The Burning World by J.G. Ballard

Title: The Burning World (The Drought)

Author: J.G. Ballard

Genre: Science Fiction

Year: 1964

There are no clouds in the sky, no rain, rivers and lakes are slowly but inexorably drying up. Earth’s population has been forced to move towards the ocean in search of water.

In this arid world, Dr Charles Ransom needs to find a way – and a place – to survive.

A closer look

I am honestly a bit disappointed by this book.

After reading The Drowned World by the same author not so long ago, I thought it would be fun to read his other novel exploring exactly the opposite premise: while in The Drowned World Earth was slowly being submerged in water, in The Burning World (originally titled The Drought) something is messing up Earth’s water reservoir causing an extended drought all over the planet.

The reason for this is to be found in a film-like substance that prevents the water from evaporating, thus effectively hindering the creation of clouds and rain.

In this hot and dry world we follow Dr Charles Ransom on his houseboat as he watches the water level slowly going down in the lake where he lives, while people in the city talk about leaving and going to the ocean in the hopes of finding drinkable water.
That’s the premise of the story, and what follows is a confusing (for me) series of events that don’t really feel like a plot.

The most interesting parts of the story would be the development of a new society following the drought, and how relationships between characters evolve during these changes. But it all happens outside of the story, during a ten year gap between the time Ransom reaches the ocean and the time he decides to leave it again.

The characters are also quite bad in this one. I went into it not expecting much (as I’ve tried this author’s writing a few times in the past) but boy this one was bad. The only interesting characters are the ones who actually react to the drought in some ways, like the people integrated in the new society on the beach, or those who decided to stay in the city instead of leaving for the seaside. It’s a pity that we only get to see them during the last part of the novel, when they have kind of an established way of living already and we can only imagine how they reached that new balance.

The main character, Ransom, is the worst of them all. He is a passive character, going where the flow pushes him, but not really taking a position in anything that happens. He tries to remain neutral when living among the groups on the beach, and tries to keep his thoughts to himself even when he goes back to the city and meets old acquaintances that have managed to survive. His efforts to remain neutral at all costs make him a really boring character to follow.

There are snippets here and there of things that would have made the story more interesting, but it’s as if the author wasn’t sure of the direction he wanted to take and put things in just in case he might find a use for them later on.
There is a cult that emerges a little after the onset of the drought; there are people in the city zoo who plan on releasing the animals once they don’t have water for them anymore (one of Ransom’s companions used to work there and is actually obsessed with the lions); there are people with interesting back stories that could have added something more to the story, but remain instead part of the background. At one point the protagonist is literally chased and captured by sailors, but then nothing of consequence really happens.

I don’t understand the point of this book. The Drowned World had a meandering plot as well, but it still remained focused on the story at hand, and the ancestral dreams added something interesting and almost mystic about it. In this one, it was not clear what the author was trying to do and there wasn’t anything to keep my interest high.

The premise was really intriguing, but if that’s the only good thing I can say about the book, it clearly was not enough.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

4 thoughts on “The Burning World by J.G. Ballard”

  1. Which version did you read? The UK edition — The Drought — is unabridged. The US edition under The Burning World is abridged. As for passive characters, sort of a Ballard thing? Don’t they choose inaction though as the best thing to do in a world they cannot change?

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    1. I read it on Kindle so I’m not sure, but thinking back on it it probably was the abridged version. I didn’t know the UK and US editions differed, but it would explain why the story felt so disjointed!
      As for the passive characters, this is the third book I read by Ballard and it definitely looks like there is a trend there. Usually though the situations they find themselves in are interesting enough to keep my attention up. In this case I felt like not much was happening – a chunk of the book was spent on the journey to the ocean and back – so I guess that’s part of the reason why Ransom struck me as particularly uninteresting.
      I might have to get my hands on the unabridged version and see if my opinion changes 🙂

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      1. I’ve read a ton of Ballard (lots and lots of reviews on my site) but not this one so it might be somewhat disjointed anyway.

        Only the US first edition was published under The Burning World. So maybe you read the later edition.

        isfdb.org (the best resource ever) states that “‘The Burning World’ is a significantly abridged version of “The Drought'” but I’m not sure what sections they’re referring to.

        The isfdb.org listing: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?186731

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        1. Thanks for the isfdb.org link, I didn’t know about it but it’ll definitely come in handy in the future!

          I’m still not entirely sure of which version I read, it looks like it’s a US edition but I can’t figure out if it’s based on the abridged version of the book or not.

          I guess I’ll have to grab a UK copy at some point – a physical one, just to be absolutely sure – and give it another go. Who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy it more upon re-read

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