Fully believing that “the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, and an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game”, J.G. Ballard set about writing his third of four disaster novels. The first featuring a world inundated with water, for the third he went the opposite direction: drought. The Burned World (1964) its apposite title, human reaction to extreme environmental conditions is once again the subject under examination. Ballard would later revise the text, and as a result it has come to be known most predominantly as The Drought.
The Drought is the story of Edward Ransom, a doctor living on a houseboat in the fictional town of Mount Royal. The over-usage of industrial chemicals having created an insoluble layer on the ocean’s surface, water is unable to evaporate, and for the second straight year, Earth is experiencing drought conditions. Ransom’s houseboat stuck in the mud flats of the river that flows through the small city, at the outset he is considering joining the mass exodus of residents to the coast where water, though salty, is available in abundance. Chaos taking over as conditions worsen, looting, fires, and religious skirmishes abound, Ransom soon finds himself in a fight for his life, the weather only one threat.
Though The Drought is only Ballard’s third novel, his descriptive powers are on full display. The dry heat, the dust, the scarcity of water—all emanate from the page palpably. Life reduced to a slow plod, the sun beats down on Ransom as he makes his journey to the depths of human existence. Events eventually taking Ransom beyond Mount Royal, his plight can be imagined quite vividly thanks to Ballard’s evocative style.
Yet landscape and events are only secondary blips on Ballard’s radar. The spectrum of character, including Ransom, is the main focus in The Drought. Representative rather than realistic, each is one-dimensional, but of a dimension analogous to varying aspects of the human psyche. Consistent to the point of surrealism, Quilter and the zoo, young Philip and the old Mr. Jordan, the mysterious Lomax, Reverend Johnstone and the fishermen—each contribute to the mosaic of humanity around Ransom, yet likewise inform the psychological demographics of the underlying story. It’s thus possible to relate to the characters at two levels: the symbolic and the mimetic.
If there’s anything The Drought fails to achieve, it’s a sense of urgency, or tension. Ballard’s The Crystal World a novel with a very similar premise, character usage, and aim, the fact he makes the protagonist of that novel both inquisitive and reactive contrasts the rather phlegmatic manner with which Ransom exists within the chaos around him. ‘Exist’ is thus the proper word. He acts of his own volition on a rarity of occasions, the remainder seemingly overridden by a Daoist ‘what will come, will come’ philosophy. Thus, if Ballard’s intentions were indeed to explore the human reaction to catastrophe, it must be in the characters surrounding Ransom where attention is placed.
In the end, The Drought is a solid novel that exemplifies many of Ballard’s strengths as a writer. Vivid descriptions, a dynamic array of characters, and insight into the human psyche characterize the work. But for all the quality ingredients, the book fails to capture the same electricity found in the novel which follows, The Crystal World. Very similar works, Ballard floats The Drought rather than driving it, however. Little seeming to be lacking on a scene by scene basis, at a deeper, more cohesive level the story does not resonate with the same verve. Thus in the context of Ballard’s other novels, The Drought does not stand amongst his greats, while in comparison to the field at large, it possesses a talent many writers never achieve.