Tue
Jan 22 2013 12:00pm

“Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” JG Ballard and Forty Years of the Future

"Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down." JG Ballard and Forty Years of the Future

Ballardian—resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in JG Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

-Oxford English Dictionary

“It seems to me that what most of us have to fear for the future is not that something terrible is going to happen, but rather that nothing is going to happen... I could sum up the future in one word, and that word is boring. The future is going to be boring.”

-JG Ballard, 1991

Drained swimming pools and drowned cities, crashed cars and deserted highways—the term “Ballardian” has not just entered dictionaries but also the public and media consciousness in the years since the author’s death. But by doing so there is a danger that some sense of meaning has been lost; that by becoming a soundbite to be thrown about by lazy critics, journalists and even politicians it has not just lost multiple layers of nuance, but come to represent something Ballard never intended—a cliche of inhumanity and dystopia associated with a man that, contrary to popular perception, never celebrated either.

Perhaps still largely unknown many genre readers outside the US, JG Ballard is probably best known for two movie adaptations; Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun starring a very young Christian Bale and based on Ballard’s childhood growing up in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and David Cronenberg’s interesting if problematic take on his disturbing novel Crash. While an argument could be made for the latter, neither are obviously science fiction.

But writing SF was very much how Ballard launched his career, with a string of influential genre novels including The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World and countless, razor-sharp short stories. Even after appearing to shrug off the label of “dystopian science fiction author” in the 1970s, his work was always forward-looking—he himself talking with disgust at much of contemporary British literature’s seemingly nostalgic obsession with the past.

The recent publication of Extreme Metaphors—a new collection of interviews spanning over forty years—grants us a hindsight-fueled re-appraisal of his predictions for the future, and a chance to see deeper than superficial readings of novels such as The Concrete Island, High Rise and the ever controversial Crash into futures shaped by technology, art and geography that are not only more complex than simple dystopias, but also strikingly accurate in their prescience. 

“I think everybody will be very relaxed, almost too relaxed. It will be a landscape of not so much suburbia but exurbia, a kind of country-club belt, which will be largely the product of advanced technologies of various kinds, for leisure and so forth. So you will get things like computers meshed into one’s ordinary everyday life in a way that can be seen already. I’m just writing about one direction that the future is taking us. I think the future will be like Vermilion Sands, if I have to make a guess. It isn’t going to be like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four: it’s going to be like a country-club paradise.”

-JG Ballard, 1974

Famously encased in the bubble of his Shepperton home, Ballard’s association with the British suburbs is an established and accepted one, the geography of which he saw—quite literally—as the bleeding edge of urban culture. But what is often missed or forgotten are his predictions about how edge-land communities would embrace technology and digital networks. This was perhaps most graphically illustrated in his 1977 short story The Intensive Care Unit, where a family that only communicates via video screens finally meet in an inevitable explosion of violence. Reading it now it’s a beautifully written and unnerving depiction of a future that has perhaps come to pass, where the internet, electronic communication and reality TV have become tools for dividing and alienating as much as they have for sharing experiences. For Ballard the merging of TV and computers was always a far more vital and interesting future than the one predicted by the aborted publicity stunt of the so-called space age. 

“I think it’s terribly important to watch TV. I think there’s a sort of minimum number of hours of TV a day you ought to watch, and unless you watch three or four hours of TV a day, you’re just closing your eyes to some of the most important sort of stream of consciousness that’s going on! I mean, not watching TV is even worse than, say, never reading a book!

I think the biggest developments over the next twenty, thirty years are going to be through the introduction of VHS systems...when, say, every room in everybody’s house or flat has got a camera recording what’s going on the transformation of the home into a TV studio is a creation of a new kind of reality. A reality that is electronic...Once everybody’s got a computer terminal in their home, to satisfy all their needs, all the domestic needs, there’ll be a dismantling of the present broadcasting structure, which is far too limited and limiting.”

-JG Ballard, 1978

This pre-Internet prediction of YouTube style user-generated content is remarkable in itself, and by the end of the 1980s he had expended it to include simulations—seemingly capturing how new forms like video games and social media would allow the ever expanding middle classes to have fleeting escapes from mediocrity, and even explore the darker sides of their own psychology.

“The functional freedom that anybody can buy a gun and go out and murder a lot of people at a McDonald’s is prevalent, yes. But through the effects of TV and interactive video systems and so forth, we’ll also have the freedom to pretend to be a mass murderer for the evening. I’ve seen descriptions of advanced TV systems in which a simulation of reality is computer controlledthe TV viewer of the future will wear a special helmet. You’ll no longer be an external spectator to fiction created by others, but an active participant in your own fantasies/dramas.”

-JG Ballard, 1991

Perhaps by the 90s—and in the wake of the video game boom and science fiction’s influential cyberpunk movement—these predictions seem less revolutionary or surprising. However Ballard saw affluent societies’ desire, or perhaps the need, for these controlled excursions into violence as early as the 1970s. Again, it was the regimented nature of the suburbs that would be the driving force.

“The future was going to be like a suburb of Dusseldorf, that is, one of those ultra-modern suburbs with the BMW and the boat in every drive, and the ideal sort of middle-management house and garden...Very strange and chilling, superficially what everybody is aspiring to all over the world: the suburbs of Nairobi or Kyoto or probably Bangkok now.

At this time, the Baader-Meinhofyou know, that armed gang that came out very left politically, robbed banks, killed some American servicemen in a raid, and all the restwas at its height. Nobody could understand these people. They were all sort of well-to-do, middle-class, well-educated kids from, comparatively speaking, rich families, who took to all this ‘absurd violence’. Nobody could understand them. But suddenly I realised, ‘My God, of course I can understand them.’ If you’re brought up in one of these suburbs around a German city, where nothing is ever allowed out of place, where because they were so terrified by the experiences of World War II and the Nazi epoch, they’d gone to any length to make certain that everybody is happy...If you have a world like that, without any kind of real freedom of the spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!

That’s what’s coming. That’s why the suburbs interest mebecause you see that coming. Where one’s almost got to get up in the morning and make a resolution to perform some sort of deviant or antisocial act, some perverse act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog, in order to establish one’s own freedom.”

-JG Ballard, 1981

You can perhaps argue that Ballard missed the big change that was to come just years after his death—the apparent crisis of global capitalism, the shift of industrial and financial production towards the east, and the tightening pressure on the suburban middle classes that this would result in. But the kicking back against these pressures, in the form of the online rebellion and well mannered protest of Anonymous and the Occupy movement, seem to fit perfectly into this description. Both are, in many ways, more of a simulation of a protest than an actual protest themselves—one involves doing little more than clicking a mouse, the other seemingly owing more to music festivals and camping than to hard-fought political resistance. Contrast them both, for example, with the UK riots of 2011—a very working/under class, inner-city explosion of anger and frustration that actually dared to smash windows and start fires instead of grassing up collaborators and going home to the suburbs when asked to move on. 

Ballard may have failed to predict the financial crisis, but by the end of his life he’d started to see holes appear in the fabric of consumerism—or perhaps more accurately in it’s ability to fill the gap left by the death of ideology. Admitting that he’d grown more left-wing in his views, and becoming more concerned with issues of class and inequality in British society (topics he had consciously avoided in his earlier writing), he turned to looking at the failures of capitalism and consumerism in his last novels Kingdom Come and Millennium People. Their subject, however, was still the suburban middle classes—but now he seemed concerned that techno-capitalism’s simulations might not be enough.

“I think there are dangerous things going on. That’s basically what I’m saying. Markets are no longer contributing much to social cohesion. This is a dangerous time, because if all we’re going to rely on is consumerism, we may play to the worst states in our own make-up. You know, the need for more excitement or thrills. This is an important fact, I think, a daunting fact to face, but we are vastly more tolerant today ofwhatever you like to call themdeviant and perverse strains in our make-up than we were, say, fifty years ago.

At times, I think we’re going through quite a critical period. I don’t mean September 11, Iraq. I mean what we have is (that) consumerism dominates everything now. It’s all we have. There are signs, I think, that people aren’t satisfied by consumerism that  people resent the fact that the most moral decision in their lives is choosing what colour their next car will be.”

-JG Ballard, 2003

It’s ironic, perhaps, the extent to which the term Ballardian has become commonplace language. In many ways what it is perceived to mean has become itself simulation as consumer product—from zombie movies and violent video games to reality TV and ‘ruin porn’—all present over-simplified dystopias as escape from middle class mundanity and responsibility, and as such have wrongly had the B-word applied to them. Perhaps it’s time to redefine Ballardian, to save it from becoming a buzzword for the decay aesthetic, and to transform it into a warning sign for the future collapse of culture.

 

All quotes are taken from the excellent Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara is out now, published by Fourth Estate.


When he’s not writing for Tor.com, Tim Maughan writes science fiction—his critically acclaimed book Paintwork is out now, and has been picking up support from the likes of Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod

4 comments
Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
A lot of Ballard's work has the feel of genre, even if he, as you point out, wrote beyond any official signposts of genre.
David Pringle
2. David Pringle
Not bad piece -- but you misattribute the definition of the word "Ballardian" to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was the Collins Dictionary, wasn't it? I'm not aware that Oxford has yet incorporated the word.

I agree with you, though, that the definition is much too narrow -- "Ballardian" should not just denote dystopian concrete landscapes. That takes no account of JGB's strong streak of romanticism, or of his wit.

Has anybody apart from me pointed out yet that it was Kingsley Amis who first used the word Ballardian? It was in his review of _The Terminal Beach_ collection in _The Observer_ in 1964. He just used it with reference to JGB's characters -- "Ballardian isolates."

Usage of the word was considerably reinforced by Harlan Ellison, in his anthology _Dangerous Visions_ (1967). Introducing JGB's contribution therein, Ellison wrote: "J. G. Ballard writes peculiarly Ballardian stories" -- and then went on to re-use the word again later in his intro, referring, as I recall, to JGB's "serene" qualities.

-- David
David Pringle
3. mark Pontin
Thanks for this.

It's a curious fact that Ballard had the strongest record for correct predictions about the way the future would actually go -- well, along with Stanislaw Lem -- of any SF writer.

You didn't even mention his correct calls on the end of the 1960s Space Age and on how Ronald Reagan would one day be U.S. president.

(One notes, too, that THE DROWNED WORLD is now being promoted, with a Martin Amis preface, as a warning about global warming; THE DROUGHT will also probably be pressed into service in this cause.)
David Pringle
4. ISAM
Actually, Ballard has a few consistent threads throughout his entire oeuvre; and they're usually to do with the human reaction to the circumstances. No matter if he's writing something as outre as Vermillion Sands, as SFnal as The Voices of Time, as controversial as Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, as autobiographical as Empire of the Sun, or as "mainstream" as Cocaine Nights, he concentrates on the response of the humans caught in the web, to their circumstances.

He is also notable for how far he extends the use of the Stockholm Syndrome as an explanatory thesis. (It occurs in nearly all of his later "mainstream" fiction.) After all, he was given a four-year-long immersion course in it at Lunghua Camp in the 1940s.

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