This is the third of Ballard’s informal quartet of books that nod in cursory fashion toward the elements. Like the others, it might be described as a science-fiction novel of the sub-genre ‘disaster’. But like every other Ballard novel it is so much more.
When toxic waste dumped into the oceans is cooked into a molecular layer that prevents evaporation, drought inevitably follows. Not the parched summer of an English countryside, but the blistering furnace of a tropical desert. Society collapses, draining away as quickly as surface water. It is a stark contrast to the amniotic lushness of The Drowned World.
Across this parched landscape a small group of characters play out their lives. They are the usual collection – a mixed bunch of misfits whose casual acquaintance in normal circumstances brings them close together when their inner landscapes become an outer reality. We are shown brief, bright glimpses, like the painful glancing reflections of sunlight from a mirrored surface. And if we dare to approach that mirror, we will see something of ourselves.
There are moments in the book when you can wish a tighter editorial control had been exercised. Some descriptions fail because the language gets in the way – there are only so many time you can use ‘river bed’ in a paragraph before it becomes obtrusive. On the whole, however, the writing shimmers like heat from a baked landscape, offering glimpses and mirages, distortions of a reality that show truths with an unrelenting harshness.
It is also a poetic work. The images and themes are displayed and developed with a concentrated intensity that prefigures the direction Ballard takes with some of his middle period work. Whilst it would not work as a poem, it does show what a poetic sensibility can bring to prose. It certainly makes me look forward to the next book in this chronological re-read of Ballard’s work.