Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Voices of Time by J G Ballard

First published in New Worlds #99, October 1960.

Interestingly, J G Ballard reviewed The Golden Age of Science fiction for the Guardian. He mentions the stories in passing, praising the selection rather faintly as one of ‘accurate judgements’, but he’s not unjustifiably annoyed at some of Amis’s comments in the introduction. Ballard quotes the same section as I did in my note about The Old Hundredth.
The perpetrators of all this are whipped unmercifully. Moorcock's fiction "gives rise to little more than incurious bewilderment." Aldiss, in Barefoot in the Head, "interlards an adventure story with stylistic oddities, bits of freak talk, poems, some of them ‘concrete'." As for Ballard, on whom no verdict can be harsh enough: "Solipsistic… mystification and outrage… physical disgust… stories with chapters subdivided into numbered paragraphs [not true]… has never been in the genre at all."
According to Ballard the old man is out of touch; saying his hatred of modern SF is bound up with his hatred of modern life in general. He’s just a bitter old critic who backed the wrong horse.
To some extent Amis's distaste for science fiction can be put down to simple pique. Sharp observer though he was of 1940s and 1950s s-f, his prediction in New Maps of Hell that science fiction would become primarily a satirical and sociological medium proved totally wrong. In fact, American s-f veered away into interplanetary fantasy (Le Guin, Zelazny, Delaney), while the British writers began to explore the psychological realm of inner space.
However, it’s a long race and sometimes it has a surprise finish. Coming in on the inside straight was a dark horse that I think proves Amis right: cyberpunk.

As I’ve noted several times previously, this book was published at the same time as William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, the first story in Mirror Shades. And it seems to me that all those dark commentaries on capitalist economies and the commodification of the self or fierce critiques of government control and state intervention were exactly the sociological satires Amis was looking for.

Or course, cyberpunk brings the two elements together. Gibson and Sterling in particular cite the New Wave writers as a huge influence, but the stories also feel very much like a return to the classic SF of days gone by. They had computers in them, and sometimes they ran amok in interesting ways. They were set in a definite future time, with cool new gadgets available. They were clearly addressing the effects of technological advance, albeit with an eye on what had gone before: what punk music was to fifties rock’n’roll, cyberpunk was to the SF of the past, reclaiming the raw popular spirit of the original and brining up to date with late-twentieth century alienation.

Ballard, on the other hand, was ready to leave SF behind all together. Already, the claims of the genre on some of his mid-period novels – High Rise and Crash, for example – were sketchy. They had much more in common with avant garde literature. And that whole business about ‘exploring inner space’ always sound like a crock of shit to me: too often it led to the sorts of story that Amis fingers in his intro.
Out went the teams of dedicated and resourceful explorers getting into trouble on conscientiously described distant planets; in came shock tactics, tricks with typography, one-line chapters, strained metaphors, obscurities, obscenities, drugs, Oriental religions and left-wing politics.
Well, the cyberpunks kept most of that, but they added plausible technologies and well-considered consequences. I don’t know if Amis ever passed judgement on the cyberpunks, but I seem to recall Ballard welcoming them in – he got that right at least.

I don’t want to carp too much about Ballard, he’s one of my favourite writers. I am a fan of all his periods, although mostly the books written after Empire of the Sun. That novel is a classic, but obviously not a science fictional one and the books that followed, particularly in the nineties, appeared to leave SF far behind.

I say ‘appeared’ here, because there’s an argument that they’re driven by SF under the hood. I don’t really buy it: I still cling to a pretty fundamentalist set of core genre ideas. Technological advances expressed through fantastical elements – so impossible or unknown things like space ships, robots and time travel – is pretty central to my definition of SF. Of course, there’ll be edge cases, but I don’t think any of Ballard’s final sequence of novels are among them.

I think Ballard was primarily a surrealist. He liked the disjointed and juxtaposed elements of surrealism and he could spot them out in the real world. If you think of his novels as films by Luis Buňel then they fit much more easily into the main stream cultural landscape.

He was never really was an SF writer, then, in the classical sense. I know we’ve seen that SF is a broad church, but if you think of real SF as something like High Anglicanism, then it’s maybe easier to understand why I don’t think Ballard makes the cut.

For much of the first part of his career he wrote something very like conventional SF – set in the future, examining the effects of technological or social change – but he was only ever there for the imagery and its philosophical impact. He was never, as far as I can tell, especially interested in building convincing settings another key SF trait. Scientific dressing of his stories was only ever there to lead him to the startling imagery.

This story (at last!) is instantly recognisable as Ballard. There’s a repressed and doomed stiff upper lip type as protagonist, startling and vivid transformations in the natural world echoed and an alluring woman on the outskirts to stand around and hear the protagonists theories about the coming metaphysical catastrophe. So, if you’re a Ballard fan then this one’s vintage stuff.

Themes: entropy, ennui, exhaustion, mutation, transformation, a dignified exit.

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