The Crystal World (1966) is J.G. Ballard’s third apocalyptic work in which he destroys civilization, the other two being The Burning World (1964) and The Drowned World (1962). It seems he likes the elements, having employed floods, draughts, and now crystallization. The process somewhat resembles Ice-9 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), but there is no ironic humor to be found in this book as far I could tell. In The Drowned World, the flooding of the world was used as a metaphor for diving deep into the collective racial memories of the Triassic-age, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. This time, Ballard posits a mysterious crystallization process in the forests of Gabon, which slowly transforms everything around it into organic crystals, including plants, minerals, and living creatures.
The crystal trees among them were hung with glass-like trellises of moss. The air was markedly cooler, as if everything was sheathed in ice, but a ceaseless play of light poured through the canopy overhead. The process of crystallization was more advanced. The fences along the road were so encrusted that they formed a continuous palisade, a white frost at least six inches thick on either side of the palings. The few houses between the trees glistened like wedding cakes, white roofs and chimneys transformed into exotic minarets and baroque domes. On a lawn of green glass spurs, a child’s tricycle gleamed like a Faberge gem, the wheels starred into brilliant jasper crowns.
He had entered an endless subterranean cavern, where jeweled rocks loomed out of the spectral gloom like marine plants, the sprays of glass forming white fountains. Several times he crossed and recrossed the road. The spurs were almost waist-high, and he was forced to climb over the brittle stems. Once, as he rested against the trunk of a bifurcated oak, an immense multi-colored bird erupted from a bough over his head, and flew off with a wild screech, aureoles of light cascading from its red and yellow wings. At last the storm subsided, and a pale light filtered through the stained-glass canopy. Again, the forest was a place of rainbows, a deep, iridescent light glowing from within.
The main character is Edward Sanders, a British doctor trying to reach a leprosy facility deep in the jungles of Africa. Surprise surprise, he takes a journey upriver and encounters various dark natives as well as some corrupt white men intent on pursuing their own agendas. Does this sound at all familiar? It’s an overt tribute to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), but unfortunately The Crystal World does not add anything to that seminal symbolic journey. Dr. Sanders repeatedly questions his own motivations to join his friends at the leprosy facility, wondering whether his intentions are truly altruistic, or whether he is strangely drawn to the disease. As he encounters parts of the forest that are starting to crystalize, he sees that some of the lepers are drawn to it as a way to slow the progress of the disease and to cheat death. Other characters, even though outwardly healthy, seem to also embrace this process due to their repressed emotional lives. Ballard juxtaposes the opposing forces of leprosy (representing decay and entropy) and crystallization (stopping time and death, a symbol of eternity and perfection). He then expounds on a mind-bending and probably incoherent description of time, matter, anti-matter, and distant universes to explain the mysterious crystallization process:
But it is still only a year since the Mt. Palomar astronomers discovered the first double-galaxy in the Andromeda galaxy, the great oblate diadem that is probably the most beautiful object in the physical universe, the island galaxy M-31. Without doubt, these random transfigurations throughout the world are a reflection of distant cosmic processes of enormous scope and dimensions first glimpsed in the Andromeda spiral. We now know that it is time, time with a Midas touch, which is responsible for the transformation. The recent discovery of anti-matter in the universe inevitably involves the conception of anti-time as the fourth side of this negatively-charged continuum. Where anti-particle and particle collide, they not only destroy their own physical identities, but their opposing time values eliminate each other, subtracting from the universe another quantum from its total share of time.
It is random discharges of this type, set off by the creation of anti-galaxies in space, which have led to the depletion of the time store available to the materials of our own solar system. Just as a super-saturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the super-saturation of our solar system leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix. As more and more time leaks away, the process of super-saturation continues, the original atoms and molecules producing spatial replicas of themselves, substance without mass, in an attempt to increase their foothold upon existence. The process is theoretically without end, and it may be possible for a single atom to produce an infinite number of duplicates of itself, and so fill the entire universe, from which simultaneously all time is expired, an ultimate macrocosmic zero beyond the wildest dreams of Plato and Democritus.
Despite the languid, hallucinatory descriptions of crystallization, time, and space, the events that occur to Dr. Sanders as he journeys up the river have a curiously flat, pointless quality to them. Because Ballard’s stories are not filled with excitement or sympathetic characters, it is difficult to become engaged unless you allow the imagery and limpid storytelling to creep into your unconscious mind. That’s why, when I first listened to both The Drowned World and The Crystal World on audiobook, I was somewhat disappointed. But because they are both under 6 hours, and because David Pringle praised both profusely and selected them for his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985), I listened a second time to give them my full attention. I found The Drowned World to be much better, and I was duly impressed.
On the other hand, even after a second listen, The Crystal World left me cold and detached. Although his descriptive writing was still impressive at times, Ballard spent far too much time on the pointless interactions of the main characters. It’s interesting to note that in Ballard’s personal life, between the publication of The Drowned World in 1962 and The Crystal World in 1966, he suffered the tragedy of suddenly losing his wife to pneumonia in 1964. It’s impossible to know exactly what affect that had on his writing, but it must have impacted his life profoundly, since he was then left to raise their three children on his own. It’s always tricky to speculate how an author’s life is reflected in their work, but I certainly detected an emotional detachment in the character of Dr. Sanders, and his involvement with other people.
Notably, Ballard began to write the experimental ‘condensed novels’ in 1965 that were collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a book that was so controversial that Nelson Doubleday had the entire first US printing destroyed out of concerns for legal action, since stories had titles like “Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” “Love and Napalm: Export USA,” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” Suffice to say he was working through some major issues through his writing, but I suspect that it was more the events of the time, namely the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War, that were foremost on his mind.
Nonetheless, The Crystal World remains an interesting read if you are interested in New Wave SF from the 1960s, but for my money I preferred The Drowned World. Since it seems somewhat fitting, I’ll end with Robert Frost’s famous poem Fire and Ice:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.