World and the books that followed it, there’s a rot that’s destroying humanity. As a rule, his characters are in turns disgusted and enthralled by it, such that both love interests and villains are met like cadavers awaiting dissection. On the surface, the only justification these novels seem to offer for taking up our time is the fact of their own existence. But when you consider them a little more closely, you begin to understand that their most important ingredient is in their perverted relationship with us, the readers, as Ballard acclimatizes us to his distinct world view. What Ballard knew best is that when we read about a boot stepping on a man’s neck for all eternity, we aren’t only turning the page to be given a lesson in just how cruel humanity can be. We’re sometimes reading because we want to know exactly what shade of pink the victims face will go.
Video Media Source List:
Weirder Stuff by Geographer
Bittersweet by SYBS
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The Road (2009)
Lost City of Z (2016)
Empire of the Sun (1987)