The Right Time for J.G. Ballard

As a kid growing up on Asimov, Bradbury, Burroughs, Clarke, and Verne, somehow James Graham (J.G.) Ballard flew under my radar. Ballard would probably appreciate that analogy. His work frequently highlights civilization’s dependence on dysfunctional technology. But when web searches for climate fiction repeatedly turned up The Drowned World, I could no longer ignore this dystopian master.

Image of Concrete Island book jacket

Title: Concrete Island
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: 1974

For my first taste of Ballard, I chose Concrete Island. An accident lands Robert Maitland in an island formed by the intersection of multiple highways, trapping him literally with high-speed traffic—and figuratively with his own self-serving and deceptive modern lifestyle. But he’s not alone. The island contains remnants of a long-forgotten neighborhood, and each inhabitant must find their own way out.

Concrete Island is old-school science fiction, rich with philosophy and metaphor. With its strong undercurrents of hopelessness and alienation, it reads almost like Kafka or Camus. I devoured this novelette in an afternoon, and with my appetite suitably whetted, I was ready for the main course.

Image of The Drowned World book jacket

Title: The Drowned World
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: 1962

In The Drowned World, Dr. Robert Kerans is part of a small team of scientists researching the prehistoric flora and fauna of a submerged London. Kerans sees a serene beauty in the lizards, lagoons, and ferns of this unpopulated world, and as the story unfolds, the contrast with societal bureaucracy couldn’t be more stark. But his fellow scientists are concluding their research and are about to retreat to the comfort of Greenland’s north coast. Kerans should join them, he can’t possibly survive on his own. But his newfound rejection of society’s dysfunction makes this decision harder than you’d think.

I expected a prophetic and pioneering exploration of human-caused global warming, but The Drowned World’s heating comes from an unstable and overactive Sun. Regardless, the book’s standing in the canon of climate fiction is well-deserved. Kerans seizes on the collapse of civilization as an opportunity to create a more harmonic and balanced existence, free of societal dependence and anthropocentric constructs. Ballard’s message is clear, and whether our planet heats from our own or celestial causes is irrelevant.

Ballard’s work has struck a chord with me, and I wish I’d discovered him earlier.

Or maybe not.

While I’ve always felt like a square peg in the round hole of society, I must admit I’ve led a comfortable life. For the comfortable, Ballard’s message is a mumbled collage of confusing imagery, easy to misunderstand and ignore. But with my increased age has come an increased certainty that society is heading in the wrong direction. For me and others like me, Ballard’s message is a siren’s call.

Yes, this is the right time to discover Ballard.

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