Dry Thoughts in a Dry Season

By Joe Milicia

J.G. Ballard became famous in the early 1960s with the publication of four catastrophe novels in which the earth "as we know it" is destroyed by wind, flood, drought, and crystalization, respectively. Each book was increasingly original -- not in ingenuity of scenes of devastation but in departure from adventure-story conventions and in using an s-f context to develop themes more common to mainstream fiction. Of the four, The Drought (The Burning World in its original American version) is perhaps the most notable achievement -- less a potboiler than The Wind from Nowhere, more plausible than The Drowned World, and less insistently schematic than The Crystal World. The Drought is particularly interesting for its constructing a world based upon surrealist painting -- a world that is also a symbolic reflection of the mental condition of the book's protagonist. Such qualities may seem to belong more to fantasy than s-f -- but the book is also interesting for its relations to one of the classic categories of s-f, the apocalypse story.

No doubt all s-f may be called apocalyptic if one's definition is broad enough to include any radical changes from present conditions, or visions of realities alternate to the conventional accepted ones. (1) Certainly a great deal of s-f is directly concerned with one or more of the phases described in the Book of Revelation -- Anti-Christs, Second Comings, Armageddons, Millenia, New Jerusalems. Any number of reasons could be offered as to why stories of world-destruction have been popular -- e.g., one critic, noting the popularity of disaster novels in British s-f since the 1960s, suggests (perhaps facetiously) that "it presumably has to do with the progressive impoverishment and shrinking of a once great nation."(2) My own concern here is with distinguishing various categories of disaster novel, and considering how The Drought and Ballard's other novels fit these categories, before going on to note the unique features of The Drought.

Among the distinctions that might be made, the following might be considered:

(1) Disasters unchecked vs. disasters averted. Only in The Wind from Nowhere is the disaster checked in the process, though only after considerable damage is done. A classic model is H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. (In some s-f the disaster is averted before it happens or spreads. as in Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain.)

(2) Disasters in the process of happening vs. those having happened long ago. Both types, when the main interest is efforts to survive, can belong to the larger category of suspense and adventure fiction. Post-disaster novels can be further subdivided according to theme: Fall-of-Man, By-the-Waters-of-Babylon, survival-of-the-fittest, degeneration-of-the-species, etc. (Wells’s The Time Machine may be the classic model here, while most dystopian novels are close cousins.) The Drought begins with the disaster well underway, while the second part of the novel, portraying the primitive social institutions into which survivors organize upon the great salt dunes, is part of the same tradition of disaster-long-past fiction as Miller's A Canticle for  Leibowitz, Aldiss' Greybeard or Roberts' Pavane.

(3) Success vs. failure in coping with disaster. Here a novel’s main concern may be with how survivors either sustain or fail to sustain a reasonable level of civilized behavior: the paradigms (not strictly s-f in this case) are Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson on one hand and Lord of the Flies on the other. The first class celebrates man's ability to survive or even prevail in extreme conditions -- as in The Wind from Nowhere -- while the second portrays mob rule or sinking to bestial levels -- as in The Drought or (a likely influence on Ballard) John Christopher's The Death of Grass (No Blade of Grass). Perhaps one should include a third possibility: the impassive chronicle of the biological spectacle, as in Stapledon's Last and First Men.

(4) Various types of disaster. Every s-f reader could make lists of types, from war to mud; aconsiderable bibliography could be prepared for plagues alone, especially if one includes s-fborderline cases on the model of Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. One could make a subdivision of disasters that change the face of the earth vs. those that do not. Ballard's novels all belong to the former, in contrast to stories of plagues, socio-political upheavals (which need not be sudden) and other factors that may lead to dystopias. A more significant subdivision may be made between natural and man-made disasters. In all Ballard's novels except The Drought, the catastrophe is outside man's control, as it is also in many (but not all) tales of plagues, alien invasions, and meteorological or geological disturbances. Tales of man-made disasters include those of war and its byproducts (including sleeping monsters awakened), pollution (The Drought), or tampering with nature in general.

Natural disasters can be further subdivided into important distinctions: between those in which man is truly innocent; those which are a sign of divine retribution (as in the Tower of Babel story); and those which appear to be materialized by some psychological condition, on the model of Dr. Frankenstein's neglect of his beautiful bride appearing to have some relationship to his monster's devastations. Alfred Hitchcock's film of The Birds illustrates the last category nicely (as Daphne du Maurier's simple tale of terror does not): the bird attacks appear to be unleashed by the heroine's unconscious aggression, related to her problems with other characters in the story, when a townsperson accuses her irrationally – “You caused this!" -- the innocent heroine recoils as if it were true. The Drought very much belongs to this class of what is really symbolist fiction.

(5) Causes of disaster that are of central interest to the writer vs. those merely providing a situation the writer wants to develop. Most novels of man-made disaster are actively interested in the cause. On the simplest level they may have a social intention of warning against war or ecological idiocy; or they may more sophisticatedly explore the dark side of human nature. Some causes may be of interest in terms of scientific speculation (“Exactly what effects could sunspots have on the Van Allen Belt?”), in which the reason for world-crystallization is of organic importance to every aspect of the novel.

But many works simply use war or more esoteric causes as an excuse for the conditions they want to explore. The Drought may be an extreme case: Brian Aldiss notes how the single passage describing the causes of the drought is neatly "isolated so that an uninterested reader can skip that bit." (3) Among the kinds of fiction in this category are adventure narratives and sociological "test-tube', situations: how will a band of survivors continue to live, and will they turn on each other? Obviously s-f shares this category with all non s-f disaster stories of land and sea, from The Poseidon Adventure to John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus and other stranded-passenger stories. Often the adventure, the broad character types, and the tension from close confinement combine with scenic spectacle (ruined cities, the hallucinatory look of a ship's corridors upside down) and occasional sadism for a distinctive kind of popularentertainment.

Ballard's first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, 1962 (a shorter version appeared under the title "Storm-Wind" in New Worlds, 1961), is very much in this class of entertainment. A skillfully-written potboiler, full of brilliant descriptions of a London beset and eventually flattened by winds that begin at hurricane speeds, it is a fairly simple narrative of survival and spectacle. The climax adds the element of a James Bond thriller, featuring a mad billionaire with a private army who thinks to defy the wind; most conveniently, the wind dies down on the last page, having crushed the tycoon in his concrete pyramid but just sparing the good characters. The book is closest to Ballard's later works in its portrayal of a disintegrating marriage, with the wind at first seeming to be symbolically correspondent to the emotionally-distraught Donald Maitland; while Susan Maitland is the first of several solitary women in Ballard's fiction, hostile or indifferent to men, finally obsessed with living alone. The horror of her being blown away to her death over the roofs of London as Maitland watches is easily the most disturbingly memorable event in the novel. There is, however, a more conventional subplot with a budding romance to contrast the Maitlands: it is incidentally one of the very few happy sexual relationships in all of Ballard.

Like The Wind, The Drowned World (1962) seems to have little genuine rest in the cause of the disaster (intense heat causing floods when the polar caps melt) -- if indeed the word "disaster" can apply to a case in which the protagonist rather likes the world in its changed condition. But Ballard's real concerns this time are far from those of traditional adventure fiction. Much closer to The Drought in spirit than to The Wind, The Drowned World represents a major advance in novelistic technique and ambition. In both the later works -- which have only one central character each, by contrast to the multiple viewpoints of The Wind -- the symbolic correspondences between the ruined world and the main characters are central and inescapable; it can almost be said that Ballard's heroes are comprehensible only in terms of their relationships with the landscapes.(4) Ballard has denied any literary influence from Joseph Conrad, but his novels are very much within the symbolist tradition to which the author of Heart of Darkness belongs, along with others like Hawthorne, Melville, and Hardy.

In fact, both The Drowned World and The Drought go beyond much mainstream symbolist fiction in an apparent effort to approach the condition of painting -- to convey meaning as much as possible through the look of the landscape. He may be compared in this respect to a filmmaker like Antonioni (particularly Red Desert).

Ballard has claimed the surrealist painters as an influence on his work, (5) and indeed The Drowned World abounds in rich and strange sights: half-submerged London buildings with great tropical plants sprouting from the rooftops; the underwater observatory; the ghastly spectacle of drained Leicester Square. Such scenes recall in particular the fantastic architectural and animal structures, encrusted with jewels and vegetation, of Max Ernst's "Europe after the Rain" period in the 1940s. (The Drought too, as I will describe, attempts often to approximate the effects of surrealist painting.) But these scenes are never simply for pictorial effect -- they tell us what we need to understand about his characters, or about his own consuming interests.

Both Robert Kerans of The Drowned World and Charles Ransom of The Drought are self-isolating individuals, much more at home with their landscapes than with other people. Both characters behave as if they were recovering from a nervous breakdown -- if not about to relapse. Hence, they are ideal perceiving eyes for Ballard's phantasmagoric vistas: calmly objective with a possible hint of dementia. The important difference between them is that Ransom has something of a past and has psychologically complicated relations with other people; while Kerans is a more radical conception: his past is a blank to the reader, outside of his being a scientist from Greenland investigating a submerged European city; he has only tangential relations with anyone else in the novel; and preposterously, he is not even curious to know what city he is investigating -- London, Paris, Berlin or whatever. Kerans' one drive, both instinctive and fully conscious, is to meditate upon the cityscape and eventually to journey southwards into the intense heat and rain of the equatorial jungles. A scientific explanation is given for Kerans' drive: the new climate has triggered primordial memories of the Paleozoic Age (or thereabouts), causing many humans with much exposure to the tropical heat and radiation even of London to seek the even greater heat and monstrous violence of the almost unimaginable South. While this change in human biology, a central emphasis in the novel, is acceptable enough as a rationale for Kerans' behavior, and perhaps of intrinsic interest as a s-f speculation, the novel can nevertheless be read quite differently, as a dream  narrative. Although on the realistic level Kerans does not know pre-drowned London, his behavior and the very images of the city suggest that his journey to the far South -- which is also the far past -- is an effort to escape his immediate past. Submerged London then becomes a metaphor for "drowned" memories of it; the "real" London appears disguised behind a fantastic sea change. The journey south to personal oblivion is both mythic and neurotic.

The Drought (Jonathan Cape, 1965) reverses the situation of The Drowned World with Swiftian relish but is occupied by many of the same concerns. Before examining this novel more closely, I should comment on differences between it and The Burning World, the American version published by Berkley in 1964. A glance at the tables of contents would suggest that The Drought is a greatly expanded version -- 42 titled chapters to The Burning World's 15 -- but in fact Ballard simply divided his original chapters into shorter ones and assigned new titles.(6) Moreover, Don Tuck's statement that the British version is "completely rewritten" is simply untrue. (7) But a few passages have been altered in important ways, chiefly the four paragraphs of what is now the brief chapter 2. In the following passage, for example, Ransom’s poete maudit look is changed (self-deceivingly on Ransom's part?) for a hardier romantic image:

He had let his beard grow, but almost everyone had left Larchmont and there was little point in shaving it off. Although the rim of black hair gave his thin face a gaunt and Rimbaudesque look, he accepted this new persona as part of the altered perspectives of the river and as a mark of his own isolation in the houseboat.(8) (The Burning World)

He had let his beard grow, and the rim of fair hair had been bleached almost white by the sunlight. This and his bare, sunburnt chest gave him the appearance of a seafaring Nordic anthropologist, standing with one hand on his mast, the other on his Malinowski. Although he gladly accepted this new persona Ransom realized that it was still only notional, and that his real Odyssey lay before him, in the journey by land to the coast. None the less, however much the role of single-handed yachtsman might be a pleasant masquerade, the houseboat seemed to have been his true home for longer than the few months he had owned it. (The Drought, P. 16)

But such changes are exceptional, and mostly limited to the first chapters. Most of the differences between the two versions are in the form of new sentences and occasionally paragraphs in the text of The Drought, scattered throughout but again mainly in the first
chapters. In total, The Drought is only a few pages longer than The Burning World, and the narrative structure is unchanged. The additions seem mainly intended to clarify points, to expand upon the subject of how the landscape appears to alter time values (as I shall describe), and occasionally to make symbolism more explicit. Among the most important additions are a few details about Ransom's relations with women; the phrase "certain failures in his life" early in the novel is expanded to specify "... principally, Ransom's estrangement from his wife Judith" (p. 14); new sentences point out Ransom's curiosity about Catherine Austen; and he goes to bed briefly with Vanessa Johnstone in Chapter 29 (p. 177).

In a passage that introduces one of the major symbols of the novel, Ransom examines two photographs framed together (called a "dyptich" in The Burning World) on a desk in his houseboat:

On the left was a snapshot of himself at the age of four, sitting on a lawn between his parents before their divorce. On the right, exorcising this memory, was a faded reproduction of a small painting he had clipped from a magazine, 'Jours de Lenteur' by Yves Tanguy. With its smooth, pebble-like objects, drained of all associations, suspended on a washed tidal floor, this painting had helped to free him from the tiresome repetitions of every day life. The rounded milky forms were isolated on their ocean bed like the houseboat on the exposed bank of the river.(9) (P. 17)

The passage strongly suggests why the drought is attractive to Ransom: just as the surrealist painting blurs or hides memories or realities -- "exorcises" them, Ransom imagines -- so the world Ransom has known is covered over by sand, the outlines of houses and automobiles, and all they represent, softened and finally obliterated.

Ballard's (or at least his characters') taste in surrealist landscape in his early novels seems to be for the more abstract varieties -- Tanguy's stony forms, Ernst's encrusted or overgrown shapes, de Chirico’s deserted city streets with improbable geometric solids -- rather than for works like Dali's with recognizable human parts and everyday objects weirdly combined and juxtaposed.(10) It could be argued that many viewers approach such landscapes from a direction opposite to Ransom's: that is, one may be first struck by the abstractness of the canvas, and then filled with the pleasantly or uncomfortably eerie sense that the unidentifiable hard-edged objects are not only real in three-dimensional space but somehow known, as if remembered from dreams, and alive in the sense of seeming to have some undisclosed meaning. But for Ransom, the appeal seems to be not in the disturbing hints of reality but in the way reality has been successfully hidden, abstracted, on the path toward incomprehensibility or foreignness, just as those familiar London buildings in The Drowned World are half-submerged and crowned with gigantic foliage. A typical passage in The Drought -- one of many that seem intended to match the imagination of surrealist painters -- demonstrates this process of disguises:

The banks [of the river] were now opposing cliffs, topped by the inverted tents suspended from the chimneys of the riverside houses. Originally designed as rain-traps -- though no rain had ever fallen into them -- the canvas envelopes had been transformed into a line of aerial garbage scoops, the bowls of dust and leaves raised like offerings to the sun. (P-13)

The strange beauty of these objects, in short, lies at least partly in the fact that their original functions have been removed, even forgotten, yet the dust-covered forms still hint at what they once were. It is a beauty much akin to that (for most people) of Roman or Gothic ruins, and also that of alien planetary landscapes in other s-f. The appeal is very different from that of most abstract painting, where the emphasis is usually upon design, not upon objects that seem haunted by having lost their purpose, or not yet metamorphosed into something purposeful. The term "surrealistic" is in fact commonly and loosely applied to objects absurdly lacking mundane functions (or in the case of alien planets, having functions not yet understood). There is often something liberating about such things without apparent purposes for Ransom's friend Catherine, the drought ironically gives a freshness to whatever meets the eye: "'Don't you feel, doctor, that everything is being drained away, all the memories and stale sentiments?"' (P. 23)

A major part of the "exorcism" the drought performs for Ransom is its suppression of his ordinary perception of time (as well as of objects). On the drying lake, "time had seemed becalmed" to him; as the river dries up, destroying the communities of fishermen whose lives were regulated by its flow, every individual becomes "an island in an archipelago drained of time"; Ransom entertains hopes of "isolating himself among the wastes of the new
desert, putting an end to time and its erosions." Statements about time and the sense of its "drying up" or "freezing" appear constantly throughout the novel (some of them so vague that one hopes they characterize only Ransom's thinking and not the author’s: e.g., "Woman's role in time was always tenuous and uncertain" p.47). Among the many curious points about time is the notion that while the drought-world gives peace by "abolishing" time, the limbo world of the salt dunes is merely a "waiting ground":

The beach was a zone without time, suspended in an endless interval as flaccid and enduring as the wet dunes themselves... But... time was not absent but immobilized, what was new in their lives and relationships they could form only from the residues of the past, from the failures and omissions that persisted into the present like the wreckage and scrap metal from which they built their cabins. (pp. 161-162)

The journey back up the riverbed is not, for Ransom, "returning to the past, to pick up the frayed ends of his previous life," but "moving forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded"; "an expedition into his own future, into a world of volitional time where the images of the past were reflected free from the demands of memory and nostalgia.”(11) If Ballard intends us to think Ransom is deluding himself, he gives no clue. In any case, the "future" Ransom finds in Hamilton looks suspiciously like the past, far from being "smoothed and rounded." The people he left behind are behaving in much the same way they did before, though (and this is important) in  exaggerated -- or quintessential -- manner.

The draining away of time and memory, along with the draining of meaning from objects, may provide great peace and melancholy beauty, much sought after by Ballard's heroes, but it is a morbid beauty as well. If these characters are seeking a mystic "still point of the turning world," they also seem to be afraid of change of any kind (other than increasing stasis) and of unspecified traumatic memories, and hence seek an obscurity very akin to death. Considering how blissfully oblivious Ransom is at times to the deathly aspects of the drought -- on the realistic level, not to mention the symbolic -- one may wonder how conscious the author himself is. In The Drowned World Ballard seems to take pains to deny that Kerans' behavior is neurotic, but in The Drought he is clearly conscious of the morbid aspects of Ransom's interest in the drought. First, even Ransom is consistently appalled by the sterility of the salt dunes in Part II, however aesthetically pleasing he finds the sand dunes. Second, the novel taps the tradition of the symbolic desert or wilderness, signifying spiritual sterility, that one finds, e.g., in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Any resemblance to Eliot in The Drought is not coincidental: one of the chapters is called "The Fire Sermon," and one can hardly miss the parallels between Ransom's sexual/emotional problems and tile desiccated land. Both works end with the coming of rain, and both are highly ambiguous about whether the rain arrives too late for the parched spirits to feel it. (12)

But the most important way in which Ballard stresses the negative aspects of the drought-world is by dramatizing a conflict within Ransom: between his thirst for isolation and his involvement with other people. Ransom has as strong a desire to live apart from others as Kerans does in The Drowned World, but he is not so single-mindedly devoted to his detachment, nor does he have a convenient explanation for his behavior. We are not given enough data on his past for a full psychological analysis of his motivations, but we are at least shown his ambivalence about choosing the drought over people in general and a group of (rather strange) individuals in particular.

That Ransom is a physician (like several other Ballard protagonists, incidentally) stresses the ethical nature of his conflict. Others look to him for assistance as he longs for isolation; even more ironically, he is upset when others eventually reject him in professional and personal respects. Having lost many patients during the first beach years, he comes to be regarded superstitiously as a death-bringer. Living with Judith (as much a loner as he) on the salt dunes away from the settlement, he believes himself excluded because he "by his very sense of failure would remind each of them of everything they themselves had lost" (P. 197). In short, he becomes a pariah (p. 182). Early in the novel he attends Johnstone's sermon on Jonah, and while Ballard does not explicitly draw parallels, (13) one may certainly connect Ransom with the outcast prophet who was not only cast overboard as a pariah but later smitten by drought as he sat brooding. One further irony is that most of the characters continue to call him "Doctor" throughout the rest of the novel.

Ransom's shifting relations with a selection of individuals (most of whom are outside the general communities) are dramatized from the first pages of the novel. His recent satisfaction in living alone for a week on his houseboat in the vanishing lake is contrasted with his brooding over his separation from Judith. Much attention is given to his having "hidden" himself behind a beard, but also to his foster-father relationship with Philip Jordan and his interest in Catherine Austen (though whether the interest is sexual or not is never specified). In the course of the novel he alternately works to protect others in need -- notably during the journey to the sea and the later return -- and feels a radical alienation from them. "The four people with him were becoming more and more shadowy, residues of themselves as notional as the empty river. He watched Catherine and Mrs. Quilter... already seeing them only in terms of the sand and dust..." (p. 125). (Mrs. Quilter continued to lavish praise on his leadership abilities.) His strongest disaffiliation with his party comes when they are nearly back to Hamilton: "... he felt that all his obligations to them had been discharged" (p. 214). Not quite able to abandon Mrs. Quilter though impatient with her feebleness, he carries her on his back (a light burden, we are told, though he feels like a "lunatic Sinbad bearing the old woman of the desert sea" (p.216)); but he virtually forgets about Philip and Catherine, a fact difficult to interpret, since Ballard himself seems to lose interest in them, as they become shadowy background figures in the last chapters.

Ransom's ambivalent feelings about others are tested on several occasions when people ask him for water. He withholds it from people he particularly likes, Catherine (temporarily) and Philip, early in the story -- for sensible reasons that all the same leave him with a sense of guilt -- and then volunteers water to perfect strangers (albeit needy ones), the Gradys. (Reverend Johnstone remarks upon this "easy" charity, P-38.) Later, with the force of more than coincidence, Ransom kills Grady -- technically in self-defense, but clearly with a deliberateness of purpose. (While The Burning World simply states "Holding the butt of the revolver in both hands, Ransom stood up and shot him through the chest" (p.91), The Drought adds: "Ransom waited. Then, holding the butt... (p. 143).) Ten years later Ransom tells Judith, "'...the more I think about it the more I'm convinced it was simply a cold-blooded experiment to see how detached from everyone else I was'” (p. 164).

Ransom's friends are for the most part a very odd bunch, at times like nightmare images, or like curious allegorical figures drifting through the bare landscapes of a work like The Faerie Queen. Several of them -- Philip, Quilter, Whitman, and Catherine -- have powers over wild animals, and the spectacle of them patrolling with their lions or cheetahs conveys a sense of energy and control very different from the habitual state of the introspective Ransom. All of these characters are seen at a distance, from Ransom's perspective, and nearly all appear to have symbolic functions, suggested by the fact that Ransom is continually feeling mysterious links between himself and them, as if they were a part of his mind, or knew more about him than he himself knew.

Quilter is arguably the most important of these characters. In the first chapters Ransom imagines him as virtually a personification of the drought: his "presence... was an obscure omen, one of the many irrational signs that had revealed the real progress of the drought" (p. 11). Ironically, Ransom imagines him to be taking a "warped pleasure" in the drought -- as if Ransom himself did not. Near the end of the novel, a "surrender" to Quilter brings (at least briefly) the peace Ransom had been seeking in his identification with the desert landscape: "His complete surrender to Quilter had left him with a feeling almost of euphoria. The timeless world in which Quilter lived now formed his own universe...“ (p. 250).

But Quilter might better be understood not as a personification of the drought, but of a daemonic side of Ransom -- a frighteningly irrational side, and hence (in dream terms) rejected as grotesque, even imbecilic. Although Quilter is called an "idiot son" in the first  paragraph, Ransom must admits "Despite his deformed skull and Caliban-like appearance, there was nothing stupid about Quilter" (p. 13). His most mysterious feature -- or Ransom's most peculiar impression -- is his "dreamy ironic smile, at times almost affectionate in its lingering lance, as if understanding Ransom's most intimate secrets" P-13). He spends a good deal of the novel following Ransom at a distance; in the first pages of the story, he seems to know about the breakup of Ransom's marriage and how to goad him about it without words (p. 14). Alternately a friend and an enemy -- threatening Ransom more than once but saving him from the demented fishermen in Part I, and brutalizing him but allowing him shelter in Part III -- he continues to disturb Ransom like a figure from his own dreams. He achieves what Ransom would like to have done: to remain behind and survive in the inland desert. His bizarre costumes suggest primitive power and sexual potency, fearful but attractive: he wears totem animals, the peacock dangling between his legs and the black swan as a head-dress. Ransom's journey back to Hamilton in Part III may be understood as a search for the Quilter in himself.

While resisting Quilter for most of the novel, Ransom does keep a kind of link with him in his ministrations to Mrs. Quilter, a dotty but harmless version of Quilter himself. With her witchlike appearance and her making a living as a fortune teller on the salt dunes, she suggests an archetype of a Wise Old Woman. Whitman too is closely linked to Quilter: physically deformed as well, he becomes a second-in-command, taking orders from Quilter, carrying out violent acts, setting the fires behind Ransom's party. He may be taken as a purely destructive aspect of the daemonic that Ransom sees in Quilter; certainly Ransom feels disturbingly linked with Whitman, particularly when he sees the zookeeper's reflection in a glass, and for a while suspects himself of setting the fires unconsciously.

Lomax, who is Quilter's "protector" at first but is eventually displaced in power by him, may function similarly to Whitman as a negative image, an embodiment of what Ransom fears in himself. The death of Lomax is as much an exorcism for Quilter as it is for Ransom: "For the first time since Ransom had known him his face was completely calm" (p. 249). On the surface Lomax is totally unlike Ransom: vulgarly ostentatious, consistently irresponsible toward human life, flauntingly effeminate (or androgynous, as he is called). But he, like Quilter, has a disturbingly "knowing" interest in Ransom, and a mysterious confidence (shared by his sister) that Ransom will return to Hamilton: "'Don't forget, Charles -- we'll keep a place for you here!"' (p. 104) He does resemble Ransom in perverse ways: he too stays behind where Ransom had wanted to stay; he isolates himself from other people (ultimately even from his sister) to an extent that Ransom never allows himself; and while Ransom seems to have a repressed wish for death by drought, Lomax takes the mad step of destroying the water supply, having already pursued a career of pyromania in Part I. The clearest indication of the symbolic relation between Ransom and Lomax comes in Part I, when Ransom decides to leave Hamilton immediately after Lomax tries to persuade him to stay: "...after his visit to Lomax... 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" (p. 69).

Miranda Lomax is if anything even more of a threat, or terror, to Ransom, In a single remarkably virulent passage, Ransom imagines her as the hideous "lamia" figure, Life-in-Death, of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner; as a "phantom" embodying "archaic memories" of "fear and pain" or "remorseless caprice... unrestrained by any moral considerations"; and as a "whitehaired witch... her perverted cherub's face like an old crone's" (pp. 69-70). (Earlier she seems to him both "prematurely aged" and "like a wise, evil child.") Lounging around the Lomax swimming pool, she can easily be taken as an image of torpor and indifference, but this does not explain the intensity of Ransom's revulsion. Whether intentionally or not on the author's part, she appears to represent all that is sexually repellent about women to Ransom: she is matronly (monumentally stout in Part III) yet sexually provocative in her loose and dirty robes; "attractive enough," yet "Perhaps this physical appeal, the gilding of the diseased lily, was what warned him away from her." She has a parallel in the crippled Vanessa, with whom Ransom does go to bed briefly, though fearing any lasting involvement (one reason he lives apart from the community on the salt dunes). The novel does not give us enough detail to understand Ransom's particular problems with Judith, or his feelings about Catherine, but the image of Miranda (along with those of Lomax and Quilter) appears to be something with which Ransom must deal as part of his return to Hamilton. Significantly, she has three children by the daemonic Quilter (who has been attracted to her from the beginning), and seems much less threatening in Part III, once she assumes the role of an obese and virtually immobile fertility goddess. It is presumably a perverse joke that she bears the name of the innocent heroine of The Tempest -- hardly a coincidental connection, considering that her brother is compared to Prospero and Quilter called "the grotesque Caliban of all [Ransom's] nightmares.” (Mrs. Q., if not called
Sycorax, is at least "witchlike" (p.12).) Shakespeare's Caliban lusts after Miranda without success, while Ballard's libidinous figure triumphs in the modern parody.

Quilter's most surprising ally is Philip Jordan, the "calm eyed Ariel of the river" (p.89) to his Caliban. If Quilter is a secretly attractive daemonic side of Ransom, Philip is more of an idealized self: a solitary of nature, but the old water world rather than the drought world;  conspicuously compassionate, both to animals (the black swan) and people (notably old Mr. Jordan whom he takes as his father). The moment when Philip appears before Ransom with old Mr. Jordan in his arms -- just after Ransom's shooting of Grady -- is one of the most forcefully symbolic moments in the story.

Catherine Austen appears to be less of a symbolic figure than the others. On the realistic level she parallels Ransom in several ways: uttering sentiments close to his, attracted to the idea of staying in Hamilton, tending to be a loner but seemingly more at ease in her isolation than Ransom or the neurotic Judith. She may be taken as Ransom's anima, or ideal feminine self -- though one with whom he fails to unite. Unfortunately, Ballard has made her mysterious without making her really vivid: she need not be comprehensible, but she should be as strong an image as the others, or have some discernable goal if not motivation. A mystery is set up as to why she returns with the others to Hamilton (pp. 194-5, 208), but no answer is ever suggested -- we must assume her motives are identical to Ransom's.  Possibly Ballard simply didn't know what to do with Catherine and Philip once they got back to Hamilton; or perhaps he means us to understand that Ransom does not need these images once he faces the grotesque figures from his past, or that they have become totally incompatible with the Lenox world. At least Philip and Catherine make an appropriate couple at the end, and form a fine tableau of strength (a slightly bizarre one considering Catherine's whip and leather boots) with their lions at their sides.(14)

One last figure of importance is Jonas, the fanatic fisherman and true father of Philip. Ballard makes a great deal of the fishermen in Part I: their threatening silence, their ominous black clothing, their kidnapping and arson. The mysterious fish symbol they leave as calling-cards is a traditional Christ symbol, but also (as Ballard would have known if only through his interest in The Waste Land) a fertility or life symbol.(15) Having been deprived of their way of life by the drought, they understandably have a very different attitude toward it than Ransom has, their brutality and their evangelical search for a "new river" follow the deprivation. Jonas is at once the epitome of the fishermen and a lonely figure set apart from them: less brutal than his second-in-command Saul; virtually
crucified by Saul in the burning-church scene with the fish head and gaff; hunted by Quilter's party as the last remaining outsider in Part III; unknown to his son until the end when they stand together at the helm of the landlocked ship.(16) Jonas is clearly intended to have a strong symbolic function, particularly when Ransom rescues him from the burning church and later has a sudden dramatic realization of his resemblance to Philip. In his "natural” nobility, his aloneness and his relation to the lake world -- in addition of course to his blood relation -- Jonas is a double for Philip (though older and a bit mad), and hence another ideal in Ransom's imagination. His role as an outcast makes him a probable  identification figure for Ransom, and his unquenchable drive for the waters of life allies him with all that is opposed to the "waste-land" side of Ransom's psyche. At the end of the novel, Ransom is venturing to seek Jonas' and now Philip's "new river" when he heads off into the lakebed (fulfilling a certain symmetry, since he comes from the lake at the beginning).

I have suggested that the conclusion of The Drought is not a complete success. Having created a most satisfactory narrative structure -- Ransom's journey to the sea, the desolation of the salt-years, and the return to deal with his past -- Ballard has not (except for the killing of Lomax) provided a dramatic climax to bring together all the important symbolic strands. (Individual strands, like Quilter and Miranda in their new roles, are well developed.) One would like a more rational motivation for Ransom as he heads off into the desert at the end, in keeping with the s-f realism that is still the basic mode of narrative for the novel despite its symbolic elements; in the same vein one would like some sign of reaction from Quilter and his family at the loss of the reservoir. At least one does have a sense that Ransom has dealt with the nightmare images of his past (though in fact, in dream fashion, they have dealt with each other), so that the rain that falls at the end of the book may appear to him as a blessing, as in The Ancient Mariner and The Waste Land, signifying his having reached peace with himself. But the ambiguity of the last paragraphs, along with the title of this chapter, the name of the Tanguy painting into which Ransom has (despairingly, I would argue) wanted to enter all along, suggests that Ransom may never feel the rainfall. The oncoming darkness and his "failure" to notice the beginning of the rainfall may indicate its coming unawares to him but preceding a recognition; or it may indicate his death in the desert, ironically just before the rain. One can perhaps resolve the ambiguity by arguing that in any case the ending signifies an end to Ransom's way of life as a drought-worshipper: he dies or is reborn searching for a river.


1) David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old (New York, Doubleday Anchor, 1974), defines literary apocalypse as "visionary reality, the sense of other worlds out of space and time" (p.43), and divides s-f into four "progressive" stages, the first three earthbound: "Dystopian fiction," "world-catastrophe fiction," "the post-catastrophe scene" and fiction whose interest is "the cosmic voyage and worlds beyond earth" (pp. 123-6; see also pp. 123-156 passim).

2) Peter Nicholls, "Jerry Cornelius at the Atrocity Exhibition," Foundation 9 (November 1975), 26.

3) Brian Aldiss, "The Wounded Land: J.G. Ballard," in Thomas D. Clareson, ed., SF: The Other Side of Realism (Bowling Green, Ohio. Bowling Green University Press, 1971), P. 127. The essay was first published in 1965.

4) J.G. Ballard, "J.G. Ballard," Books and Bookmen 15 (July 1970), 6.

5) Ibid. His taste is shared by his characters: Beatrice in The Drowned World has Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux paintings on her walls; the hero of The Drought has an Yves Tanguy reproduction. Several works of Ernst are mentioned in The Atrocity Exhibition, along with others by Dali, Duchamps and more contemporary artists like Keinholz, Paolozzi and Francis Bacon. Ballard has written on surrealist artists in an essay collected in The Overloaded Man (1967).

6) Or possibly Berkley reduced the number of chapters to save space. Ballard has not commented on the differences between the editions. That The Burning World is not simply a copy-edited version of The Drought is indicated by the nature of certain changes (e.g., no copy editor would change "seafaring Nordic" to "Rimbaudesque").

7) Donald H. Tuck, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 1 (Chicago, Advent, 1974), p. 28.

8) J.G. Ballard, The Burning World (New York: Berkley, 1964), p. 11. The British edition changes the town's name from Larchmont to Hamilton.

9) Some differences in this text from The Burning World are worth noting. In the earlier version, the trauma of the parents' divorce is more stressed, for the Tanguy exorcises "the terrors of this memory"; and the painting helps to "isolate" rather than "free" Ransom from tiresome repetitions. Most important, the sentence beginning "The rounded milky, forms...” is new to The Drought, making the connection explicit between the painting and Ransom's world.

10) Ballard does seem to aim for Dali-esque fantasy when strange people step into his landscapes: the pirates in The Drowned World, the various grotesques in The Drought. The Vermillion Sands stories (1956-71) are definitely Dali-esque throughout with Southern California overtones.

11) The slowing down or abolition of time is an obsession in much of Ballard's work of the 1950s and 1960s. Kerans in his regression to primordial states of mind loses his sense of homo sapiens time. The dying protagonist of "The Voices of Time” (1960) discovers a way to "see" time through genetic mutation and is transported out of the present continuum, while another scientist discovers the entire universe is slowing down. In "Chronopolis (1961) white-collar revolutionaries destroy the clocks that had enslaved them; henceforth, possessing a watch is a crime. In the fanciful "The Garden of Time" (1962) a pair of aristocrats hold back the mob for as long as their time-suspending flowers hold out. "The Terminal Beach" (1964) is much concerned with its main character's perception of time. Ballard's fullest treatment of the subject is The Crystal World (1966), the last of his disaster novels, in which, as time drains away from the universe, matter "super-saturates" in the form of crystalization. Again there are symbolic connections between the landscape -- crystalizing African jungles in this case -- and the mind of the protagonist.

12) Another parallel to The Waste Land, though more incidental, is Ballard's habit of alluding top literary figures in order to underline the absurdity of the present. E.G., Miranda by the empty swimming pool reminds Ransom of "an imbecile Ophelia looking for her resting-stream" (p. 105).

13) He does hint at a connection on at least one occasion, when Ransom has been captured by the fishermen and kept in the hold of their ship: the captive feels as if he were lying within the bowels of a beached leviathan" (p. 81 ).

14) A character named Catherine Austen appears as a psychiatrist in the title section of The Atrocity Exhibition, shifting to "Catherine Austin" and "Claire Austin" in later sections. There is no apparent connection with The Drought's character.

15) Their antagonist Johnstone, who really has much in common with them in his evangelism and hard-headedness, adopts the fish symbol in Part II: “...an immense swordfish, the proudest catch of the settlement and the Reverend Johnstone's choice of a militant symbol to signify its pride, was tied to the whalebone mast and hung below the cross, its huge blade pointed heavenwards" (p. 168).

16) The appearance of Philip with him is new to The Drought.


In his fiction since the mid-1960s Ballard has departed radically from the format of his first novels, but certain resemblances between his first and second "phases" can be found. The subject of contemporary alienation remains central to his work, though at times whipped up to a more desperate pitch than in The Drought and other first-phase works. He remains interested in capturing some of the "feel" of painting in fiction, though he emphasizes different art movements (reflected in a change of style as well): e.g., The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) is more Pop collage than surrealism. Its juxtapositions of mental wards, American war implements, automobile crashes, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, advertising images, Marilyn Monroe, Ralph Nader, and sado-masochistic eroticism recall similar juxtapositions (not all on the same canvas) in works by Rauschenburg and Rosenquist, and the nightmare violence alone may recall Roger Bacon. Symbolic wastelands are still to be found in Ballard's fiction, though usually more frenetic ones, like those in Crash and Concrete Island (both 1973), which are concerned with the pornography of car crashes -- a subject incidentally touched upon in The Drought, in that one of the women in Ransom's life, Judith, has the strange air of having been in such a crash and struck on the temple (p. 47), while another woman, Catherine, is actually injured in the temple while Ransom is driving.

This article was scanned from the Riverside Quarterly, December 1985, Volume 7 Number 4