Crystal World, The by Ballard, J.G., 1966

Crystal World, The by Ballard, J.G. - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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Ive been on a bit of an Africa kick lately in my SF reading. Ive got quite a few Africa books in my to be read pile, but I thought it would be nice to wander down a few paths on the Dark Continent that I had visited before. This next series of reviews is going to be of Ballard's The Crystal World, MacDonald's Tendeleo's Story, in the Chaga sequence, Resnick's Kirinyaga, Bulter's Wild Seed and finally, Bishop's No Enemy but Time. The five books tell very different stories, but all deal, sometimes vaguely, with the transformation of some element of the African experience.

I put up my review of Bishop's book first, but after rethinking it, I should have done it last. At its core, Bishop's book is more about the healing effect of Africa on the protagonist's heart, not so much about a physical transformation. But through a twisted viewfinder, it is the antithesis of the McDonald and Ballard books. Ballard's The Crystal World, published in 1966, is an odd mix of hopefulness and hopelessness that ends on a confusing, but probably bittersweet note.

This is the story of an English doctor who lives and practices in Central Africa. Dr. Sanders is a physician at a leper's colony in only recently formerly French colonial Africa in Cameroon. He has been urged by a former lover and her husband to come to their hospital at the foot of Mont Royal. In her letter to Sanders alludes to the "crystalline" beauty of their surroundings. Curious, and still in love, Dr. Sanders sets off, only to discover that for the entire last year the flora, fauna and landscape of this part of Africa have been slowly converting to various crystals. Along the way to Mont Royal Dr. Sanders finds himself in between Ventress, an architect, and Thorensen, a former precious stone mine operator, who are apparently fighting over the love of Ventress' very sick wife. Ventress and Thorensen go at each other with firearms, and chase each other all over the mountain.

As the story unfolds Ballard tells us that not only are Florida and a region in Russia being transmuted as well, but that astronomers are seeing odd things in distant galaxies. Ballard offers up a half-hearted explanation that has to do with anti-matter's effect on matter and time itself (it apparently obliterates both, so that matter so affected does not exist in the past any longer). The endgame is made no clearer, and while it appears that given a chance the crystals will engulf humans, it is never said what will happen to us.

Ballard's prose is beautiful and compelling, but in parts very difficult to follow. Its not because of his word choice so much as his intention, I think. The main characters are enthralled with the truly beautiful changes that are going on around them, but are always conscious of the potentially lethal unknowns of the situation. The action throughout the book is all about saving loved ones and escaping, but it never works out the way that the characters plan. They all should just have fled as soon as they realized there was a problem. Nevertheless, the book is never really glum or dark; just mysterious, and frightening on a purely intellectual way.

Even though it is a love story about a doomed relationship, it is first and foremost about the transformation first of Africa. Ballard wrote it in the mid 1960's when the abandonment of the French colonial empire had definately left several African nations in a much worse position socially than when they came. After the French pulled out, Africa was an even a Darker Continent than it was in 1866, as the void left by the removal of the colonial administration and the Foreign Legion touched off civil wars and military build-ups everywhere. The book is about some big unknown and wholly strange catastrophe arising on the abandoned continent to swallow us all in punishment for our crimes to the African people. On another level entirely, its about the transformation of something people would have preferred to ignore into some thing sublimely beautiful and deadly.

On a more personal level, this book was one of Ballard's many literary assaults that arose from his own personal pain. This was his fourth book. A few years before he began to write it, he had sold his first book in America. He took his family to Spain to celebrate, where his wife took sick and died. I don't think that he ever got over the pain, but as a result Ballard has penned many of the most interesting end-of-the-world books we have, and was probably why he put his main character into a doomed relationship.

Ballard is one of SF's literary darlings, like Dick, Lem and Ellison. I think that some will find this book boring and slow moving, so I'm reluctant to broadly recommend it. I'm a huge fan of doomsday books, so personally I liked it. It is part of a loose trilogy which also includes The Drowned World and The Burning World. Most readers will probably prefer those two works to this one. But if you think you may be interested, try Empire of the Sun first, which is hands down Ballard's best book, and an autobiography too. Four out of five stars.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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