Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

“I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully trhough ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us.”

So begins the first short story published by J.G. Ballard, “Prima Belladonna,” from Science Fantasy in 1956. It is also the opening of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, finally out in the U.S. from Norton eight years after its publication in the U.K. The only addition appears to be the short personal introduction by Martin Amis, presumably designed to give genteel permission for establishment literary readers in the U.S. to read science fictions.

The canonization of Ballard as a writer who transcended his genre roots reached its apex upon the author’s death earier this year, and the past two weeks' rush of reviews (e.g., Jonathan Lethem in the Times, Michael Dirda in the Post) is the second ripple of the honorific obituaries from all all the papers that had largely forgotten Ballard’s work since Empire of the Sun. The English recognition of Ballard’s literary achievement never seems to have made it fully across the Atlantic. So perhaps the appearance of this definitive collection in an increasingly Ballardian 21st century America of abandoned suburbs, kinky astronauts and serial killers of the week is the perfect opportunity for a reclamation of Ballard by science fiction.

In contrast to Ballard’s more recent works (at least as they are marketed by publishers), every one of the 98 stories in this collection is a work of science fiction. (Granted, a science fiction that is being knowingly repurposed by an outsider who discovered the pulps as a young adult and found in them a perfect medium for underground literary surrealism.) Ballard’s contemporary establishment reputation is built largely on the works that made it socially acceptable to read him: the putatively mainstream novels that followed Empire of the Sun, explorations of contemporary bourgeois Europe like Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdom Come, and the semi-autobiographical Kindness of Women. While he is a seminal influence for many pioneering sf authors of the last 30 years, I think most of the current generation of sf readers, writers and editors, carrying on with a linear evolution of pulp sf and fantasy, don’t really know what to make of Ballard — he’s the Ballard of Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, an outlier in the New Wave (already generally treated as a kind of dope-fueled footnote to generic history) who really is doing something other than science fiction. Fair enough, I suppose — I'm not holding my breath for the Syfy Channel adaptation of “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” But in a genre replete with self-referential manifestos, surely there remains no more cogent call to action for the real potential of sf than Ballard’s 1974 introduction to the French edition of Crash — all the more prescient when read from the perspective of the cyberpunk reality of the 21st century:

The marriage of reason and nightmare which has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the specters of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century—sex and paranoia. Despite McLuhan’s delight in high-speed information mosaics we are still reminded of Freud’s profound pessimism in Civilization and its Discontents. Voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings—these diseases of the psyche have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect.

The demise of feeling and emotion has paved the way for all our most real and tender pleasures—in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions; in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathology as a game; and in our apparently limitless powers for conceptualization—what our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths.

To document the uneasy pleasures of living within this glaucous paradise has become the role of science fiction. I firmly believe that science fiction, far from being an unimportant minor offshoot, in fact represents the main literary tradition of the 20th century…

The main “fact” of the 20th century is the concept of unlimited possibility. This predicate of science and technology enshrines the notion of a moratorium on the past—the irrelevancy and even death of the past—and the limitless alternatives available to the present. What links the first flight of the Wright brothers to the invention of the Pill is the social and sexual philosophy of the ejector seat.

After establishing this premise, Ballard gently observes the failure of most sf to realize its potential in this regard, and his own approach to the task at hand:

…[W]hen I first turned to science fiction, I was convinced that the future was a better key to the present than the past. At the time, however, I was dissatisfied with science fiction’s obsession with its two principal themes—outer space and the far future. As much for embleamtic purposes as any theoretical or programmatic ones, I christened the new terrain I wished to explore inner space, that psychological domain (manifest, for example, in surrealist painting) where the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality meet and fuse.

Primarily, I wanted to write a fiction about the present day. To do this in the context of the late 1950s, in a world where the call sign of Sputnik I could be heard on one’s radio like the advance beacon of a new universe, required completely different techniques from those available to the 19th century novelist. In fact, I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature, and be forced to begin without any knowledge of the past, all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to science fiction.

Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.

Yet, by an ironic paradox, modern science fiction becmae the first casualty of the changing world it anticipated and helped to create. The future envisaged by the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is already our past. Its dominant images, not merely of the first Moon flights and inerplanetary voyages, but of our changing social and political relationships in a world governed by technology, now resemble huge pieces of discarded stage scenery. For me, this could be seen most touchingly in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which signified the end of the herioc period of modern science fiction—its lovingly imagined panoramas and costumes, its huge set pieces, reminded me of Gone With the Wind, a scientific pageant that became a kind of historical romance in reverse, a sealed world into which the hard light of contemporary reality was never allowed to penetrate.

…We have annexed the future into our own present, as merely one of those manifold alternative open to us. Options multiply around us, we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for lilfestyles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.

…Increasingly [the] roles [of fiction and reality] are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identitieswithin the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

I quote the essay at such length because I think it is the missing introduction to the Complete Stories, providing literary context that is barely touched in Ballard’s 2001 introduction to the collection, and entirely missing from Amis’ comments. The pieces collected in this volume are Ballard’s achievement of the mission he set out for himself, more so than his novels. Indeed, Ballard’s best novels really want to be short stories, if not pure conceptual abstracts — the ultimate form for the "literature of ideas." The most acclaimed long works like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, Concrete Island, High Rise, are conceptual pieces for whom novel length exposition undermines the raw cogency of the premise, and one wonders if Ballard would have written them as such if market conditions had permitted.

Many of the stories that fulfill this Borgesian potential for narrative condensation do so through Ballard’s masterful appropriation of the tropes of “invisible literature” – clinical notes (“Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown”), research abstracts (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”), pataphysical sports reportage (“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”), television transcripts (“Theatre of War”), surveillance transcripts (“The 60 Minute Zoom”), postcards (“Having a Wonderful Time”), exploration logs (“Report on an Unidentified Space Station”), astrological entries (“Zodiac 2000”), biographical indexes (“The Index”), and answers to unknown police interrogation questions (“Answers to a Questionnaire”). Ballard figures out how to mimic the densest academic turge with a Calvino-esque lightness that transforms interoffice memoranda into the richest prose poems, achieving an effect both gravely profound and chortlingly funny. Even more beautiful are the experiments where Ballard’s narratives are more putatively accessible and linear, but subverted by the skilled application of surrealistic logic to produce sublime short epics of the subconcious like “The Drowned Giant.”

The collected stories also reveal qualities that Ballard and the critics don’t really acknowledge — Ballard’s achievement of the modernist agenda more successfully than his mainstream peers. Many of the stories are powerful dramas of the self that transport the interior stage from the bourgeois domicile to the more authentic science fictional settings of the present —abandoned motels and overgrown space launch facilities; alienated resorts occupied by the ennui-drunk elan of the leisure class; zones of transit and disaster where all sense of time and social context is obliterated; and extreme scenarios of social stress that peel back the veneer of civilized behavior to reveal primal instincts laid bare, mutated by their technologically mediated context. In stories like “The Dead Astronaut,” “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island,” “Low-Flying Aircraft,” “The 60 Minute Zoom,” “One Afternoon at Utah Beach,” “Motel Architecture,” “Memories of the Space Age,” “Myths of the Neat Future,” “The Man Who Walked on the Moon,” and the Vermilion Sands pieces, Ballard pioneered the art of using science fictional scenario-building — treating setting and technological McGuffins as tools to transform fictive narrative into socio-psychological laboratory — to better depict the emotional reality of what it feels like to live in the present.

Ballard’s ouevre has throughly infiltrated the intellectual superstructure of contemporary cyberculture, as evidenced in omnivorous weblogs like Geoff Manaugh's BLDG BLOG that filter an aspect of the world like architectural space through a Ballardian prism, or Simon Sellars' Ballardian, which annotates the power of Ballard’s philosophical point of view to understand topics as diverse as Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery, airport terminal design, or the pixellated ultraviolence of autogeddon video games. But his literary influence is more elusive, perhaps because Ballard’s singular voice is so outside the bounds of both mainstream literature and science fiction. As Bruce Sterling remarked when I interviewed him for Ballardian, Ballard borrowed from visual art and conceptual art in a way that I think may be less inimitable than Bruce assumes:

How do you think it is that Ballard transcended the genre in terms of critical acceptance?

Well, mostly because he really knows what he’s talking about. Ballard can write a movie review that I would dare any other science-fiction writer to do. Science-fiction writers can’t write about popular culture, even high culture, without trotting out their own self-importance. Which is sort of humiliating. Ballard never does that. He’s said things that are very affirmative about science fiction, like “it’s the only true literature of the twentieth century,” “Earth is the only alien planet,” and other wise things. Ballard’s the kind of guy – the kind of science-fiction writer – who can put on a performance in a pop art gallery that would cause a riot! If you took most science-fiction writers and dropped them in a pop-art gallery, they’d be saying things like “I didn’t get it about Picasso”, or “I kind of like Bridget Riley op art. Is that her real name, Bridget Riley?” They wouldn’t grab the bit between their teeth and push the world of artistic expression to a place that caused people to freak out.

One can only hope that the U.S. publication of The Complete Stories will bring fresh consideration and fresh readers to Ballard’s work, encourage more “literary” writers to borrow from the sf toolkit, and cause more sf writers to throw out the Clarion handbook in favor of trying to really bite into the copper wire of the science fictional landscape inside and outside our heads. The 21st century could use a few more riots started in art galleries by rogue science fictionalists.

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard (Norton, $35.00)

Previously in this space: "Invisible Literature for the Age of Celebrity" (or, "The Assassination Inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales Considered as an Unintentionally Ballardian Remix of the Warren Commission Report").

(Vintage covers courtesy of Rick McGrath's amazing Terminal Collection.)


Richard B. said...

Bravo, word up, hell yeah, and other affirmations.

Rick said...

chris... there's no word "short" in the title

Christopher Brown said...

Thanks, Richard! And thanks Rick - duly corrected.