We’ve come back around to the 1960s in the twice yearly reading week hosted by Simon and Karen, 1965 was the year selected, and being one of my favourite decades, it was easy to find a candidate to read…
The Drought by J.G. Ballard
This novel, Ballard’s third, was first published in 1964 in the USA as The Burning World, but was subsequently expanded and published a year later in the UK as The Drought.
Ballard’s previous novel, The Drowned World, (see here) had imagined an inundated Earth, in which global warming had melted the ice-caps, the temperature is soaring and those surviving are heading ever pole-wards to escape the heat, others go mad and perish. The protagonist, Dr Kerans, is a biologist, a rational and detached man, who opting to remain with a few others when the military leave London, gets caught up in the machinations of white-suited pirate king Strangman and has to play his game to survive.
The Drought is essentially the same novel, but with the world facing the other extreme of global catastrophe. For too long mankind has just poured industrial and radioactive waste into the oceans, and this has all reacted together to form a layer over the top of the sea which, although permeable to oxygen, has destroyed the water cycle. As the novel begins, we are several years into the ensuing drought, and water on land is now becoming scarce indeed. The population has started to evacuate towards the coast.
Charles Ransom is a doctor who owns a houseboat on the river. His plan is to wait for the rush to the coast to abate, then sail his boat downriver before it dries up completely. He’s not the only remainer: there’s Catherine who runs the zoo in the nearby city; Quilter, who is cunning but of limited intelligence, and his mother; young Philip a feral youngster whom Ransom has always helped; the Reverend Johnstone with his parish militia; Jonas who leads a band of fishermen – and then there is Lomax. Lomax is Ransom’s neighbour, an architect, living with his sister in a mansion in a gated estate. Quilter is sent to summon Ransom:
Lomax was in his suite on the first floor. He sat back against the bolster on the gilt bed, fully dressed in his white silk suit, like a pasha waiting for his court to assemble. Without moving his head, he waved his silver-topped cane at Ransom.
‘Do come in, Charles,’ he called in his clipped, creamy voice. ‘How kind of you, I feel better already.’ He tapped the wicker rocking chair beside the bed. ‘Sit down here where I can see you.’ Still not moving his head, he shooke his cane at Quilter, who stood grinning in the doorway. ‘All right, my boy, away with you! There’s work to be done…’
You can see the similarities already! A detached doctor and a white-suited and powerful man. Lomax is eccentric, for sure, but he is not a despot in the way that Strangman is at all.
Eventually, Ransom and some of the others decide they have to leave, but Ransom’s houseboat has been beached. The surviving animals at the zoo have been freed – Quilter is running around with a cheetah! Ransom, Catherine, Mrs Quilter, Philip and Jacob, an old man who looked after Philip set off for the sea, following the path of the river, using cars when they can, walking the rest, with dwindling supplies of water. When they reach the dunes, it’s another matter, the military control the beach at this stage, the dunes are full of people, there are stills everywhere – how will any of them survive? The land is dust…
Part Two: Cut to a couple of years later. Ransom survived. He spends his days harvesting the water when the tide comes in. The sea is retreating ever further, but each tide, water rushes up the channels cut into the salt by the water farmers, who use paddles to open and close puddles to drive the water back towards land, if they’re lucky, their puddle will contain fish and they grow kelp. There are constant power struggles between various groups who pirate each other’s puddles. It is a bizarre picture – but if you look at pictures of hand-made sea salt making today, it hasn’t changed much in decades – they use big paddles to slush it around in little lagoons. My only quibble with this novel is that this part goes on for a bit long, but it does set us up for the final adventure.
Part Three: When one of the escaped lions turns up at the coast, Ransom realises that there must still be water inland, somewhere. He decides to travel back up the river to find it together with Philip, Catherine and Mrs Quilter. What do they find on their return? Did Quilter and Lomax survive?
Reading this novel, I found myself trying to place it within the English landscape. It felt like East Anglia, with the rivers and lakes being redolent of the Norfolk Broads, and of course the famous Maldon Salt is manufactured on the Blackwater estuary to the south in Essex. However, rather than use actual places, Ballard chose Hamilton for his small lakeside town where Ransom and co live, and Mount Royal for the nearby city – both odd choices perhaps – but when I read that Ballard had been stationed in Canada during his stint in the RAF in 1954-55, those names made sense – Mount Royal being a hill in Montreal from which the city gets its name, and Hamilton is a port on Lake Ontario. No matter where this burning world is set, Ballard is superb at describing the desiccated, crumbling landscape.
Ransom, like Kerans, is a typical Ballardian hero. Educated, strong, resourceful, and most importantly, resilient when all around him are losing their minds. He is a superb main protagonit, but in a way, the most interesting character is Quilter, whom Lomax often calls Caliban, one of many references in this book to The Tempest. Lomax’s sister is Miranda, Philip is also referred to as Ariel, and Lomax Prospero. This would make Ransom Ferdinand perhaps in this twisted version of Shakespeare. Quilter is initially portrayed as an ugly dimwitted savage, but as we’ll see, he understands how to survive in this strange new world better than most.
If The Drowned World was prescient in one way, The Drought is visionary in another – either or both scenarios could happen! As to which of the two I prefer – I’ll have another chance to think about that, as our Book Group will read The Drowned World next month (and I have the lovely Folio edition). Ballard is firmly entrenched as one of my favourite authors and I loved this arid book. (9.5/10)
Source: Own copy from the TBR shelves!
J.G. Ballard, The Drought (1965), 4th Estate paperback, 256 pages.