Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2011 August 12 • Friday

Did J. G. Ballard ever see The Monolith Monsters? The idea behind that movie is similar to the idea behind his novel The Crystal World and his short story "The Illuminated Man".

Both The Crystal World and "The Illuminated Man" are about how certain areas of Earth begin to crystallize and vitrify. The Crystal World expands on and refers to "The Illuminated Man", using the story's first line (also its last line) for the novel's epigraph. The same line appears again near the end of the novel.

By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest, and jeweled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown…

The first line of the novel—part one of two is called "Equinox" and Chapter One is "The dark river"—is "Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary".

One of the themes running throughout the book is a contrast between light and dark. The action begins on the day of the equinox, and similar divisions of night and day, black and white, recur frequently. (This reminded me a bit of the subtle deployment of yin and yang imagery in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. That symbol isn't in The Crystal World, though, and Ballard's imagery is explicit.)

The other main theme is the one which has dominated much of Ballard's other writing, the idea that this apocalyptic transformation of the planet is something that we somehow have an innate memory of, from hundreds of millions of years ago. Once again the main character (and some others) welcome this development and eventually embrace it.

A new angle in The Crystal World is that not just the planet but the whole universe seems to be undergoing this change. The cause of it has something to do with anti-time, which is to time as anti-matter is to matter. This explanation was given in "The Illuminate Man" also. I don't really understand it but those kinds of things are almost always over my head. A human-launched satellite called Echo figures prominently in both story and novel.

It's not just that things turn into crystals but crystals grow out of everything in several layers, crusts of crystals on top of crusts of crystals. Everything ends up looking as if it's been frosted like a wedding cake. This goes for the animate as well as the inanimate: animals, vegetables, minerals and of course people, too. If you remove a layer of the crystals from somebody, you end up removing that part of the body, too, something Sanders discovers the hard way.

The Times Literary Supplement's reviewer was reminded favorably of Graham Greene, Edgar Allan Poe and Joseph Conrad and that seems fair enough to me. The Crystal World has Ballard's unique qualities and vivid descriptive passages.

As he paused by the boat, feeling the crystals along its sides, a huge four-legged creature half-embedded in the surface lurched forwards through the crust, the loosened pieces of lattice attached to its snout and shoulders shaking like a transparent cuirass. Its jaws mouthed the air silently as it struggled on its hooked legs, unable to clamber more than a few inches from the hollow trough in its own outline now filling with a thin trickle of water. Invested by the glittering light that poured from its body, the crocodile resembled a fabulous armorial beast. Its blind eyes had been transformed into immense crystalling rubies. It lunged toward him again, and Dr. Sanders kicked its snout, scattering the wet jewels that choked its mouth.

The general plot has Dr. Sanders looking for two other doctors, a married couple who used to work with Sanders treating people with leprosy. Significantly, their last name is Clair. Sanders and Mrs. Clair had an affair, and Sanders is perhaps looking to resolve this. At least, that's what he tells himself at the beginning of his journey.

He begins a new attachment with a journalist who has come to the crystallizing jungle looking for her vanished colleagues, but the new crystal world fascinates Sanders more than anybody or anything else. Sanders manages to get mixed up in another, bizarre love triangle (very similar to a situation in "The Illuminated Man") and has memorable encounters with a strange and troubled priest (who is similar to the scientist in Ballard's story "The Venus Hunters").