“…he now felt that the white deck of the river was carrying them all in the opposite direction, forward into zones of time future where the unresolved residues of the past would appear smoothed and rounded, muffled by the detritus of time, like images in a clouded mirror. Perhaps these residues were the sole elements contained in the future, and would have the bizarre and fragmented quality of the debris through which he was now walking. None the less they would all be merged and resolved in the soft dust of the drained bed.”
There is something very clever about describing a world without location and time because your imagination fills in the blanks. This could be America and it could be in ten years time. What really matters is that underneath the apocalyptic drought there is the ability to chart how human beings in a great position of stress react to the calamity.
Some seem to go into denial, the majority scramble to the coast and to the sea in search of water and others take an observational position, like the main character Dr Charles Ransom, waiting to see how things develop and waiting to see how they will react personally to those changes.
The breakdown of society is one of Ballard’s big themes but cast that on top of a world in acute stress caused by a lack of water and it brings out the extremes in people.
The basic premise is that industrial waste has been pumped into the oceans and turned into some sort of plastic film that prevents evaporation and the usual formation of rain clouds.
Ransom is living aptly in a house boat beached on the banks of an ever dwindling lake with the cars going across the highway heading towards the coast and the fisherman and pleasure boats slowly grinding to a halt. His ex-wife works in the town for the police and it is a journey to his former marital home that spreads out the canvas and introduces some more characters including the strange but rich character who lives in a hou8se with constant beaming lights at the top of the hill.
Just like the architect figure Royal in High Rise the rich maverick refuses to leave the town and sits in his white house making plans and hoarding the water in his swimming pool. Assisted by his unhinged sister and the village idiot he remains even as the fishermen start to hunt down people and the religious leader gives up and heads to the coast.
Ransom is finally driven out himself and travelling with an odd collection of characters that represent some of the varying degrees of possible reactions to the drought he heads for the coast. Once there a sort of hell with barbed wire, guns and the army between the masses and the sea awaits. Tensions rise and finally the tide of human anger and desperation washes away the barriers.
Skip forward and Ransom has been reunited with his wide and is living a hand to mouth existence in a world dominated by religious groups that have settled on the salt covered shoreline.
Going back to the town of the past Ransom faces up to a world where madness reigns. The lack of authority has provided the owner of the white house with a chance to rule in a town where the main enemies are the roaming fishermen. Ransom seems to have given up and becomes part of the court of the water king until it falls apart.
The reader is challenged to think about how they would react in a similar situation. Do you run for the coast, do you stay? And regardless of what you do how long could you keep sane in a world where all the perspectives are changing.