Saturday 15 March 2008


J. G. Ballard is one of the greats, a science-fiction writer who has achieved mainstream success (to the point where critics now pretend he never wrote SF at all), and whose worldview and style are consistent and quite recognisable. Wrecked vehicles, drained swimming pools, creeping sand, designer clothes, spilled blood: these are common elements throughout his work. He's also someone who has been unusually well served by cover artists over the years.

His recent novels have seemed stuck in a rut, repeating the same plot (someone, usually a doctor, moves into an expensive enclave, and gets involved with the rich psychopaths who live there). Look to his earlier work, though, and you'll find some ferocious, bleakly intelligent stuff. We'll look at two of them here as part of the End of the World project.

The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1964, and also known as The Burning World) were Ballard's second and third books--he has disowned his first, The Wind from Nowhere.

Here are the covers to these two books, from the 1974 Penguin reissues designed by David Pelham, most famous for his cover to A Clockwork Orange.

The Drowned World is an early global warming novel. Increased solar radiation has made the equator too hot to live in, and turned the rest of the globe into a lushly tropical nightmare, sinking into the rising seas. What's left of civilisation has fled for the melting poles. A few loners and eccentrics remain behind in London, using research work or military action as an excuse to stay, their behaviour slowly turning reptilian to cope with their changed environment. Slow-moving but very involving, it ends with a hallucinatory journey towards the boiling equator in search of a missing man. The Pelham cover above could only be improved by the use of a London rather than a New York landmark.

The Drought goes to the opposite extreme, positing a world deprived of fresh water, and following one man and his disintegrating family through their struggles to survive. Both books have a certain clinical--perhaps sociopathic--detachment from their characters. It's as though you're watching an extreme experiment that just happens to involve real human beings.

Here are the very different, but also effective, most recent editions, the current Harper Perennial versions.

Compare these with a couple of early US paperback covers.

And finally, here are a range of other covers, which you'll need to click on to view properly.

Here we have the recent Gollancz cover by Jim Burns (appropriately London-y), the original 1960s Gollancz hardback, a surrealist Penguin, and another Harper Perennial cover which was (I believe) never actually used.

And here we have the original Cape hardcover jacket, and three covers from various 1990s and 2000s editions published by the late, lamented Flamingo, who have since been dissolved into the HarperCollins empire.

For more on Ballard covers, and Ballard in general, visit the Ballardian.

UPDATE: Rick McGrath kindly sent more information: "Yes, Ballardian is great for comments about JGB's book covers, but to actually see the covers in question, you have to go to The Terminal Collection."


Rick said...

Yes, Ballardian is great for comments about JGB's book covers, but to actually see the covers in question, you have to go to The Terminal Collection:

JRSM said...

Thanks for the info, Rick: the post has now been amended accordingly.

Rick said...

You da man! Thanx. I see you're a cover critic... cool. I like to design them. Here's a poster I made when I discovered you had to be a UK citizen (I'm not) to enter the "Design A New Cover for Crash" contest.
Of all the JGB covers, I too love the Pelham set, plus the 1984 Cape Brian Robins set, and the 1985-86 Gollancz Mark Foreman set.

JRSM said...

Wow--I especially like the one with the huge ball of mashed cars. Where did you get that image?

Rick said...

Every image there I, ahh, "borrowed" from Google Images. Well, it is imaginary.