This is how the world will end...


When the autumn nights start closing in there is nothing like settling down and losing yourself in a good disaster novel. Not that we are quite at that time of year yet – in theory, at any rate – although with the amount of rain that has been falling recently it is perhaps appropriate that Stephen Baxter’s Flood is on the reading list. It is a cleverly worked novel, particularly as the scenario suggests global warming whereas the true nature of the disaster is slightly different, and allows for a much quicker inundation of the earth and hence development of the plot.

There have been plenty of disaster novels over the years, of course, bringing about the end of civilisation in all manner of ways, and it is interesting to consider what scared people most at different times. It is also interesting to note that the disaster novel is a fairly recent innovation, assuming that we stick to a fairly strict definition of what constitutes a novel. One could argue, for instance, that biblical descriptions of the end of the world are related to the genre, especially when used by hell-fire preachers to warn people of what lies in wait if they don’t start behaving better. There is clearly a link here with that class of disaster fiction which is essentially a secular version of the prophet’s warning – the spate of alien invasion scenarios in the 1950s (as cold-war metaphors) springs to mind. But the realistically plotted scenario based on at least quasi-science, and which avoids religious or fantastical themes, really goes back no further than the nineteenth century.

In some ways this is surprising, especially when one considers the novels written in classical Greek and Roman times. In these novels there are plenty of personal catastrophes, generally as unlucky lovers are forced to endure trials and tribulations before finding happiness, and there are even examples of whole cities facing annihilation through war. There are also stories that verge of what we would think of as science fiction, with accounts of far-off lands and even voyages beyond the earth (though highly fanciful). But global cataclysms are conspicuous by their absence, and one wonders why this should be. After all, it would have been perfectly feasible for a classical writer to have described a pandemic undermining social order around the Mediterranean – there was, after all, the detailed account of the effects of the plague in Athens from 431 to 427BC, as recorded by Thucydides, to draw on. So why were they not attracted to the dramatic possibilities of the subject (assuming that a long lost manuscript is not just about to turn up)? One of the reasons is probably that classical writers tended to set their stories in identifiable historical periods, and it would have strained their readers’ credulity to be presented with a collapse of civilisation which clearly never happened. Perhaps there was also the fact that major disasters, whether natural or man-made, were not that uncommon during this period. Readers, then as now, wanted a thrill from their stories, but only up to a point – reminding them that their city might very easily fall prey to a deadly plague in the near future was hardly going to make your novel a best seller.

So what is it about the modern period which attracts us to novels in which our own civilisation goes down in ruins? Is it that we feel the scenarios are actually highly unlikely to come about, and so we can enjoy the thrill while knowing at the back of our minds that the events described will never happen? There is probably an element of this, although it is not the whole story. The fact is that we like to be scared, and in order for that to happen the threat must be credible. The alien invasion stories of the 1950s were published on the back of the early attempts to explore space, and the justifiable fear of hostile rockets and aircraft suddenly appearing in the skies above you. Now that we have been to the moon and seen how desolate it is, and while all-out nuclear war seems a fairly remote possibility, such story-lines appeal only as historical curiosities. Far more relevant to us are threats like environmental break-down, which is why Stephen Baxter’s novel is currently on the shelves in bookshops. And, unlike classical times, our modern world has the ability to avert many of these threats, and we can comfort ourselves with the assumption that the more frightened we are, the more likely it is that someone somewhere is doing something about it. So we shall enjoy the account of the drowned world in Flood, taking due note of the underlying message of the fragility of planet earth, while no doubt being secretly relieved that we are reading it some hundred and twenty metres above sea level.

The Novels of J. G. Ballard
(added 16/11/08)

Since writing the above the full effects of the global credit crunch have begun to be apparent and, while it is hardly the end of the world, it is an interesting example of mankind’s ability to inflict unnecessary wounds on itself. It is presumably too recent to have attracted serious attention from fiction writers yet, although the speed with which publishers can swing into action when they scent a commercial opportunity should not be underestimated. In the meantime, though, it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity to make some sort of reference to it in an article dedicated to the chronicling of disasters. If nothing else, we should at least try to raise a wry smile at the sheer greed and stupidity that has brought us to this current state of affairs.

Which brings us to the works of the English writer J. G. Ballard. In the course of a long career he has straddled the divide between science fiction and mainstream literature, earning himself a reputation as one of the country’s most visionary writers. His early works demonstrated his ability to take a sideways look at the world, and make the familiar and banal seem suddenly nightmarishly threatening. He pushed at the boundaries of the science fiction genre and challenged his audiences to go with him.

A number of his early books, such as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere, fall into the disaster novel category. Whereas most writers, though, are happy for the sense of menace to come from the unfolding of the events which bring about the disaster, with Ballard one was always aware of equal or greater sense of menace from the people who inhabited his world. The underlying message seemed to be that nature could hardly be blamed for wanting to conjure up forces to wipe them from the face of the world. He picked up this idea more explicitly in some of his later novels, such as Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, where he created societies that seethed with primeval violence beneath civilised veneers. Ballard, more than any other writer, causes a shiver of misgiving to run through us when we look at our fellow men.

We shall focus here, though, on his underrated 1974 novel Concrete Island, which encapsulates all the themes which make his writing so outstanding. Perhaps more than any other of his novels it defies categorisation as either sci-fi or mainstream and can be viewed as the most prophetic in relation to the dismal economic woes currently assailing the world. The story centres on the successful architect Maitland who, driving home from his office in London one evening, loses control of his Jaguar on an overpass and crashes down into the waste ground at the centre of a giant traffic island. When he tries to leave he finds himself trapped by the endless lines of speeding traffic, with none of the drivers taking any notice of the ragged figure on the periphery of their vision. In trying to force his escape in fading light he ends up with a smashed leg and becomes a prisoner of the island – a modern-day Robinson Crusoe in the heart of the metropolis.

He is nothing if not resourceful, managing to find a way of existing on his concrete island until he can recover his strength sufficiently to make another bid for escape. Various ingenious attempts at contacting the outside world are tried, although all prove ultimately unsuccessful. A new dimension is added to his struggle, however, when he realises he is not alone: he discovers that he shares the island with the secretive young woman, Jane, and the derelict old circus performer, Proctor. Between them they develop a strange three-way relationship, mutually suspicious but willing to exploit each other. Proctor sees the island as his refuge and frustrates Maitland’s attempts to leave, while the girl makes frequent trips into the city but is unwilling, at least initially, to help Maitland do likewise. Maitland, for his part, is keen to find out how she manages to slip past the ceaseless traffic, but is determined to do so by his own efforts.

Concrete Island is certainly in part a story about urban alienation – an allegorical tale of how the post-war zeal for reinventing cities to conform to abstract architectural ideals created a series of monstrosities: sterile, impersonal places that froze people out, and abandoned public spaces to the darker side of human nature. It is no accident that Maitland is by profession an architect – he is on one level resposible for the existence of his prison – or that he stumbles across the remnants of older buildings demolished to make way for the all-consuming roads and the vehicles in perpetual motion. A community once existed around the spot where his Jaguar now lies hidden in the encroaching undergrowth and, had it still been there, help and succour would have been on hand immediately. Maitland is literally the architect of his own misfortune.

But the brilliance of Ballard is that his stories are more than mere allegories: his characters are driven by real human impulses – albeit ones we perhaps prefer to ignore – and it is the interplay between them which drives the story forward. Maitland, in particular, is a complex man whose strengths and weaknesses shape the novel. On the one hand he is resourceful and determined, and generally rises above self-pity, but on the other cold and manipulative, as shown by the fact that he is only returning home to his wife and son after a period spent with his mistress. Part of the reason that no extensive search is mounted is that those closest to him simply assume he has decided to be with someone else for the time being. At work, his employees will not seek to question his absence in the short term – he is the successful professional who controls the company, and is assumed to know what he is doing without needing to consult anyone else. To worry about his safety or well being would be to question his competence.

It is these aspects of Maitland’s character, and his relationship to his family, his colleagues and the fellow inhabitants of his island which make the book so eerily prescient. Maitland is a man adrift from normal society even before he crashes his car: the wasteland of the derelict urban space in which he is marooned is literally one that he has created for himself, and simultaneously a metaphor for his life before the crash. There is a coldness and feeling of exploitation in his relationship with Jane – likewise with his wife and mistress; he is contemptuous and unfeeling towards Proctor – likewise to the public upon whom he has been inflicting his architectural visions; he sees the island as an arena where he must dominate both nature and the other inhabitants – likewise in his previously successful career. He is so driven by his vision of his destiny that he even shuns Jane’s offer of sending help when she finally decides to leave the island for good. And the method by which she leaves the place underlines his self-imposed isolation: she simply attracts the attention of a motorist using her body as bait. She will demean herself as a means of getting some money and being taken where she wants to go, but it will get her off the island. Maitland will not demean himself: he must be the master of his own little universe, even if it is to be the death of him as his strength slowly fails in his concrete prison.

Here at last we see where Maitland illuminates our present ills: he is a man driven to impose himself upon his surroundings and take everything that his going, and a man who must do it without the support of others. If he gives way to weakness and lets others help him, they will have a claim upon his success, and that must not be. If he is truthful, he is contemptuous of everyone – they are all simply tools to be exploited in his quest for his own private goals. If they come to grief along the way, without realising what he has been up to (as is the case with Proctor) then it is their own fault. If he drives himself and everyone else to ruin then so be it – he will at least have been true to his own inner demons along the way.

He is the archetype of those who have treated the world’s finances as a giant casino, where they must stake all to win the ultimate prizes. Substitute the global economy for Maitland’s concrete island and you have a metaphor for our current financial crisis.

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