Ballard in Barcelona

On the way to and from the European Association of Archaeologists annual meeting in Barcelona, I read two J.G. Ballard novels, The Drowned World (1962) and Hello America (1981). These works are part of Ballard’s fascination with a post-apocalyptic near future shaped by ecological catastrophes. Ballard set The Downed World in in an inundated and tropic London, largely submerged beneath rising sea levels created by the melting of the polar icecaps. Hello America describes a North American continent turned largely to desert on account of changing weather patterns formed by the Soviet damming of the Bering Sea. 

The novels are explicitly archaeology both in their setting and the structure of their plots. In fact, neither book offers much in the way of compelling dialogue or complex character development. (In fact, the characters in The Drowned World are mere sketches or exemplars of types who interact only through almost comically stilted dialogue). Their beauty and power comes from the way in which the characters interact with, perceive, and respond to their environment. This alone made them appropriate books to read on my way to an archaeological conference. 

Since I’m still processing the books (and have more Ballard to read over the next few months), I’ll offer a few observations here:

1. N-Transforms. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the two novels is Ballard’s interest in the way in which nature shaped the man-made environment. Inundated London, overrun with massive mutated animals and insects haunting the upper stories of buildings that stand amid a silted series of lagoons. In Hello America, the Appalachian mountains and the great American desert had migrated eastward to clog the avenues and streets of an abandoned New York City with golden dunes. In both novels there’s a tension between the irresistible power of nature and the dogged persistence of the urban fabric. Improbably, two of the main characters in The Drowned World squat in penthouse apartments whose aging air conditioners and diesel powered electrical systems provide civilized shelter from the intense heat of the tropical day. The New York of Hello America is largely abandoned but for the occasional camel-riding migrants who move through the sparsely populated North America. The tropical Las Vegas, on the other hand, has been occupied and restored by an eccentric and mad genius who seeks to “make America great again.” 

The archaeologist in me feels like Ballard has an overly optimistic view of the persistence of modern building (and clothing) in the time of ecological disaster, but his view of saturated London is not far from that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Perhaps the foundations of this saturated landscape would survive the shifting silt and surging tides of the surrounding sea, but I’m skeptical. His desiccated New York, in contrast, is more believable, even if his tropical Las Vegas seems a bit too robust.

2. Futures. Analyzing the plausibility of Ballard’s landscapes, however, misses the point. Set against the backdrop of Barcelona, a city shaped by its own series of past futures (especially in the work of the turn-of-the-century Modernisme movement which remains strongly visible in the city’s urban core, Ballard’s landscapes remind us that our world is simply a series of compromised futures from the past. As an archaeologist who thinks a good bit about how the past bustles with competing and compromised possible futures which await our critique, analysis, interpretation, and ultimately spoliation, Ballard’s novels are deeply compelling. 

In Hello America, a powerful, sociopathic madman bunkered down in Las Vegas and claimed the title of President of the United State long after the political entity had ceased to exist. He revealed to his loyal followers that his goal was “to make America great again” and filled the skies with holographic projections meant to evoke the glories of the American past. Published in 1981, this seems beyond prescient and underscored just how fragile the line is between futures imagined and the present.

The overgrown skyline of London, in contrast, seems to recycle Barcelona’s Antonio Gaudí’s fin-de-siecle fascination with nature and natural forms in his architectural masterpieces. As any number of the museums dedicated to Gaudí’s work remind visitors, his use of natural forms in his architecture sought to make clear the organic relationship between humanity and the creator. The dense tropical landscape of inundated London represented a literal expression of the city as a “concrete jungle.” The work of humanity neither succumbs to nature nor erases it, but reveals that it is part of the same process. Flooded buildings become lairs for giant iguanas and caimans, they stabilize sandbars and reefs giving purchase to vegetation, and even shelter desperate individuals in their struggle to cling to civilization. There is no hint of the Anthropocene in either of the novels largely because Ballard has determined that humanities and nature cannot be separated.

3. Time. Of course, the relationship between the past and the future is temporal, but for Ballard, time doesn’t simply march forward. In uterine environment of The Drowned World, time regresses from the catastrophic Holocene to the miasmic mists of the Triassic. Time drags the characters in the novel along with it as they become driven by long suppressed instincts awaken by their changing environment. These are, of course, communicated in haunting dreams which create an overwhelming impulse to regress, retreat, and survive. In Hello America, the trip from the deserted east coast to the tropic Las Vegas represents a voyage from the tense civilization of an exploratory expedition sent to investigate seismic and radioactive events in abandoned North America to a depraved form of egalitarianism grounded in violence and survival.  

In archaeology, we assume that we can remove more recent deposits to reveal deeper layers of the past. For Ballard, though, the past isn’t just revealed by physically uncovering or restoring the abandoned remains of human civilization, but also by moving forward through it. In Hello America, two characters scuffle in the long-abandoned Oval Office over who could claim to be President of the United States after taking time to clear debris and tidy up in an attempt to restore it to its past significance. The future, however, is not the Oval Office, but deeper in the human past exposed during the trip across the deserted continent. The same is the case for The Drowned World in which time starts to regress and the characters are drawn inexplicably toward the south and the place of human origins.     

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