The Crystal World by J G Ballard

After reading The Drowned World for Vintage SciFi Month last year I knew that I wanted to read something more of Ballard’s work. Maybe not a lot more, but some. I’m still not sure I like his work, but I appreciate his writing style a lot.

Anyway, I had The Crystal World on the shelf, so here we are.

1968 Richard Whittern cover for The Crystal World by J G Ballard
Richard Whittern’s 1968 cover art if rather lovely, isn’t it?

Ballard wrote four ‘disaster’ novels: The Drowned World, The Drought (alternatively titled The Burning World), and The Crystal World, in all of which he tackled the British cosy catastrophe form in his own way. In The Crystal World parts of the jungle in the Cameroon Republic, the Florida Everglades and the Pripet Marshes in the Soviet Union are crystallizing, all life apparently being extinguished. The book focuses on Cameroon, where Doctor Edward Sanders is travelling into the affected area in search of his friend and fellow doctor Max, and Max’s wife Suzanne.

Sanders’ journey is far more inward than geographical, however, just as Kerans’ journey was in The Drowned World. The good doctor thinks of his friends and acquaintance only in terms of what they symbolise for him and is a profoundly solitary figure in this busy book. There is a great deal of action and what I feel is an unusual number of characters for Ballard (although I have only one book to go on, so I really can’t say that) zipping about between these pages, and while they all touch upon Sanders they never really touch him. He is almost completely turned in on himself.

Some of the drama going on around him is worthy of a gothic novel, or maybe a Victorian melodrama. Ventress, a peculiar, skull-faced character, is hunting the man who has taken his sickly wife; that man, Thorensen, is in turn hunting Ventress, only he has a number of panga-wielding local men to help him. Sanders himself was having an affair with Max’s wife before the couple disappeared; and in his search for them he takes up with a young reporter who is investigating what’s going on in the forest and trying to find her lost associate. There’s also a group of abandoned lepers, a Jesuit priest, a piratical boat owner, a young army doctor and a number of dead bodies. And yet none of these characters become more than the hectic wallpaper behind Sanders.

Something that solidified for me while I was reading this was my dislike for Ballard’s women. In The Drowned World I was … unsettled … by his portrayal of Beatrice Dahl, but since all the characters in that book left me cold I didn’t think overly much of it. In this book both Suzanne and the young reporter Louise are only ciphers in Sanders’ personal mythology, they’re never independent thinking, feeling beings. Ventress’ wife Selena, fought over by her husband and her lover, is also clearly not valued for herself, but for something she symbolises for these two men. It’s alienating to read something in which you are not recognised – and I’ve enough empathy to be able to cast that thought out as broadly as it will go.

While reading this book I’ve also been reading a collection of interviews that Ballard gave (Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J G Ballard 1967-2008 edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara), and he was questioned about the lack of sympathetic male/female relationships in his books. His reply was:

“My fiction is all about one person, all about one man coming to terms with various forms of isolation … The protagonists of most of my fiction feel tremendously isolated, and that seems to exclude the possibility of a warm and fruitful relationship with anybody, let alone anyone as potentially close as a woman.”

Now, this will sound dumb, but it fascinated me that it was a conscious decision that served his ultimate agenda. Ballard comes across in all of his interviews as someone who thought deeply about the way in which he wrote his fiction, someone who wasn’t just telling a story with the language he had to hand, but was using that language as carefully as he was plotting his story and exploring his chosen theme. More like a poet maybe, than a novelist. And so, while I don’t like the way he portrays women, I can’t say I’m offended by it in the way that I am sometimes by other authors. I don’t know if that makes sense to you or not. It’s certainly something about which I have more thinking to do.

Anyway, back to the book. The strongest thing about Ballard’s writing remains his imagery. And I think this is what I find most attractive about his work so far. In The Drowned World the heat was palpable, here the seeping cold is equally so. As the forest crystallizes (an incredible image in itself) the cold creeps in and the light hardens. Everything becomes alien, annealing and vitrifying (two of Ballard’s favourite words in this book, along with “deliquescing”), reflecting and refracting. And the pictures that I’m left with are all slightly eerie: the crashed helicopter that “blossomed into an enormous translucent jewel”, the ruins of the white hotel, Thorensen’s dreadfully decorated house out in the jungle, the procession of lepers dancing into the forest, crocodiles and snakes with jewels for eyes as they slowly crystallize.

Honestly, I don’t think I could read more than one Ballard book a year for fear of losing the will to live. This is a stunning novel, as was The Drowned World, but I can’t say I liked it or would read it again. One of the things that made me chuckle reading his interviews was that Ballard maintained that his disaster novels all had happy endings. By travelling into the mystery rather than running away from it, his heroes are fulfilling their destinies. And while I can appreciate the symbolic nature of such a decision, I think I must just be too practical to agree with it. If my world starts crystallizing, I will absolutely be driving in the opposite direction with my foot to the floor.




  1. I’ve read a couple of Ballard’s books myself. I liked the atmosphere and setting in The Drowned World, but High Rise was the really fantastic one for me, it’s so good. I have plans to get my book club to try and read Crash at some point too, and am eyeing up Concret Island for myself. Anyway, great review, as always!

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    • Oh cool, I know our library has High Rise so I’ll give that one a go. Don’t know if I’m brave enough to read Crash.
      I like these alien Earths he’s created in Drowned World and Crystal World, so I’ll definitely be reading The Drought too.
      Thanks for reading Ollie! 😁

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  2. I haven’t read a Ballard book in decades and doubt I can conjure up enough enthusiasm to read one in the future. Just too many good books to read here and now.

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    • It’s a good call to make. I enjoy a little exploring among the books of yester year, but, as you say, there are sooo many great books being published now – I couldn’t stay in the past too long. 😁


  3. His first novel (which he disavowed) The Wind From Nowhere (1962) also fits in with the three disaster novels he wrote — so 4.

    But yes, with you on his imagery. I also love the idea that we might slip into somnolence as the end approaches… I haven’t read this one yet but as I adore The Drowned World and The Drought this one sounds like a worthwhile read.

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  4. Happy endings, my ass. I’d be more than glad to give Ballard just as happy an ending. with this dull spoon I keep on hand in case I ever run into George Lucas, as he gives his characters.

    I started reading a collection of his short stories a while ago. I have never read any fiction that was so universally depressing and horrific.

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  5. The second Ballard-focused post I’ve read today: the Universe is trying to tell me something… 😉 Many, may years ago I read both Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere, and although long decades have managed to erase most of the details in both novels, I completely agree with your comment about the depressing effects of Ballard’s narrative: still, I would not mind revisiting those two works and maybe exploring a little further…
    Thanks for sharing!

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  6. I’ve not been particularly drawn to Ballard, though he’s highly regarded. However, I’m intrigued by the way you describe both this and his writing in general: you’ve given me a possible entré should I decide to try him, so thanks!

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