At 1200 pages and just under 100 stories, The Complete Short Stories is frankly too complete—but I read them all anyway. The list above is my suggestion for a volume I’d call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Each selection on the list is linked to a riff I wrote; in several cases, links to the full text of the story can be found at the riff.
By the 1990s Ballard had written essentially the same stories over and over—with diminishing returns. Some of the weakness in the later entries in the Complete Short Stories can be attributed to Ballard’s prescience. The world caught up to him at some point, blunting his satire into something goofier, more cartoonish, but also sharpening the reactionary streak that always glowed under the surface of his writing. At his peak, Ballard used his stories to provoke readers into looking at their culture in a new way, and the best of those stories still retain a futurist power. However, many of the late period stories blazon their moral outrage in a wearisome didactic streak.
1990’s “Dream Cargoes” is paint-by-numbers Ballard: Themes of time, sleep, mutation, ecological disaster, birds, etc. The plot anticipates one of Ballard’s weaker novels, Rushing to Paradise (1994), a day-glo nightmare about misguided attempts to steward the forces of nature. And like Rushing to Paradise, the prose here is weak—Ballard relies on the stock phrases that litter his earliest stories.
2. “The Message from Mars” (1992) / “Report from an Obscure Planet” (1992) / “A Guide to Virtual Death” (1992)
“The Message from Mars” anticipates public disinterest in astronomy (and science in general), the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, and China’s emerging dominance as a world power with space flight capability. So there you go. (It also posits the horror of a President Quayle!). Ballard sends a group of astronauts on a Mars mission, refuses to share their findings with us, and then leaves them, once they land, in their space shuttle, where they live on for decades, silent, incommunicado, alienated from humanity in their self-imposed exile. Ballard’s cynicism is balanced by his refusal to overstate any kind of moral here—the story succeeds in its evocation of mystery.
“Report from an Obscure Planet” is another riff on millennial anxieties, written in the perspective of a “we” condemning the human race for its shortsighted, disastrous treatment of the planet. Ballard doesn’t seem to keen on the future wonders promised by computers:
Driven by the need for a more lifelike replica of the scenes of carnage that most entertained them, the people of this unhappy world had invented an advanced and apparently interiorised version of their television screens, a virtual replica of reality in which they could act out their most deviant fantasies. These three–dimensional simulations were generated by their computers, and had reached a stage of development in the last years of the millennium in which the imitation of reality was more convincing than the original. It may even have become the new reality to the extent that their cities and highways, their fellow citizens and, ultimately, themselves seemed mere illusions by comparison with the electronically generated amusement park where they preferred to play. Here they could assume any identity, create and fulfill any desire, and explore the most deviant dreams.
While “Report from an Obscure Planet” uses a didactic narrator and a heavy hand to telegraph its message, its companion piece “A Guide to Virtual Death” is far more fun, wicked, and shockingly accurate (if wildly hyperbolic). Sure, yes, okay—another list from Ballard, and okay, yes, sure—I tend to be keen on his lists (“The Index,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”)—but they also tend to be his strongest pieces. As usual with his list-stories, Ballard feels obligated to begin with a note:
For reasons amply documented elsewhere, intelligent life on earth became extinct in the closing hours of the 20th Century. Among the clues left to us, the following schedule of a day’s television programmes transmitted to an unnamed city in the northern hemisphere on December 23, 1999, offers its own intriguing insight into the origins of the disaster.
6.00 am Porno–Disco. Wake yourself up with his–and–her hard–core sex images played to a disco beat.
7.00 Weather Report. Today’s expected micro–climates in the city’s hotel atriums, shopping malls and office complexes. Hilton International promises an afternoon snow–shower as a Christmas appetiser.
7.15 News Round–up. What our news–makers have planned for you. Maybe a small war, a synthetic earthquake or a famine–zone! charity tie–in.
7.45 Breakfast Time. Gourmet meals to watch as you eat your diet cellulose.
3. “The Dying Fall” (1996) / “The Secret Autobiography of J G B” (1981/2009)
The American edition of Complete Stories is more complete than the British volume, including two extra stories. “The Dying Fall” (read it here if you like) is an unfortunate last entry, a weak note in a grand tome. It’s not bad; it’s simply not good, yet another revenge tale with a bad wife, etc. It feels like a frame for Ballard to riff on architecture and psychoanalysis.
“The Secret Autobiography of J G B” is much stronger (you can read it here), although it was also composed at his peak and republished (“rediscovered”) after his death. The final lines would have made a fitting end for the entire collection:
When the summer was followed by a mild autumn, B had established a pleasant and comfortable existence for himself. He had abundant stocks of tinned food, fuel, and water with which to survive the winter. The river was nearby, clear and free of all pollution, and petrol was easy to obtain, in unlimited quantities, from the filling stations and parked cars. At the local police station, he assembled a small armory of pistols and carbines, to deal with any unexpected menace that might appear.
But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on his lawn and on those of his former neighbors. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species.
Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.
4. On the horizon:
I am done! Sort of. One more post—I’ll revisit these riffs and select the tales that I would include in a collection I would call The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
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!
1. “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” (1967) / “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” (1967) / “Say Goodbye to the Wind” (1970)
Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories, collected and published together (under the title Vermilion Sands in 1971), are generally my least favorite selections in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. The stories, composed over a decade, share a unified tone and a consistent (first-person) point of view to match their unified setting, and that setting is interesting enough—Ballardian enough—but each story is essentially just a delivery mechanism for a Cool Idea that Ballard has about art.
In “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”, Ballard’s Cool Idea is a light-responsive painting technique:
Like all paintings produced at Vermilion Sands at that time, it would not actually need the exercise of the painter’s hand. Once the pigments had been selected, the photosensitive paint would produce an image of whatever still life or landscape it was exposed to. Although a lengthy process, requiring an exposure of at least four or five days, it had the immense advantage that there was no need for the subject’s continuous presence. Given a few hours each day, the photosensitive pigments would anneal themselves into the contours of a likeness.
This discontinuity was responsible for the entire charm and magic of these paintings. Instead of a mere photographic replica, the movements of the sitter produced a series of multiple projections, perhaps with the analytic forms of cubism, or, less severely, a pleasant impressionistic blurring.
The idea is interesting in and of itself, calling back to the central conceit of another VS story, “Studio 5, The Stars.” In that tale, poetry is the automated product of programmed machines. The concept of programmed art is fascinating, and clearly Ballard’s fiction tracks a predictive curve, but like most Vermilion Sands stories, “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” is clumsily executed pulp fiction. “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” is no different (the Cool Idea is cloud-sculpting, which allows Ballard to riff on one of his central motifs, airplanes). “Say Goodbye to the Wind” features living, responsive clothing. It also features another stereotypical Ballardian (pseudo)ingénue (the man really had a difficult time coming up with complex female characters). However, with its notes on “the teenage cult” and its obsession with plastic surgery, the story points to the more compelling territory Ballard was exploring.
2. “The Recognition” (1967)
A doomed circus, another (pseudo)ingénue, another dwarf, another morality fable, another stab at magical realism—far less successful than “The Drowned Giant” though.
“Reagan” was first published when the former actor and then-Governor of California was positioned as a write-in candidate for the ’68 election—the Gipper was the conservative alternative to Nixon. Written in the style of an academic psychology paper, the piece isn’t so much satire as something else entirely. I’m not sure exactly what that “something else” is, but it’s probably best signaled in Ballard’s own prose:
Sexual fantasies in connection with Ronald Reagan. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth–parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac rear–exhaust vent, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson, (d) a child–victim of sexual assault. In 89 per cent of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self–induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender’s posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan’s alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.
According to a number of sources, including Ballard himself, the story was disseminated at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit. VICE reports:
. . . a number of still-unknown former Situationists got hold of letterhead stamped with the seal of the Republican National Committee, upon which they printed Ballard’s Reagan text, replaced his offending title with the innocuous, “Official Republican 1980 Presidential Survey,” and managed to distribute copies to delegates on the convention floor in Detroit, one of the most audacious acts of political theater in our time.
“Reagan” is one of only three sections of The Atrocity Exhibition collected in The Complete Stories. It also clearly belongs in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, an ideal collection that does not yet exist.
4. “The Dead Astronaut”
Betrayal, unfaithful wives, the fall-out of the space race against the backdrop of the Cold War, paranoia, radiation, etc.
5. “The Comsat Angels”
Ballard’s best stories, like “The Index,” “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Beach Murders,” or “Answers to a Questionnaire” all succeed because their form is indivisible from their content—the idea that Ballard delivers is inseparable from the method of delivery. Most of Ballard’s stories are beholden to genre conventions though, and while Ballard’s treatment of these conventions are often excellent (and sometimes not-so-excellent), against the backdrop of his best stuff, the conventional exercises are always a little disappointing, or at least frustrating. Often clunky and heavy-handed, his stories for sci-fi mags are often the worst offenders.
However, when Ballard works through the conventions of detective fiction, he usually has stronger results. Edgar Allan Poe is surely Ballard’s foremost literary ancestor, a comparison that finds illustration in “The Comsat Angels,” a detective piece with a nimble streak of sci-fi running through it for flavor. Cloning, conspiracy, and paranoia done right. Great stuff.
6. “The Killing Ground” (1969) / “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969)
These stories are basically thought exercises where Ballard takes on the Vietnam War and its simultaneous culture war. “The Killing Ground” foregrounds the Vietnam War, but still displaces it, extrapolating a future where “Thirty years after the original conflict in south–east Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Vietnam,” with Imperial America dominating the globe with its war machine. (Thank goodness nothing like that really happened!). “A Place and a Time to Die” is more oblique, a tale of fear of invading otherness. “A Place and a Time to Die” could resonate just as strongly today in contemporary America, with its exurbs and gated communities and Stand Your Ground laws.
7. On the horizon:
Some of Ballard’s best, including “The Index” and another (oblique) Vietnam story, “Theatre of War.” I’ll also riff on Ballard’s pseudo-but-not-so-pseudo-autobiographical story, “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown.”
“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.
1.”The Reptile Enclosure” (1963) / “A Question of Re-Entry” (1963) / “The Time Tombs” (1963) / “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) / “The Venus Hunters” (1963) / “Minus One” (1963) / “Prisoner of the Coral Deep” (1964) / “The Illuminated Man” (1964) / “The Delta at Sunset” (1964) / “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” /”The Volcano Dances” (1964)
There are 98 stories in The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. That’s a lot of stories. Maybe too many. Too many for me to write about in full, anyway. I’ve lumped these stories together because they are somewhat unremarkable: Ballard does his Ballardian thing way better elsewhere. Several of these stories feel like sketches (or leftovers) from Ballard’s early novels like The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World. Themes of time, memory, art, and nature abound here, usually glommed on to simple adventure narratives or sci-fi pulp treadthroughs. Jungles, watches, crystals, structures, beaches. Misanthropy, paranoia, nagging wives, misunderstood heroes. Man apart from nature, but beholden to nature. Etc. The worst moments of these stories—and we can find these moments all through early Ballard, to be fair—suffer from a bad case of White Man’s Burden doubled up with a shot of misogyny. I’ve written it before in these posts, but the most disappointing aspect of early Ballard is our would-be futurist’s inability to transcend the patriarchal ideology of the post-war era. So now let’s move to the good stuff.
2. “End-Game” (1963)
I first read “End-Game” when I was sixteen or seventeen, and it’s always stuck with me. It’s the story of a former “party member” who’s been imprisoned under nebulous circumstances—only his prison isn’t that bad—a nice little villa, comfortable, with books and a chess set. He even has a housekeeper. Unfortunately, the housekeeper is also his executioner, and the date and method of the execution is forever withheld from him:
This ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non–existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed, was preserved in his present situation at the execution villa.
The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.
Ballard directly invokes Kafka, whose tale “Before the Law” comes to mind here (not to mention The Trial and The Castle); “End-Game” also feels like Ballard’s take on 1984. It’s a great little tale, and I think it helps to prove that Ballard is at his best when he sticks to a confined, limited cast and setting. Much of the force of “End-Game” comes from Ballard pitting his prisoner/protagonist against the protagonist’s mental conception of his guard/executioner. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
3. “The Sudden Afternoon” (1963) / “Time of Passage” (1964)
In “The Sudden Afternoon” and “Time of Passage,” Ballard explores how time and place—context, I suppose—constitute identity. The former story is a tale of metempsychosis with a troubling take on Indian spirituality, wherein a doctor—an Indian, of course—transplants his psyche and his wife’s psyche into the bodies of another couple (his wife is dying of a terminal disease). Ballard’s own wife died a year after the story was first published (I’m reminded of Poe here, whose wife Virginia died after the publication of “The Raven”). “The Sudden Afternoon” isn’t very good, but structurally we see Ballard beginning to employ something approaching the cut-ups/fragments he’ll move to in the next decade.
“Time of Passage” is essentially a rewrite of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It’s also basically a rewrite of Ballard’s own 1961 tale “Mr. F Is Mr. F” — only this time, Ballard dispenses with abject-horror-for-maternal-body in lieu of a fable-like exploration of what a life in reverse might actually look like. A lovely story. Stick it in The Essentials.
4. “The Screen Game” (1963)
Another Vermilion Sands story. More insanity. Another femme fatale. An attempt at the story of Orpheus, perhaps. I would have lumped it in with the stories in point 1, but I wanted to clarify: The Vermilion Sands stories are the worst.
5. “The Lost Leonardo” (1964)
This is an excellent little detective tale with mystical-magic undertones. I’m a sucker for any story of art theft, too. We all know Dan Brown ripped off Umberto Eco, but maybe Eco ripped off Ballard? Who cares. Lovely stuff. Ballard is excellent at the detective story; Poe is one of his clearest predecessors, but like Poe, he’s more famous for other stuff. Too bad. Let’s call it Essential.
6. “The Terminal Beach” (1964)
1964’s “The Terminal Beach” is such a big break through for Ballard in terms of formal elements and structuring that it probably deserves its own post, but I’ll jab at it here anyway. Up until now, Ballard’s stories have been notable almost entirely for their ideas—his prose has improved some, but ultimately, the pulp fiction he’s writing for magazine publication constrains him to a pedestrian rhetoric that simply can’t match how far out his concepts are. With “The Terminal Beach,” Ballard finally approaches a narrative structure—fractured, polyglossic, shifting through interiors to exteriors, breaking through different forms—that can match the themes of his tale. The story–clearly an Essential—points to the finest of Ballard’s future work. You can read it here in twoparts, but here’s a taste that I think stands alone as a microfiction:
(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)
DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand
TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.
TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.
TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?
TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing
YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.
TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?
YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’
TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see
YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way
TRAVEN: But, Doctor
YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!
TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.
(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)
7. “The Drowned Giant” (1964)
Another Essential, this puzzling fable readily recalls Gabriel García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Ballard rarely handles archetypes so directly as he does here. Even if the story’s theme seems almost too-plain—we lose the miracle, we cast down the old gods, we deny the sublime, etc.—its construction and telling are wonderfully achieved.
The lower jaw, typically, found its way to the museum of natural history. The remainder of the skull has disappeared, but is probably still lurking in the waste grounds or private gardens of the city – quite recently, while sailing down the river, I noticed two ribs of the giant forming a decorative arch in a waterside garden, possibly confused with the jaw–bones of a whale. A large square of tanned and tattooed skin, the size of an indian blanket, forms a backcloth to the dolls and masks in a novelty shop near the amusement park, and I have no doubt that elsewhere in the city, in the hotels or golf clubs, the mummified nose or ears of the giant hang from the wall above a fireplace. As for the immense pizzle, this ends its days in the freak museum of a circus which travels up and down the north–west. This monumental apparatus, stunning in its proportions and sometime potency, occupies a complete booth to itself. The irony is that it is wrongly identified as that of a whale, and indeed most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.
8. On the horizon:
Ballard plays with fragmentation again in “The Beach Murders” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” — and we finally get to his stories of the late sixties.
“Studio 5, The Stars” takes poetry as its subject and is the first story in The Complete Short Stories to focus on writing. Ballard’s tales usually concern some aspect of art, but up until now he’s been mainly concerned with music (and to a lesser extent visual art).
“Studio 5, The Stars” is the third tale in the collection set in “the crazy season at Vermilion Sands.” Our narrator is the editor of “Wave IX, an avant–garde poetry review.” Ballard constructs his story around the conceit that writing poetry has become (quite literally) a soulless, mechanical activity. Our narrator explains to his interlocutor:
I used to write a fair amount myself years ago, but the impulse faded as soon as I could afford a VT set. In the old days a poet had to sacrifice himself in order to master his medium. Now that technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial, there’s no need for sacrifice, no ideal to invent to make the sacrifice worthwhile –
Our narrator’s interlocutor is Aurora Day, a femme fatale who either is or believes she is “Melander,” an archetypal muse of poetry (invented by Ballard, of course). Aurora is distraught over the state of poetry. And no wonder. Verse is now composed on a “VT set”:
‘Hold on,’ I told him. I was pasting down one of the Xero’s satirical pastiches of Rupert Brooke and was six lines short. I handed Tony the master tape and he played it into the IBM, set the metre, rhyme scheme, verbal pairs, and then switched on, waited for the tape to chunter out of the delivery head, tore off six lines and passed them back to me. I didn’t even need to read them.
The story can perhaps be condensed into this wonderful line:
Fifty years ago a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the whole process.
In his introduction to the collection, Ballard insisted that he “was interested in the real future” he saw coming, not an invented one. The notion of machines recording art that no one will bother to read seems particularly resonant today. Reading “Studio 5, The Stars,” I was reminded of Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent “art” project/stunt of printing the internet. There’s also something in the VT that recalls Slavoj Žižek’s riff on VCRs, machines recording and storing films that the viewer will never actually watch.
“Studio 5, The Stars” takes aim at a commercial culture that pays lip service to the high ideals of “culture” while simultaneously insuring that “culture” can be consumed at no sacrifice—no work—on the part of the consumer.
2. “Deep End” (1961)
Humanity migrates to Mars after sucking all the resources from the Earth. “Deep End” is a brief tale (and another in the collection to feature one of Ballard’s signature images, the drained swimming pool). An ecological dystopia, “Deep End” feels like a sketch for something bigger—but it gains power from its brevity, and Ballard is content to focus his energies on just a few characters and one core idea here. The restraint pays off in the story’s nihilistic punchline, which I won’t spoil here.
3. “The Overloaded Man” (1961)
“Faulkner was slowly going insane” is an excellent way to begin a story, and Ballard delivers on his promise. Faulkner can no longer stand his cookie-cutter life in a cookie-cutter house. To alleviate his alienation from modern living, Faulkner builds a strange defense mechanism—he learns that he can dissociate himself from objective reality:
Steadily, object by object, he began to switch off the world around him. The houses opposite went first. The white masses of the roofs and balconies he resolved quickly into flat rectangles, the lines of windows into small squares of colour like the grids in a Mondrian abstract. The sky was a blank field of blue. In the distance an aircraft moved across it, engines hammering. Carefully Faulkner repressed the identity of the image, then watched the slim silver dart move slowly away like a vanishing fragment from a cartoon dream.
How to overcome alienation in a Ballardian world? Even more radical alienation. While “The Overloaded Man” points to a nihilism even bleaker than that in “Deep End,” it also demonstrates a marked improvement in Ballard’s writing from the earlier stories in the collection. We see Ballard controlling metaphor and imagery with a much stronger command than in the first half-dozen stories of his career. He sets out his poor hero’s mechanized domestic milieu in one savage line:
Her kiss was quick and functional, like the automatic peck of some huge bottle–topping machine.
There’s perhaps a slight streak of misogyny in “The Overloaded Man,” which at its core might be described as a story of a man whose nagging wife depresses him. Any ambivalence or fear of the female body that we’ve seen so far in the collection—in the dull, bothersome wives of “The Overloaded Man” or “Escapement,” or the powerful femme fatales of “Prima Belladonna,” “Venus Smiles,” or “Studio 5, The Stars”—any such hint burns vividly in the next story in the collection.
4. “Mr. F Is Mr. F” (1961)
“Mr. F Is Mr. F” tells the story of Charles Freeman and his pregnant wife, a woman presented with an almost-bovine simplicity that quickly escalates into horror. Charles Freeman grows younger and younger until he’s eventually absorbed into the maternal body.
The story is so nakedly Freudian that even its narrator has no problem spelling out the subtext for readers slow on the uptake:
He was forty when he married Elizabeth, two or three years her junior, and had assumed unconsciously that he was too old to become a parent, particularly as he had deliberately selected Elizabeth as an ideal mother–substitute, and saw himself as her child rather than as her parental partner.
“Mr. F Is Mr. F” is, by my count, the first Ballard story that explicitly takes the human body as its major object of study. Time, of course, is the ever-present grand theme of Ballard’s work, but up until now he’s concentrated his attention on time’s impact on geology, psychology, and culture—but not the human body. The story doesn’t so much analyze a fear of the maternal body so much as it uses that trope to generate fear and abject disgust.
There’s a teleological neatness to “Mr. F Is Mr. F” that one senses Ballard was trying to pull off in some of his stories of the late 1950s, but couldn’t quite achieve. His chops are stronger here, and, paradoxically perhaps, less slavishly beholden to Edgar Allen Poe, he actually turns in a tale worthy of his hero.
5. “Billennium” (1961)
“Billennium” sees Ballard returning to the themes of overpopulation and overcrowding that he began exploring in 1957’s “The Concentration City.” The world Ballard imagines is horrifying—moreso because his representation of it is in some ways so terribly banal:
As for the streets, traffic had long since ceased to move about them. Apart from a few hours before dawn when only the sidewalks were crowded, every thoroughfare was always packed with a shuffling mob of pedestrians, perforce ignoring the countless ‘Keep Left’ signs suspended over their heads, wrestling past each other on their way to home and office, their clothes dusty and shapeless. Often ‘locks’ would occur when a huge crowd at a street junction became immovably jammed. Sometimes these locks would last for days. Two years earlier Ward had been caught in one outside the stadium, for over forty–eight hours was trapped in a gigantic pedestrian jam containing over 20,000 people, fed by the crowds leaving the stadium on one side and those approaching it on the other. An entire square mile of the local neighbourhood had been paralysed, and he vividly remembered the nightmare of swaying helplessly on his feet as the jam shifted and heaved, terrified of losing his balance and being trampled underfoot. When the police had finally sealed off the stadium and dispersed the jam he had gone back to his cubicle and slept for a week, his body blue with bruises.
“Billennium,” like many of the stories of 1961, benefits from Ballard’s increasing restraint. While “The Concentration City” is overfreighted with too many ideas to succeed as a perfect short story, Ballard maintains a focus in “Billennium” that pays off. And if the story is predictable—and predictably nihilistic—it nevertheless offers a chilling vision of the future that could very likely come to pass.
6. “The Gentle Assassin” (1961)
“The Gentle Assassin” is basically Ballard’s mechanism to discuss the so-called “Grandfather Paradox,” a time-travel conundrum of causality and intent. The tale is as neat and tidy as “Mr. F,” but it also showcases a patience and restraint; Ballard slowly builds an ominous, ironic atmosphere before executing his narrative trick. “The Gentle Assassin” isn’t particularly memorable, and there are dozens and dozens of versions of it to be found throughout sci-fi. Still, we see here–and in the other stories of 1961—that Ballard is more confident and able in his prose and plotting.
7. On the horizon:
We’re still a long way out from the formal experimentation of “1966’s The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” or 1968’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” but Ballard’s pulp fiction gets tighter—and weirder—as we go.
Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.
As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.
To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).
“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:
But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.
2. “Zone of Terror” (1960)
Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, eachwith much stronger results).
3. “Chronopolis” (1960)
“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:
‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’
But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
4. “The Voices of Time” (1960)
“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:
…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …
… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…
I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.
Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
5. “The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)
More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.
6. On the horizon:
Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”