An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
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London W6 8JB
This edition published by Fourth Estate in 2014
First published in Great Britain by Flamingo in 2001
This collection copyright © J. G. Ballard 2001
Most of the stories in this book previously appeared in the following collections:
The Terminal Beach © J. G. Ballard 1964; The Disaster Area © J. G. Ballard 1967; The Day of Forever © J. G. Ballard 1967; The Atrocity Exhibition © J. G. Ballard 1969; Vermilion Sands © J. G. Ballard 1971; Low-Flying Aircraft © J. G. Ballard 1976; The Venus Hunters © J. G. Ballard 1980; Myths of the Near Future © J. G. Ballard 1982; War Fever © J. G. Ballard 1990
The following stories have not previously appeared in a collection of J. G. Ballard’s stories:
‘The Recognition’ © J. G. Ballard 1967; ‘A Guide to Virtual Death’ © J. G. Ballard 1992; ‘The Message from Mars’ © J. G. Ballard 1992; ‘Report from an Obscure Planet’ © J. G. Ballard 1992
The right of J. G. Ballard to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.
Introduction © Adam Thirlwell 2014
Interview © Travis Elborough 2004
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Cover by Stanley Donwood
Ebook Edition © APRIL 2014 ISBN: 9780007513611
Introduction by Adam Thirlwell
Prisoner of the Coral Deep
The Lost Leonardo
The Terminal Beach
The Illuminated Man
The Delta at Sunset
The Drowned Giant
The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon
The Volcano Dances
The Beach Murders
The Day of Forever
The Impossible Man
Tomorrow is a Million Years
The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race
Cry Hope, Cry Fury!
The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D
Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan
The Dead Astronaut
The Comsat Angels
The Killing Ground
A Place and a Time to Die
Say Goodbye to the Wind
The Greatest Television Show on Earth
My Dream of Flying to Wake Island
The Air Disaster
The Life and Death of God
Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown
The 60 Minute Zoom
The Dead Time
The Intensive Care Unit
Theatre of War
Having a Wonderful Time
One Afternoon at Utah Beach
A Host of Furious Fancies
News from the Sun
Memories of the Space Age
Myths of the Near Future
Report on an Unidentified Space Station
The Object of the Attack
Answers to a Questionnaire
The Man Who Walked on the Moon
The Secret History of World War 3
Love in a Colder Climate
The Enormous Space
The Largest Theme Park in the World
A Guide to Virtual Death
The Message from Mars
Report from an Obscure Planet
Interview with J. G. Ballard
About the Author
By the Same Author
About the Publisher
Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.
Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject. They’re also a useful way of trying out the ideas later developed at novel length. Almost all my novels were first hinted at in short stories, and readers of The Crystal World, Crash and Empire of the Sun will find their seeds germinating somewhere in this collection.
When I started writing, fifty years ago, short stories were immensely popular with readers, and some newspapers printed a new short story every day. Sadly, I think that people at present have lost the knack of reading short stories, a response perhaps to the baggy and long-winded narratives of television serials. Young writers, myself included, have always seen their first novels as a kind of virility test, but so many novels published today would have been better if they had been recast as short stories. Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.
The short story still survives, especially in science fiction, which makes the most of its closeness to the folk tale and the parable. Many of the stories in this collection were first published in science fiction magazines, though readers at the time loudly complained that they weren’t science fiction at all.
But I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred. The future, needless to say, is a dangerous area to enter, heavily mined and with a tendency to turn and bite your ankles as you stride forward. A correspondent recently pointed out to me that the poetry-writing computers in Vermilion Sands are powered by valves. And why don’t all those sleek people living in the future have PCs and pagers?
I could only reply that Vermilion Sands isn’t set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present – a description that fits the stories in this book and almost everything else I have written. But oh for a steam-powered computer and a wind-driven television set. Now, there’s an idea for a short story …
J.G. Ballard, 2001
There is no single way of talking about the collected stories of J. G. Ballard. They are so various that no one reading will contain them. When talking about this giant oeuvre, it’s better to borrow terms from geology, and other sciences of natural phenomena; better to talk of strata, or of eras.
And a preliminary summary of these epochs in one paragraph might go something like this …
First there is the era of what might be called, for useful shorthand, science fiction: where the nature of Nature has undergone sinister changes, and become strangely technological. In these stories, many of which take place in a warped version of Palm Springs, the reader will find sonic sculptures, and singing flowers, among other curiosities. In the second era, the modulations Ballard enjoyed performing on the natural world became grander: now these modulations affected the deep conditions of being: his material became time and space. In the third era, his imagination became more and more apocalyptic, replete with visions of environmental disaster. And all these eras were ones of dense and hectic composition – the 750 pages of this complete edition’s first half move only from 1956 to 1964. Its second half, of equal length, takes in the greater time span of 1964 to 1992. And it was somewhere in the late 1960s that a new and final era emerged: where the cosmic alterations now took place in an atmosphere of late modernity – computerised finance, terror, dictator politics, and flat pornography. It was this landscape that formed the last and longest era of Ballard’s stories – a shiny, dilapidated vista of motels, space voyages, assassination attempts.
In other words, Ballard’s stories constitute a corpus that is unlike anything else in twentieth-century British fiction. This corpus is unique.
Interviewed by George MacBeth in 1967, Ballard tried to define the difference between his fiction and that of his contemporaries. ‘The great bulk of fiction still being written,’ he observed, ‘is retrospective in character. It’s concerned with the origins of experience, behaviour, development of character over a great span of years. It interprets the present in terms of the past, and it uses a narrative technique, by and large the linear narrative, in which events are shown in more-or-less chronological sequence, which is suited to it.’ Whereas, he then continued: ‘when one turns to the present – and what I feel I’ve done in these pieces of mine is to rediscover the present for myself – I feel that one needs a nonlinear technique, simply because our lives today are not conducted in linear terms. They are much more quantified; a stream of random events is taking place.’
It has a charming grandeur, this giant theory, but I’m not sure it’s precisely right. Or at least, it may be right, but it’s only a tentative sketch. The diligent reader also needs to consider some sober literary history.
For these stories in no way follow one dominant strand of the short story: the realist ironic tradition of Chekhov and Maupassant. Instead, these are stories of the high imaginary, and fantastical. The best short stories, Ballard once noted, were those of ‘Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe’. And his own stories, similarly, feature universes stretched beyond their normal limits. But to name this tradition is not quite a solution, either. Italo Calvino once wrote an essay on fantastic literature, and he offered the following definition of its underlying philosophy:
The problem of the reality of what we see – both extraordinary things, which may be just hallucinations projected by our mind, and ordinary things, which perhaps conceal beneath the most banal appearances a second nature that is more disturbing, mysterious, terrifying – is the essence of this literature of the fantastic, whose most powerful effects lie in this hovering between irreconcilable levels of reality.
And at once, the diligent reader has a problem. Maybe for Edgar Allen Poe, sure, this might be a workable definition. But it in no way helps when considering Ballard’s inventions.
At which point, this ideal reader should maybe pause: and consider a particular example.
One of Ballard’s greatest stories is called ‘The Voices of Time’. Its manner is not the manner of the usual avant-garde. Its early pages contain dialogue that is notable for its strained formality. (‘“What are you doing with yourself, Robert?” he asked. “Are you still going over to Whitby’s lab?”‘) Judged on its stylistics, the mode seems to be the usual mode of a certain deadbeat realism. (‘He smiled sympathetically at Powers across the desk, wondering what to say to him.’) And yet the reader looking for the usual story and backstory will soon find the conventional fictional perspectives subtly altered. Some names are strange – like Kaldren, and Coma. While the backstory that is hinted at – and this is one of Ballard’s constant techniques – is vast with inexplicability: not just isolated details (‘the derelict gold-panning equipment abandoned over eighty years ago’), but also the blank precision of the vocabulary, the strange ‘camera towers’ and ‘glass polyhedrons’ of this landscape, and the intricacy of the scientific terms, which go way beyond the usual assumptions of a reader’s everyday knowledge: ‘the protein lattices in the genes were building up energy in the way that any vibrating membrane accumulates energy when it resonates …’
It is a future that could also be a present – everything is scrambled – and the reason for this confusion is the meaning of the story. Its surface plot seems to be about the strange discoveries which Whitby, a biologist, has been making in the field of silent gene activation. His colleague, Powers, is dying – and in the time he has left he is trying to think through the implications of Whitby’s experiments, where an organism’s latent future comes to life. And the answer seems to be contained in an odd undertaking of Whitby’s in the summer before his suicide: ‘the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool. An inch deep and twenty feet long, interlocking to form an elaborate ideogram like a Chinese character Eventually, Powers decides to build a version of Whitby’s diagram, in concrete, in the middle of a salt lake. When it is finished, it is revealed as a ‘mandala’ – a miniature diagram of the universe. And Powers walks out to its centre. ‘Above him he could hear the stars, a million cosmic voices that crowded the sky from one horizon to the next, a true canopy of time.’
For this story’s theme is entropy. And therefore its perspective is not just the entropy of the human body, but also of the dying stars, and the dying planet. Which is why the story’s unwobbling pivot is this strange mandala. As Powers dies, ‘the image of the mandala, like a cosmic clock, remained fixed before his eyes …’
No wonder Ballard felt he was beyond the usual retrospective psychology! In his list of favourite books, there are predictable literary precursors – the short stories of Hemingway, Alice in Wonderland, Naked Lunch – but two items stand out for their strange abstraction: recordings of cockpit conversations retrieved from the black boxes of airplanes; and the Los Angeles Yellow Pages. The LA Yellow Pages, he once wrote, was the only book he had ever stolen – and then he added: ‘What is interesting about the LA Yellow Pages is the picture it gives of real life in Los Angeles, so different from the glitzy world of film premieres, stars and directors. There are more psychiatrists listed than plumbers, and more dating bureaus than doctors, and more poodle parlours than vets. Like the classified advertisements in newspapers, which provide a picture of the readership, the Yellow Pages of any great city reveals its true underside. The Los Angeles Yellow Pages is richer in human incident than all the novels of Balzac.’
What is a character? Or what is a motivation? The usual human motivations still exist in Ballard’s stories, but only nostalgically – in the background, like herms or hilltop cities in the old landscapes. And the reason for this relegation was a phenomenon which Ballard named the Death of Affect – the twentieth century had invented such large atrocities, not only Hiroshima and the Holocaust, but also the virtual worlds of computers and high finance, that the old human categories were no longer relevant. To argue over the rightness of such a theory is not the point. The point is that it allowed Ballard to invent fictions of a startling originality. In his strangely formal prose, he described what character might look like when all the traditional formalities had disappeared.
Rather than subjects, Ballard has a system of recurring tropes. And so in ‘The Voices of Time’, the reader will discover reworked versions of previous stories: an obsession with sound and soundwaves that is also present in ‘Venus Smiles’, or ‘The Sound Sweep’; the new planets of ‘The Waiting Grounds’; the sleeplessness of ‘Manhole 69’. But in each case, the tropes are rearranged to create a new original. You can call this system mythic, but I think the truth is stranger. It might be more precise to say: the basis of previous fiction was the isolated self, and its various particularities of politesse and ego, whereas in Ballard’s fiction the protagonists turn out to be much larger entities – the impossible and ignored coercions of society, or the environment. For this is, according to Ballard’s redefinition, how the contemporary self now lives: always blurring into a herd, or crowd. And that’s why comparing him to Borges or Kafka or Poe is not quite useful. The texture of his writing is much more deliberately contemporary than theirs – and therefore is always grainy with a faint satirical tone. Famously he claimed that he was not writing about the future but about the ‘visionary present’ – and it is the urgency of that present moment which makes his metaphysical writing so disturbing. If he resembles anyone, I sometimes think, it is the great visionary Jules Verne. In both writers, the chic and the modern – submarines, space ships, X-rays, gene theory – is revealed to be glowing with a much larger, more sinister significance.
Every writer of fiction invents the places they describe, whether ostensibly real or not. ‘It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe,’ wrote Nabokov in his afterword to Lolita, ‘and now I was faced by the task of inventing America.’ And Ballard is one of the great inventors of places in fiction. This ferocious analyst of the totalitarian was one of the experts in fiction’s own totalitarian nature: the way it so easily can dictate its own terms. Imperiously, Ballard invents unexplained acronyms, or distorts vocabulary – a technique already baroquely visible in the first story collected here, ‘Prima Belladonna’: ‘Before he came to Vermilion Sands he’d been a curator at the Kew Conservatoire where the first choro-flora had been bred …’
But his success at this place-invention is so striking because he is always, simultaneously, describing our own habitat. He is a writer of collective motivation, collective character, precisely because existence in the twentieth century was in the process of transforming itself into larger atmospheres: not just the general conditions of nature, but also the pervading clouds of advertising, stock exchanges, computerised reality. He is the great describer of the lawning of our era – the embankments and swathes of abstract space that compose our giant suburbs. Such everyday abstraction, the absence of particulars, is Ballard’s chosen locale – whether it is incarnated in a concrete beachfront with palmettos, an extra planet, or the laboratories of future technological advances.
Although I think it’s also important to point out that, for all the international roaming of his fiction, from the Apartamentos California to Cannes, the true location is always, somehow, Britain. Just think, even, of ‘The Voices of Time’: that entropy is cosmic, sure, but it is also the entropy that Ballard discovered in the postwar suburbs of a dying empire. Britain, in fact, was the most modern country on earth, precisely because it was the world-leader in entropy – and therefore also the leader in ressentiment, rancour, sadness, twilight, concrete. Dystopia! You only needed to look around you: among the flyovers and multi-storey car parks in the rain.
In his later stories, this strange form of visionary politics became more and more pronounced, culminating in the late novels, beyond the chronology of this collection: his studies of financial hyper-reality in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, then the bourgeois darknesses of Millennium People and Kingdom Come. And it came with a technical shift. The interest in vocabulary formation that had marked his early stories gradually became a more overt interest in the general culture’s linguistic deformations. Ballard became the impresario of official registers: a story could be a simple exercise in style – like the punk brilliance of ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, which he wrote in 1968, soon after Reagan became Governor of California. The story is a carnival of vocabularies – the medical, the psychoanalytic, the opinion poll – gleefully stuffed with impermissible fantasy: ‘Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of “Reagan” in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto-collisions with one and three-year-old model changes, (c) with rear-exhaust assemblies, (d) with Vietnamese child-atrocity victims.’
With that kind of shock tactic, Ballard offered new possibilities to the short story: beyond the intricate psychology of the Chekhovian mode.
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