J 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.”
Time 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 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…”
“…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.