It occurred to me while reading this book that J.G. Ballard really is the high-lord grand poobah of Science Fiction disaster novels. There’s at least five of them I can think of off the top of my head that all follow a similar plot: Nature goes screwy, and everyone dies, or is very likely to die in the near future. One would think that he’d have been gobbled up as a new age saint by the environmentalists as a result, but he hasn’t. Why? I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d say it’s probably because these environmental collapses are never our fault (Well, with the exception of “Hello America,” but lets just stick a pin in that one as I hope to come back to it in more detail on another day).
The world ends not because of humanity’s sins against nature, but rather because an entirely random universe failed to take note of us at all. The apocalypse is generally out of nowhere, generally inscrutable, and if there’s some kind of cause-and-effect that started the whole thing, it’s usually completely hidden from humanity, or so far offstage as to make no difference whatsoever. Which, frankly, is all kinds of feakin’ cool, and Ballard makes extremely effective use of it. The world is, and we are, but there’s some dissonance between us. The connections are never quite entirely there, and there’s a deliberate surreal quality to the proceedings. There’s a kind of vicious feedback loop, where the decline of the protagonist’s psyche mirrors the decline of creation itself, and the decline of creation hastens the protagonists’ slide into madness.
There really was no one who could set a mood like he could. Every page of ever book just drips of strange colors, odd juxtapositions, and melting borders between what is and what is not. For such a grim obsession with accelerated decrepitude, his books are hypnotic page-turners. If I’m fawning a bit, it’s because Ballard is on my short list of all-time favorite SF writers:
1) Philip K. Dick
2) J.G. Ballard
3) Larry Niven
When Ballard was in the genre, writing psychologically and psychosexually tinged SF, there was really no one who could touch him. I CAN NOT CAUTION STRONGLY ENOUGH to my readers, however, that SF was basically only the first half of his career. The second half was entirely psychosexual, transgressive, and frankly disturbing as hell. Most people will probably want to avoid that. If you want a list of what’s sick and what isn’t, contact me, I can probably write one for you.
Ballard is probably best known as the writer and protagonist of Empire of the Sun, an autobiographical novel which isn’t SF at all, but is a must-read. (There was also a sequel, the much dirtier “The Kindness of Women.”) His experiences spending WWII in a prison camp no doubt shaped his later perspectives. He also wrote the utterly sick, wrong, and disturbing novel “Crash” which spawned the David Cronenberg movie of the same name. The less said about that, the better.
But we’re not here today to talk about what the man - and his career - became. Instead, we’re here to talk about how it started: “The Wind From Nowhere” is his first novel.
The story in a nutshell:
For no reason that’s ever explained, all the air on earth starts moving east-to-west as a band, five miles faster each day. Once it gets above 200 MPH, human civilization effectively ceases to exist. Once it gets over 500 it stops - again for no explained reason. The End.
We follow several groups of protagonists around - a doctor, another kind of doctor, a submarine commander, a reporter for NBC, a crazy billionaire, and a whole bunch of minor characters - as they wander to and fro, having various adventures (During which most of the minor characters are killed off) until they’re all brought together at the climax. Though the disaster is ever-present and invasively unforgettable, it primarily forms a catalyst for changes in our characters, and as the outside world becomes more and more minimalist, their internal landscapes grow correspondingly bigger and more realized. Each of our protagonists have become a world unto themselves by the time the real world ends. Except: the world doesn’t end. That’s unusual for Ballard. There’s a happy ending that seems a bit grafted on and abrupt, only saved from Deus Ex Machina territory by its utter inscrutability. Why did this happen? Why did this stop happening? None of the characters know, so neither do we, but ultimately the cause - and cure - are unimportant. The real story here - as with every disaster - isn’t the event so much as what it does to the people who lived through it. Remember: this is a novel written by a guy who spent his childhood in a Chinese prison camp.
I think some of that is in here, actually: The cause and resolution of World War II are so far beyond the ken of a preadolescent colonial boy as to seem fully capricious and magical. All he knows is the now, the instant, as it trickles through the tiny artificial world that only-barely sustains him. We find that reflected in here - the capriciousness of nature (Gaia is a vicious bitch who’s just as likely to kill you if you do worship her as she is if you don’t), the sprawling, open world reduced to tiny, enclosed spaces which - for some - afford more freedom than the outdoors ever did. The skies themselves become agents of death in the novel in a way grander, yet similar to the constant air attacks in the war.
But there’s a limit to how scary war can be, isn’t there? On the other end of that rifle, with their hand on the trigger, it’s always another human being. Humans are basically a known quantity, understandable, empathetic on occasion. A soldier may shoot an enemy, but he *might* not shoot a child; there’s a human inside the armor that you always have a (Slim) chance of reaching. But you remove the human, and replace it with something elemental and inherently untouchable, and a simple war becomes a nightmare of literally inhuman proportions. Case in point, Stephen Spielberg’s movie, “Duel,“ where Dennis Hopper is continually being attacked by an 18-wheeler. It’s good, it’s tense, it’s even scary, but the fears are allayed somewhat by our knowledge that there’s a person in that truck. “Jaws” is the same root story, but with a shark replacing the driver, and the story becomes much, much more frightening. Likewise here in Ballard’s oddly recast version of World War II on an elemental level: How can you fight the wind? How can you even get it to notice you?
In technical terms, the book was *very* present day. (Mention is made of Pandit Nehru as prime minister of India; he actually was at the time the novel was published) We get a nice gradual ramp-up of the crisis, an increasing tension as things go from inconvenience to weird inconvenience to frightening inconvenience to disaster. “Theoretically there are no reasons why [the wind] should not continue to revolve at highs speeds indefinitely, and become the prevailing planetary system similar to the revolving clouds of gas” in the Jovian worlds. There is some discussion of whether or not this is the result of an outraged God, to which a Brit quips, “Well, let’s sincerely hope not, Doctor, we simply haven’t got a big enough budget for that sort of emergency.
Attendant upon with the catastrophe is the normal cynicism (“Good riddance”), but interestingly the cynicism is one of the first casualties of the crisis. Lanyon, the American Submarine Commander, observes that “I realize now that a garbage disposal job of this size takes away too much of the good along with the bad.” This raging black phantasm outside (The storm starts carrying topsoil from all around the planet, effectively becoming a global sandstorm) is contrasted with his meeting his true love, Patricia: “With her blue coat and clear white skin against the drab background…she reminded him of the Madonna in the gilt frame over the altarpiece in the wrecked church.”
The wrecked church is an interesting set piece that, I think, is intended to point out how people are clutching to faith and outmoded thinking when a new reality has quite literally swept those things away. In Corsica, Lanyon stops his Armored Personnel Carrier to help out at a church that collapsed. He helps a big man who’s wife is trapped. Later, he’s helped by the same man - a Mafioso - who’s looting televisions and other luxury items from department stores and stashing them in basements so he can sell them off when “Things go back to normal,” oblivious to the fact that there will never be a normal again.
Characterization is quite good. For instance, “It is difficult to visualize a sleek young executive like Deborah Mason taking her place in the doomed lifeboats. She was much more the sort of girl who heard the faint SOS signals and organized the rescue operation.”
The death toll ticks steadily higher and higher - estimates of more than half the population in England alone, vastly higher in most other locations - and those who can’t adapt, or simply can’t outrun their fear anymore swiftly succumb to the killer sky. As Dr. Maitland’s wife observes moments before her suicide, “I’ve been frightened for too long, Donald. Of Daddy, and you, and myself. Now I’m not anymore. You go and dig a hole in the ground somewhere if you want to -”
As bad as the catastrophe is, the interpersonal stuff gets vastly messier vastly quicker, as various forces vie for the few remaining options, to stave off their own deaths for a bit longer. There are conspiracies, abandonments, and no end of violence (My personal favorite phrase from the whole book is when someone pulls a gun on another and is said to have “His eyes narrowed like an insane pig.”) Here we are facing extinction, and humanity is only to happy to help it on its way.
This, of course, leads us to our insane billionaire, Hardoon. He’s the man with the plan. It’s not a particularly sensible plan - he is nuts after all - but he’s really the only person who wasn’t caught entirely flatfooted by the scale of what happened. As is observed.
“The entire population of one of the world’s most highly industrialized nations, equipped with an elaborate communications and transport system, huge stores of fuel and food, large armed services, yet caught completely unprepared by a comparatively slight increase in one of the oldest constants of its natural environment. ON the whole, people had shown less resourcefulness and flexibility, less foresight, than a wild bird or animal would. Their basic survival instincts had been so dulled, so overlaid by mechanisms designed to serve secondary appetites, that they were totally unable to protect themselves. THEY WERE THE HELPLESS VICTIMS OF A DEEP-RROTED OPTOMISM ABOUT THEIR OWN SURVIVAL” (Emphasis mine)
Later on, the character’s bodies start degrading as their minds grow sharper, this is echoed by one character’s metaphoric awakening:
“Turning lazily, he tried to make himself comfortable, tried to feel the stiff caress of crisp hospital sheets against his face. Yet he could never find them. Whenever he searched the bed and pillow were hard and unyielding as he realized his hands were in plaster casts. He wished he could wake. Then sleep would come again, numbing the pain in his head and across his shoulders, dulling the nausea that made him want to vomit.” This in an American military hospital underneath one of our British bases, where the author observes, “Americans were expert at providing the civilized amenities of life with a minimum of apparent effort or pomp.” The imagery kicks in to high gear here, as we’re treated to endless tunnels full of people, “Like the denizens of some vast gallery of the dead waiting for their resurrection.” Which, of course, they are on some level.
Meanwhile, uncharacteristically sweetly, but refreshingly low-key, Lanyon and Patricia have forged some unspeakable bond thanks to their shared experiences arising from the disaster. Maitland observes, “These were the first two people he’d seen who had managed to survive with their own private world intact.”
Hardoon has built a massive solid-concrete pyramid, heavy and thick enough to be indestructible, even from a direct hit from a nuclear weapon. His plan is basically to ride out the storm inside it, as a show of his own moral courage against nature. Maitland is pretty sure the man simply wants to be in a position to take over the world if/when the storm ends, but Hardoon simply observes, “It’s astonishing how the weak always judge the strong by their own limited standards.” And later, while mankind burrows deeper and deeper for survival, “I alone have built upwards, and dared to challenge the wind, asserting man’s courage and determination to master nature.”
Of course the pyramid may be indestructible, but the land around it isn’t, and things go Biblically south pretty quickly, setting up the abrupt, if rather inscrutable ending.
So in short all the “Ballardisms” are here, but they’re not quite put together right. This is a work by a very gifted man who’s not quite yet in charge of his gifts, and also not yet fully aware of how much convention he can do away with. Does he need the happy ending? Does he need to show the disaster at all, or does that distract from his real point about the inward nature of mankind?
Ballard himself was later a bit embarrassed by this novel, but that’s actually rather unwarranted. Just because Umma Gumma isn’t as good an album as Dark Side of the Moon doesn’t make it a bad. In some ways, it’s more intriguing because there are more rough edges, less polish. Taken on its own, this is a quite good potboiler, and an only-slightly-undercooked example of the far better meals that were to come.