Dispatch 07 — Apr 24, 2020

Ballardian & Theory Fiction


You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.
— John McPhee

Above is a quote from John McPhee which I happened on this week in a post by Eliot Peper. It’s also pretty much exactly what I do and the last “filter” I use when writing Sentiers and picking what goes in or not. Whether I find it interesting supersedes the novelty or importance of any article. Both because it’s the only way to keep my own interest in producing the newsletter: reading what I’m curious about, and because it’s also the best way to have some kind of unique quality amongst the now thousands of other newsletters.

It’s very timely that I would bump into this quote this week because I’d decided to assemble this Dispatch around the word “Ballardian”—although some called that word “overused” in 2012 so, you know, maybe I’m just late to this. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book by JG Ballard (please don’t unsubscribe! ?). Perhaps some short story in a collection, I don’t know. Regardless, Ballard has been appearing left and right as I’ve been following and reading more futurists and discovering new scifi authors so he’s been repeatedly on my radar over the last few years. It feels like we’ve transitioned from “Gibsonian” to “Ballardian” in describing the current era. Since we seem to be living in Ballardian times, what better topic for the first Dispatch after this past March “decade”?

This is not a comprehensive list or an especially enlightened selection of articles, rather a good sampling lifted from my aforementioned radar to help me, and perhaps you, better understand him before diving into some of his actual writings.

BALLARDIAN: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (J.G. Ballard; born 1930), the British novelist, or his works. (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.
— Collins English Dictionary

Whe are living in JG Ballard’s world

As I was saying in the intro, these are Ballardian times and here Mark O’Connell reviews some of the author’s work and personal life to show us why there are so many parallels with his writing and our era, as well as some hints of how this “world view” and his recurring grand theme of “psychopathic violence” play into it. He also writes about the fact that Ballard was born and raised in the Shanghai International Settlement, which he wrote about in his novel and the movie it inspired, Empire of the Sun, giving us a glimpse as to how his early childhood informed the themes of his writing.

There are certain writers who, once you’ve read them, forever take possession of some part of your experience of the world. […]

But the writer who owns the largest part of the world right now is JG Ballard. He might not be as great a writer as those just mentioned, but much of our present reality now falls within the jurisdiction of Ballard’s imagination. […]

His 1977 story “The Intensive Care Unit” takes place in a world where humans live their entire lives in contented isolation, interacting with others, even their own immediate families, solely via cameras and screens. It delineates a way of life that is both intolerable to consider and uncomfortably close to our present reality. […]

His vision of the world was cheerfully bleak, and relentlessly anti-human: society as a thin and brittle construct that would always give way to a cruel and animalistic human nature. He was, as the Irish writer Rob Doyle puts it, “at heart a surrealist comedian and a perverse optimist: he wanted us to immerse in the destructive element, give free rein to the boundless psychopathology provoked by media technology.” […]

Several times over the last few weeks, between bouts of millenarian melancholy and unease, I have found myself regretting that the old boy is not around to see all this. Perhaps it’s not quite right to say he would have loved it – because who could love the world right now, in its drastically reduced circumstances – but it is surely true to say that he would have recognised it. He would have felt at home in this strange new existence.

‘Child of the Diaspora’: Sterling on Ballard

Old(ish) interview (2004) with Bruce Sterling about JGB. Interesting for that particular Sterling way of speaking, his often unique expressions, and because the questions center largely on scifi and Ballard’s place in it. Chairman Bruce’s perspective is fun to read, covering science, cyberpunk, Stanislaw Lem, the surreal, British New Wave, Italo Calvino, bohemias, Gibson, Burroughs, Mieville, and more. The last quoted insight is an important aspect, I think, in the use of “Ballardian,” about how our consensus reality really is just plain unsustainable. The last four or five years especially have been bearing this out.

He’s someone who really seems at ease in the science world, basically because he was writing for science magazines in the early years of bitter struggle. He knew how to get the stuff, translate it down, and pass it out to the readers of technical mags. So he’s not buffaloed by the material. He doesn’t go in for mystic scientism. He doesn’t dress things up in any kind of literary majesty or outrageous metaphors or phoney-baloney sideshows, style, extended similes. […]

And that’s an extrapolation, but it’s an extrapolation along the lines of madness. It involves someone thinking about the human reaction to technical innovation in a way which is not cut and dried. It’s not design thinking, it’s not science thinking, it’s not technical thinking, it’s not medical thinking – it’s really surreal thinking. […]

He just has better taste than most science-fiction writers. He’s better read than most science-fiction writers. He takes a coherent intellectual interest in things that aren’t science or technology or engineering. He’s cognisant of those things because he’s got a more variegated tool set. He’s better read. He’s a widely travelled guy. He’s a child of the diaspora. He grew up in China, mostly. He’s not a Little England kind of guy. There’s nothing parochial about him. He never succumbs to nationalist can’t. He’s not religious. He just has imagination on the cosmic scale. He’s a hard guy to surprise. […]

To me these late-Ballard pieces, these Shepperton pieces – Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and so forth – really seem like gentle chiding from somebody who’s recognised that his civilisation really has gone mad. They’re a series of repetitions that say, “Look, we’re heading for a world where consensus reality really is just plain unsustainable, and the ideas that the majority of our people hold in their heart of hearts are just not connected to reality”. I think that may be a very prophetic assessment on his part.

Why JG Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level

While it’s nominally a review of the movie version of High-Rise, the article also dives more broadly into Ballard’s writing. I’m including it here particularly for the description of “Ballardian space,” what he called “inner space.” This seems to go to one of the core aspects of what people refer to when using his books as descriptions / prospectives / commentary on today; that there is no “out there” and no private inner life, it’s all one landscape his characters operate in.

What links all of them is the exploration of gated communities, physical and psychological, a theme that is suggestive of Ballard’s childhood experiences interned by the Japanese in a prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Shanghai in the 1940s. It was, he always claimed, an experience he enjoyed. […]

Ballardian space – what he called “inner space” to differentiate it from the science fiction that concerned itself with distant planets and space rockets – is in fact a fusion of inner and outer space. There is no “out there” totally separate from his characters; just as there is no exclusively private, isolated inner life. His most psychologically fulfilled characters look to transcend their physical surroundings, however hostile, by embracing them. […]

The tower block and the wider city are conceived of as living organisms, of having a consciousness of their own. “Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them.” The calming lines of the rectilinear tower contrast with “the ragged skyline of the city” which “resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis”. […]

Ballard argued that “people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers – they’re moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves.” In this way, Ballardian environments actively select for psychopathic traits.

Gateways To Geekery, J.G. Ballard

At the AV Club, an overview of the author’s oeuvre with reading recommendations grouped as gateway, next steps, and where not to start. No great insight in there but pretty evocative descriptions which should help in deciding where to start.

[M]any challenging, unsettling themes recur obsessively throughout Ballard’s work, and can make his sprawling catalogue tough for newcomers: Armageddon, sexual deviance, the subjectivity of time, the thespian qualities of human identity, the spiritual liberation of flight, and above all, the barbarism pulsing just beneath the skin of civilized society. […]

Ballard used High-Rise to synthesize avant-garde science fiction with the sharp, clinical realism for which he would become known, a style partially a side effect, Ballard himself said, of the aborted medical studies of his youth. A cautionary tale minus the caution, High-Rise thrusts readers into an incest-ridden, cannibalistic labyrinth of the psyche that most never picture outside their own nightmares. […]

His detractors dismiss his detachment as dryness, but Ballard’s deadpan, hermetic voice keeps the overall tone far removed from histrionic social commentary. It’s also the ideal counterpoint to his metaphysical, phantasmagorical, and frequently savage flights of derangement. In High-Rise, all these vectors converge in ringing, horrific harmony. […]

Not only is The Crystal World Ballard’s first mature work, it’s a dizzying, brain-imploding parable of colonialism on a quantum level.

Theory Fiction

One of the things that keep popping up, in part because of our overlap in networks, is Simon SellarsApplied Ballardianism, “a memoir from a Parallel Universe.” It’s a PHD turned novel, somewhat autofiction, in which Ballard’s work is turned into “a new discipline, a new ideal for living.” You can learn more about this weird beast in this interview.

Reading up on that book I learned of the term “theory fiction,” of which it’s a prime example. New to me, but not new at all, it is a hybrid style, where “theory is torn down from its pedestal, the real power of fiction is affirmed, and both are released from the high forms of the academy.” It’s probably something I’ll come back to and have yet to research more deeply, but I decided to include some of the things I bumped into right away because it’s a rabbit hole some of you might also be interested in searching through.

I’ve also mentioned design fiction a number of times and while the two aren’t directly linked, it fits in this fascinating loose grouping merging fiction and practical use. Scifi writers writing scenarios for companies; foresight praxis delivered as storytelling; methods of design used to create diegetic prototypes; and here academic theory released or diffused in fiction.

Further Reading