[This article first appeared in Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association.]
This is for anyone out there, any kindred souls, who might dare to utter the occasional doubt — “Is J.G. Ballard really all that good?”
I’ll say it now. I find Ballard tedious with his endless repetition of the same old themes, and nowhere does this happen more than in his disaster novels. The world ends, or society collapses, or something like that. One or two cardboard, implausible characters, instead of getting the hell out like any sensible person, get this weird urge to go further into the catastrophe — find the source of the river/penetrate the crystallisation zone/go further south/whatever. I won’t say the images don’t work — the drowned London with Leicester Square as a tropical lagoon is brilliant, ditto the crystallised African jungle, ditto the apartment building where all that is ordinary and accepted collapses while the real world continues outside it. But, over and over again? Time after time? That’s what irks me.
But then, take The Wind From Nowhere. This was J.G.’s first novel and yes, it shows in places. Sometimes it’s a bit clumsy, but what the heck? Savour it as a relic from the time when Ballard was new and fresh, and when it wasn’t apparently in the contract that no copy editor should come within a mile of a Ballard manuscript.
Ballard has subsequently disowned this book, apparently. More fool him. Here the disaster is — you guessed it — a wind. For some reason, never adequately explained (but who needs it? Chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect, will do nicely) the Earth’s atmosphere is stirred up into what becomes, with a five m.p.h. increase every day, mega-hurricane force winds, getting to the point where no building can stand and where the planet’s surface erodes as you watch.
The seeds of what have since become traditional Ballard themes are all there, of course. Civilisation collapses, a handful of weirdos … no, not weirdos. These are real, everyday people. They either try and do something about keeping society going or they lie low and wait for it to go away — both sensible, believable actions. There are a couple of nuts, of course. One is the self-destructive, obsessive type, the estranged wife of one of the characters, whose resultant demise is briefly handled at the end of one chapter. That’s all it needs. Ballard makes his point and he gets on with the story. The other is a millionaire named Hardoon, who builds a pyramid that can actually withstand the wind. This guy is seriously screwed — his idea of fun is to play the sound of the wind, transmitted live from outside the pyramid, into his office so that he can face the elements in the comfort and safety of his own home, as it were. It’s good! Hardoon is well drawn, he’s menacing and his monomania is not only a danger to everyone else but is actually perceived as such.
He gets his in the end, as well. Not even his precious pyramid can stand the onslaught and it comes crashing down. Point made — on with the story. I just wish I could get rid of the feeling that nowadays, thirty years later, Ballard would devote a whole book in itself to just the pyramid.
There are no, repeat no, allusions to drained swimming pools, Ronald Reagan, famous has-been actresses, JFK (admittedly this was written before 1963), A-bomb testing sites, Ralph Nader … not even once, let alone umpteen times. You will recognise the usual Ballardisms poking up here and there, that’s inevitable, but it won’t be with a sinking sense of “Oh no, not again.”
This is an adventure story. It’s gripping. There is genuine tension even in, say, the description of a trip across London … a trip in a heavily armoured personnel carrier which will blow away if it goes too fast. You can actually feel sorry for the people who die.
Finally, the book actually ends on an optimistic note — the wind begins (only begins, mark you) to die away. Cop out? No, not really. This is one book where, instead of being given the post-holocaust world as a fait accompli, the reader can trace the decline and fall of civilisation from the start, back when the wind was simply strong enough to ground every aeroplane in the world. The wind gets stronger and stronger throughout the book and society collapses and crumbles. All the chaff, all the illusions, all the good old Western values get blown away. Then when the wind has done its cleansing work, it dies down and you can believe that things can start over in a better way.
At least, I think so, and that’s how I read it. Maybe he did write is as a cop-out. Maybe all the Ballardeenies out there regard this book as heresy, something like a fifth Gospel showing the other four were wrong. Bring out your Wind From Nowheres! Build a bonfire! But those who do like good reads, with challenging ideas, well-handled imagery, convincing characters and situations, and sufficient verbiage to tell the story and nothing else, and who don’t like J.G.B. for all of the above reasons, should find that they enjoy this one.
Copyright © Ben Jeapes 1991. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.