Review of The Crystal World, by J. G. Ballard

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 10/25/10


  This is my first time reading British writer J.G. Ballard, following the recommendation from a friend. Sort of science fiction and literary fused, The Crystal World is probably a better-written book than it is overall great story. Ballard is most commonly known for his memoir Empire of the Sun, which was made into a standard Hollywood film in 1987.

  How The Crystal World goes is as follows: Dr. Sanders receives word that parts of Africa are turning into crystal. He thus sets out to explore the scene for himself, turning the novel into somewhat an adventure story. Beginning with the trees, crystal begins to materialize all throughout the forest, turning trees into jewels. Residents are thus left divided: some are fearful for what this might entail, such as, the crystallizing of the entire earth and all its inhabitants. Others are left mesmerized and enjoying the mystery of it, as they wander the crystallized land—part waking, part dream.

  While the book is pretty well written and offers enough of an allegory for readers to delve into, The Crystal World is more plot-driven than for someone of my taste. Yet, this will be a good thing for most readers, since my tastes tend to be more introspective. So is it well constructed? Pretty much. A bit more characterization could have benefited, rather than shallowly referring to individuals as “Mulattos” and “Negroes” but I realize the time in which this was written. The only problem I would offer is that the story sort leaves one saying, “nothing much happens.” And for me to say this, when I am someone who prefers novels where “nothing much happens” within them, that’s maybe not such a good thing.

  But there is good news. The Crystal World is, in fact, larded with insights. Ok, maybe not larded, but here and there. Here’s an example. In a letter written by Sanders, he notes:

  “It’s obvious to everyone now that in the forest life and death have a different meaning from that in our ordinary lackluster world. Here we have always associated movement with life and the passage of time, but from my experience within the forest near Mount Royal I know that all motion leads inevitably to death, and that time is its servant.”

  The second sentence offers an interesting observation, and the language throughout the book is rather consistent, though it would have been nice to see more lyricism throughout, rather than the dull affair with Dr. Sanders and his boring girlfriend—or at least his fantasies of her. I should note, however, that the chapter titles are nicely poetic. “The Jewelled Orchid” is one. “Mulatto on the Catwalks,” another. “Mirrors and Assassins,” and also “Saraband for Lepers.”

  So Ballard does have moments. If I had to compare this to something, The Crystal World put me in mind of the 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don’t know why, perhaps the pacing is a clue—but I kept imagining Donald Sutherland in the place of Dr. Sanders, but instead of running from pods, it’s large sheets of crystal. And a novel this somewhat reminds me of is LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, but LeGuin’s book is better. For one thing, I still remember The Lathe of Heaven quite well, where as a few days after finishing The Crystal World, I can barely recall the events within. Perhaps LeGuin is a bit better with characterization, or took more risks with the narrative, or wasn’t afraid to get philosophical. I don’t know exactly what it is, but Ballard’s book offers a decent introduction to his work—and I will seek out more (I have no choice, as I purchased a number of others by him).

  There is an interesting moment within The Crystal World where the narrator speaks about the crystals and how they relate to the compression of time, which I marked: “Perhaps it was this gift of time which accounted for the eternal appeal of precious gems, as well as of all baroque painting and architecture.”

  While some of the ideas within The Crystal World are poetic, I would not call this a poetic novel, for it is far more focused on the external (plot) than the ruminative internal. But this isn’t a criticism as much as an observation. Ballard is categorized as a “New Wave” writer of science fiction, where much of the narrative is meant to be “experimental,” yet The Crystal World is fairly classical in approach, and nothing like his later novel The Atrocity Exhibition, which is supposed to be an unusual read. I wouldn’t even classify this as science fiction per se, for it is more literary than the majority of books falling within that genre.

  I was particularly struck by one of the chapter ends from “Duel with a Crocodile”: 

  “Turning his head to watch Dr. Sanders, Father Balthus sat at the organ, his thin fingers drawing from the pipes their unbroken music, which soared away through the stained panels of the windows to the distant dismembered sun.”

  See? I said it had moments.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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