Reviews

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

M.M. Wolfe

In his short stories Ballard was less interested in plot and character than he was in situations and conceits -- a city without clocks; a world turning into crystal; men cut off forever from sleep.


The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

Publisher: W.W. Norton
Length: 1,216 pages
Author: J. G. Ballard
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-09
Amazon

In 1943, the British author James Graham Ballard, then a boy of 12, was detained and imprisoned within a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Ballard's experiences in the camp, where he remained for almost two years, became the basis for his celebrated 1984 novel Empire of the Sun.

While the novel is autobiographical and realist, there is present in it many of the same characteristics that marked Ballard's remarkable science fiction, much of which is collected in the The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. As Martin Amis writes in the collection's introduction,"Ballard's mind continually circles back to the experiences recounted in Empire of the Sun. On the one hand, the drained swimming pools, the abandoned villas, and the wraith-like wanderers in a landscape from which all recognisable human activity has absented itself; and, on the other, the squalor, the hellish proximities, and the vigilant cruelty that derives from the camp."

One finds in these stories that same desolation, the anomie, the depredations, the entire arsenal of modern technology brought to bear in making people stupefied and miserable. Is it any wonder, then, that a boy living through such an ordeal up to write dystopic science fiction? Science fiction, after all, is the genre in which the fantastic, the absurb, the horrific, is made normal, accepted, jejeune.

Ballard, who died in 2009 at the age of 78, spoke frequently of the alarming manner in which many internees of the camp resigned themselves to their fate. The characters in Ballard's stories, too, have been born into or acclimated to their hells, making them appear to the reader all the more frightening, and sad.

In his short stories, most of which were written in the '50s and '60s and published in a variety of science fiction magazines, Ballard was less interested in plot and character than he was in situations and conceits -- a city without clocks; a world turning into crystal; men cut off forever from sleep. Individual personalities mattered little to him; the mass man was his subject.

Accordingly, most of the protagonists of Ballard's stories are employed as professional observers and analysts -- scientists, doctors professors -- who bear witness to this variegated horrors with the impersonal eye of a clinician.

Nearly every Ballard story concludes with something being lost or damaged -- a life, a sanity, an entire world.

In "The Drowned Giant", an enormous corpse is washed ashore and, over a period of several days, vandalized and destroyed. Early in the story, the narrator, a researcher of some kind, approaches the behemoth:

My companions and I walked around the seaward side of the giant, whose hips and thorax towered above us like the hull of a stranded ship, His pearl-colored skin, distended by immersion in salt water, masked the contours of the enormous muscles and tendons, which was flexed slightly, threads of seaweed clinging to its side.

Draped loose across the mid-riff and preserving a tenous propriety, was a shawl of open-weaved materal, bleached to a pale yellow by the water. A strong odor of brine came from garment as it steamed in the sun, mingld with the sweet but potent scent of the giant's skin.

Confronted with the bizarre, Ballard is cool, graceful, precise, even faintly ironic ("preserving a tenuous propriety"). The tone shifts little when the giant is ravaged and picked apart.

This tendency to distance and abstract reaches its logical conclusion in the "The Overloaded Man" (a title that could apply to many of Ballard's stories) in which a professor, through careful concentration, is able to view the world entirely in geometric shapes. The narrative of this story is thin, even by Ballard's standards, leading one to read it in an allegorical light, an author describing his craft.

That said, it is not cubism, but surrealism -- itself a reaction to mechanized carnage -- from which Ballard draws most. One finds in his work the desolate plazas of De Chirico, the blasphemy of Dali, and the sharp-focus absurdity of Magritte.

Although frequently lumped in with the "serious" science fiction produced by Orwell and Huxley, Ballard's criticisms were seldom overtly political. Ballardian Man is already adept enough at repressing himself without the aid of totalitarian government. Even stories with putatively political subjects -- "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennegy Considered As A Downhill Motorrace" and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" -- were satires of media and celebrity, not politics.

Ballard once stated that he wrote not of the future, but of "the visionary present". His work is unique among science fiction, and among 20th century literature. This collection of stories is essential.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image