The Crystal World
J. G. Ballard: The Crystal World (1966)
Contributed by Benjamin Wright
In this third book of his first "disaster" trilogy, which includes The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965), Ballard uses the disaster novel trope to examine one man’s struggle to understand his own as well as others' fascination with disease, death and the possibility of life-in-death brought about by the apocalyptic Hubble Effect, a mysterious supernatural force which crystallises all living organisms caught in its path.
James Graham Ballard was born to English parents in Shanghai, China on 15 November 1930. During WWII he was interned with his family by the Japanese before returning to Britain in 1946. He read Medicine at King’s College, Cambridge and later studied English at London University. In London he was influenced by exhibitions of surrealist art and the psychology of Sigmund Freud. His first short story was published in 1956 in the science fiction magazine Science Fantasy. He has since been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won several other awards for his fiction.
The Wind from Nowhere (1962); The Drowned World (1962); The Drought (1965) The Day of Forever (1967); Crash (1973); Vermilion Sands (1973); Concrete Island (1974); High-Rise (1975); The Unlimited Dream Company (1979); Hello America (1981); Empire of the Sun (1984); The Day of Creation (1987); Running Wild (1988); The Kindness of Women (1991); Rushing to Paradise (1994); Cocaine Nights (1996); Super-Cannes (2000); Millennium People (2003); Kingdom Come (2006)
The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963); The Terminal Beach (1964); The Disaster Area (1967); The Overloaded Man (1967) revised as The Venus Hunters (1980); The Atrocity Exhibition (1970); Myths of the Near Future (1982)
A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews (1995); Miracles of Life (2008), autobiography
Dr. Edward Sanders: protagonist; approximately 40 years old; medical doctor who runs a leprosarium at Fort Isabelle, which he leaves after receiving an ambiguous letter from Suzanne Clair; his motives for trying to find Suzanne are unclear; becomes attracted to the forest affected by the Hubble Effect
Father Balthus: Jesuit priest at a seminary in Mont Royal; cryptic figure who travels on the same ship as Sanders into the jungle; rescues Sanders from crystallisation at the end of the novel
Ventress: an architect; Sanders' cabin-mate on the ship to Port Matarre; evasive and enigmatic figure clad in a white suit and carrying expensive luggage; described by Thorensen as a "madman"; is on a quest throughout the book to find his wife, while trying to stay out of Thorensen's path
Louise Peret: French journalist in her 20s, also on the boat with Sanders; begins a relationship with Sanders, accompanying him at various points on his journey to find Suzanne
Aragon: Captain of the speed boat that carries Sanders and Louise from Port Matarre to the military camp near Mont Royal
Captain Radek: a sympathetic doctor in the medical corps of the battalion encamped on the river before Mont Royal; serves as an intermediary for visiting scientists and government officers
Thorensen: Swedish-American owner of a mine near Mont Royal; keeps Serena captive at his mansion; repeatedly attempts to kill Ventress
Serena Ventress: bedridden mad woman with symptoms of tuberculosis and anaemia; lives with Thorensen, craving the jewels he provides for her; looks like an old woman, but is really in her 20s
Suzanne Clair: worked with Sanders at the leprosarium at Fort Isabelle; had an affair with him before she married Max; operates the dispensary at Clair's leprosy clinic at night; disappears frequently into the forest inexplicably; has leprosy
Dr. Max Clair: amiable operator of a leper colony in Mont Royal; a good husband to Suzanne and a good host to Sanders; simple minded, fails to understand Sanders's relationship to Suzanne and Suzanne's relationship to the forest
Most of the action in The Crystal World takes place in the jungles of postcolonial Cameroon. Although the novel is set in a real geographic space that could also provide the setting for a realist novel, Ballard estranges this space from the common world of the mid-1960s by making it one of three epicentres worldwide from which the catastrophic Hubble Effect emanates. Spreading rapidly outward from these epicentres, it seems doomed to envelop the entire planet, eventually putting an end to all life. While the scope of the phenomenon is global, the local focus of the novel serves to concentrate and heighten the action.
After receiving a mysterious letter from his former mistress, Suzanne Clair, Dr. Sanders sets out on a boat to Mont Royal in search of her. Once aboard, Sanders meets two mysterious figures, Balthus and Ventress. Before the boat can reach its destination, however, it is forced ashore by the military at Port Matarre. There Sanders learns that the area has been cordoned off, because a supposed plant virus has affected large stretches of the surrounding jungle and much of Mont Royal has been abandoned.
At lunch in the hotel restaurant, Sanders sees Louise Peret and is immediately drawn to her because of her resemblance to Suzanne. Leaving the hotel, Sanders admires the many intricate jewelled carvings of flowers and other objects, which seem to radiate light. Suddenly Balthus appears, shouting and waving a crystalline crucifix. The rapid movement causes the crucifix to emit an almost blinding stream of light that gradually ebbs into nothing as it loses its crystal veneer, exposing a surface of polished wood. Balthus indicates to Sanders that the object is not simply native artwork, but something obscene and powerful. At dinner Sanders talks with Louise about the incident with Balthus and the strange, uncanny light that emanates from the crystalline objects. While on a walk later that night, Sanders comes to the rescue of Ventress, who is attacked by a pipe-wielding man on shore, while being fired upon by a large yacht with a canon from the water.
The next morning, as Sanders and Louise are standing on the water, boatmen bring the corpse of Louise’s cameraman ashore, whose arm is encased in crystal. As he inspects the body, Sanders discovers that the arm has itself been completely crystallised and that the body is still warm, although other signs lead him to think that the body had been submerged for several days. Sanders convinces Louise to travel with him to Mont Royal on a speed boat captained by Aragon.
Before they reach Mont Royal, the army stops them and escorts Sanders to Captain Radek's tent, where he is briefed on the current state of knowledge on the rapidly escalating crystallisation in the forest. As Radek and Sanders reach the deserted Mont Royal, Thorensen arrives with news of Max and Suzanne Clair’s whereabouts. On the edge of the forest a helicopter attempts to take off, but crashes into the forest under the weight of its crystallised blades. Hoping to rescue the pilots, Radek and Sanders rush off into the forest. Along the way Sanders loses sight of Radek and ends up being rescued by Thorensen, who guides him into a garishly decorated, empty mansion and re-enters the forest. On the upper floor of the house, Sanders finds Ventress hiding with a shotgun. They are soon discovered by Thorensens thugs, but both men escape.
In the forest Ventress and Sanders stumble upon Radek's completely crystallised body lying at the base of a tree near the helicopter. Against Ventress's advice, Sanders manages to disentangle Radek's body from the tree roots, but in doing so knocks off sheets of crystal on Radek's face and shoulder. He binds Radek to a tree branch and sends him floating down the river in the hope that the crystals will deliquesce in the moving current, thereby reanimating Radek. A short while later Thorensen's men capture Sanders and take him to Thorensen's house.
There he meets Serena Ventress and Thorensen explains to him the circumstances of Ventress's madness and his reasons for keeping Serena with him. After Thorensen has been convinced that he needs to try to reach the Clair's clinic, Thorensen sends him out with two African guides. In the forest Sanders realises he must keep moving to avoid crystallisation. On the riverbank Sanders finds Radek still alive but with part of his face and shoulder missing. He implores Sanders to help him back into the forest, but when Sanders refuses he hobbles back into it himself.
On a deserted road he is met by Aragon, who takes him to the Clair's. Max receives him warmly and after dinner leaves him alone with Suzanne. They talk of their mutual fascination for the forest, and as they move closer to each other Sanders realises that she has leprosy, which simultaneously excites and repels him. After dinner the next night, Sanders discovers Suzanne in the ruins of an old hotel. They make love and when Suzanne reveals her leprous face to him in the moonlight, he tells her that he already knew.
At midnight, Sanders awakes to find Max leaving to search for Suzanne who has disappeared. Sensing that Suzanne has returned to the forest, Sanders too sets out in search of her, but falls asleep in front of an abandoned mine. Awakened by Ventress, he discovers that his arm has crystallised to the ground. Standing up, he tears a strip of crystals from his arm. The two men soon come under attack from Thorensen once again and are forced to flee. After fending off their attackers, the two men take leave of each other.
Drawn by the sounds of an organ coming from a small church in a clearing, Sanders enters to see Balthus at the keyboard. Over the period of several days Sanders spends in the church, a giant jewelled cross on the altar causes the crystals in his arm to dissolve, exposing a bloody wound. Witnessing the church slowly crystallising, Balthus sends Sanders out into the forest bearing the cross with instructions to find the river as a sure path of escape. On his way, Sanders sees Suzanne amongst a nomadic leper colony, but she vanishes from sight before he can reach her. Before stumbling upon Thorensen's house, he catches a glimpse of Ventress running through the forest yelling for his wife. In the house he finds both Thorensen and Serena lying crystallised in bed – Thorensen with a gaping wound in his chest.
Two months later, Louise and Max Clair watch Sanders as he leaves Port Matarre in a boat with Aragon.
In The Crystal World, Ballard contrasts the drastic disfiguration of the human body wrought by leprosy – especially in Suzanne – with the fantastic body transformations caused by the Hubble Effect, which is explained in significant detail. The Hubble Effect crystallises everything with which it comes into contact. It permeates all organic matter, suspending it in a timeless state between life and death. Although the crystallisation is not fatal per se, it can only be counteracted through swift, continuous movement or the presence of precious gems, which quickly lose their lustre and their effectiveness, but reverse the crystallization process without causing tissue damage. Body transformations in the novel include the arm of Louise’s drowned cameraman Matthieu, Radek’s entire body, Sanders’ own arm, scores of native villagers and one of Thorensen’s thugs.
The Crystal World uses the phenomenon of crystallisation to problematize death. By essentially freezing the body down to the cellular level, crystallisation puts all body functions on hold, thereby also impeding the ravages of disease. For Serena Ventress and Suzanne Clair as well as the native lepers, the prospect of crystallisation offers an alternative to disease and death. The novel implicitly poses the question whether it is more desirable to be petrified eternally or to live out one’s life until death.
At the time The Crystal World (1966) was published, J.G. Ballard was one of the most outspoken authors associated with the New Wave movement in British science fiction. In magazine publications he argued fervently that science fiction needed a fresh influx of ideas and that the genre should abandon what he saw as the hackneyed conventions of mainstream science fiction, such as aliens and space travel. He called for an avantgardist approach to the genre in which writers examine the inner life of their characters and the psychological landscape of their stories.
Unlike several of J.G. Ballard’s other works, such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) and Crash (1973), The Crystal World has received little critical attention. The novel is the last in a series, which includes The Wind from Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965), and which explores different global catastrophes. In these novels Ballard essentially adheres to one of the most fundamental generic principles of science fiction: that of the scientific plausibility of the disasters in the story, although critics including W. Warren Wagar have noted that Ballard’s explanations of scientific phenomena seem generally to have been indifferently executed. The Crystal World, however, is different. As in all disaster novels, the disaster at its centre is pandemic and all-encompassing. The mysterious Hubble Effect threatens to consume the entire world, turning all living organisms into immobile crystalline structures. In contrast to the causes of the disasters in Ballard’s previous novels, the Hubble Effect is thoroughly supernatural and therefore entirely resistant to scientific explanation. This would seem to put it outside the realm of science fiction, yet Ballard provides it with an ample theoretical foundation. This flagrant incongruity, however, is evidence of Ballard’s exploration of genre boundaries. In his quasi-scientific explanation of the Hubble Effect, which can only be interpreted as patently absurd by any reader, Ballard knowingly casts doubt on the rational tradition of the genre, undermining it whilst at the same time turning it into something entirely new.
Rather than trying to survive and rebuild their lives after the catastrophe, as is generally the case in British disaster novels, Ballard’s central characters in The Crystal World use the catastrophe to examine existential questions. In the course of the novel, Sanders struggles to find the cause of his strange attraction to Suzanne and her disease. Suzanne, on the other hand, indulges her fascination with the rapidly crystallising forest from which she may conceivably never return. She shares the desire of other characters, including Radek, to be able to decide for themselves whether they allow themselves to become crystallised. In dealing with the psychology of characters which inhabit a surreally apocalyptic landscape, Ballard presents a fantastic alternative to conventional disaster novels.
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- Perry, Nick and Wilkie, Roy. "The Undivided Self: J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World." Riverside Quarterly. 5 (1973): 48-60.
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- Pringle, David and James Goddard, eds. J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years. Hayes, U.K.: Bran’s Head, 1976.
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- Wagar, W. Warren. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982.
- Wright, Benjamin. "J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World: Fantasy Planet or Science-Fictional Sphere?" In Fantastic Body Transformations in English Literature, ed. Sabine Coelsch-Foisner. Heidelberg: Winter, 2006: 295-304.
http://www.jgballard.com/index.php (a compendium of links, reviews and interviews)
http://www.ballardian.com/ (a blog about J.G. Ballard)