Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pick your disaster

The news that science fiction writer J.G. Ballard died today brought back a flood of memories. In my childhood, and all through my early teen years, I was fortunate enough to be given the run of a relatively large municipal library whenever I asked. My methodology was to scan the shelves of science fiction for the thickest and most imposing volumes, then carry as many of them home as I could. Among those books sometime around 1980 was The Wind From Nowhere, Ballard's first published work. His name became indelibly linked for me to creative and terrifying ways of imagining the end of the world, a connection that The Drowned World did nothing, as I recall, to alter.

I must have been a glutton for punishment, because I kept on pulling these apocalypses off the shelf whenever I could find them. Nature's End by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka was a particular horror that stuck with me. I backtracked to Streiber's Warday, and then was utterly confused by his New Age-y turn forward in Communion (although that cover portrait of an alien gray seemed to stare at me for weeks whenever I closed my eyes).

Why do these stories of environmental catastrophe and nuclear holocaust haunt me? Why did I seek them out so eagerly when they scarred me so indelibly? I can no longer remember the details of the stories, just their images of endless wind, suffocating smog, inescapable radiation. Such is their hold on me that I cannot fly into LAX or hear the phrase "inversion" spoken by a weatherperson without being transported into Streiber and Kunetka's vision of an atmosphere rendered inert by the unfettered proliferation of pavement.

I now avoid talk of ecological disaster as avidly as I used to seek it out. Back then, those fictions were so detailed as to seem inevitable. Now, when I can't help but worry about the ways we're destroying our life support system, I take some comfort in the unpredictability that made those particular prophecies fail.

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