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J G Ballard passed away in 2009, leaving a huge body of science-fiction and literary fiction behind him, as well as more autobiographical writing such as Empire of the Sun. Although Empire of the Sun will always be the book for which he is remembered due to the Hollywood adaptation, Ballard also courted controversy with novels such as Crash, famously filmed by David Cronenbourg, and end of the world books such as The Drowned World, and The Crystal World.
In The Crystal World, Dr Sanders travels to Mont Royal in Africa, only to find that the forests are crystallising. Literally. Sanders, a specialist in leprosy, journeys into the forests to find them covered in mysterious crystals. The phenomenon is spreading out from the heart of the forest, and Sanders embarks on a series of adventures which mostly involve running away from the accelerating progress of crystallisation.
There is allegorical imagery aplenty in the book, which seems to herald the end of time itself. Those overcome by crystals are transmuted into crystalline form and frozen in time, leading to some nasty body horror passages when crystals are mistakenly removed from people. Although the book is unquestionably more literary than it is science-fictional, Ballard sets up some rules for the forest's transformation. The crystals of frozen time and light can be melted in water, and the process can also be held back by pressing traditional gems: rubies, diamonds, etc, against the crystals. This all seems a bit arbitrary, really, and in spite of some lovely passages about the relationship between light and time it really highlights the absurdity of the premise and robs a lovely novel of some of its poetic strength.
As events progress, and Sanders becomes caught up in a bizarre love triangle and a cult of lepers, the forest slowly shifts from being a strange and dangeous place to a bizarrely attractive cathedral, almost spiritual in its stillness. The novel's conclusion is ambiguous regarding the fate of many of the main characters, which is a bit frustrating after the bias towards full-blooded action during much of the book's middle section.
Ballard's crystal world is a fantasy backdrop where a small group of hyper-real characters interact at what appears to be the end of the world. It's an intricate book full of vivid and poetic description, and if the language sometimes seems a little archaic (and probably offensive in its description of native Africans at various points), then you have to remember that the novel is very much of its time. It's not a book for everybody, but Crystal World certainly rewards careful reading.
Have I told you about the bookshop near me? Hmm… I can’t remember. Well, there’s one like it in pretty much every town, I would think – different names, but same idea. Cheap books. I mean, REALLY cheap books. Two paperbacks for £3, or a recently released hardback for less than £5. And being the complete book junkie that I am, this is my idea of heaven. On a recent browse around this nirvana, I spotted three books with similar covers (another thing that appeals to me – it’s the aesthetic of having a matching set!). The author’s name looked kind of familiar, too: J.G. Ballard. Now, in case you know as much as I did back then, let me tell you that this is the person responsible for Crash and Empire of the Sun (before they were made into films, of course) and more recently, Super-Cannes and Cocaine Nights. Of course, I haven’t actually read any of those books, but I am aware of them. Now. :) So, back to my little purchase. It turns out that there’s a range of books known as Flamingo Classics – because of who they’re publish by, I suppose. Yes, that’s right – Voyager. Only kidding. Among this range are several of J.G. Ballard’s early pieces of work, including The Crystal World, High-Rise, and The Unlimited Dream Company. And this, of course, is my review of the first. Very helpfully, Dooyoo has reproduced the text from the back of the novel as the item description (at the top of the page). Now, usually I would be rather annoyed if the blurb on the back of a book gave away more than it really should. However, in this particular case, without having the information from the summary I would have been quite lost on starting to read this. At only 175 pages, The Crystal World is more a novella, and as such there is little time wasted on ‘unnecessary’ preamble. Perhaps the publishers felt that the reader would struggle to sustain interest before unrave
lling some of the initial mystery. So, “Through a ‘leaking’ of time, the west African jungle starts to crystallize.” This is the underlying premise of this book, which I suppose makes it a science fiction tale. As I started to read it, however, I was more in mind of some old black and white film noir, set in the deepest jungle (with the rhythmic drums forming an almost constant background, so that when they eventually stop you know something bad is going to happen!), possibly with Humphrey Bogart as the lead character. Back to the actual text (as you can tell, I get distracted quite easily!), and the main character is one Dr. Edward Sanders. For many years, Sanders has worked in a ‘leproserie’ (a clinic for treating lepers), along with a fellow doctor, Max Clair, and his wife Suzanne. Sanders has also had a long-term affair with Suzanne, we learn, and after she and her husband left (somewhat mysteriously), she sends him a letter. It is this that draws him towards the affected jungle. As the book opens, Sanders is unaware of any of the mysterious occurrences – and this is my one complaint with the info from the back of the book. Would it have added to the story if the reader could discover the phenomena along with the doctor? I think it might have, but I’ll never know, I suppose. In Suzanne’s letter, she proclaims of her new home: “The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels”. Of course, the reader knows that she means this quite literally, so some of the mystery is lost merely from a little too much revelation on the back cover. The atmosphere of mystery pervades the opening chapters. We join Dr Sanders as his ‘passenger steamer’ is held up at the port of Matarre, in the Cameroon Republic. The boat, and indeed the Port, is filled with shadowy characters: a priest who seems hell bent on self-destruction, the very strange character of Ven
tress, who only goes on to become stranger still, and a female journalist who bears a striking resemblance to Suzanne Clair, Sander’s former lover. As if in reflection of the shadowy nature of these characters, the light in Port Matarre is also strange: a “heavy”, dull light as if heralding an eclipse. As Sanders puts it, “The sun seems unable to make up its mind”. This is actually part of the effect of the crystallising process, but provides a sense of atmosphere at the start. It is in direct contrast to the jungle, which seems to glow with a preternatural light. Eventually, Sanders ventures into the jungle and a good part of the book is taken up describing his half-fearful, half-wondrous wanderings through the strange landscape, and part one ends on a cliff-hanger with Sanders in danger of being caught up in one of the ‘storms’ of the crystallising process. Then arises another of my complaints: the second part of the novel starts with a letter written AFTER the events of the novel, where Sanders relates his experiences to a colleague. This instantly destroys any sense of danger, as we know the doctor survives his experience. A few ‘subtle’ points to notice: Ballard has named the mysterious friends of Dr Sanders the Clairs – ‘clair’ is French for light, a theme of the book. The Clairs are staying at a clinic in nearby Mont Royal; this is diamond-mining country, which seems entirely appropriate for the ‘jewelled forest’. There is also a great deal of discussion of the light and dark sides – of nature, of the human psyche. In my opinion, this is overdone. It felt very contrived, and was definitely brought up too much. In a similar way, the theme of leprosy is brought up again and again, and Ballard tries too hard to tie everything together into his themes. Yes, each of these is an interesting point, but in the end just feels trite. And t
hen, as if to counterbalance the extended use of imagery, there is an equal overdose of explanation for the events that are taking place. It’s been several years since I stopped studying science at school, so I can’t really vouch for the authenticity of the ‘scientific’ explanations for the crystallising phenomenon. However, these seemed a little false to me, and their inclusion a little clunky. I would have much preferred a less defined marvel, so that the beauty of the crystal jungle remained mysterious rather than somewhat clinical and unwieldy. Quite frankly, the attempt to explain the events completely hampered my suspension of disbelief, and important element in many of the books I like to read. Give me goblins and magic, or strange fantastically occurrences, and I can be quite happy to accept the fiction. Try to explain these things, and it reminds me how fake they really are. The Crystal World was first published in 1966, many years before my own birth, and so was one of JG Ballard’s early works. Perhaps then, that should be kept in mind as I’m picking all these faults. Another question is how well has the book aged. Well, there are a few points – the language used to refer to the African natives is archaic at the very least, although not overly offensive. Obviously the medical references and treatment of lepers is out of date, but I found these relatively easy to ignore, and the book didn’t have a particularly ‘dated’ feel to the extent that it spoiled the reading of it. So, to sum up: I found the premise of the book quite interesting, but I feel it could have been explored in a better way. The atmosphere of mystery and danger was spoiled by both the back of the book ‘spoiler’, although obviously that’s not the author’s fault, but also the way that the second half was told in ‘flashback’. The pace of the book was also spoiled
for me by the annoying persistence in pseudo-scientific explanation for the crystallisation of the jungle, and the over-used imagery of light and dark. That said, The Crystal World was a fairly enjoyable read. It took me some time to decide on both the rating and whether I would recommend this novel, but in the end – well, you can see for yourselves what I decided. However, although I have said would recommend it, I’d suggest you borrow from the library. I spotted my copy at a reduced price, but really I wouldn’t advise you pay £6.99 for the privilege of reading this somewhat interesting but flawed work.
Through a 'leaking' of time, the West African jungle starts to crystallize. Trees are metamorphosed into enormous jewels. Crocodiles encased in second glittering skins lurch down the river. Pythons with huge blind gemstone eyes rear in heraldic poses. Most men flee the area in terror, afraid to face what they cannot understand. But some, dazzled and strangely entranced, remain to drift through this dreamworld forest. There is a doctor in pursuit of his ex-mistress, an enigmatic Jesuit wields a crystal cross, and a tribe of lepers search for Paradise.