The publication of any book by J.G. Ballard at this moment–let alone so colossal and career-spanning a volume as The Complete Stories, running to nearly 1,200 pages–is an occurrence that can only be about more than itself. All writers are writers of their time, of course, but Ballard, who after a fight with cancer died in April 2009, feels somehow uniquely, precisely so. This book marks the fact that we are all post-Ballard now: it’s not that we’ve gotten beyond him but rather that we remain ineluctably defined by him. Completists have pointed out that, its title notwithstanding, this volume is not a truly comprehensive collection of all Ballard’s published short fiction. Those few omissions are a disappointment. Nevertheless, they are few, and despite them the book is indispensable.
The volume’s ninety-eight stories (including two written for this edition) are printed in chronological order of publication, which illuminates Ballard’s trajectory. There is something fascinating and poignant about watching various obsessions appear, reappear or come gradually or suddenly into focus: birds, flying machines, ruins, beaches, obscure geometric designs, the often-noted empty swimming pools. That the earlier stories are on the whole less compelling than the later, and more numerous, suggests a career-long process of distillation, a rendering-down. Both in facility and insight, early works such as the wincingly punning “Prima Belladonna”–the first of many journeys to Vermilion Sands, an artists’ colony-cum-fading seaside resort supposedly somewhere in the real world though full of impossibilities and dream technologies–or “Now: Zero” and “Track 12,” rather overwrought Dahl-esque tales of the unexpected, are slight compared with the later dense and strange forensics. Many of the stories function as testing grounds for Ballard’s novels. For the admirer of his longer work there is the slightly disconcerting pleasure of déjà vu, of stumbling into précis and dry runs. Here are various aspects of Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Crystal World. This book is a valedictory, an event, the ground-laying for investigations.
Still, among what must be considered these mostly minor early Ballards, enjoyable-enough exercises pegged often on single ideas or images (“Chronopolis”: what if timekeeping were illegal?; “Billennium”: what if no one had any living space at all?) are important moments of exceptionality. The relatively early “The Waiting Grounds” prods at the sheer unthinkability of time in ways that would be dramatically pronounced later. On an inhospitable planet, peculiar evidence pushes the narrator, Quaine, to have visions of beings who have slowed their temporal subjectivities by extraordinary factors, waiting for some “mantle of ideation,” some unthinkable Godot, that may or may not be a “cosmic redeemer.” The epochal, inhuman patience Quaine touches occurs in what he calls “Deep Time.” “The Voices of Time,” from 1960, arrives like an outrider of later Ballard, with gnostic sigils carved in swimming pools and the pre-emptive evolution–prevolution?–of extraordinary creatures maladapted for the here and now by their very adaptations for possible futures: a frog laboring under a radiation-repelling lead carapace; chromatophagic anemones, preparing to feed in and on a “world of violent colour contrasts”; spiders that spin their own brain matter for varying neurological needs.
And there’s “Manhole 69,” from 1957, about the effects of an experiment in sleeplessness. Ballard interrupts the relatively workaday prose and generic as-you-know-Bob explanations with an extraordinary image of a shrinking room. There is a subtradition in imaginative fiction about the horrors of disobedient geometry, ranging from John Buchan’s “Space,” with its nervous dream of “triangular railway platforms with trains running simultaneously down all three sides and not colliding,” to, surely the ne plus ultra of the tradition, H.P. Lovecraft’s magnificent reference in “The Call of Cthulhu” to “an angle of masonry which shouldn’t have been there; an angle which was acute, but behaved as if it were obtuse.” Ballard’s geometric “planes severing in a multi-dimensional flux” are similarly disobedient, but they do not crush the room’s inhabitants or close mouthlike and rapaciously on them: rather, they change from one everyday space (a large hall) to another (a manhole). The horror for the inhabitants is not the impossible shift, which they do not perceive, but the claustrophobic roomness in which they remain and notice themselves.