Book Review: The Wind From Nowhere, J. G. Ballard (1962)

Richard Powers’ cover for the 1st edition

3/5 (Average)

In J. G. Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere (1962), cosmic radiation creates an immense natural disaster. Ever-increasing winds threaten to tear buildings out by their foundations and force the survivors into subterranean caverns. With the winds comes dust, a manifestation of erasure, that lacerates skin and engulfs all.

John Carnell serialized Ballard’s first novel in New Worlds in 1961 (issues 110 and 111). The novel reads as a sounding board of issues and themes that will appear with greater effect and craft in The Drowned World (1962) and later post-apocalyptic moodscapes. Despite the evocative disaster, The Wind From Nowhere feels rushed and insufficiently dwells on its surreal and metaphoric implications.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Donald Maitland’s scheme to escape his neurotic heiress wife comes to naught with the arrival of “the dust” (7). Propelled by ever increasing winds, the “fine crystalline topsoil found on the alluvial plains of Tibet and Northern China” inundates and corrodes all surfaces (20). Planes are forced to the ground. Passenger ships return to their ports. And as the winds become perpetual hurricane gales, the inhabitants of London retreat to below ground, reenacting the stoic heroism of the Blitz in the face of nature unleashed.

The American Submarine Captain Lanyon arrives in Genoa with a tall order—bring back the NATO Supreme Commander Van Damm, who appears to have suffered an accident due to the dust. When he arrives in Southern France, he discovers Van Damm is already in a coffin. Lanyon encounters Patricia Olsen, an American NBC newswoman, and attempts to help the afflicted on his way back to Genoa. In the face of despair and destruction, new connections are made.

In the background, the billionaire industrialist Hardoon, with his private army, constructs an immense pyramidal construct he believes will withstand the winds. Like the titular character in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) winching his ship up a jungle mountain, Hardoon proclaims “I alone have built upward, have dared to challenge the wind, asserting Man’s courage and determination to master nature” (142). The real transformation will not be a technological marvel but new neurons forged by the trauma of disaster.

Final Thoughts 

The Wind From Nowhere lacks the gritty sense of decay and malaise that permeates the majority of Ballard’s 50s/60s works. While there are  moments of introspection, the novel often slips into a standard disaster story mode with long descriptive sequences of the casualties and landmarks destroyed by the winds. I found the construction sequences of Hardoon’s tower—while presaging Ballard’s fascination with urban arcologies in High-Rise (1975)—a poorly integrated afterthought to the main narrative of Lanyon and Maitland.

There are delicate touches throughout. Ballard describes career women as beacons of a society that will fight to the bitter end in the face of adversity: “[Symington] reflected that the ascendancy of woman in the twentieth century made the possibility of an abrupt end to civilization seem infinitely remote; it was difficult to visualize a sleek young executive like Deborah Mason taking her place in the doomed lifeboats. She was much more the sort of girl who heard giant SOS signals and organized the rescue operation. Which, of course, was exactly what she was doing at Central Operations Executive” (44). In another instance, Ballard characterizes the huddled masses in the “sub-world of dark labyrinthine tunnels and shafts” as “denizens of some vast gallery of the dead waiting for resurrection” (122). This theme of rebirth and reconnection in the face of disaster while present throughout, rarely appears in such expressive terms.

Ballard disowned the novel as “hackwork.” According to a fantastic interview with David Pringle, it was the product of a joke with his wife about paying for a holiday they couldn’t afford: “I’ll write a novel in ten days, six thousand words a day, during this holiday.” I tend to be uninterested in what authors say about their own writing—I rather judge it for myself! And I’m happy to read average Ballard any day.

Recommended only for J. G. Ballard completists. If you are new to his 50s/60s output, check out The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (variant title: The Burning World) (1964), and short story collections like Billenium (1962), The Voice of Time and Other Stories (1962), and Terminal Beach (1964) first.

David Pelham’s cover for the 1974 edition
Alan Aldridge’s cover for the 1967 edition
Gerard Quinn’s cover for New Worlds Science Fiction, #110 September, ed. John Carnell
Brian Lewis’ cover for New Worlds Science Fiction, #111 October, ed. John Carnell
Michel Gayout’s cover for the 1977 French edition
Tom Chibbaro’s cover for the 1965 edition
Uncredited cover for the 1968 Dutch edition
Karel Thole’s cover for the 1962 Italian edition

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Wind From Nowhere, J. G. Ballard (1962)”

  1. You mention “it’s surreal and metaphoric implications”, but as you say, it sounds like a standard disaster novel. He found his own voice with “The Drowned World” which has surreal and metaphoric implications.

    I suppose it’s interesting though to trace his development as an author. It’s the only one of his 1960s novels I haven’t read.

    1. Yes, I essentially said the same thing regarding the fantastic The Drowned World, which I rank amongst my favorite 60s novels.

      I agree that it’s a fascinating exercise to trace the development of an author. And even average Ballard is worth the read!

      1. R.F.: ‘You mention “it’s surreal and metaphoric implications”, but as you say, it sounds like a standard disaster novel.’

        Arguably, Hardoon’s effort to build a giant pyramid “to challenge the wind” is surreal and metaphoric. Maybe a little too on the nose as regards the latter, in fact.

        THE DROWNED WORLD does nicely raise the ante in the ludicrous and surreal department with the plan Strangman — the Hardoon type in that book — has to deal with the oceans’ rise; he’s creating teams of trained alligators!!

        1. Yes, it has its moments — but they are more tacked on moments in my view than cohesive thoughts. He even said in the interview I linked that he used every disaster story cliché he could!

        2. re-The Drowned World — I have fond memories of it when I read it about a decade ago. I never got around to reviewing it so the details have faded a bit from memory.

  2. I suppose his average fiction is worth reading, even if it doesn’t contain much that’s psychological or surreal. I think I found that out by reading his shorter fiction.

  3. “I’ll write a novel in ten days, six thousand words a day, during this holiday.”
    Ha! Sounds like Anthony Burgess about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE:
    “…a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

    1. I can’t help but sneer a bit at Burgess’ retrospective act of disowning. That novel made him a fortune, and guaranteed his place in the literary landscape, and allowed him to write whatever he wanted afterwards… I somewhat get his point about misinterpretation — the novel is designed to embody the horrific characteristics of an era in his cyclical (ewww) view of history.

      1. The problem I’ve always had with his pooh-poohing of the book is the implication that he should have done better, that it wasn’t something he was supposed to feel proud of.

        Snort.

        1. Yeah, in both instances it seems like the authors disowned their novels after they had served their purpose (made them money, allowed them to pursue further writing dreams, etc.).

          I have Burgess’ The Wanting Seed laying around waiting to be read. It lays out his conception of history: Pelphase, Interphase, and Gusphase. I think A Clockwork Orange is supposed to represent Interphase (“government grows increasingly disappointed in its population’s inability to be truly good, and thus police forces are strengthened and the state becomes Totalitarian”).

  4. I read the Wind from Nowhere more than twenty years ago. Unfortunately I seem to confuse it these days with The Drought, which I read around the same time. The latter, as I dimly recall, is the superior work.
    I know many feel that he hits his stride with The Drowned World, but really I find that it is his short fiction in the 60s where the main game is happening. And it’s The Atrocity Exhibition where it really comes together for me (tho I have a huge soft spot for The Crystal World and the short its a development of).

    1. I agree completely on the short fiction — as my linked reviews to Billenium (1962) and The Voice of Time and Other Stories (1962) should show. And, of course, my recent review of “The Dead Astronaut” (1968) which I know you read and commented on. On the whole, I prefer 60s Ballard over 70s Ballard when it comes to short fiction.

      I have yet to read The Crystal World so I left it out of the early Ballard I recommend over The Wind From Nowhere.

      1. all time fave from this period is The Subliminal Man. i love The Illuminated Man too (later expanded into The Crystal World). a later Ballard short that i was simply obsessed with for a time in the 1990s is The Index—a fantastic demolition job on the short story. recently—say a month ago—i had the good fortune to read The Ultimate City. it’s longer than most, more of a novella. to me it reads like Ballard trying to write a Ballard story and succeeding wonderfully! if that makes sense… the opening even anticipates Miyazaki to my mind (particularly Nausicca or Laputa).

          1. I read that one a year or two ago in The Terminal Beach. But, as I never reviewed the collection (I tried and tried and tried but for whatever reason couldn’t) I have since forgotten most of the details of the story.

            1. I first read it in the collection The Disaster Area as a 16 year old. It well and truly blew my mind at the time—the whole collection that is. It was the first time i read non mainstream sf.
              The story operates like many of Ballard’s with the mood front and centre. Really it’s an examination of the invasion of reality by the commodity and planned obsolescence. A terrifying consequence went thought through. Though still relevant the story is clearly speaking to the critique of the “affluent society” of the West in the 1950s and 60s.

            2. Hmm, what is my favorite Ballard short fiction?

              Unsurprisingly, “The Dead Astronaut” (1968) is somewhere in the top rank. A disturbing danse macabre around a dead relic of the past….

              His take on a Vietnam transposed to the UK is worth the read — “The Killing Ground” (1969)

              “The Voices of Time” (1960): A story inundated with layers of cryptic patterns and populated by strange new life… patterns and patterns and patterns.

              “The Overloaded Man” (1961): one of the few descent into the metaphysical type stories that spoke to me…

              “Billenium” (1961): It’s hard to resist Ballard’s early takes on surreal urbanism….

              Same thing goes with “Build-Up” (variant title: “Concentration City”) (1957)

              And his fascinating take on future oppression represented by a giant ticking clock…. “Chronopolis” (1960):

              As I mentioned before, I read the stories in the UK edition of The Terminal Man but as I never reviewed it, the specifics have faded from memory.

            3. Nice. Concentration City is on my list too. Wonderful. Terrifying. The others i’ve read, but perhaps not as obsessively as Concentration City and The Subliminal Man!

  5. Never much of a Ballard fan, maybe it was because I wasn’t exposed to him while growing up. Still, I read “The Drowned Giant” and found it dull, but later, when older, I re-read it and found it a brilliant droll satire. Funny how our tastes change as we grow older.

    1. I wasn’t exposed to him growing up either. The first Ballard stories I read (other than The Drowned World) are chronicled on this site i.e. 2014 (I was in my mid-20s).

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