In Disobedient Rooms
Character? Ballard the man, from all the affecting tributes, was, if sometimes difficult, loved and loving and fascinated by people. His humor and care have been vividly described by friends like Michael Moorcock and by his daughter Bea Ballard, who in a moving recollection published last year in the Times of London ("My Dad, the Perfect Mum") emphasized the "very happy nest" he created. Ballard the writer, certainly when at his best in these stories, seems almost completely uninterested in actual, concrete characters. Names offhandedly recur, with a few tweaks here and there. Sometimes they are simply borrowed from admired figures, as with Leonora Carrington, the drama teacher in "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown" who, in passing homage, shares a name with the famous Surrealist writer and artist. Many of the figures are deeply traumatized--wives or children are often already dead, offstage before a story's start--but they are not particularly specific. His "characters" are aggregates of intersecting functions.
This idea is overtly investigated, and played for rather dark laughs, in "Minus One," where it is mooted that a man who has disappeared in fact never existed: he has been erroneously believed into existence by an overlap of administrative necessities. That this conclusion, it is implied, is not the case does not preclude it from having real and oppressive effects. Ballard is in no way inhumane. But his fascination with the question of what "human" might precisely mean, his evasion of received opinions on the matter, make him at his best an admirably antihumanist writer. If a reader returns again and again to a much-loved Ballard text, the allure is certainly not the inner life of the protagonist. There are no Tom Sawyers here. This is not a criticism; rather, given what this approach unlocked, it is the opposite.
In the various reviews and encomiums for Ballard, we meet more unlikely Ballards still. A characteristic repeatedly invoked and praised is his "prescience." It is perfectly true that certain things he imagined have ended up resonating with some of the less salubrious or more distressing developments of modern life. The surveillance and camera-mediated societies depicted in "The Greatest Television Show on Earth," "The 60 Minute Zoom" and "The Intensive Care Unit" have been interpreted as having foreseen reality television and programs such as Big Brother; and The Drowned World, with its astounding visions of a sunken London, has been read as a warning about global warming.
Ballard largely refuted the claim that prescience is his differentia specifica. He says in the book's brief introduction that though he is "interested in the real future that I could see approaching," his works aren't "set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present." This is absolutely right. Of course, this is not to say that these investigations may not anticipate some actuality or other--doubtless more than once, in some variably accurate way, they have inadvertently done and will continue to do just that, and it is noteworthy when that occurs. But Ballard repeatedly emphasizes that his apocalypse landscapes are expressions of modern psycho-sociopathology. It is arguable that this is true of all, and in particular all nonrealist, fiction, but if so Ballard's self-consciousness about the fact is remarkable. He offers not prescience but present-sense. To stress futurology as the quality that makes his writing so astonishing is to misgauge the engine of his plots. The Drowned World is not a warning about climate change--that is not what it does. And even if it were, where would that leave The Crystal World, anticipated here in "The Illuminated Man," an astounding literary achievement in which apocalypse is simultaneously terrifying, unspeakably beautiful and profoundly inhuman? There is, after all, very little likelihood that the world will end not with a bang but with the crystalline coagulation of time into faceted integuments of eternal now-ness that occurs in The Crystal World. So has Ballard's "prescience" failed him?
Even more unlikely is the Ballard of those admirers who attribute a Pollyannaish drive to his supposed prognostications. A descendant of the Stalinist insistence on "uplifting" fiction and the Victorian predilection for "improving" stories, this hankering for positivity feels nevertheless intensely au courant. We see it in, for example, the celebration of so much fiction as "life-affirming," as if, even where that is not a tendentious reading, that were a self-evident good. (Might a work of art not be brilliant in its unflinching nihilism, or in its evasion of any such categories?) Writing in 2001 about a different Ballard collection, the novelist Robert Edric, astonishingly, lionized Ballard not only as a seer but as an optimist, a writer whose stories "keep alive...hopeful, needed futures." This is truly bizarre. There is no question that Ballard deserves such energetic, almost flustered praise. But it is difficult to find a single future in this volume that does not require vigorous contortion to seem hopeful. Mass disaggregation from chronology as a societal response to the space race ("News From the Sun," "Memories of the Space Age")? A world under siege by predatory giant birds ("Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer")? Murderous civil war and the invasion of Britain by the United States ("Theatre of War")?
Edric is clearly no fool, and rather than simply dismissing his peculiar and misplaced praise, we should consider it in light of his remarks about genre. He goes on to say that to regard Ballard's work "purely as science fiction is to misunderstand completely what [Ballard] has accomplished over half a century." This coolness toward the genre echoes Martin Amis's assurance, in the introduction to this volume, that science fiction "couldn't hold" Ballard. One is also reminded of the way Margaret Atwood packaged her novel Oryx and Crake in 2003: choosing as its epigraph Jonathan Swift's remark in Gulliver's Travels that "my principal design was to inform you, and not to amuse you," while simultaneously distinguishing her work from science fiction (SF) during her publicity tour on the grounds that SF is about "talking squids in outer space." It appears that Swift and squid are antipodes. Since literary fiction, you see, has something to say about the real world, ipso facto it cannot be SF. And though there are many ways a piece of nonrealist fiction can be "about" the real world, when it is set in the future, one of the simplest and most obvious interpretations is to perceive it relatively directly as an aspiration or warning. Underlying the unhelpful sense of Ballard as a prophet, let alone an aspirational one, then, is an ongoing campaign to rescue him from genre--from those talking squids in outer space. (Atwood's phrase has been exuberantly picked up by SF readers and writers, of course: there are now many websites dedicated to celebrating fictional cephalopod cosmonauts.)
The campaign, and the embedded myopia about and antipathy toward genre, are foolish. Anyone who works in SF has had this argument multiple times, and has become tedious in the process. It would be nice if we could all just shut up about this. Clearly the claim that SF has nothing meaningful to say and that therefore meaningful fiction cannot be SF is a tautology predicated on a question-begging and evasive conception of genre as canard. Clearly Ballard was, among various things, an SF writer. Though on occasion he was slightly more equivocal about it, he was quoted after his death on the BBC's The Last Word as having said, "I've always insisted that I certainly was a science fiction writer and very proud of it." Authorial intention isn't everything, but it certainly counts for something. To say that Ballard couldn't have been a science fiction writer because one admires his fiction so much is absurd. Clearly anyone who nonetheless insists on this is speaking not from analysis but from an uninvestigated generic prejudice. They, not Ballard, are hostages of those squids. These should be commonplaces.