The Drought of Time: A Woman’s Plague

Timelessness is the cure for a 10 year drought in Ballard’s novel The Drought, in which Dr. Charles Ransom learns how to navigate the desolate new landscape that surrounds him.  Around him people change into picaresque, circus-like versions of their previous selves: they morph into who they truly are.  For some characters, such as the “grotesque Caliban” Quilter and the wealthy, wayward Lomax siblings, the metamorphosis between presenting a façade and allowing their true natures to appear is like blinking an eye.  For other characters, such as zoologist Catherine Austin, the change takes some extreme close-reading to identify. The world ravaged by a lack of rainfall has pressed humanity to expose itself for what it is.  If humans seemed to exist in a world “like a disaster area” before, then they are pressed to tap into their survival reserves here. In the case of the main character Ransom, being human means that he needs to surrender to the inevitable realization that “time” — especially time past — holds no truth worth remembering.  He must learn to let go of who he believed he was and adapt into what the world demands that he become.

On one hand, Ransom seems willing to transform into a Drought-man — lacking the essential circumfluous camaraderie that is so often associated with humanity — from the first chapter, as he seeks to disassociate himself from others.  He insists that he has consciously stayed behind while families migrate to the shores, because he wants to play with his desire for solitude.  This desolate world might jive with the person that Ransom thinks he is, as he “had at last found an environment in which he felt completely at home, a zone of identity in space and time.”  Yet, throughout the novel, Ballard makes clear that this space is the antithesis of time. The identity with which Ransom associates the apocalypse is not exactly correct.  In a timeless epoch Ransom persists in surrounding himself with other people and even in the deficient “community of the river.”   He struggles to become truly isolated.  He cannot disassociate his mind from the memories of what being “human” has meant for him in his past: “For Ransom, by contrast, the long journey up the river had been an expedition into his own future, into a world of volitional time where the images of the past were reflected free from the demands of memory and nostalgia, free from the pressure of thirst and hunger.” The future for Ransom is tied to his past: as both a doctor and as a heartbroken, deserted husband.

He thinks that he might stay behind in his hometown of Hamilton until the bitter end and die.  But he, like others, is drawn eventually to the shore: “a zone without time, suspended in an endless interval as flaccid and enduring as the wet dunes themselves.”  Here, he again tries to isolate himself and succeeds more than he had in his hometown — except he now has become the chaperon of his ex-wife who has come back for survival purposes.  Ransom finds himself saddled again with his past, which he cannot shake off. Although he knows that “each of them would soon literally be an island in an archipelago drained of time,” Ransom’s “real Odyssey” has yet many more miles.

When he and a small group of friends decide to head back toward Hamilton, he is a changed man.  He has left his wife, reversing the tables on her, separating himself from his feelings of duty.  But when he admits that Miranda Lomax, an “imbecile Ophelia” who had previously threatened him with her female power and hideous appearance, is “attractive” in her new cannibalistic, corpulent body, Ransom’s true reformation is apparent.  He has become monstrous.  He has embraced himself as a shadow.

Once he reaches this initiation into the shadow world, a first drop of rain falls, signaling that Ransom has accomplished a redemptive task.

The redemptive action of this novel seems to rest in the tumultuous characters of Lomax, his sister Miranda, and her disfigured lover Quilter. These characters offer contrast for Ransom, and he eventually joins their ranks.  Miranda, especially, provides a thermometer for measure.  She is what Ransom fears most: she is “frightening.” As a woman, she is presented as man’s “companion” but “an isolated woman is isolated absolutely.”  According to Ransom, no man can be isolated in such a way that a woman can.  For him, this extreme isolation is scary.   He observes that “women’s role in time is always tenuous and uncertain,” suggesting that the timelessness enforced by the Drought is somewhat feminine.  It is a woman’s plague.  It requires a womanly approach.  Miranda’s brother becomes an acidic representation of masculinity, as he transforms into a heinous androgyny who is outcast by everyone in the society.  The “tottering desert androgyny” has a sexuality that is deemed obscene because he “was reverting to a primitive level where the differentiation into male and female no longer occurred.”  The group murders Lomax.  Ransom is faced with two options: submit to femininity or become a shadow.

He apparently makes the right decision for the future of humanity.  There are, evidently, worse fates than becoming nothing.  A man might become womanly.

What Ballard has done is found a way to avert  what we gender theorists would call the real apocalypse.

Shelley’s Prolonged Apocalypse

One overlooked end-of-the-world text is Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man in which a plague invades Europe and, eventually, the world.  This repetitive, cyclical text feels even longer than Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and yet less events occur to move the plot forward.  Shelley’s vision of the end of times is vastly different from any other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic text I have read as the doom takes years (nearly forever) to come to fruition.  Humanity’s demise is not immediate here.  It involves prolonged suffering and gives characters almost an eternity to reflect and take action.  Taking action is precisely what characters in this novel do not do…unless, of course, running for office and trying to fight the plague with soap-box preaching and parliamentary antics can save the world.

The hero esand survivors are Lionel Verney, a noble-born orphan who begins as a dirty rogue and climbs the social ladder to become an imaginative, intellectual, and moral leader (some say much like Shelley herself), Adrian, Earl of Winsor, a passionate — some may say mad — revolutionary; Clara, Verney’s niece; and Evelyn, Verney’s daughter.  In the last scene of the novel, these survivors abandon France and (not surprisingly for this period, or for Shelley) head toward Switzerland.

What struck me about this novel was that unlike other apocalyptic protagonists, these heroes seems to learn nothing through their jaunt with the plague, and they have had about 300% more time to figure it out than others.  There is never any attempt to figure out where the plague originates or how to cure it.  Likewise, there is no attempt to run from the plague or to protect themselves from it.  In fact, Verney and the Earl see the plague as an opportunity to rise in rank in government and take on more public roles, leading society toward their ideal for humanity.  I have never seen anything like this; it was startling!  Similarly, the same events happen time and again in this novel.  Verney pauses and makes the same observations until I was nearly sick of reading this novel.  Shelley’s vision of the apocalypse was the most unproductive, stagnant read in the genre…which, of course, makes it very important and worthy of a second read.