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The Crystal World

by J.G. Ballard

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Collins English Dictionary has added the tern “Ballardian” to its
lexicon, defining it as follows:

Ballardian: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the
British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the
conditions described in Ballard’s novels
and stories, esp. dystopian modernity,
bleak man-made landscapes and the
psychological effects of technological,
social or environmental developments.

It is worth noting that most of the science
fiction novels that have “crossed over” to
become accepted as literary masterpieces
have emphasized the Ballardian aspects
of their narratives.  We have Orwell’s
1984, Huxley’s Brave New World,
Margaret Atwood's
The Handmaid's Tale,
Cormac McCarthy’s
The Road, and (of
course) the novels by the ultimate
Ballardian author, J.G. Ballard, who
continues to inspire not just lexicographers but a host of fans with
his provocative oeuvre.

Ballard was perhaps more influenced by surrealism and William S.
Burroughs than by Hugo Gernsback and
Amazing Magazine.  As a
result, his writing is completely free of the pulp fiction trappings
that degrade so much of what passes for sci-fi.  The closest
equivalent in fiction to
The Crystal World may, in fact, be Joseph
Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness which, like Ballard’s novel, tells the
tale of a visitor into the depths of jungle who stumbles into an
unexpected and nightmarish encounter with the dark side.

English doctor Edward Sanders arrives at river port city in Gabon,
from which he hopes to journey to a leprosy treatment center.   
But he hears of a mysterious disorder that is spreading through the
jungle.   Some type of virus is transforming the landscape, its
contents and inhabitants into crystal.  Little can be done to
counter this terrestrial cancer, although jewels seems to have
some power to liquefy the crystals.  

Other writers would highlight the global pandemic, and focus on
the effects of this virus spreading to London, New York, Paris,
Moscow and the like.  But Ballard keeps doggedly fixed on the
intimate and personal nature of this situation.  Also, he relies on
the malignity of the crystals to inspire a type of icy landscape
writing – a strange transference of a picturesque arctic narrative
into the midst of the jungle.  

This is poised work by a fine writer.  Those raised on bloodier and
bolder Armageddon tales may find the pacing slow, but readers
who are coming to sci-fi after long familiarity with literary fiction
will enjoy Ballard as a bridge between these two, often
incommensurable, worlds.  
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


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