Although admittedly not an entirely appropriate review to write today of all days, looking out on a blurry, wet world after a weekend of scorching heat, I thought it was high time I popped my thoughts down about JG Ballard’s The Drought (otherwise known as The Burning World) before I forgot about them entirely. My reviews seem to have been highly enthusiastic of late and I thought it might to be an appropriate juncture to discuss a ‘classic’ novel that the Manchester Book Club really didn’t like at all. Even going as far as to vote it the worst book club choice of the year! Harsh words indeed.
Science fiction is a genre that I really don’t read very much of at all so I was particularly excited at the prospect of reading some Ballard, whose work and reputation has even given birth to the adjective ‘Ballardian’ in the Collins English Dictionary. Think bleak dystopian future, Ballard is your man.
To tell you what the book is about would really be to insult your intelligence, I’m sure the title and the tap on the front cover gives a solid clue but I’ll tell you nonetheless… In a none too distant future the world as we know it is slowly turning to dust and all, unsurprisingly, due to mankind’s disregard for the planet. Increasing levels of industrial waste have slowly formed a large film over the world’s oceans, disrupting the precipitation cycle and leaving the world to die of thirst. The never-ending desert lays waste to society as we know it, destroying all sense of time as survivors struggle to maintain their lives in the present, the majority rushing in desperation towards a redundant coastline. We are introduced to those who have remained further inland; religious fanatics, general weirdos and a former doctor called Charles Ransom. His role in society made completely redundant by the global situation, we spend the next 200 pages following Ransom backwards and forwards across the deserted plain, accompanied by a raft of quirky characters that should have been interesting, but were in reality rather dull.
Getting so excited about my first JG Ballard was my first mistake as this novel had much further to fall. And fall it did, flat on its face. Flat characters, flat plot, flat landscape and an overriding desire to drink litres and litres of water is what we are left with. Although surreal vistas with a Salvador Dali-esque drama occasionally peek through the sand and there are some interesting themes to be explored – i.e. the role religion plays in this hopeless situation, this is done in such a distant, unconcerned way that we really struggle to care or understand what happens to characters that, whilst eccentric on the surface, are dead behind the eyes.
Although the fact that we read this for the Christmas book club meet was entirely inappropriate and the burning desire (no pun intended) to read something Victorian and mistletoey may have grasped us all, that doesn’t soften the blow that all those who turned up for the December meet (apart from one lovely lady who defended the book admirably) were Bored, with a capital B. Chapter skimming is not an attractive habit and boy did I develop it, for an entire week. Do I care whether this could happen in some dark, distant future at home? Not a fig. Do I want to read another ‘eco-disaster’ novel anytime soon? Well, if the ‘master’ can’t enthrall me then who can?