October 2009

Richard Wirick

fiction

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

When I was reading a lot of science fiction as a kid, J.G. Ballard was, of course, right up there in the pantheon. There was the dwarfishly crumpled Lester Del Rey, something like a character in one of his own stories, and the brain-bending Robert (“I Grok”) Heinlein. There was the quixotic, whimsical Alfred Bester, sending the Washington Monument aloft in bright orange bursts from a sled of Saturn 5 engines. One couldn’t miss Arthur C. Clarke, whose tales seemed made for the movies, and Ray Bradbury, who poured a Hemingway simplicity of diction, like golden syrup, over his fuelletons of rockets and Martian settlements. And there was the almost exasperatingly ubiquitous Isaac Asimov, a polymath who wrote multi-volume epics and sported a mean set of Dickensian sideburns.

As exotic as anyone in the aviary was Ballard, the elegant, evolving stylist, and the one with the finest ideas almost always finely executed. The full showcase of his short-form career is assembled at last in The Collected Stories, with a brilliant introduction by Martin Amis, a devotee at the time I was but who is able here to summon the man as an eccentric, supercharged house guest of his father Kingsley’s, in the early Sixties.

Set dead center in that auspicious time (1961-64) are the first of the gems in this volume. In “The Garden of Time,” a sort of corporate mogul-cum-withering-warlord fights off mysterious, advancing armies by trimming his flowers, literally time’s propellers, so that the enemy’s progress can be delayed, though not ultimately stymied. In “The Gentle Assassin” (eerily prescient for this time), the protagonist again manipulates time as a tool, but in giving gifts of opportunity to his younger self and others sets off a futile, explosive cataclysm. The human remains all too human; superpowers, unwisely applied, make merely for super incompetence.

Ballard foresaw a lot of the supercilious self-centeredness of the following decade, and “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” gives full swivel to this aspect of his telescope. Overleveraged home buyers construct McMansions intricately fitted to every nuance of personality. Rooms change color to match their owners’ moods; drapes and wainscoting bear their builders’ grudges; carpets exhale frustrations and store up fury in their bright, synthetic filaments. A dwelling, like its owner, can commit ultimate acts of self-interest, such as onanism or homicide. What lurks in brains is broadcast in bricks and lumber.

Ballard was always pushing the genre more toward satire, acidic social commentary, an almost Swiftian misanthropy. And though this grew more obvious in his novels, Amis sees in these tales the incipience of what came to be called Brutalism, a “kabbalistic extrapolation” of what setting could do to the observer’s psyche:

 ... the motion sculpture of the highways, the airport architecture, the culture of the shopping mall, the pervasiveness of pornography and our dependence on ungrasped technologies. [Ballard’s] tentative answer [to setting on psyche] was perversity, which takes various forms, all of them (Ballard being Ballard) pathologically extreme. When he distanced himself from generic science fiction, he said that he was rejecting outerspace for ‘inner space.’ Inner space was always his beat.

The Seventies’ blandness seemed to cry out for Ballard’s stigmata, even as its emptiness fascinated and threatened to absorb his characters. Jeremy Seabrook described such mesmerizing desolation as a ‘culture of compulsory industrialized joy, which is the natural companion of consumerism.’

The Me Decade’s infant Brutalism gave full throttle to Ballard’s powers. Technology, meant to elevate and efficate consciousness, only gaslights it with new obsessions. In “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island,” a test-pilot, riveted on unearthing a Flying Fortress he once commanded, cracks up on his maiden space mission and imagines scheming crew members in his flight module. The stick and rudder of his will are not enough to keep the self on course: alien memories wash through him, “fragments he was certain belonged to another man’s life, details from the case-history of an imaginary patient whose role he had been tricked into playing.” (The careers of Phillip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison are unimaginable without this influence.) In “Air Disaster,” death loses its tragic dignity to exploitation and sensationalism. A journalist hears rumors of a massive air crash along the Mexican coast, and village locals, seeing his willingness to pay for tips, take him to a 30-year-old crash, with cadavers supplied from freshly unearthed graves. Technology’s hideous apogee comes in “The Smile,” where an ageing Lothario purchases a mannequin for sex, only to learn she is in fact real flesh and blood, but with a machine-like, efficient repetitiveness that maddens and enslaves him.

In the final two decades of his life Ballard, much like his rough contemporary Anthony Burgess, wrote late, glorious memoirs and serene, luminously transparent post-modernist digressions. And many would choose his Brutalist novels like Crash and High Rise as the most representative of this wholly coined genre. But the long view must take in these scores of stories, stretched over half a century, moving from sci-fi allegory to rage against the machine, and then finally to the brain’s sparse tricks and dances of ephemera: delicate, fluttering and sprinkling its powder, pinned down and mounted by this sui generis craftsman.

 

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393072622
1216 Pages

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