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'Destruction of cities'

Author: • Jan 29th, 2009 •

Category: Ballardosphere, enviro-disaster, urban ruins

Ballardian: City of Sound

At Dan Hill’s always-impressive City of Sound, a recent post returns to Dan’s interest in Ballard’s Drowned World, positioning it as the middle panel of a triptych of novels (including Shute’s On the Beach and McCarthy’s The Road) that depict the planet ‘suffering some kind of apocalyptic event in different ways…’, each representing particular aspects of ‘denial’ that are in orbit around current debates on climate change. Hill suggests that all three works are ‘post-nuclear’, but isn’t it the case that the world in Ballard’s book has transformed due to ‘gigantic geophysical upheavals’, ie solar radiation? While in The Road, the low rumble of the percussive strike remembered in flashback could just as well be attributed to a meteor as much as a nuclear hit.

It’s a really intriguing post, however, and it would be great to see Dan expand it into a fullblown essay one day:

Clive Hamilton, in a brilliant essay in The Monthly on climate change denial, completes the Rumsfeldian square with his suggestion that climate change denial is about “unknown knowns, the facts we know but push from our consciousness.” On The Beach is more about this form of denial than reconciliation perhaps. It’s closer to ‘interpretative denial’ than ‘literal denial’ or ‘implicatory denial’, in Stanley Cohen’s model from his States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering.

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) concerns a form of attempted psychological adaptation, perhaps also as denial. Ballard’s vision depicts living organisms, including humans, regressing to a prehistoric consciousness, a form of long dormant lizard brain awaking and grappling for control of consciousness and subconscious, in parallel with the rampantly fertile flora of the Triassic era. This is hardly denial, consciously or subconsciously. Rather, a surely doomed attempt by the human mind to reboot itself into another mode more appropriate to the conditions, like DOS suddenly re-emerging from within Windows.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007) is shattering, and one of the finest novels I’ve read. Certainly one of the most emotionally affecting. The protagonists in The Road are further advanced along this destructive linear progression. Indeed, further on down the road. They’re far removed from any possible form of denial. Their ash-cloaked dead world is one of grim realisation and numb despair.

Happy new year, indeed.

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4 Responses »

  1. very interesting to find McCarthy’s The Road coming up here, as i wonder what this “new” american survivalist theme is bringing us to. it seems to me that there is a huge portion of denial involved, and this denial takes the form of hope. the whole story centers around the “good boy”, who has a great heart and somekind of social sense in a (post-)apocalyptic world. where should this come from? should it be a evolutionary jump? or is it just the same old waiting for the messiah? (from this point of view the graph above, should lead to the beginning of humanity. or like marx wrote: communism will emerge from the peak of capitalism.)

    for me there is no denial involved in Ballard’s The Drowned World. it seem more like the embrace of evolution (evolution is understood as a non-linear time flow here). there is no hope involved. just the logical patterns of the protagonist are more (or less) progressed than the rest of the worlds population.


  2. So much time has passed that one tends to FORGET the incredible apocalyptic Zeitgeist that gripped at least America in the late 50s and early 60s. People here were digging complex and expensive nuclear fallout shelters (my uncles built 2). Nuclear War was considered a VERY likely possibility any day. The Soviet H-Bomb was being pounded on the table at the UN, the Cubans had Soviet nukes 80 miles from Miami, and the Future looked VERY much uncertain… especially to the small boy I was. Every home had its canned-food stash, home-defense guns “for Afterwards” were bought, MacArthur was clamoring to nuke the Chinese in Korea…

    I was 7 when Kennedy was assassinated, and my school pulled an all-out nuclear war drill (just like we’d practiced, duck ‘n cover, assemble outside the building for roll-call) to send us home early. I was certain that the Kennedy Assassination was a prelude to a Russian nuclear attack. I dreamt of huge nuclear flashes just visible over the horizon, terrified by the knowledge that nothing after that would ever be the same, no more food and comfortable homes and cars, no easy life and schools and visits to Grandma’s. Like Ballard’s early-learned lesson in Shanghai, I felt and SAW how even the adults around me knew that “Reality can be snatched away like a stage set.”. The adults were obviously worried about these things but never spoke of them to children, and that INCREASED my unspoken fears..

    And there I was not yet in my teens, watching films like *On the Beach* and its unforgettable lonely, doomed Australian submarine discovering a deserted America, where only a loose window blind flapping in the wind mimicked Morse radio signals. And Ballard was right there in my hand, his first new works blossoming up in my beloved pulp SF Magazines at that age too – the Wind from Nowhere, the Drowned World, the Crystal World, Vermilion Sands. All closed-end apocalypses of their own sort. The lurking national uneasiness was all-pervasive…. The Twilight Zone was dominating TV, and the B&W TV news was NOTHING BUT these fears (I can just BARELY remember seeing Eisenhower as President on B&W TV.)

    Projected outward: I feared the outbreak of nuclear Apocalypse (it seemed likely, even imminent then), and the (quite plausible to me at that age) Landing of Conquering Aliens (*The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Mysterians*). Even one’s neighbors could be a threat – as in the epic Twilight Zone episode where a happy neighborhood 1950s yard picnic turns into a deadly struggle over possession of the host’s fallout shelter when a false-alarm CONELRAD (how many of you in the USA remember THAT?) alert is broadcast..

    Projected INWARD- I was a child, I wasn’t quite sure there even WAS a firm line between apocalyptic SF and the blazing nuclear dangers of real life. UFOs were being seen en masse all over the world for the first time, starting in 1947. Since childhood I have been haunted by endless yet always different dreams of nuclear fireballs on the horizon, plane crashes, world disaster, the end of everything familiar. And Ballard’s early work was nothing BUT that – dark, introspective, and – well, what IF the wind started blowing harder and harder and never stopped? What IF the seas began to rise and cover the planet…? What of NO rain EVER fell anymore.. Ballard’s finger was right on the pulse of that time’s Zeitgeist.

    And the steady flow of apocalyptic fiction and films continued. The message was clear that our whole society and world was at a tipping point, where it could slide into unimaginable global disaster overnight… Ballard continued his work, veering away from straight-up SF and venturing to explore this Zetigeist internally and psychologically, as it exists behind superficially calm, wealthy gated communities and high-rises. The movies continued – from Dr Strangelove to Mad Max, their message was that we couldn’t continue like this, SOMETHING Terrible WAS going to happen that would regress us all to savagery. But Ballard identified the real culprit – he pointed not at H-bombs nor climate disaster nor out-of-control technology: he pointed at YOU and your Id.

    Oddly, there WAS a movie in 1973 that VERY ACCURATELY predicted the worst dangers of the world of 2022…. *SOYLENT GREEN*. A B-movie with Charlton Heston, based on Harry Harrison’s great SF novel *Make Room! Make Room!*
    see: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070723/

    In this film, people are packed, many to a flat, in a wildly overpopulated, searingly CO2-overheated world. All natural resources are gone, synthetic food rations are Gov’t-distributed, and that government is 100% Totalitarian/Fascist. You want electricity or light, you have to pedal a bicycle for it yourself. Endless effort is necessary just to obtain food and even a space for your bed. (Lunghua, anyone?) Food riots are viciously suppressed. The plot is a bit flimsy, revolving around the recycling of human corpses for food rations, but the setting is turning out to be very disturbingly, accurately predictive.

    And the Ballardian Answer is always there – TRUE Apocalypses aren’t created by aliens or nuclear wars or weather (yet): the REAL Danger – the danger of regressing to savagery, the Triumph of the Id- is always lurking in your mind. Or your neighbor’s. The Apocalypse is ALREADY IN YOU – and the bindings holding it are loosening… The REAL danger is- and has always been- Man.

    By the time I was 11, JGB had taught me that.

  3. Cheers Simon, though also one of my quicker posts, as the poor editing shows. I meant to pull the ‘post-nuclear’ line and clearly forgot. You’re right of course – The Drowned World is more ‘geological upheavals’ and The Road could be anything. I guess they’re all post-nuclear in a sense – it’s hard to believe Ballard’s geological upheavals weren’t also informed by the sense the world could be subjected to a different kind of apocalypse since 1945, even if he didn’t choose that particular mode for Drowned World. Also agree it’s not really denial but adaptation – as I point out a couple of sentences later. Anyway, I was struck by parallels between all three books – and others I guess – and there’s certainly more in that subject.

  4. I think it’s a really interesting think piece, Dan — especially in regards to climate change. Here’s hoping you can expand upon it one day.

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