I’ve been slowly working my way through a huge collection of apocalyptic novels in preparation for another major blog post. Amazon has clued in to my bleak, weird taste in books and recommended The Crystal World (1966), by J.G. Ballard:
Of all the apocalyptic novels I’ve read through so far, this one is unique in terms of its manner of doom as well as the focus of its plot. In fact, as I note below, its plot struck an unusual chord with me that pretty much demanded that I read it. Let’s take a look at The Crystal World in some more detail below…
I knew nothing of J.G. Ballard before reading this book. As noted by Wikipedia, his best known books are Crash (1973), about sexual fetishists who get gratification by staging automobile accidents, and Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical account of Ballard’s own experiences as a young boy in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in World War II. EotS was made into an excellent film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1987, which I saw in the theater and which starred, among others, a young Christian Bale and a relatively unknown John Malkovich.
Ballard’s early work in the 1960s, however, was a collection of novels which focused on the destruction of civilization by global catastrophe. These were, in order:
- The Wind From Nowhere (1961), where destruction is brought about by worldwide hurricane-force winds,
- The Drowned World (1962), where a melting of the polar icecaps submerges most cities beneath tropical lagoons,
- The Burning World (1964), in which drought has dried up lakes and rivers and turned most of the world to desert, and finally,
- The Crystal World (1966).
These novels are typically referred to as ‘science fiction’, though The Crystal World itself is unusual enough that it could just as easily be listed as horror or a ‘weird tale’, overall. The end of the world is certain, a fait accompli; the story focuses on a small group of people and how they react, or fail to react, to the inevitable.
The tale begins with Dr. Edward Sanders traveling to the town of Mont Royal in the African interior, following a cryptic invitation by two old friends, Dr. and Mrs. Clair. Sanders, who specializes in the treatment of leprosy, has a deeper history with Mrs. Clair, and his reasons for visiting are not entirely clear, even to himself.
Reaching the intermediate town of Port Matarre, Sanders finds further travel to Mont Royal seemingly impossible. The area has been surrounded by the military, though not explicitly quarantined. Failing to immediately secure passage to Mont Royal, Sanders wanders the market in the city, and happens upon remarkable works of art for sale:
“My, that is a beauty!” Dr. Sanders reached forward to take the ornament she had exposed, but the woman held back his hands. Glittering below her in the sunlight was what appeared to be an immense crystalline orchid carved from some quartzlike mineral. The entire structure of the flower had been reproduced and then embedded within the crystal base, almost as if a living specimen had been conjured into the center of a huge cut-glass pendant. The internal faces of the quartz had been cut with remarkable skill, so that a dozen images of the orchid were refracted, one upon the other, as if seen through a maze of prisms. As Dr. Sanders moved his head, a continuous font of light poured from the jewel.
The mysterious “plant disease” being investigated by the military is a crystallization of the jungle and all living things within it — and the area of effect is growing.
With a gasp of surprise they all craned forward, staring at the line of jungle facing the white-framed buildings of the town. The long arc of trees hanging over the water seemed to drip and glitter with myriads of prisms, the trunks and branches sheathed by bars of yellow and carmine light that bled away across the surface of the water, as if the whole scene were being reproduced by some over-active Technicolor process. The entire length of the opposite shore glittered with this blurred kaleidoscope, the overlapping bands of color increasing the density of the vegetation, so that it was impossible to see more than a few feet between the front line of trunks.
Why is this happening? Though an explanation of the effect is given (I won’t spoil it), it hardly matters — as noted already, the spread of the crystallization is irreversible, and is not localized to Africa. In fact, it is suggested that it is not even localized to Earth.
Even though most of the characters are aware of the slow inevitability of their demise, they still carry on with their local goals and obsessions. While searching for his friends, Dr. Sanders becomes involved with a beautiful French journalist, encounters a haunted and apostate priest, and gets in the middle of a violent local feud. At the end of his journey, he at last finds Suzanne Clair, who has a very different impression of the forest’s transformation.
The novel is a haunting look at people coming to terms psychologically with their imminent destruction. I found it a captivating story and one that really affected me.
Part of that effect, and part of the reason it caught my eye in the first place, is that some twenty years ago I had envisioned a similar sort of end for the earth. I remember the genesis of the idea well: I was in the back seat of my mother’s car on the way to my grandmother’s house. We were waiting at a traffic light, and I was staring out the window at the barren pavement of a bank branch parking lot. I suddenly envisioned the pavement lightly flickering with blue flames, being blown to and fro in the wind, and imagined this blue fire spreading inexorably over the surface of the earth, destroying any living creature it touched.
Ballard’s book clearly connected with ideas already ingrained in my subconscious. Will it affect you the same way? You’ll have to read it and see…