Tag Archive for J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard’s Oddly Superfluous Autobiography

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography
J. G. Ballard
Fourth Estate, 2008

In his peak writing years, those three decades between The Drowned World (1962) and The Kindness of Women (1991), J. G. Ballard was a writer who seldom failed to surprise. During his final decade of writing fiction, however, stretching from Cocaine Nights (1996) to Kingdom Come (2006), which bracketed Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), he seemed to be writing virtually the same book over and over again, retaining essentially the same cast of characters (but changing the names) and slightly altering the settings from vaguely fascistic suburban resort enclaves along the Mediterranean coast to vaguely fascistic English suburbs and shopping malls. Like Beethoven with his 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Ballard, with his final quartet of novels, obsessively pursued variations on a theme, far more narrowly than he had earlier in his career.

Yet, with the last book he completed prior to his death in 2009, Miracles of Life, Ballard managed to spring a final surprise on his reading public. Word that the writer was working on his autobiography raised excited anticipation – so much of Ballard’s fiction had either been heavily autobiographical (Empire of the Sun [1984] and The Kindness of Women) or fantastically extrapolated from incidents in his life (Crash [1973] and The Unlimited Dream Company [1979]), that his readers (this reader certainly included) could hardly wait to have the wizard pull aside the curtain and reveal, once and for all, which elements of his fictions had been based on his life experiences and which had been fully imagined.

The final surprise this prodigiously talented writer, with his unique voice and viewpoint, managed to spring was that he wrote such an unrevealing, limp, and therefore superfluous autobiography as his last testament. The scanty revelations the book contains could have been assembled into a medium-length magazine article. We do learn a good bit about his parents, who, as characters, remained mostly off-stage (for novelistic reasons) in Empire of the Sun. We learn that he met his wife, Mary, at a party given by fellow science fiction writers and fans, members of the circle surrounding New Worlds, not long after he started publishing his earliest stories in that magazine. We are also granted a fairly detailed portrait of Ballard’s long friendship with fellow writer Kingsley Amis (father of Martin), author of such post-war English classics as Lucky Jim, as well as an amusing anecdote regarding a lunch with the publisher of The Drowned World, Victor Gollancz, who assumed out loud that Ballard had cribbed his novel from Heart of Darkness (when Ballard hadn’t yet read a word of Joseph Conrad’s).

So the book has its pleasures. Yet, for any readers who are familiar with Empire of the Sun, based on Ballard’s childhood years in Shanghai and the Lunghua camp run by the Japanese military, and The Kindness of Women, based on his life from the last days of World War Two through the filming of Steven Spielberg’s movie version of Empire of the Sun in 1987, Miracles of Life will come as a repetitive, mostly airless reading experience. This is because, with the exceptions I’ve listed above, Ballard’s autobiography repeats the sequences of events in his two earlier novels, but in much less vividly described fashion.

When I recently read the autobiography, I hadn’t read either of the novels since they had first appeared in the U.S., twenty-eight and twenty-one years ago. Intrigued by many of the autobiography’s somewhat sketchy portraits of his friends and intimates during his years living in Shepperton, I decided to reread The Kindness of Women immediately afterward. I was very surprised – on the verge of shocked – to find that whole passages had been transposed, either verbatim or close to it, from the earlier novel to the autobiography. Ballard had plagiarized himself. Passages of The Kindness of Women which reappear in Miracles of Life include descriptions of Ballard’s service in the Royal Air Force, receiving flight training in rural Canada, and descriptions of his instigation of an art installation of crashed cars and his subsequent personal car crash, prior to the publication of Crash. The description of the filming of Shanghai-set scenes of Empire of the Sun in a suburban neighborhood adjoining Shepperton in Kindness is also repeated nearly verbatim in Miracles.

The autobiography also suffers from a lack of detail on matters not directly addressed in the two semi-autobiographical novels. Readers get very little sense of the personalities of Ballard’s wife Mary or his partner of forty years, Claire Bloom, and his three children are cyphers, not individualized at all (although he does spend a good deal of the book speaking to how grateful he was for their presence in his life). Particularly disappointing to science fiction fans (in The Kindness of Women, the Ballard-figure protagonist is not identified as having any connection with the literature of science fiction at all) has to be the author’s very sketchy portrayal of his most important and long-lasting friendship in the science fiction world, that with Michael Moorcock. Moorcock and Ballard were central to British participation in science fiction’s New Wave, and their friendship and collaboration thus has a good bit of historical interest attached. How sad, then, that this relationship is given such short shrift in Miracles of Life. I suppose we must now depend upon Michael Moorcock to provide a fuller picture, should he ever choose to do so.

Why did Ballard choose to write Miracles of Life during his last year, considering that, at best, it merely recapitulates scenarios previously (and far more vividly) described in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, offering very little in the way of additional insight into the famed writer? I can postulate as to a few possible motivations. Having been diagnosed with severe prostate cancer, he may have wanted to set out for himself a fresh project to devote his remaining energies to, a goal which would give him reason to continue getting out of his sick bed each morning; perhaps another novel was not forthcoming, and a career-capping autobiography seemed the only alternative. Knowing that interest in such an autobiography would be fairly high (although the book has yet to find an American publisher), he may have wanted to provide a final boost to the monetary inheritance he would provide for Claire Booth and his children. A third motive? Over the prior decade, Ballard had shown a proclivity towards playing variations on a theme. Perhaps Miracles of Life was a continuation of this proclivity, a (slight) variation on the themes he had already expressed in his two semi-autobiographical novels.

With Ballard having died a year after his writing of his autobiography, we will never know his actual motivation for what on the surface seems an odd choice for a project to cap his luminous career.

I’ve also written about J. G. Ballard’s works elsewhere:

It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It

The Thrill of the New: The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World

The Thrill of the New

a tree springing from a sandy beach; or is it a mutant piece of driftwood?

I recently visited the Leesylvania State Park in Virginia for the first time. At the park’s eastern edge, I was granted vistas of the Potomac River like none I’d ever seen before. I had a sense of what has been called “the thrill of the new” – that wave of pleasure that can overtake you when you find yourself in the presence of something familiar enough to be comprehensible, yet alien enough to force you make you truly notice it, to struggle to find referents within your experience that help make sense of this new pattern or sensation. Our minds enjoy being worked. Not overwhelmed, but challenged.

gnats caught in a spider's web

I took a pair of snapshots that help illustrate, for me, at least, this “thrill of the new,” this invitation to see familiar forms arranged in strange, unexpected ways. The upper one, the tree on the river’s beach, looked like a piece of driftwood the Potomac had deposited on the sand, which had then magically elongated into a full-grown tree, growing where no tree should be able to take root. The lower photo is of several dozen gnats caught on a spider’s web. Due to the angle at which I approached the web, with the gray-white sky and the gray-blue river behind it, the web disappeared from view, leaving only its captive contents visible – dead insects that seemed to form a cartoon sketch of a one-eyed, dancing man.

As a species, we seem to be powerfully drawn to new sensations. Researchers have identified that one of the key differences between our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens sapiens, and other species of hominids, such as Homo neaderthalis, was our ancestors’ refusal to allow natural barriers to cut off their exploration and expansion. Our ancestors found ways to ford rivers, to cross oceans, and to scale walls of mountains. What drove them forward? Scientists speculate it was an insatiable desire for the new. Recent genetic research on the remains of our ancestors, both direct and indirect, indicate that members of Homo sapiens sapiens pursued sexual relations with any creature that even vaguely resembled them – not only Neanderthals, but other contemporaneous hominids, as well, such as Homo erectus and Homo habilis. There is even speculation that the emotion that drove the earliest seafarers to take the mind-bending risk of sailing their tiny craft beyond the sight of land was a hunger for the new, particularly new types of sexual partners. When they reached Australia from the shores of Asia, they must have been sorely disappointed… unless some experimented with kangaroos or koala bears.

Yet people also have a countervailing need for the comforts of familiarity, especially when they find themselves in new and possibly threatening environments. Social researchers and psychologists have investigated a possible connection between Americans’ high level of mobility (their proclivity for moving from state to state) and their love of chain stores. The upshot? As much as Americans may gain economic advantages and aesthetic pleasures from experiencing the sights and attractions of a new home town, this exposure to newness and the stress it causes makes them prone to seek out the comfort of the familiar, such as dinners from Applebee’s and stone-washed chinos from the Gap.

As both a novelist and a reader of novels, I am constantly in search of the thrill of the new (not necessarily kangaroo sex, mind you). For what is the original meaning of the word novel? I very rarely read any fantasy set in Tolkien-style secondary worlds, because I find much of it to be repetitive and overly derivative of earlier books. It bores me. It too often fails to surprise or delight. For many readers, however, this is a feature, not a bug; they prefer books which feel profoundly familiar and homey. The familiarity and predictability are comforting and reassuring, perhaps a welcome balance to other aspects of those readers’ daily lives, which may not be comforting or reassuring at all. I’m not immune to a desire for literary “comfort food;” I take mine in the form of comic books, which, if they are to be truly satisfying, must remind me at least somewhat of the comics I read in the 1970s, when they were a refuge for me from strife at home and at school. When it comes to comics, I like the sense of hanging out with old friends from childhood. But I tend to like my fantasy to be more challenging. The thrill of Gene Wolfe’s The Books of the New Sun, for example, was that he took so many very familiar elements – the epic quest, the magical sword, the commoner who might someday be king – and spun them into a multi-volume adventure of personal discovery unlike any the genre had seen before.

As a writer, supplying the thrill of the new can be like walking a tightrope, however – lean too far one way and you risk the boredom of over-familiarity, but lean too far the other and you may plunge yourself and your would-be readers into the chasm of a lack of referents, a dark whirlpool of unfamiliarity. In my twenties, I went through a period when I was mad for anything Beat. I read book after book by Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsburg, and their legion of friends, plus scads of biographies and memoirs. After reading the early novels of William S. Burroughs, I picked up a copy of his Naked Lunch with great anticipation. Yet I wasn’t able to force myself to read more than forty pages. It was too alien. It lacked referents, handholds for me to grab hold of as I traversed its pages. Reading it quickly became a wearisome mental exercise of forcing streams of words through my head and struggling to make sense of them… not an activity conducive to the desired altered state of consciousness we call “losing oneself in a good book.”

Aside from the aforementioned Gene Wolfe, which writers have been the most successful at walking the tightrope and eliciting the thrill of the new for me? The two writers who have been the most consistent at performing that trick, over a great number of books and an equal number of years, stretching from my early teen days to my present middle age, have been J. G. Ballard and Robert Silverberg.

Ballard spent much of his childhood overwhelmed by the new — the life-threatening new experiences of the Japanese conquest of Shanghai and its European quarter, the crumbling of the Eurocentric society he’d grown up in, his family’s transfer to a prison camp at Lunghua, and the eventual Japanese military defeat. Upon his return to England after the war, he became fascinated by the Surrealist painters. He also embarked upon a course of reading medicine at a university; he never completed a medical degree, but he was forced to confront the human body from a vertigo-inducing new perspective, and the coldly precise, oftentimes merciless language of medical journals insinuated itself into much of his fiction.

His sold his earliest stories to science fiction magazines, most prominently to New Worlds, soon to be edited by Michael Moorcock. He dedicated himself to the exploration of “inner space” as opposed to “outer space,” stories that focused on the psychological impacts of bizarre alterations in human experiences of time and their physical environments. His first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961), written in less than a half a month, was a fairly conventional disaster novel about hurricane-force winds that envelop much of Earth and drive civilization to the brink of extinction. Its most significant impact was that its sale allowed Ballard to become a full-time writer.

His next three novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964; also known as The Drought), and The Crystal World (1966), were also disaster novels. But they were an entirely different sort of book than the hastily written and mundanely plotted The Wind from Nowhere. With these books, Ballard expanded his explorations of Freudian and Jungian psychology and the visual inversions of his short stories, inspired by the Surrealists, into long form. Rather than present heroes who struggle against the dislocations and social and personal breakdowns brought on by overwhelming, worldwide environmental disaster, Ballard painted protagonists who not only surrendered to the entropy flooding in all around them, but who welcomed it, because it fulfilled their deepest psychological needs and desires.

No prior science fiction disaster novels had been written from such a perspective. Ballard’s determined rejection of the “heroic, problem-solving engineer” protagonists of much American and British science fiction since the time of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction scandalized many writers and critics in the science fiction field. The scandalized included noted writer and reviewer Algis Budrys, who had this to say about Ballard’s disaster novels in the December, 1966 issue of Galaxy:

“A story by J. G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think. One begins with characters who regard the physical universe as a mysterious and arbitrary place, and who would not dream of trying to understand its actual laws. Furthermore, in order to be the protagonist of a J.G. Ballard novel, or anything more than a very minor character therein, you must have cut yourself off from the entire body of scientific education. In this way, when the world disaster — be it wind or water — comes upon you, you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it. Even more further, some force has acted to remove from the face of the world all people who might impose good sense or rational behavior on you, so that the disaster proceeds unchecked and unopposed except by the almost inevitable thumb-rule engineer type who for his individual comfort builds a huge pyramid (without huge footings) to resist high winds, or trains a herd of alligators and renegade divers to help him out in dealing with deep water.”

The passage of time and the impacts of his influence in the works of subsequent writers have rubbed the transgressive edge from Ballard’s early-career disaster novels. Unless a reader is pretty much a virgin to the SF field, he or she will be unable to experience The Drowned World with the same fresh eyes and sense of dislocation that a typical reader of 1962 would have, just as enthusiasts of classical music can no longer hear Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring with the same ears as those employed by the audiences of 1913. However, thanks to Ballard’s extraordinary mastery of visual imagery, these three books still powerfully conjure a trio of bewilderingly changed Earths and manage to deliver on that treasured “thrill of the new.”

Perhaps a bit ironically, Ballard’s final four novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006), were so similar to one another, thematically and stylistically, that I found myself enjoying them in sequence much the same way a voracious reader of Agatha Christie’s mysteries would her connected works — as familiar, comfortable fictive “pillows” on which to rest my weary head. Ah, yes: that typical Ballardian hero, so indecisive, so alienated from himself, his family, his lovers, and his environs, so easily influenced by anyone with a powerful agenda; that restless professional and middle class, searching hungrily for fresh transgressions to shock them out of their stifling ennui; that gorgeous, off-kilter evocation of high-crust suburbia… I’ve read it all before, but I’m happy to read it again and again! Still, a retreat to a comfortable rut on Ballard’s part in his late career in no way diminishes the impact of his early disaster novels or such iconic mid-career works as Crash. (Bonus: here’s a graphic artist’s examination of the effectiveness of the cover art and designs of Ballard’s many books.)

One novel from my teen years that never fails to reward me no matter how many times I reread it is Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings (1969), a fix-up of three novellas, “Nightwings,” “Perris Way,” and “To Jorslem,” all published (I believe) in Galaxy between 1968 and 1969. The thrill of the new provided by Silverberg’s novel is the sense of Earth’s human civilization as almost incalculably ancient, humanity having millennia ago achieved its apogee as a star-spanning race that conquered and enslaved multitudes of other sentient species, confining individuals from them in terrestrial zoos, but having since fallen back so far that the residents of Earth, no longer star travelers, now fear being conquered themselves by the descendants of those they had made zoo exhibits. Other books that I’ve read have also reached for this effect, some of them with a good measure of success (I’d list Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse as chief among these), but none have managed it with the poetic weightiness, the sense of the passing of hundreds and hundreds of centuries with their accumulation of dust and detritus, sorrow and regret, that Silverberg so masterfully achieves with just the first few pages of Nightwings. Perhaps the effect would be better described as “the thrill of the ancient” than “the thrill of the new,” but it was certainly new, thrillingly so, to me back in 1976, when I purchased my Avon reprint of the novel.

Experiencing the thrill of the new, just like experiencing the fabled “sense of wonder,” becomes more difficult as a reader grows older and acquires more and more notches on his or her reading belt. Techniques that were so fresh and startling, viewpoints that were initially so strange and wonderful may lose their glow with repeated exposure. Not too long ago, I set out to read Robert Silverberg’s novels of the 1960s and early 1970s that I had somehow missed. I was very curious how I would respond to these books at this point in my reading life. Would I enjoy them, but in that “cozy, comfortable old flannel shirt” sort of way in which I had enjoyed Ballard’s final novels? Or could I possibly respond to any of them in the same way I had responded to Nightwings as a young teenager?

Maybe nothing could captivate me now the way Nightwings affected me back in 1976. But I must say, Downward to the Earth (1970) came darned close. It is the story of a human ex-colonizer, Edmund Gunderson, who travels to revisit the planet where he had once served as colonial overseer to work crews of sentient elephant-like beings and sentient giant sloth-like beings. Since his last stay there, the planet has been returned to the sovereignty of its native life forms, so he arrives as a tourist, not a master. I found Gunderson’s journey of personal discovery among the nildoror and the sulidoror, his learning of the link between the two species, a link neither he nor any of the other colonists, save one, had ever suspected, and the natives’ eventual acceptance of him and provision for his needs to be extremely moving. Not merely moving, but exhilarating because of its freshness. Its intimations of William Conrad’s Heart of Darkness added to the wonder and strangeness, in part because Silverberg’s book ends in an entirely different emotional zone than Conrad’s classic novella does. “The horror! The horror!” is still present, but it becomes inverted by the end of Silverberg’s novel, and quite wonderfully so.

To have provided me, a jaded, middle-aged SF fan who has read hundreds of novels and stories, who has written eight novels of his own, with the thrill of the new — and to have done so with a forty-year-old book… I must tip my cap to you, Mr. Silverberg. Well played, sir! Well played!

And how marvelous to discover that I am still capable of reading with the eyes, ears, and imagination of a twelve-year-old.

Friday Fun Links: Science Fiction Movements and Manifestos!

the Futurians in 1938, with Fred Pohl in the middle row, second from right

I walked out of the house this morning and into the delicious crispness of the first day of fall (ignore what the calendar says; I say it’s summer when I want iced coffee and fall when I want my coffee hot — and I wanted my coffee hot this morning). Fall is books season! And, for a science fiction fan, how better to kick off books season than to dive into decades of fun hoo-hah over SF movements and literary manifestos?

I love to classify things. It’s fun! One of my earliest pleasures was to pour through tomes on dinosaurs and separate out the carnivores from the herbivores, the sauropods from the theropods, etc. Some of the biggest attractants for me to books on naval history and naval architecture were the fine distinctions between protected cruisers, belted cruisers, scout cruisers, armored cruisers, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, and battlecruisers (not to mention submarine cruisers and dynamite cruisers, those endearing oddities).

Lots of SF fans share my mania for classification and taxonomy. And since most professional SF writers have gotten their starts as fans (at least since the days of the Futurians), science fiction has been a fertile playground for those practitioners and armchair theorists who wished to divide between this and that (and oftentimes between us and them, which is when things get really juicy). Sometimes, science fiction movements have been primarily attempts by publishers to goose the market by publicizing “the new hot thing.” But far more often, movements and manifestos have erupted from the passions of fans and writers themselves, flourished or fizzled in the hothouse world of magazine letter columns, fanzines, prozines, scholarly journals, blogs, and convention discussion panels, then mellowed later into tasty subjects for historians and obsessives of the field.

Judith Merril

The first genuine movement to have arisen from science fiction (or from science fiction fandom, to be more exact) was that of the Futurians. Much of what we think of as modern science fiction would either not exist or would be radically different had it not been for literary lives of the young men and women who numbered themselves among the Futurians’ ranks in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril, Cyril Kornbluth, James Blish, and Isaac Asimov. For a bit of entertaining deep background on the roots of SF fandom, check out this excerpt (entries beginning with the letter F) from the Fancyclopedia; make special note of articles on Numerical Fandoms, Feuds, and the Futurians. Here’s an article on Fred Pohl’s involvement with the Futurians, and the man himself has written a great deal on those fabulous days of yesteryear, both in his memoir The Way the Future Was and his highly entertaining blog, The Way the Future Blogs (both highly recommended!). Andrew Milner and Robert Savage wrote about the Futurians as the vanguard of utopianism in 1930s SF, and Paul Malmont has blogged movingly on the Futurians and the joys of being involved in the wars and controversies of fandom. Bruce Sterling, lead theorist and popularizer of a more recent movement in science fiction, has claimed the Futurians as direct ancestors of the cyberpunks and lists the infamous 1939 raid by the Secret Service of a communal apartment occupied by the Futurians as part of his Chronology of the Hacker Crackdown.

Michael Moorcock

Harlan Ellison

One of the Futurians, Judith Merril, played a key role in the next major movement to arise from science fiction, the New Wave of the 1960s, a literary and cultural reaction against the vision of science fiction embodied by Astounding/Analog editor John W. Campbell (whose influence on the field was so monumental, he might be considered a one-man movement all on his lonesome). Other leading figures of the New Wave included Michael Moorcock, editor of the key and highly influential British magazine New Worlds; J. G. Ballard, author of classic explorations of “inner space” The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World, and The Atrocity Exhibition; and Harlan Ellison, outspoken editor of landmark anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Plenty of polemics and manifestos were published by the movement’s supporters (and detractors); unfortunately, since these were written in the pre-Internet age, much of this material must be hunted down in analog form (here is a helpful bibliography of key documents from the period, including essays by Judith Merril and Harlan Ellison, as well as a listing of essential works of fiction from the period). Here’s a recap of a recent reunion of a number of New Wave luminaries, a July, 2011 event at the British Library featuring Brian Aldiss, John Clute, Michael Moorcock, and Norman Spinrad.

Bruce Sterling

Following all the tumult promulgated by the rolling in (and receding) of the New Wave, science fiction entered a backwards-looking phase in the latter half of the 1970s, dominated by the triumph of Star Wars (an homage to the Edmund Hamilton and Leigh Brackett space operas of the 1930s) and, on the publishing side, by Betty Ballantine’s decision to commission big, fat fantasy novels written in the Tolkien tradition. However, the conservative reaction did not reign unopposed for long. A fresh movement, representing a whole new attitude, outlook, and aesthetic sensibility, burst on the scene in 1984 with the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Two years later, the young cyberpunk movement found its chief polemicist in Bruce Sterling, who threw down a gauntlet to the rest of the SF field in his Introduction to the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades. Here Bruce Sterling looks back at cyberpunk in the Nineties.

Cyberpunk had a good run, but even it eventually came to taste somewhat stale. By 2002, Norman Spinrad was kvetching in the pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction about a lack of recent, exciting movements in science fiction. Lawrence Person had written some notes toward a post-cyberpunk manifesto back in 1999, but not too many appeared ready to jump on that bandwagon. However, Norman need not have been so concerned. The decade of the 2000s would be replete with SF movements, great and small.

China Mieville

Like a many-tentacled horror from the unspeakable depths of Lovecraftian space, the New Weird slithered onto the scene, brought to you by those shambling monstrosities Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville, and Paul DiFilippo, among other horrors from another dimension. Much excited chatter ensued, academics rushed to dictate The Higher Meaning of It All, and literary hipsters looked to glom onto it as the Happening Thing. But by the time the San Antonio Current was announcing “Something Weird This Way Comes,” inviting its readers in 2010 to “meet the 21st century’s new literary movement” (just a half decade late to the party), other critics were busy debunking the New Weird as a commercially viable publishing label. And other commentators stooped to terrible puns, a sure sign of the New Weird’s loss of prestige.

Around the same time as the New Weird’s inital fling with fame, Geoff Ryman was announcing his Mundane Manifesto to the Clarion Class of 2004, suggesting that science fiction should turn away from what he described as the impossible (FTL travel; time travel; alternate histories) to concentrate on the future of the possible. In case that poor quality scan of Ryman’s text hurts your eyes, Rudy Rucker explains matters in a more visually appealing format, and Ian Hocking expands further, providing additional helpful links. Mundane SF has its own blog. Finally, the always helpful Science Fiction Research Association has its say.

The tenets of the New Wave never really died; they just acquired a jazzier title: Slipstream. Proving yet again that he is one of the field’s indispensable polemicists, our old friend Bruce Sterling wrote the seminal essay on Slipstream fiction in 1989. Matthew Cheney celebrated Slipstream as the slayer of science fiction, gleefully dancing on SF’s grave in 2005. All the cool kids seemed to be going for it, but a few expressed doubts about Slipstream being a meaningful category at all. Recently, Lev Grossman decided he doesn’t like the term, politely requesting, “Can’t we rename this nerdy literary movement?”

One movement of the 2000s that has proven to be both a magnificently fertile font of discussion AND a commercially viable subcategory is Steampunk, which has spread from the literary SF world to the allied realms of filmmaking, visual arts, costuming, and role play. It, too, has had its manifesto. In fact, multiple manifestos.

Website SF Signal hosted a “Mind Meld” in September, 2010, asking a panel of experts, “What’s The Next Big Trend/Movement in SF/F Literature?” In addition to their suggestions, we may wish to mull the following contenders in the always inventive realm of SF manifestos and would-be movements:

the Ribofunk Manifesto;
the Positive Science Fiction Manifesto (this one has already generated an anthology);
the Scifaiku Manifesto;
the RocketPunk Manifesto;
the SquidPunk Manifesto;
the New Comprehensible Movement;
and, lest we forget, the New Space Princess Movement.

By the way, I recently made my own suggestion.

Cory Doctorow

Then there’s Cory Doctorow’s thing. Information should be free? The anti-copyright movement has repercussions far outside the field of science fiction, but it can be said to have SF roots. Movement theorist Doctorow explains himself in 29 absolutely free, non-DRM-shackled chapters.

While we’re waiting for the Next Big Thing to emerge, here are some anthologies to enjoy regarding various Former Big Things:

Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, a Team Supreme

England Swings SF edited by Judith Merril (out of print, unfortunately, but well worth searching for)
The New Worlds Anthology edited by Michael Moorcock
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology edited by Greg Bear
Rewired: the Post-Cyberpunk Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
The New Weird edited by Ann VanderMeer
Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Shine: an Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction edited by Jetse de Vries

Friday Fun Links: It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It

Yes, indeedy. After the events of this week, who can deny that J. G. Ballard is enjoying a wry chuckle from the grave? His final novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006), along with earlier works such as High-Rise (1975) and Running Wild (1988), pretty much laid out the full scenario for the four days and nights of rioting, looting, and arson which convulsed London and other English cities this week.

As soon as news of the London rioting hit CNN, I held my breath and began counting down the seconds before some British journalist would fill in the dots between the civil unrest and the oeuvre of England’s most acclaimed and significant postwar writer. It didn’t take long. (I was never in danger of self-suffocation.)

Readers familiar with Ballard’s final quartet of novels, all of which feature middle class professionals either diving into or being pulled into revolutionary, nihilistic violence due to ennui, boredom, or a cancerlike consumerism which has replaced religion and patriotism at the center of their psyches, will certainly nod with recognition at this article from The Daily Mail, which reveals that arrested looters and rioters included a law student, a social worker, a ballerina in training, and the school-age daughter of a millionnaire.

Coincidence or karma? Ballard’s penultimate novel, Millennium People, published in the U.K. in 2003, was finally released in a U.S. edition just last month. It features middle class professionals in suburban London instigating terrorism and revolution in an effort to shock a sense of meaning back into their lives. Several reviews appeared in major U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Seattle Times, just a day or two before the London riots broke out. I’m sure the reviewers whacked their foreheads with their palms and wished their deadlines had been just a couple of days later so that they could have infused their articles with the weightiness of current world events. Here’s Ballard himself talking about what he was up to with Millennium People, plus a lengthy, insightful, but unfortunately undated review from Open Letters Monthly called, presciently, “On the Barricades with the Bourgeoisie.”

There don’t appear to be any plans to soon publish Ballard’s final novel, Kingdom Come, in the U.S., although that may change following this week’s events. I suppose it will hinge on the sales performance of Millennium People. If the book doesn’t appear in the States, that would truly be a shame, because I think it features some of Ballard’s funniest and wittiest writing since Crash, which, if you read it in the right way, is a snarkingly funny book. Here’s a fairly recent review of the novel, focusing on the book’s savage critique of consumerism. And here’s Rob Latham’s in-depth look at Ballard’s final three books, including Kingdom Come, The Complete Stories, and Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography, nicely entitled “A Malaise Deeper Than Shopping.”

Theodore Dalrymple, author of Our Culture, What’s Left of It: the Mandarins and the Masses, has been writing about the slow decline of the English peoples for as long as there’s been an Internet. In 2008 he wrote an impassioned article for City Journal on the connections between Ballard’s visions and the state of English society. He focused on a key element to understanding Ballard’s take on social psychopathology: Ballard’s experiences as a boy prisoner in the Lunghua concentration camp in Japanese-occupied China, a micro-society where feral children exercised much more autonomy and power than their authority-stripped parents could. This week, he wrote another article for City Journal, this time commenting on the English riots. Anyone who enjoys a strong dose of “I-told-you-so, damn-it!” owes it to himself to read this piece. It tracks fairly closely with my own observations and musings, posted yesterday.

Here’s an academic paper drawing connections between one of Ballard’s earliest novels, the classic The Drowned World, and the Hurricane Katrina flooding disaster in New Orleans. And here’s an examination of a mid-career Ballard novel, High-Rise, which directly presages his final quartet of “English anarchic revolution” books.

I did entitle this post “Friday Fun Links,” so here’s a little fun:

Ballard’s childhood home in Shanghai gets turned into an upscale restaurant

For travelers to Shanghai, a guide to visiting sites mentioned in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun

For those of you who simply can’t get enough Ballard (and I hope that’s most of you), here are some additional goodies:

Three websites which offer a smorgasbord of Ballard bits–JGBallard.com, JGBallard.ca, and, my favorite, Ballardian.com (which features a stupendous article on Ballard’s literary obsession with Elizabeth Taylor)

Ballard’s Paris Review interview from 1984

Links to excerpts from Re:Search Publications’ marvelous selection of books on Ballard, including Re:Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard, J. G. Ballard: Conversations, and J. G. Ballard: Quotes

Links to photographic portfolios of Ballardian landscapes

Have a Ballardian weekend!

Friday Fun Links: Weird and Wonderful Abandoned Stuff

the Victoria Baths in Manchester, England

I am a big geek for the esthetics of ruins and the magnetism of abandoned places. I have been ever since my father started taking me to see the derelict Art Deco hotels of South Miami Beach in the 1970s, a decade before the massive gentrification of that Depression Era resort neighborhood got rolling. I just love this stuff. The crumbling Art Deco hotels with their drained or murky swimming pools led me straight to the weird, entropic apocalypses of J. G. Ballard, in whose books I always felt at home. He loved drained swimming pools, too.

Here are some links I can heartily recommend:

For a big dose of the Ballardian esthetic, here’s a set of photos of abandoned Soviet and U.S. space technology, gloriously rusting away.

Since it’s summertime, and we’re talking about J. G. Ballard, here’s a portfolio of abandoned swimming pools.

Cross J. G. Ballard with Ralph Kramden and you get… abandoned bowling alleys.

Cross Ballard with Gloria Swanson and you get (of course) abandoned movie theaters.

abandoned underground Soviet nuclear submarine pen

Cross Ballard with the Mole Man and you get incredibly weird abandoned underground installations.

Hurricane Katrina, by flooding Six Flags New Orleans, upped my awareness of the strange beauty of abandoned amusement parks.

Speaking of amusement parks and tourist attractions, the Florida of my boyhood days was chock full of them. Most of them are gone now, driven out of business by the Big Mouse. This site allowed me to revisit old favorites, long gone, such as Pirates World, the Miami Wax Museum (I had a great uncle who worked there), Circus World, and the Stars Hall of Fame.

Here’s an entire resort region that has been abandoned, the Salton Sea in California. Created by a hydrological mistake, the result of a dam accident, it thrived in the 1950s and 1960s, only to be doomed by its lack of natural fresh water replenishment, which turned the artificial sea into a salt bowl and killed off all its fish, leading to nearly all of its surrounding communities becoming ghost towns.

A massive movie set created for men in monster suits to destroy for a Godzilla film? No–it’s the Japanese island of Gunkanjima, also known as Battleship Island. Once a thriving coal industry city, the island was abandoned for years, officially off limits. Only now are people allowed to begin to return.

Because I’m also a naval buff, I had to include this site devoted to abandoned shipwreck sites, including an amazingly cool Soviet big-gun cruiser wrecked off the coast of Norway and left to rust.

Something abandoned that the local populace now wants to reclaim–the ironclad breastwork monitor H.M.V.S. Cerberus, built in 1868 for the Royal Australian Navy, sunk as a breakwater in Half Moon Bay in 1926. Now, after decades of pounding seas have crumbled the old hulk, there’s a campaign to save her.

Lastly, an abandoned artifact of a different sort–a script written by Alfred Hitchcock for a murder mystery film that was never released.

Now go abandon yourself to some good old-fashioned time wasting!

Farewell to the Space Age As We Knew It


It’s over.

With the final launch of the last of the space shuttles today, we are witnessing the end of “NASA Classic,” manned missions into space aboard vehicles designed and built by the government-space-industrial complex. An age that began in 1960, four years before I was born, is coming to a close.

That’s not to say that Americans will never again travel into space, or that they will only do so as passengers on rockets built by other nations. But whenever Americans eventually return to space, it will be thanks to a mode of development and procurement far different from the top-down, heavily bureaucratic, NASA-centric model we’ve been familiar with up till now.

It’s odd for me to think that the last moon voyage is as historically distant to my boys as the final years of the Herbert Hoover Administration were to me when I was their age. They haven’t yet thought to ask me why we stopped going to the moon; not even Levi, my oldest, who has shown a strong interest in astronomy and the planets. Whenever they get around to asking, I suppose I’ll answer, “We stopped going because we’d done it already. We brought back our moon rocks. Just like the shirt says — ‘My parents went to the moon, and all I got was these dumb rocks and bragging rights to beating the Soviet Union.'”

I’ll tell them we’ll go back to the moon when we have a real reason to go back. Meaning, whenever someone figures out how to make money from going there and doing things there.

In the meantime, we have J. G. Ballard and Barry N. Malzberg to read.

Younger SF fans may not realize this (nor particularly care), but there was a time when both those authors were regarded by many “traditional” SF readers, those who venerated Campbell’s Astounding and Heinlein and Van Vogt, as heretics, traitors to the true faith of science fiction. Because they didn’t believe the hype of the Space Age. Because they, unlike most of their peers, predicted it would be a transitory phase, that the public and the sponsoring governments would grow bored of it, and that it would ultimately prove to be far more expensive than we were willing to pay, given the limited goals set forth. They also anticipated that organizational and personal pathologies would be among the factors to grind the Space Age to a halt.

Ballard, great fan of the Surrealists, left us painterly images of the ruins of the Space Age, stories set in a Cape Kennedy as abandoned and desolate as Chernobyl. Gary Westfahl has a perceptive essay on this.

Ballard, unfortunately, did not live long enough to watch the final Space Shuttle flight lift off today. Barry Malzberg, however, is still very much with us. His trio of early 1970s novels on the collapse of the space program, Beyond Apollo, The Falling Astronauts, and Revelations, focused on how the intersections of the bureaucratic rigidities of NASA, the psychological vulnerabilities of the astronauts, and the unforeseen terrors of the extraterrestrial environment would lead to personal and organizational disaster and decay. Barry’s biggest “I-told-you-so” moment came in 2007, when NASA astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak drove cross country wearing a diaper and packing a BB gun to assault her rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. If Hollywood ever makes a bio pic based on Lisa Marie Nowak’s story, Barry should get an acknowledgement in the credits.

Barry, in observance of the day, I raise a glass of Tang in your honor!

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