Monday, July 20, 2015

J.G. Ballard and the Decaying Future

The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978) by J.G. Ballard (Introduction by Anthony Burgess), containing the following stories: "The Concentration City" (1957); "Manhole 69" (1957); "The Voices of Time" (1960); "Chronopolis" (1960); "Billennium" (1961); "Deep End" (1961); "The Overloaded Man" (1961); "The Subliminal Man" (1962); "Thirteen for Centaurus" (1962); "End Game" (1962); "The Cage of Sand" (1962); "The Garden of Time" (1962); "The Drowned Giant" (1964); "The Terminal Beach" (1964); "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966); "The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D" (1967); "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966); "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967); and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968)

The great British writer J.G. Ballard had a writing career that spanned more than 50 years before his death in 2009. He turned some of his experiences as a boy in a WWII Japanese internment camp in China into the 1980's novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in the late 1980's. His odd late 1960's novel Crash, about people who are sexually aroused by car crashes and the wounds caused by them, was oddly filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996. Well, there's some range right there. He also wrote more than a dozen other novels in a variety of genres.

Ballard was also a prolific and terrific short-story writer, beginning in the 1950's. This volume, originally published in the 1970's, obviously omits Ballard's later work. There is a two-volume Complete Stories in print for those who want more.

Ballard was one of those nominally science-fiction writers who really transcended genres because of his stylistic, thematic, and structural complexity. The stories included here would be in many cases classified as 'Weird' now, or even as horror in a couple of cases. Absurdism, cut-and-paste, dystopia, fable, fin de siecle fantasy -- they're all here, often in the same story. Philip K. Dick and M. John Harrison's works are probably most like Ballard's, and as those two writers aren't much alike at all... well, you get the idea. These are J.G. Ballard stories, and they're mostly terrific.

Ballard's concerns throughout these stories touch upon certain things again and again. Many of the futures he depicts are run-down, sometimes to absurdly satiric and telling degrees. The stories set in the then-present-day, or the then-near future, often portray increasingly mechanized and bureaucraticized societies. "The Subliminal Man," for example, may not be a perfect prediction of the future as seen from the early 1960's, but many of its observations and extrapolations of the future of cars, advertising, and industrial America are somewhat harrowingly spot on. 

Certainly many of these stories qualify as science fiction. Some of them even have rocket ships in them! Though generally those rocket ships are either shams or occupied by dead astronauts. Strange ideas bubble and bend. 

But as weird as some of the ideas get in the stories that are science fiction, most contain enough actual science to seem plausible, if not possible. Ballard wasn't a writer of 'hard science fiction,' but he had a broad knowledge of both the hard and soft sciences. And when dealing with science and technology, his interests remained focused on the personal, social, and cultural effects of changed circumstances caused by scientifically enabled innovation and exploration. Many of the stories go beyond the initial effects of innovation and exploration all the way to the other end -- to the exhaustion of an idea, its depletion, or in a couple of cases (most notably in "Chronopolis") to humanity's Bartleby-esque decision to not do a thing, or to stop doing it.

The more apocalyptic science-fiction stories show worlds slowly grinding out in decay and over-population, in new diseases, in infinite ranks of urban development, in the loss of all water on Earth. There aren't really many heroes in Ballard's work -- if so, they're supporting characters, and they're either already dead or about to be. His people are set off against the Sublime Giganticism of Time and Space; so, too, is humanity so set off. They are all dwarfed. They are not going to win. But they may not lose, either.

As downbeat as the stories can be, they're not depressing. Ballard's wit keeps things from bottoming out, as do the cleverness of his ideas and the occasional stubborn refusal of some of his characters to simply lie down and die. They keep going, seeking understanding, until they're overwhelmed or finally gifted with some chance out from a terrible situation. Some of the stories are funny -- "Billennium" is a surprisingly jaunty story about over-population and the ways in which human concepts of spaciousness and privacy are endlessly malleable. 

Striking images abound, whether of infinite cities or cloud-carving gliders or Martian dunes brought home to Florida. "The Drowned Giant" seems more like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story than anything else, but with a British spin. "The Garden of Time" seems like a less baroquely written Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance story set in a weirdly magical, decayed, medieval setting of the far future's Dying Earth. An endless wave of barbarians advance on a beautiful house, a beautiful garden, a beautiful couple. 'When' and 'why' aren't questions that the story will answer. The imagery and the melancholy of the story, a melancholy for the dying future, set the Sublime and the nostalgic against each other.

And the late 1960's stories that end the volume, including "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1966), "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966), "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (1967), and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968) see Ballard moving into the fragmented, cut-and-paste, self-reflexive world of post-modernism (and William S. Burroughs). They're also very funny at points. Especially the one about Ronald Reagan, the image of whose head, affixed to female bodies, inspires elevated lust in Republican loins. And when you replace an image's genitalia with an image of Reagan's head -- well, watch out! Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Love, love, love Ballard! Went thru a huge phase back in the '90s, around the time the Cronenberg CRASH came out (I'd read the novel some years earlier). ATROCITY EXHIBITION, HIGH RISE, UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY, short stories, interviews, love it...