New York, 2180. Manhattan is cut with sewage-filled canals and walled in by levees. The world has been suffering from epidemic despair and apathy, when Dr. Ruth Bryson invents Paragane, a Euphoric drug that cures ennui and depression. Monozone Inc, the monopolistic pharmaceutical who employs her, is thrilled.
There is only one problem: the drug kills 10% of everyone who takes it. Monozone decides to market it anyway, despite Bryson’s objections, and puts her former lover Owen Bradlee in charge. Bryson knows she must either fix Paregane or stop it, but if she is caught she will certainly be killed.
Meanwhile, Felix and Veronica Clay are typical pod-dwelling office workers, whose lives seem like an endless extenuation of meaningless circumstance. When Veronica plunges into psychosis and tries to kill herself, her doctor prescribes the new drug Paragane, and everything changes. Soon Felix is also taking the drug, and they spend their nights under its influence, roaming Paradise and conversing with Angels. One day Felix returns from work to discover her dead, of no apparent cause. In short order, he loses his job and apartment and soon finds himself living in the wilds of upper Manhattan, addicted to Paregane, unable to find Veronica in Paradise, unable to die. Meanwhile, Dr. Bryson searches for a test subject. When she discovers Felix they are set on a course that will lead them deep into the Iroquois territories of upstate New York and a bloody struggle for survival.
Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agapehowls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.
Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episode. The motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.
You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).
Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.
For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).
The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!) thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!
But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).
Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.
But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?
As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular). I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).
And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?
In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).
If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.
Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!
The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.
I got to page 258 (of 801 pages, in the 2001 Vintage paperback edition).
On that page, the visiting poet (Visiting Poet?)—he’s visiting the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is I guess the central character of Dhalgren (I guess?)—on that page, Ernest Newboy (go ahead and groan at that name), declares:
There’s no reason why all art should appeal to all people.
I took that as a sign that I could go ahead and quit Dhalgren.
Delany’s cult novel initially appealed to me, but: No.
I’m trying, right now, to think of a novel I’ve wanted to like more but didn’t like than Dhalgren. (Thomas Disch’s 334, maybe, which Dhalgren resembles? Ballard’s Millenium People, which suggests that somewhere out there there’s a better Delany novel I need to read—like I read the wrong one, the famous one?).
I wanted to like Dhalgren because it’s weird and messy and post-apocalyptic and discursive and shambling and tripping and plotless and vibe vibe vibe…but mostly I found it boring. And the prose was often, uh, bad.
(I just read William Gibson’s foreword to the thing, in which he declares it a “prose-city…a literary singularity…executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.” Nah. (Gibson’s intro has this real awful Baby Boomer you-had-to-be-there-man tone to it too)).
There are bits and pieces of Dhalgren that were interesting enough to make me keep wading through the rubbish: tree sex, hologram gangs, the unnamed apocalypse, the specter of violence, the drugs, the weapons…but to give you an idea of this novel’s rhythm, the central protagonist, Kid, spends a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter moving furniture from one apartment to another.
The Kid also wants to be a poet, and Delany spends a lot of time dipping into our boy’s notebook. It’s bad stuff, cringeworthy, and not in an Isn’t-he-a-bad-writer? way. Delany’s own prose veers hippy dippy too—a mirror. (Mirrors and lenses and prisms and recursion images twist through the 250 pages I read. Reality’s an illusion, man. Or not. Or memory. Or something).
I’ve had every kind of warning that Delany’s novel is plotless and will refuse to cohere (Gibson: “Dhalgren does not answer”). I fucking love those kinds of novels. But they have to have something else: Good sentences, one after another. Humor that’s actually, uh, funny. A point of feeling or message beyond the kind of apocalypse vibe I absorbed by reading comics (and comix) when I was 11, 12, 13. Less furniture moving.
Anyway, I’m unconvinced that anything wonderful’s going to pop out in the next 550 or so pages. And I’m fine, at this point, of being wrong, and ready to move on to something else.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. First edition mass market paperback from Ace Books, 1969. The marvelous Klimtish cover is by Leo & Diane Dillon. I wrote about the novel here.
The Order of the Day by Marcio Souza. English translation by Thomas Colchie. First edition mass market trade paperback by Bard/Avon, 1986. No illustrator credited.
Neuromancer by William Gibson. 1988 mass market trade paperback by Ace Books. Cover art by Richard Berry. A friend foisted this on me; I never gave it back, which was wrong. I don’t think I can overstate how important this book (and the following two in the so-called “Sprawl Trilogy”) were to me in the late nineties. In fact, Gibson was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. (Don’t click on that link; the early days of this blog were Bad).
I went to the bookstore this afternoon, looking to maybe find something I hadn’t read by my favorite author Garth Marenghi, or at least to pick up something from the so-called Bizarro fiction genre. I wound up spending about 75 minutes perusing old sci-fi and fantasy titles, occasionally taking a pic or two. I love old sci-fi covers (Daw covers in particular); looking at so many this afternoon, I noticed that certain prestige-style covers that attempted to “transcend genre” (e.g. certain editions by authors like William Gibson and Neil Gaiman) actually end up looking really dated and generic. Anyway, I hadn’t initially intended to do a post, and what I’m presenting here is hardly representative as a sample (there are literally tens of thousands of sci-fi books in the store). At a certain point I got dizzy.
I’m sure that there are some really great blogs out there that do this sort of thing properly—take real care with scans and bother to credit artists and designers properly. Forgive me. Forgive the bad lighting and my fat thumbs. I’ve included some details from the book covers too. So, as promised by my title: It’s Friday; here’s a lazy post of some old book covers.
Cabu by John Robert Russell. There were a couple of Russell titles with unreal covers.
The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the only book in this post that I’ve actually read.
Masters of Time by A.E. Van Vogt. This seems like a very special book.
Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan — a “spiritual sequel to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle” — -is forthcoming from Angry Robot. Their blurb:
Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons — a group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest terrorist tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.
Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something…kind of. He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.d
I like to think I know my way around the labyrinthine used bookstore I frequently frequent, but I somehow missed the “Ls” of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section and wound up in Misc S. I was headed to the “Ls” to pick up another Ursula K. Le Guin novel, after having finished Rocannon’s World this afternoon. (I was looking not-so-specifically for The Word for World Is Forest, which my bookshop somehow didn’t have). Anyway, my eye was drawn to the Penguin edition of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (above), which was one of those yeah, I know, I need to read it books. I also saw another one by the Strugatski bros, which I picked up, even though I still haven’t read Hard to Be a God.
I couldn’t resist this hardback edition of Three Hainish Novels, an Ursula K. Le Guin omnibus, which collects Rocannon’s World with Planet of Exile and City of Illusion. I haven’t read the other two, but I’ll get to them after a rereading of The Dispossessed.
Mr. Bessel was the senior partner in the firm of Bessel, Hart, and Brown, of St. Paul’s Churchyard, and for many years he was well known among those interested in psychical research as a liberal-minded and conscientious investigator. He was an unmarried man, and instead of living in the suburbs, after the fashion of his class, he occupied rooms in the Albany, near Piccadilly. He was particularly interested in the questions of thought transference and of apparitions of the living, and in November, 1896, he commenced a series of experiments in conjunction with Mr. Vincey, of Staple Inn, in order to test the alleged possibility of projecting an apparition of one’s self by force of will through space.
Their experiments were conducted in the following manner: At a prearranged hour Mr. Bessel shut himself in one of his rooms in the Albany and Mr. Vincey in his sitting-room in Staple Inn, and each then fixed his mind as resolutely as possible on the other. Mr. Bessel had acquired the art of self-hypnotism, and, so far as he could, he attempted first to hypnotise himself and then to project himself as a “phantom of the living” across the intervening space of nearly two miles into Mr. Vincey’s apartment. On several evenings this was tried without any satisfactory result, but on the fifth or sixth occasion Mr. Vincey did actually see or imagine he saw an apparition of Mr. Bessel standing in his room. He states that the appearance, although brief, was very vivid and real. He noticed that Mr. Bessel’s face was white and his expression anxious, and, moreover, that his hair was disordered. For a moment Mr. Vincey, in spite of his state of expectation, was too surprised to speak or move, and in that moment it seemed to him as though the figure glanced over its shoulder and incontinently vanished.
It had been arranged that an attempt should be made to photograph any phantasm seen, but Mr. Vincey had not the instant presence of mind to snap the camera that lay ready on the table beside him, and when he did so he was too late. Greatly elated, however, even by this partial success, he made a note of the exact time, and at once took a cab to the Albany to inform Mr. Bessel of this result. Continue reading ““The Stolen Body,” a weird short story by H.G. Wells”→
Can’t seem to keep up with the review copies lately.
David Ramirez’s The Forever Watch is new from St. Martin’s Griffin imprint. Their blurb:
An exciting new novel from a bold up-and-coming sci fi talent, The Forever Watchis so full of twists and surprises it’s impossible to put down.
All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new planet aboard one ship, The Noah, which is also carrying a dangerous serial killer…
As a City Planner on the Noah, Hana Dempsey is a gifted psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat and is considered “mission critical.” She is non-replaceable, important, essential, but after serving her mandatory Breeding Duty, the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, her life loses purpose as she privately mourns the child she will never be permitted to know.
When Policeman Leonard Barrens enlists her and her hacking skills in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death, Dempsey finds herself increasingly captivated by both the case and Barrens himself. According to Information Security, the missing man has simply “Retired,” nothing unusual. Together they follow the trail left by the mutilated remains. Their investigation takes them through lost dataspaces and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a serial killer after all.
What they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity in David Ramirez’s thrilling page turner.
“It isn’t every one who’s been a god,” said the sunburnt man. “But it’s happened to me. Among other things.”
I intimated my sense of his condescension.
“It don’t leave much for ambition, does it?” said the sunburnt man.
“I was one of those men who were saved from the Ocean Pioneer. Gummy! how time flies! It’s twenty years ago. I doubt if you’ll remember anything of the Ocean Pioneer?”
The name was familiar, and I tried to recall when and where I had read it. The Ocean Pioneer? “Something about gold dust,” I said vaguely, “but the precise—”
“That’s it,” he said. “In a beastly little channel she hadn’t no business in—dodging pirates. It was before they’d put the kybosh on that business. And there’d been volcanoes or something and all the rocks was wrong. There’s places about by Soona where you fair have to follow the rocks about to see where they’re going next. Down she went in twenty fathoms before you could have dealt for whist, with fifty thousand pounds worth of gold aboard, it was said, in one form or another.”
“I remember the case now,” I said. “There was something about salvage—”
But at the word salvage the sunburnt man exploded into language so extraordinarily horrible that I stopped aghast. He came down to more ordinary swearing, and pulled himself up abruptly. “Excuse me,” he said, “but—salvage!”
He leant over towards me. “I was in that job,” he said. “Tried to make myself a rich man, and got made a god instead. I’ve got my feelings—
“It ain’t all jam being a god,” said the sunburnt man, and for some time conversed by means of such pithy but unprogressive axioms. At last he took up his tale again.
“There was me,” said the sunburnt man, “and a seaman named Jacobs, and Always, the mate of the Ocean Pioneer. And him it was that set the whole thing going. I remember him now, when we was in the jolly-boat, suggesting it all to our minds just by one sentence. He was a wonderful hand at suggesting things. ‘There was forty thousand pounds,’ he said, ‘on that ship, and it’s for me to say just where she went down.’ It didn’t need much brains to tumble to that. And he was the leader from the first to the last. He got hold of the Sanderses and their brig; they were brothers, and the brig was the Pride of Banya, and he it was bought the diving-dress—a second-hand one with a compressed air apparatus instead of pumping. He’d have done the diving too, if it hadn’t made him sick going down. And the salvage people were mucking about with a chart he’d cooked up, as solemn as could be, at Starr Race, a hundred and twenty miles away. Continue reading ““Jimmy Goggles the God” — H.G. Wells”→
1. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976) / “The Index” (1977)
By the end of the sixties, Ballard had found a style and rhetoric to match his weird futurism. His output of stories slowed down considerably in the ’70s, as he found financial comfort and some measure of fame as a writer. If 1969’s collection The Atrocity Exhibition didn’t cement Ballard as a voice at the forefront of avant-garde fiction, then Crash (1973) surely did. Ballard published four novels in the seventies, and as usual, the stories he composed around the same time often feel like sketches or dress rehearsals for bigger ideas.
The two strongest stories here—or maybe, I should just admit, the stories I like best—are “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” and “The Index.” Ballard’s repetitions can often be draining, especially if you read all these stories back to back, but “Notes” and “Index” feel vital, necessary—essential. Yes, of course they belong in that ideal collection I’ve been imagining, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Both stories condense Ballard’s obsessions into short, strange, experiments.
“Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” reads as a playful but sinister parody of what a fictionalized autobiography of Ballard might look like. The story consists of a single sentence: “A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,’ recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration.” Each subsequent paragraph is a numbered footnote, which complicates and disrupts the levels of fictionality and reality that we might expect to inhere in the plot. With its missing mental patients, psycholinguistics, dead, adulterous wife, surrealism, airplanes, etc., “Notes” encapsulates so many of Ballard’s stories to date, yet makes the reader encounter them with fresh perspective. Sample paragraph:
A vital role seems to have been played during these last days by the series of paintings by Max Ernst entitled Garden Airplane Traps, pictures of low walls, like the brick–courses of an uncompleted maze, across which long wings have crashed, from whose joints visceral growths are blossoming. In the last entry of his diary, the day before his wife’s death, 27 March 1975, Loughlin wrote with deceptive calm: ‘Ernst said it all in his comment on these paintings, the model for everything I’ve tried to do… “Voracious gardens in turn devoured by a vegetation which springs from the debris of trapped airplanes… Everything is astonishing, beart–breaking and possible… with my eyes I see the nymph Echo…” Shortly before writing out these lines he had returned to his Hendon apartment to find that his wife had set off for Gatwick Airport with Dr Douglas, intending to catch the 3.15 p.m. flight to Geneva the following day. After calling Richard Northrop, Loughlin drove straight to Elstree Flying Club.
Physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion, Henry Rhodes Hamilton was evidently the intimate of the greatest men and women of our age. After World War II he founded a new movement of spiritual regeneration, but private scandal and public concern at his growing megalomania, culminating in his proclamation of himself as a new divinity, seem to have led to his downfall.
After a very short introductory note (which I yanked the above from), “The Index” takes the form of “the index to the unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography of a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century.” Ballard crams an analysis of the entire 20th century into the index, with bizarre humor and grand results. Forced to read between the lines, HRH (his royal highness) seems to be present at every single meaningful event of the last century, whether he’s advising Churchill:
Churchill, Winston, conversations with HRH, 221; at Chequers with HRH, 235; spinal tap performed by HRH, 247; at Yalta with HRH, 298, ‘iron curtain’ speech, Fulton, Missouri, suggested by HRH, 312; attacks HRH in Commons debate, 367
Ghandi, Mahatma, visited in prison by HRH, 251; discussesBhagavadgita with HRH, 253; has dhoti washed by HRH, 254; denounces HRH, 256
Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgaden, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181
I have to share this entry too:
Hemingway, Ernest, first African safari with HRH, 234; at Battle of the Ebro with HRH, 244; introduces HRH to James Joyce, 256; portrays HRH in The Old Man and the Sea, 453
Ballard is at his best when he makes the reader work the hardest (think of “The Beach Murders,” “The Drowned Giant,” or “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and “The Index” and “Notes” are no exception.
2. “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” (1972) / “The Life and Death of God” (1976)
“The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” are both composed in a detached, slightly ironic, and highly-omniscient tone that Ballard rarely employs. Most of the time he uses a free indirect style that floats near the harried, paranoid consciousness of one of his (always male) protagonist, constraining the viewpoint to that character. There’s also the occasional first-person voice. It’s worth noting that Ballard’s omniscient voice, usually reserved for wry fables, is one of his strongest (see also: “The Drowned Giant”). This pair of stories—and I do take them as a pair—are thought experiments that ultimately focus on metaphysics, a subject that is somewhat rare in the Ballardverse.
“The Greatest Television Show on Earth” imagines a future (2001!) in which time travel has been perfected and history itself becomes the history channel as billions become addicted to television broadcasts of historical battles. Over time, however, the producers begin to interfere. They try to make history flashier, more violent (sexier?). The story ends with a metaphysical gesture that might be read ironically, although I find it hard to see the conclusion (which I won’t spoil here) as anything other than Ballard’s moralistic reactionary streak alight.
“The Life and Death of God” takes a cue from Voltaire’s quip that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. In this fable/thought experiment, scientists prove beyond doubt (keyword: doubt) that God is real. Ballard imagines a world relieved of radical doubt—a world without faith:
Within two months of the confirmation of the worldwide rumour of God’s existence came the first indications of government concern over the consequences. Industry and agriculture were already affected, though far less than commerce, politics and advertising. Everywhere the results of this new sense of morality, of the virtues of truth and charity, were becoming clear. A legion of overseers, time–keepers and inspectors found themselves no longer needed. Longestablished advertising agencies became bankrupt. Accepting the public demand for total honesty, and fearful of that supreme client up in the sky, the majority of television commercials now ended with an exhortation not to buy their products.
And then things get worse. “The Life and Death” again shows Ballard’s reactionary, elitist stripe, his lack of faith in the so-called common person to make meaning and organize a life without an anchoring center—illusory or otherwise.
3. “The Air Disaster'” (1975) / “Low–Flying Aircraft” (1975) /”The 60 Minute Zoom” (1976) / “The Smile” (1976) / “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977) / “Theatre of War” (1977) / “Having a Wonderful Time” (1978) / “One Afternoon at Utah Beach” (1978) /”Motel Architecture” (1978)
In the order they are listed above, with apologies:
Ballard does cargo cult / Ballard explores child-mutation-as-harbinger-of-new-evolutionary-jump / Ballard does Rear Window (the story anticipates Blue Velvet) / Ballard writes about emotional transference and a sex doll / Ballard mashes up his TV obsessions with his displacement obsessions with his Oedipal obsessions / Ballard imagines a contemporary Civil War in Britain, with American aggressors; there’s a gimmick end here that actually works wonderfully / Ballard’s permanent vacation riff / Ballard writes yet another cheating-wife-leads-to-husband’s-attempt-at-revenge, this time with a Nazi motif / Ballard repeats “Intensive Care Unit,” but mixes it up with voyeurism and a kick of Psycho. (The story anticipates what DeLillo will do a decade later).
Sorry to lump all these together. I probably shouldn’t handle the whole decade of stories at once, but I’m almost finished with this enormous, very long book (dear lord I am ready to be finished) and lumping I shall do. Of this set, “The Intensive Care Unit” and “Theatre of War” are the best, and the most mediocre of the bunch (“Low-Flying Aircraft” and “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”) are better than the mediocre stories of the sixties.
4. “Zodiac 2000” (1978)
Ballard’s most deconstructive, postmodern stories begin with an author’s note, an apologia of sorts, and while I often think these are unnecessary, I’ve also used them to help summarize the stories. So too with “Zodiac 2000”:
An updating, however modest, of the signs of the zodiac seems long overdue. The houses of our psychological sky are no longer tenanted by rams, goats and crabs but by helicopters, cruise missiles and intra–uterine coils, and by all the spectres of the psychiatric ward. A few correspondences are obvious – the clones and the hypodermic syringe conveniently take the place of the twins and the archer. But there remains the problem of all those farmyard animals so important to the Chaldeans. Perhaps our true counterparts of these workaday creatures are the machines which guard and shape our lives in so many ways – above all, the taurean computer, seeding its limitless possibilities. As for the ram, that tireless guardian of the domestic flock, his counterpart in our own homes seems to be the Polaroid camera, shepherding our smallest memories and emotions, our most tender sexual acts. Here, anyway, is an s–f zodiac, which I assume the next real one will be…
If “Zodiac 2000” doesn’t quite work as well as Ballard’s other list-driven/fractured stories, it’s probably because he attempts to screw a plot-driven thriller onto his weird frame. It’s almost as if he has a left-over story that wasn’t quite good enough to sell, and says, hey, I’ve got this idea for a structure, let me mash it all together. In Ballard’s best stuff, frame and content are inseparable; “Zodiac 2000″ is not Ballard’s best” — but it’s still more interesting than his most mediocre.
5. “The Ultimate City” (1976)
Speaking of mediocre: “The Ultimate City” is a very long short story, a novella really, that I invite anyone reading The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard to feel totally okay about skipping. You’ve read this story before, under several different titles, by this point, or maybe you’ll read it later. It’s another thought experiment dressed up as an essay dressed up as an adventure story. At its best there are some good ideas here infused with a heavy dose of environmentalism. At its worst though, “The Ultimate City” is didactic, ponderous, meandering, overstuffed, and redolent of hoary tropes (there’s even a Magical Negro).
6. “The Dead Time” (1977)
1977’s “The Dead Time” is, unless I’m mistaken, Ballard’s first attempt to write directly (if still indirectly) about his experiences as a captive ex-patriot in WWII. Ballard, as is well-known, was interred in a prison camp in Shanghai by the Japanese forces, and this traumatic ordeal undoubtedly underwrites so much of his violent, alienated fiction. If we take Ballard’s childhood internment and the subsequent abject horrors he faced to be the cornerstone of the Ballardverse he would later create, then we must also, significantly, recognize that almost all of Ballard’s fiction up to “The Dead Time” is a displacement and revision of those terrors (which Ballard handled most directly in his mainstream breakthrough, 1984’s Empire of the Sun).
“The Dead Time” focuses on a hero who, released from his Shanghai prison in the final days of WWII, wonders hungry and dissociated through a corpse-and-trash-strewn apocalyptic landscape. He’s charged with the bizarre duty of transporting and then burying a truckload of dead bodies. Little else happens. The tale is, without a doubt, Ballard’s most real, and probably most terrifying story to date:
I tried to pick up another of the corpses, but again my hands froze, and again I felt the same presentiment, an enclosing wall that enveloped us like the wire fence around our camp. I watched the flies swarm across my hands and over the faces of the bodies between my feet, relieved now that I would never again be forced to distinguish between us. I hurled the tarpaulin into the canal, so that the air could play over their faces as we sped along. When the engine of the truck had cooled I refilled the radiator with water from the canal, and set off towards the west.
The narrator’s abject trial continues, and we see in the corpses in his charge the grotesque bits and fragments that have fueled the two previous decades of Ballard’s writing:
Under the cover of darkness – for I would not have dared to commit this act by daylight – I returned to the truck and began to remove the bodies one by one, throwing them down on to the road. Clouds of flies festered around me, as if trying to warn me of the insanity of what I was doing. Exhausted, I pulled the bodies down like damp sacks, ruthlessly avoiding the faces of the nuns and the children, the young amputee and the elderly woman.
As we reach the end of the narrative, our hero remarks,
From this time onwards, during the confused days of my journey to my parents’ camp, I was completely identified with my companions. I no longer attempted to escape them.
It’s difficult not to read here some reconciliation here, as if Ballard is finally ready to write through his formative traumas without the intermediary tropes of science fiction or radical paranoia. What we get here is wonderfully, viscerally real. Fantastic stuff, and clearly part of my ideal Essential collection.
7. On the horizon:
Ballard writes the same story three times in a row! We get one of his best stories, “Answers to a Questionnaire”! And I finish! Yay!
[The capitalist, or industrial oligarch, Roger Vanderwater, mentioned in the narrative, has been identified as the ninth in the line of the Vanderwaters that controlled for hundreds of years the cotton factories of the South. This Roger Vanderwater flourished in the last decades of the twenty- sixth century after Christ, which was the fifth century of the terrible industrial oligarchy that was reared upon the ruins of the early Republic. From internal evidences we are convinced that the narrative which follows was not reduced to writing till the twenty- ninth century. Not only was it unlawful to write or print such matter during that period, but the working-class was so illiterate that only in rare instances were its members able to read and write. This was the dark reign of the overman, in whose speech the great mass of the people were characterized as the “herd animals.” All literacy was frowned upon and stamped out. From the statute-books of the times may be instanced that black law that made it a capital offence for any man, no matter of what class, to teach even the alphabet to a member of the working-class. Such stringent limitation of education to the ruling class was necessary if that class was to continue to rule. One result of the foregoing was the development of the professional story-tellers. These story-tellers were paid by the oligarchy, and the tales they told were legendary, mythical, romantic, and harmless. But the spirit of freedom never quite died out, and agitators, under the guise of story-tellers, preached revolt to the slave class. That the following tale was banned by the oligarchs we have proof from the records of the criminal police court of Ashbury, wherein, on January 27, 2734, one John Tourney, found guilty of telling the tale in a boozing-ken of labourers, was sentenced to five years’ penal servitude in the borax mines of the Arizona Desert.—EDITOR’S NOTE.]
Listen, my brothers, and I will tell you a tale of an arm. It was the arm of Tom Dixon, and Tom Dixon was a weaver of the first class in a factory of that hell-hound and master, Roger Vanderwater. This factory was called “Hell’s Bottom”… by the slaves who toiled in it, and I guess they ought to know; and it was situated in Kingsbury, at the other end of the town from Vanderwater’s summer palace. You do not know where Kingsbury is? There are many things, my brothers, that you do not know, and it is sad. It is because you do not know that you are slaves. When I have told you this tale, I should like to form a class among you for the learning of written and printed speech. Our masters read and write and possess many books, and it is because of that that they are our masters, and live in palaces, and do not work. When the toilers learn to read and write—all of them—they will grow strong; then they will use their strength to break their bonds, and there will be no more masters and no more slaves.
Kingsbury, my brothers, is in the old State of Alabama. For three hundred years the Vanderwaters have owned Kingsbury and its slave pens and factories, and slave pens and factories in many other places and States. You have heard of the Vanderwaters—who has not?—but let me tell you things you do not know about them. The first Vanderwater was a slave, even as you and I. Have you got that? He was a slave, and that was over three hundred years ago. His father was a machinist in the slave pen of Alexander Burrell, and his mother was a washerwoman in the same slave pen. There is no doubt about this. I am telling you truth. It is history. It is printed, every word of it, in the history books of our masters, which you cannot read because your masters will not permit you to learn to read. You can understand why they will not permit you to learn to read, when there are such things in the books. They know, and they are very wise. If you did read such things, you might be wanting in respect to your masters, which would be a dangerous thing… to your masters. But I know, for I can read, and I am telling you what I have read with my own eyes in the history books of our masters. Continue reading “Jack London’s Dystopian Short Story, “A Curious Fragment””→
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
1. “The Beach Murders” (1966)
Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.
With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:
Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.
“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
2. “The Day of Forever” (1966)
It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.
“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.
When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:
In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.
3. “The Impossible Man” (1966)
The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
4. “Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)
“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962’s “The Garden of Time.”
5. “Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)
Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967’s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.
6. “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.
Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:
Oswald was the starter.
From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.
Kennedy got off to a bad start.
There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.
The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.
If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zoneseries), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.
I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.
Hobart Madison pursed his lips in a whistle of incredulous surprise as he regarded the object that lay in the palm of his hand. An ordinary pebble, it seemed to be, but a pebble in which a strange fire smouldered and showed itself here and there through the dull surface.
“Would you mind repeating what you just said, Van?” he asked.
“You heard me the first time. I say that that’s a diamond and that it came from the moon.” Carl Vanderventer glared at his friend in resentment of his doubting tone.
“Mean to tell me you’ve been there? To the moon?”
“Certainly not. I’m not a Jules Verne adventurer. But I’m telling you that stone is a diamond of the first water and that it came from the moon. Weighs over a hundred carats, too. You can have it appraised yourself if you think I’m kidding you.”
Bart Madison laughed. “Don’t get sore, Van,” he said. “I’m not doubting your word. But Lord, man—the thing’s so incredible! It takes a little time to soak in. And you say there are more?”
“Sure. This one’s the largest of five I’ve found so far. And there’s other stuff, too. Wait till you see. Fossils, beetles and things. I tell you, Bart, the moon was inhabited at one time. I’ve the evidence and I want you to be the first to see it.” The eyes of the young scientist shone with excitement as he saw that his friend was roused to intense interest.
“So that’s what all your experimenting has been aimed at. No wonder it cost so much.”
“Yes, and you’ve been a brick for financing me. Never asked a question, either. But Bart, it’ll all come back to you now. Know how much that stone’s worth?”
“Plenty, I guess. But, forget about the financing and all that. Where’s this laboratory of yours?” Madison had pushed his chair back from his desk and was reaching for his hat.
“Over in the Ramapo Mountains, not far from Tuxedo. I’ll have you there in two hours. Sure you can spare the time to go out there now?” Vanderventer was enthusiastically eager.
“Spare the time? You just try and keep me from going!”
Neither of them noticed the sinister figure that lurked outside the door which led into the adjoining office. They chattered excitedly as they passed into the outer hall and made for the elevator.