The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The Crystal World coverJ G Ballard’s fourth novel, The Crystal World, seems to have grown like a crystal. Before the novel (published 1966), there was the novella “Equinox” (in two parts in New Worlds between June and August 1964), and before the novella there was the short story “The Illuminated Man” (in F&SF, May 1964), and at the very start of the short story — topping and tailing it, in fact, as it’s repeated at the end — is a brief, italicised paragraph that’s like the seed-crystal of all that follows, a description of a Surrealist painting that never was:

“By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forests, and jewelled alligators glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline rivers. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown…”

In the novel (where this paragraph appears in the final chapter), the alligators are now crocodiles, as the location has shifted from Florida to a more Heart of Darkness-ish “isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic”, but the main story is the same. The protagonist, Dr Sanders (a first-person narrator named James B—— in the story) finds himself at one of several points on the Earth which are being transformed by the “Hubble Effect”:

“…an actual proliferation of the sub-atomic identity of all matter. It’s as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light.”

The upshot is that everything is becoming encased in (or turned into) crystal, and the crystallisation is spreading in waves that pulse through the affected zones, turning rivers into roads of glass, and roads into pathways furred with foot-high crystal spurs. Everything, from the vegetation to the buildings to the water is becoming a prismatic version of itself, and that includes the animals and people. It’s when describing this effect — when painting it before our eyes in sparkling, rainbowed light — that Ballard’s writing is at its precise, vivid, hallucinogenic best:

“From the elbow to the finger-tips it was enclosed by — or more precisely had effloresced into — a mass of translucent crystals, through which the prismatic outlines of the hand and fingers could be seen in a dozen multi-coloured reflections. This huge jewelled gauntlet, like the coronation armour of a Spanish conquistador, was drying in the sun, its crystals beginning to emit a hard vivid light.”

The Crystal World, another coverTime has crystallised my own view of The Crystal World. On a first reading I found it to have passages of beautiful, precise poetry punctuating (after a nicely-paced moody beginning) an otherwise dull story. A recent re-read has only confirmed me in this opinion. The moments that stand out are like shards of the original short story — they’re all in “The Illuminated Man”, often in the same words: the helicopter that slews then crashes as it tries to fly when the Hubble Effect has taken hold of its rotor blades, the half-vitrified crocodile suddenly whipping into life from its bed in a solidified river. But these intensely imagined, visually shocking moments speckle a story of mostly rather unconvincing, lacklustre characters who seem to be standing around in the presence of all this cathedral-like jewelled wonder waiting for the Ballardian spark to wake their inner worlds. Only, it never happens. Ballard provides us with a pair of love triangles — the protagonist Sanders, Suzanne Clair & Max Clair, and Ventress, Thorensen & Serena — both centred around a male rivalry for a dying woman, though this doubling only waters the effect of the same single-triangle situation in the original short story, which itself only seemed to be pointing out how meaningless such human motives as love and revenge are in contrast to the time-defying crystallisation process. Why, then, go to the bother of actually duplicating this meaningless situation, particularly when neither, ultimately, resolves in any interesting way?

The Crystal World, Max Ernst coverThe protagonist Sanders is much less inwardly connected to the catastrophe when compared to, say, Kerans of (my favourite Ballard novel) The Drowned World. I can’t help feeling that in writing The Crystal World, Ballard was perhaps stuck in the formula of his previous two books, and while his inventiveness as it related to the transformed landscape had blossomed — even, effloresced — he had less to say about the human side of the equation. He even, at one point, has his main character discuss the possible themes of the very novel he’s in, as Sanders starts going on about the profusion of doubles in a plot Ballard seems to be struggling to get some meaning out of. It results in some very un-Ballardian psychological truisms (“Of course there’s a dark side to the psyche, and I suppose all one can do is find the other face and try to reconcile the two — it’s happening out there in the forest”, and “Each of us has something we can’t bear to be reminded of.”). But the sheer audacity, strangeness, and poetry of the fantastic idea at the heart of the novel conquers, in the end, and those few scattered jewels of Ballardian poetry that break through the tedium of the novel’s unconvincing characters make it all worthwhile. (Though I can’t help feeling that, apart from the moody equinoctial darkness of the opening chapter, which I love, you’d be better off reading “The Illuminated Man”.)

The feeling that Ballard was tiring of his initial formula and on the verge of an artistic breakthrough is perhaps confirmed by what came next: as well as his almost continuous outpouring of short stories at the time, there was, a few years later, a quantum leap to a very different type of fiction with the “condensed novels” of The Atrocity Exhibition, and then Crash. (A novel very much like The Crystal World, in that it comes to life entirely through its intense, rather inhuman poetry, rather than its short story’s worth of story.)

The novel does, though, at least touch on a human meaning behind the Hubble Effect:

“The beauty of the spectacle had turned the keys of memory, and a thousand images of childhood, forgotten for nearly forty years, filled his mind, recalling the paradisal world when everything seemed illuminated by that prismatic light…”

And:

“…this illuminated forest in some way reflects an earlier period of our lives, perhaps an archaic memory we are born with of some ancestral paradise where the unity of time and space is the signature of every leaf and flower.”

Which makes me realise how much the catastrophes in catastrophe novels are all about a need to halt time, to end the forward rush of modernity and pause, perhaps regress, to something a little more humanly manageable. Perhaps, in this, Ballard’s Crystal World is the ultimate expression of the SF catastrophe.

The Crystal World also, perhaps, contains a hint of autobiography:

“It seems to me, Max, that the whole profession of medicine may have been superseded — I don’t think the simple distinction between life and death has much meaning now.”

Ballard spent a year studying as a doctor (his descriptions, in Miracles of Life, of his time dissecting cadavers in anatomy classes easily equals the poetry of The Crystal World’s more jewelled moments), but gave up, perhaps because of a very similar realisation: that it all meant nothing compared to the immensities to be explored in his own imagination — visions like the life-and-death-annulling crystallisation of the world — which were themselves attempts to resolve the very intense plunge into catastrophe, violence and upheaval of his teen years in WWII China. Like Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space” — a very similar story in some ways — The Crystal World could well be the purest expression of what its author was aiming at:

“…the response to light is a response to all the possibilities of life itself.”

Whatever its faults, The Crystal World is still an amazing piece of fiction for the sheer strangeness of its vision alone.

The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Just as The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes make a neat pairing as a couple of catastrophe novels, Wyndham’s next two books, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, are both about an evolutionary leap in the younger generation that threatens to usurp “normal” humankind. A lot of people say The Chrysalids is Wyndham’s best novel, but I prefer Midwich. In it, Wyndham’s writerly craft has progressed along several lines to a point of mild perfection. Those who accuse him of merely writing “Cosy Catastrophes” may feel justified in damning him for his “analgesic” style, but it’s precisely his urbane, mildly comic tone that allows him to smuggle in a very dark tale addressing some uncomfortable issues.

The Chrysalids by John WyndhamThe Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos are almost shadow images of one another. The Chrysalids, set in a post-nuclear-holocaust future, is about a human society struggling to re-establish itself in the remnants of a radiation-scarred world. A rigid religious dogma protects it from all mutations whether plant, animal or human: anything which doesn’t conform to its scripture of normality is destroyed. Into this world comes an invisible mutation, a handful of children who are telepathically linked. But if these children let their new ability be known, their own parents will banish them to the Badlands, if not hunt them down and kill them. The Midwich Cuckoos, on the other hand, is set in the author’s own era, when the (literally) sleepy English village of Midwich finds itself visited by a plague of pregnancies, resulting in the birth of about sixty alien children, all (again) telepathically linked, but this time able to coerce “normal” humans into doing whatever they will them to do — and therefore, though a minority in numbers, this time the mutations/aliens are in the position of power. Also — and again in contrast to The Chrysalids, which is narrated by one of the telepathic children — from the point of view of Midwich’s narrator, it is the mutations/aliens who are the “others”, the enemy.

The Midwich CuckoosMidwich works, for me, in large part because of its style. Throughout his previous books, Wyndham used a first-person narrator to present his tales of “logical fantasy”, allowing him to humanise his essentially idea-led tales, while distancing his narrator from the wilder implications of those ideas (intelligent plants, invaders from another planet). The disadvantage of having a narrator, though, is that world-changing catastrophes require the relation of a lot of world-wide events, so Wyndham’s narrator gets stuck reporting a lot of things outside his immediate experience, with the result that things get told of rather than shown. This isn’t a problem in Triffids, which is mostly immediate action, but it makes Kraken a very un-involving novel, for me. In The Midwich Cuckoos, though, Wyndham strikes on two ideas that allow him to describe his incipient, worldwide catastrophe entirely in immediate terms: he first of all shrinks “the world” to the bounds of an English village, with only suggestions of similar things going on in other countries, and secondly, he gives his narrator licence to describe all the scenes at which he isn’t actually present as though he were, rather than the stricter approach of Kraken, where everything not witnessed by the narrator is reported secondhand.

Another Wyndham strand that achieves a sort of culmination in Midwich is the prophet/theoretician character he employs in all his novels (Coker in Triffids, Bocker in Kraken, Uncle Axel in The Chrysalids). This is the person who gets to speculate (always accurately) on the exact nature of the menace — the triffids’ intelligence, the fact that there is an alien invasion going on in Kraken — and also to indulge in a little thematic lecturing about the precariousness of man’s position atop a Godless evolutionary tree. In Midwich, Wyndham finds his perfect prophet/theoretician in Gordon Zellaby, a rather dufferish, doddery old writer, whose genial air of absent-minded reasonableness puts the reader off their guard, giving him complete licence to lecture at will:

“But, my dear fellow, if one is not blinded by a sense of indispensability, one must take it that we, like the other lords of creation before us, will one day be replaced. There are two ways in which it can happen: either through ourselves, by our self-destruction, or by the incursion of some species which we lack the equipment to subdue. Well, here we are now, face to face with a superior will and mind. And what are we able to bring against it?”

(Zellaby seems to be a sort of idealised version of Wyndham himself. Zellaby says he was “Too young for one war, tethered to a desk in the Ministry of Information in the next.” Wyndham grew up during WWI, and as a result thought of that as “his” war, meaning he felt oddly dislocated when he found himself serving in WWII (not his war), as a temporary Civil Servant in Censorship, and later with the Royal Corps of Signals in a cipher office.)

The Midwich Cuckoos coverFor most of the novel, The Midwich Cuckoos reads like a light, and very English, comedy about a rather awkward social problem — an entire village’s worth of women finding themselves unaccountably and simultaneously pregnant, with the result that certain types (a pair of live-together spinsters, a wife rumoured to be carrying on with another man, an engaged but not-yet-married couple) have some serious explaining to do. But as the novel progresses, though it keeps the same civilised, faintly amused & bemused tone, the story becomes steadily darker. The children hit out at those who threaten or accidentally hurt them. Early on, a woman is found repeatedly, and helplessly, sticking herself with a safety pin because she unintentionally pricked her golden-eyed baby; later, a man is forced to drive his car into a wall because he knocked into one of the children; later still, the village men are forced to fight each other, and everyone is telepathically forbidden from leaving the village.

The Village of the Damned (1960)

By this point, Wyndham’s “comforting” narrative tone is totally at odds with the story he’s telling. It all reads so urbane and cosy, but this is a very nasty sort of war, between parents and children — and therefore a war that hits at the most fundamental note of what binds a society together. But as the children explain, there is a “biological obligation” at the heart of it:

“This is not a civilised matter… it is a primitive matter. If we exist, we shall dominate you — that is clear and inevitable. Will you agree to be superseded, and start on the way to extinction without a struggle?”

It’s a case of kill or be killed, a sort of Cold War from within, with one generation set against the next, a war of “social rules” versus “elemental struggle”. The narrative, though, keeps to the tone of “social rules” and mild social comedy, meaning the reader has to, at some point, detach from the narrator’s tone and realise for themselves just how dark a story The Midwich Cuckoos is. If you don’t question that tone — if you read it merely as a “Cosy Catastrophe” — you’re not getting the full impact.

The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

Brian Aldiss famously dubbed John Wyndham “the master of the cosy catastrophe”, and so damned him with an adjective. John Wyndham, by MJENow, whenever anyone writes about Wyndham, they dig that one up. “The essence of the cosy catastrophe,” Aldiss says in Trillion Year Spree, “is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.” I can’t help feeling Aldiss’s scorn for Wyndham extended just as much to his readers — his many readers, I should say. This is what he says about The Day of the Triffids and Wyndham’s next novel, The Kraken Wakes:

“Both novels were totally devoid of ideas but read smoothly, and thus reached a maximum audience, who enjoyed cosy disasters. Either it was something to do with the collapse of the British Empire, or the back-to-nature movement, or a general feeling that industrialisation had gone too far, or all three.”

(There’s always an explanation for other people’s reading tastes.)

In Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, John Clute takes the same view:

“And in 1951 came The Day of the Triffids, a tale that captured the insecurities of the middle-class English reader in the austerity years perfectly, and envisioned to a nicety the kinds of self-protective communities that would comfort that readership… The comforting implausibility of this outcome, along with the calm, analgesic style of the Wyndham persona, contribute to what Brian Aldiss called the Cosy Catastrophe.”

“Middle-class”, here, is used with as much a sense of derision, or at least belittlement, as “cosy” and “comforting”, which is, let’s face it, a very middle-class thing to do (trying to distance oneself from middle-class guilt through being tough on the middle classes). Day of the Triffids (Penguin)Perhaps it was Wyndham’s success — and the fact that his readership inevitably would have been larger than a dedicated SF readership (far less of a sin nowadays) — or perhaps it was that Wyndham’s revolt against the way things were didn’t go far enough for Aldiss, who was of the next literary generation, SF’s New Wave, that wanted the far more extreme revolutions of the 1960s. (For me, the best New Wave response to Wyndham’s novels is Ballard’s: he rewrote them, as The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and the surreal The Crystal World, thus developing them, rather than merely critiquing them. Aldiss himself wrote a catastrophe or two. Greybeard was one I remember reading, but Hothouse (not a catastrophe), a far-future jungle Earth where pretty much every other plant is a triffid of some sort, is the novel of his I most enjoyed.)

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that reading should be a sort of mental & moral cold bath. I like reading for pleasure. I like things that “read smoothly” (which, to me, is evidence of craft), and don’t see why I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like my reading “cosy” and “comforting”, but I certainly wouldn’t go to a book for the purposes of self-torture.

The main “cosy” aspect of the “cosy catastrophe” is, I suppose, the fact that the catastrophe doesn’t completely destroy the world, but offers a chance to start again. As someone says in Triffids:

“The Earth is intact, unscarred, still fruitful. It can provide us with food and raw materials. We have repositories of knowledge… And we have the means, the health, and the strength to begin again.”

But this doesn’t mean there’s nothing but cosiness, comfort and having it your own way. The Day of the Triffids has an inviting air of adventure, of working out what you’d do in the hero’s place, of treating the world you know as a sort of imaginative playground for looting, shooting and uprooting; but it also has moments of real poignance, as when a young woman, blinded and now dying from disease, says:

“So futile — and it might all have been so different.”

Which perfectly captures, I think, the sense of a young life ending too early. And the beginning of chapter 13 strikes such a heartfelt note of loneliness, it’s impossible to believe Wyndham’s hero was simply having a good time in this de-populated England:

“Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative — an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary… That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary, and play tricks with the mind. Something which looked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and straining them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care.”

John Wyndham, The Day Of The TriffidsDay of the Triffids is, I think, a truly good read. The opening two chapters have an almost classical perfection as openings go: the first, so tightly focused on the narrator’s immediate predicament (in a hospital bed waiting for someone to remove his eye-bandages, he starts to be aware from the sounds alone that something is deeply wrong), while the second chapter is almost pure exposition, as the appearance of the triffids is described alongside a potted biography of the narrator. After that, we’re set up and onto the adventure.

Triffids wasn’t Wyndham’s first book — he’d been published before the Second World War in the US pulps, under different names, and had had two detective novels published in the UK — but it was the first of his new approach, something he called “logical fantasy”, which downplayed the pulpier SF elements (all the wilder speculations about the triffids’ possible intelligence, for instance, are placed in the mouths of characters other than the narrator, allowing him to sound skeptical, and so reassure the reader they aren’t in the hands of a whacko).

John Wyndham, The Kraken WakesThe Kraken Wakes is a more disappointing book. Whereas the emphasis in Triffids is on the immediate survival of the characters and, later, the far-range survival of the human race, Kraken is mostly about the slow unfolding of the initial catastrophe (a lot of which is by secondhand report, distancing the reader from the action). As a result, it’s far more about something that’s only a minor note in Triffids: how reluctant people are to believe in anything outside their daily experience. In Triffids this comes out in the way most people belittle Bill Masen’s warnings about how dangerous the triffids are going to be in this newly-depopulated England. Kraken, on the other hand, is so much more about the media, and the way it, and its readership, mocks any suggestion they may be experiencing the opening stages of an alien invasion until it’s too late (and even then they still want to blame it on the Russians). So Kraken reads more like a satire on modern civilisation than Triffids’ straightforward adventure, and I don’t think Wyndham has the bite for satire. Also, in contrast to Triffids, Kraken is set in a still-socialised world, and feels bogged down in the highly straightjacketed manners of its time. So, in Kraken we get the rather dated spectacle of the protagonist’s wife having a sudden rant (about the need for the government to arm the people, of all things), then apologising for the display and taking herself off for a lie-down. Then a doctor is called, as though any sign of emotion were cause for medication.

What’s most surprising about Kraken is that, though it was published in 1953, it reads so much like a reaction to the 1956 Suez crisis, and the final end of the British Empire:

“We, a maritime people who rose to power upon shipping which plied to the furthest corners of the earth, have lost the freedom of the seas. We have been kicked out of an element that we had made our own.”

Triffids is the better book: yes, “smoothly written”, but not merely cosy. And the 1981 BBC adaptation had one of the spookiest TV theme tunes of all time (if you can call that eerie choral drone a tune).