The Drought by J.G. Ballard (1964)

I ended my review of The Drowned World by pointing out that Ballard’s protagonists are often doctors because it places them in the privileged position of both a) taking part in the general psychosis and psychological displacement triggered by social and environmental collapse (which is what his novels are usually about) – but b) at the same time being outsiders, trained to watch, observe, note down symptoms and make diagnoses with a professional detachment, even when the psychological malaise affects them themselves.

So I wasn’t very surprised when the first sentence of The Drought reveals that the book’s protagonist is going to be a Dr Charles Ransom.

Mise en scène

The world is in the tenth year of a global drought. To be more precise, there have been ten years of steadily growing drought, at first affecting specific regions – former agricultural centres which have now been transformed into dustbowls – but the novel opens in the year when there has been no rainfall for five months anywhere on earth.

Why? What’s causing it? The explanation is disarmingly simple and worryingly plausible. For generations mankind has been pouring industrial waste, pollutants, run-offs of agricultural pesticides and fertilisers, plus unhealthy amounts of radioactive waste, into the world’s oceans… Now, it is discovered that all these elements have combined into a new chemical process to create extremely thin but very durable polymers – long filaments like microscopic plastic, which have merged to form a mesh or net over the entire ocean.

And although the mesh is light enough to float on the surface of the sea, it is tough enough to prevent sea water evaporating and forming clouds. No clouds, no rain. No rain, all water sources – streams, rivers and lakes – dry up. (I explained the plot to my son: he said, What about the aquifers? I think we can take it that the aquifers, too, will eventually run dry.)

So. Imagine a world without water. Without any running water, drinking water, freshwater. None. Anywhere. It’s a disturbing and frightening thought, and this novel makes it feel very real. The second half of this novel genuinely upset me, scared me, gave me nightmares.

Part one

The first hundred pages are set in the fictional town of Hamilton, on the edge of the bigger city of Mount Royal. (It seems to be set in America, though nowhere does it actually say so, certainly almost all the characters are white and Anglo-Saxon.)

Dr Ransom is, in a perverse and disturbed way, enjoying watching everything fall apart. For five months there’s been no rain. At first the government thought it could seed the clouds. But there are no clouds to seed. Most people have some fresh water stored, but a finite and shrinking supply.

More to the point, most people have left for the coast. Part one of the book records the week or two when most of the population of Hamilton and the nearby city leave for the coast, setting off in their cars along the nearby motorway, leaving the town abandoned, houses empty, unneeded second cars strewn around the roads.

A few years earlier Ransom had broken up with his wife who, typically, he had never been able to relate to or understand. She’s now going out with the local young chief of police.

On impulse, after the divorce, Ransom had bought a houseboat and moved to live on the river and had discovered a typically Ballardian, dysfunctional community already living there, including:

  • the strong cackling retard, Quilty, and his slovenly alcoholic mother, living on another houseboat
  • the mysterious teenager Philip Jordan who poles his lonely skiff around the lake, disappearing mysteriously
  • from time to time he sees the rather lovely young woman, Catherine Austen, who lives in a house near the river
  • and on a low hill nearby is the luxury apartment of a preening, coiffed millionaire architect, Richard Foster Lomax, who asks Ransom over several times for cocktails, who is – I think – intended to be a portrait of a certain kind of gay aesthete, and who, in a Gothic spin, has a malevolent spoiled ‘sister’ living with him, Miranda. Between them they employ the thuggish, threatening Quilty on a number of chores or missions.

Anyway, the the point is that the river has almost completely dried up. The lake it passes through is now a series of puddles separated by stinking mudflats, a potent symbol of the decline and fall of human ambitions.

Ransom has various adventures in this terminal zone, this psychic desert, this drained landscape.

He visits Catherine at the zoo where she works, unnerved by the huge lions. Even more unnerved to discover spooky Quilty loitering, obviously sent to spy on him. Ransom foresees the moment when the psychopathic Quilty, either on Lomax’s orders or his own volition, releases the big cats on the remaining population.

He encounters the vicar of the nearby church back in Hamilton, the Reverend Johnstone, and discovers he has gathered a small, armed militia around him to defend their families.

The reason why becomes apparent when Ransom is kidnapped by one of the gangs of unemployed fisherman who have come under the influence of the wild-eyed visionary Jonas. An innocent walk back from the zoo turns into a terrifying urban chase as faceless men in black fishing gear are glimpsed running through the alleyways parallel to the street he’s walking along, till Ransom panics and starts running himself. Eventually, they catch him in a fishing net and he’s swung up into the air, banging his head against a car fender and blacking out.

Ransom comes to in the stinking hold of a rusting fishing vessel and has just enough dialogue with the men’s leader, Jonas, to realise he is mad. He is gathering more recruits before they set off in search of the gleaming river Jonas claims to have seen far inland. When Jonas’s back is momentarily turned, Ransom manages to escape, although later on the fisher gang reappears and tries to capture him and Catherine a second time.

Eventually, although he’d been toying with staying in the abandoned town, Ransom realises he, too, must make the journey to the coast. He leaves as Lomax and Quilty appear to have fulfilled the promise the architect had made Ransom, and have set the entire city of Mount Royal ablaze, so that ash falls on the surrounding area, a grey patina on roofs and trees and roads and cars, through which Ransom and his motley crew set off.

Ransom takes with him Catherine and skinny Philip Jordan. In a characteristically surreal and just odd scene, before they leave, skinny teenager Jordan first takes the couple on his skiff way out into the drained lake, skimming along the last few water channels till they reach a distant and remote houseboat, where Jordan introduces them to the wizened old black man who he refers to his as his father. He obviously isn’t, but by this stage Ransom is well advanced into the bizarre, surreal and dissociated world they’re all now more or less inhabiting.

And on the way back across the drained lake, now carrying with them old Mr Jordan who is chairbound, they pass mad old Mrs Quilter who shouts across from her houseboat, asking to come, too.

So that by the time Ransom finds a car which still works, it is a ripe and eccentric crew which drives with him out of the burning city and down the highway lined by abandoned vehicles, south towards the dead zone of the beach.

After changing cars several times, they are finally forced abandon the car and walk over the last hills which finally give onto a view looking down onto the coast and an apocalyptic scene. The entire coast in both directions, as far as the eye can see, is packed with people, cars, trucks, with tents and cabins and caravans littering the view and the smoke from countless cooking fires rising into the hot dry air.

On closer examination the actual beach zone has been fenced off with barbed wire by the army. As he goes down into the crowd to reconnoitre, Ransom is repeatedly told to back off by angry men with shotguns. They are all waiting their turn in line to get to the seawater, waiting for the angry mutinous crowd to rush the fences.

And that evening an attempted storming does take place – only to result in hundreds being mown down by army machine guns. At its height a hysterical man in front of Ransom tells him to back off, he was here first – a certain Grady who Ransom and the reader remembers the doctor giving some of his precious spare water to way back at the beginning of the novel. Now he doesn’t remember Ransom and is willing to shoot him in order to save his place in the queue to get to the beach. After he’s taken a few potshots at Ransom, Ransom himself slowly stands up from the sand dune, takes aim, and shoots him through the heart.

All this feels like it could be made into a modern Hollywood movie, given the presence of a tall, white, male hero (Ransom), an attractive ‘caring’ heroine (Catherine who keeps worrying about her zoo animals), a cast of eccentrics and baddies (cynical Lomax, his witchy sister Miranda, their creepy servant Quilter, referred to as ‘Quilty’), and the ragbag assortment of the helpless and the crippled who the strong white man bravely saves (Philip Jordan, old man Jordan and mad Mrs Quilty).

Not so part two.

Part two

It is ten long years later. Human civilisation has disappeared. The only remaining humans live on the coasts. There aren’t many left since there appear to have been many massacres in the early days, and the survivors are from time to time further decimated by tidal waves and tsunamis.

These survivors have been refining seawater for so long that, in a twist I hadn’t anticipated, they have generated vast amounts of salt. These salt piles now extend over a mile from the end of the sand dunes to the actual sea itself, making the interface with the sea harder and harder to detect.

So these humans survive by waiting till high tide and then working as teams to paddle the rising seawater into lagoons or lakes which they’v created by banking up the salt into perimeter walls.

But given that there are no rocks or sand or earth or anything solid, only salt to work with, given that the seawater immediately dissolves any little banks or dykes which they construct, it is a job of immense labour to paddle the pools of water in teams, through roughly scooped canals all the way back to the settlements, built on the dry, reasonable secure salt flats near the true shore.

So each day more pools of seawater must be scooped and paddled back to the settlements where home-made stills run continuously, powered by oil or petrol salvaged from the thousands of cars behind the dunes.

One such settlement is run by Johnstone, the priest of the church who we saw organising a trigger-happy militia in part one. About 300 people live in this Mad Max-style settlement, built out of scraps of car and rusting ship. We see old man Johnstone seated on a throne made from a wrecked dinghy, a purblind Lear who seems to have handed power over to his two shrouded, knitting malevolent daughters.

And we rejoin Ransom, to discover that he is one of the ‘pirates’ who wait till the main crew have shepherded a large pool or small lake-full of seawater, and then hijack an unprotected part of it and push it with paddles back to their own pathetic shanties.

Ransom has wasted away. He paddles a pathetic amount of seawater back to the scrofulous shack which looks like the shell of a cancerous turtle. There will be enough water to add to his gimcrack still, and half a dozen fish in it. Like a fool, five years ago he allowed the wife, Judith, who he had separated from to join him when she was kicked out of the Johnstone settlement. Now they live in utter destitution together.

On this day, as part two opens, after Ransom returns with a miserable amount of water and just five fish, Judith harangues him. He sits on the bed and strokes her grey wisps of hair. Later that day, after she’s fallen asleep, he sneaks off, driving a pool of water before him all the way to the Johnstone settlement.

Here he uses it to parlay entrance asking to see Captain Hendry, one-time police officer in Hamilton and his wife’s former lover. Ransom asks if he and Judith can join the community. But really it’s an opportunity to let the reader see how utterly sterile, colourless and bleak human life has become, as Ransom tours round the settlement, with some workers tending the edible kelp reservoirs, others feeding the ever-burning stills to provide the salt-free drinking water. Hendry tells Ransom that No, he can’t join the community. And explains that the last vestiges of his identity would be drained from him if he did.

On his way out, Ransom explores the various levels of the ruined tanker which forms one wall of the settlement, where old blind Johnstone has his throne room, and where Ransom makes a detour to see Vanessa, the youngest of Johnstone’s three daughters, who had a chronic illness and who he had treated back in the pre-drought days.

She is on her bed in a small cabin, staring out the window. They chat desultorily. It’s not described, but implied, that they have sex, God knows where they find the energy. Ransom leaves and returns to his small shack far across the dead flat, shining white, salt flats.

Later that day we find Ransom at the top of the ruined watch-tower near his shack, watching Philip Jordan’s mysterious comings and goings among the sand dunes in the distance.

Intrigued, Ransom sets off to discover what the young man is up to. After quite a walk he comes to the little gypsy booth which has been established by Mrs Quilty with the unexpected help of Catherine Austen. They have become a voodoo double act, reading the stars, telling people’s fortunes, in return for water and fish.

Pushing on in pursuit of Jordan, Ransom is nearly hit by a rock thrown by the younger man. In a way Jordan has never forgiven him for saving him and his adopted father. They are in the middle of having a stand-off when an amazed Ransom shouts to Jordan to look out – there is a lion behind him!

There actually is a lion behind him and Jordan throws a rock at the lion which skitters away, but by now Ransom is with him, all antagonism forgotten.

Jordan now shows Ransom the cause of his mystery excursions, which turns out to be a garage part buried by dust and sand. Inside is a perfectly preserved Cadillac which Jordan has obviously been tending. Now, as if in a religious rite, he asks Ransom to start it, because it was the godlike Ransom who rounded up their little posse and led them in a sequence of cars from burning Mount Royal to the coast.

But the car won’t start. Of course not. The battery has long since gone flat and all the wiring been corroded by the salt air. Jordan has a hysterical fit, all the repressed anger of the previous ten years erupting in an orgy of destruction. Ransom exits the buried garage and waits outside on the hot sand.

But when Jordan re-emerges, they both share an understanding. The lion. For the lion to survive there must be drinkable water somewhere.

Part three

In the final part, Ransom is again on a journey. This time he and Jordan have collected Catherine, a load of dried fish and cans of distilled water, and placed old Mrs Quilter on a wooden cart, which they slowly wheel, back along the dusty dried-up river bed the hundred or so miles back north towards Mount Royal.

This gives Ballard to exercise one of his fortés, which is to give us long, detailed and highly felt descriptions of a ruined world, towns and flyovers and streets and shops and cars all half-buried in the fine dust which has drifted everywhere from the vast endless dustbowl which the continent has turned into in the absence of any water at all.

To cut a long story short, when they arrive back at the dust-covered ruins of Mount Royal, our travellers find most of the characters we met in the first part of the book are still alive! This is because the camp gay architect Lomax knew all along about secret reservoirs hidden under the city and they have lived off this water for the past ten years.

But the real point of this section is not to move the narrative forward in a realistic way, but to allow Ballard to indulge his Surrealist tastes, his penchant for the absurd, to new heights and fantasias.

The retarded psychopath Quilty is not only still alive, he has transformed himself into a weird tribal chief. He wears grotesque outfits made of dead animal skins including a head-dress made from the neck of a swan, and walks around on wooden stilts two feet high, thus giving him an enormous looming presence.

Quilty has mated with venomous Miranda Lomax, spawning three children by her who are all equally deformed and, as far as Ransom can tell, mutant – mute and silent, their shimmering eyes full of unhuman dreams.

Miranda is no longer a spoilt vamp but has become grotesquely fat, a vast whale of wobbly flesh barely contained by obscene see-through negligees. In a gruesome moment she casually attributes her corpulence to a diet of… people, last survivors in the city who they picked off and she… ate.

Quilter has a sidekick, Whitman, one of whose arms ends in a stump, face twisted by a massive scar, who is in charge of a pack of wild dogs which he uses to hunt down Jonas, the mad deluded visionary captain of a landlocked steamer which we met in part one, and who back then had led the gang of marauding fishermen, planning to go in search of the lost river.

Now mad Jonas still roams the dusty river bottom, wanders over the undulating dunes which is all that remains of the lake, until he is spotted by Whitman who unleashes his pack of dogs and goes running after him, Jonas more often than not throwing one of his fisherman’s nets into the dogs’ faces and so tangling them up in mesh while he makes his escape. This demented charade of chase and escape has been going on for years.

Lastly, there is Lomax himself, who has degenerated into a camp asexual androgyne, who is still sly and flirtatious with Ransom, but stamps his feet in annoyance at the way his water has been used by that monster Quilty and just look what he’s done to my lovely sister!!

A sequence of incidents is created so that Ballard can shake up this box of surreal mannequins and indulge to the full his taste for nihilistic surrealism – Whitman and his dogs endlessly pursuing Jonas, Lomax flouncing around in improbably theatrical suits, Miranda attempting to seduce Ransom from her divan in the desert tent Quilty has built for her at the bottom of an empty swimming pool.

When they reached the city he and Jordan and Catherine had wandered away from each other, each lost in their own private psychodramas. The reader had assumed that Catherine must have died of thirst or been killed by the shadowy strangers the dunes still seem to conceal (or are they hallucinations?) – until, that is, she reappears on the crest of a distant dune, cracking her whip and in complete control of two of the lions who have survived all this time, before inexplicably disappearing again.

At some point I realised this was a kind of theatre of the Absurd, influenced by or coming from the same place as the plays of Samuel Becket and heavily influenced by surrealism. Ballard says Ransom has hanging up in his houseboat the painting Jour de Lenteur by Yves Tanguy, and there’s some speculation that the entire novel was inspired by it.

Jour de Lenteur by Yves Tanguy (1937)

This carnival of fools and theatre of absurdity comes to an abrupt end when Lomax, unable to bear the taunting and ingratitude of Quilty and his crew any longer, deliberately breaches the walls of the swimming pool at his luxury home, which contains the last water from the last of the city’s reservoirs which they had pumped out from the city years earlier.

Quilter, Ransom and Whitman are alerted by the water running round their feet and run up to Lomax’s pool, but too late, only in time to see the last rivulets of precious clean water disappearing into the surrounding sand.

With no ado whatsoever, one-armed scarred Whitman chases camp Lomax around the deserted pool, catches up and stabs him in the side with his big army bayonet and throws Lomax’s body into a nearby shallow mineshaft, where the gay man’s twitching body throws up small clouds of fine dust for a while. Grim.

Now Ransom’s alienation, his mental detachment, his identity collapse and his psychosis are complete.

Unaffected by the catastrophic loss of the last drinking water, he falls under the spell of the monstrous Quilty, a tribal god, a minatory figure from another age. Old Mrs Quilter dies and Ransom helps them bury her, according to Quilter’s surreal practice, by excavating the sand and dust down to a buried car, wrenching open the door and placing her corpse reverently on the back seat. According to Miranda, each of the buried cars for miles around has its own corpse carefully embalmed inside. See what I mean by surreal?

On the last page Ransom says his goodbyes to Quilter and Miranda, to their weird children and heads off to discover his fate. Looking across the dried-out lake he sees Captain Jonas at the helm of the abandoned, half-buried, old river steamer and by his side his long lost son, Philip Jordan.

Then he sets off across the lake itself, riven by dust dunes which undulate in slowly increasing waves until they tower 20 feet over his head. His dissociation from the world is so complete that he doesn’t notice the sky darkening, filling with black stormclouds. Clouds?

To his surprise he noticed that he no longer cast any shadow on the sand, as if he had at last completed his journey across the margins of the inner landscape he had carried in his mind for so many years. (p.188)

And thus it is that he doesn’t even notice when, some time later, it starts to rain.


Quite clearly the dystopian disasters, although vividly imagined and given a plausible scientific explanation, are really only pretexts for the place Ballard wants his texts to inhabit, a terminal beach where half a dozen or so disparate characters retreat into their own psychic realms, retreating to their private zones, projecting their own psychodramas and fantasies onto the collapsing world.

Sometimes this feels clunky and obvious. The thread about Catherine, her zoo, and her final emergence as a fetishistic lady of the lions, cracking her BDSM whip, doesn’t really work, feels too forced.

On the other hand the mad figure of Quilty feels all-too real and plausible. If civilisation collapses, it is psychopaths like him who will hold the whip hand and impregnate harems of complaisant daughters.

But in this novel, the picture of all mankind forced down to the world’s beaches, and scrabbling each day at high tide to scrape just enough water into its collapsing runnels to sweep back towards its barely functioning stills where it can be distilled into just enough drinking water to keep a precarious and malnourished grasp on existence – this long and deeply imagined passage gave me nightmares.

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