In Disobedient Rooms
This undying nondebate has cropped up again not only because of Ballard's death and the publication of his Complete Stories. Nor is it because of Kim Stanley Robinson's assault on the Man Booker Prize committee, in a September 2009 article for New Scientist, for sidelining SF, wherein he pointed out Virginia Woolf's admiration for the books of Olaf Stapledon and bemoaned the fact that with "no Woolves" on the Booker panel, SF, despite its being "the literature of your time," would be simply ignored. The piece was well put and just, but--as Robinson would probably agree--pointed out nothing new. No, what forces tired loins back to this front is the reaction to Robinson's argument by Booker judge John Mullan, who described SF as a "self-enclosed world" "in a special room in book shops, bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other." (It would be infra dig and a cheap shot, of course, to ask how well this description fits the self-conscious literati obediently seeking the latest lit-fic hit at the London Review Bookshop or Politics & Prose.) Mullan's counterattack was so deliberately rude, so preposterous and illiterate and parochial, particularly at a time when SF tropes are viraling and infecting hitherto healthy literature, that it is hard to believe it was not simply an attempt to épater les geeks.
If so, les geeks should refuse to rise to the bait--except that perhaps being a bore about it is less of a crime than being quiescent. Besides, in the case of Ballard the issue of genre and its relation to capital-l Literature is more than just a nerdy turf war. Certain surprising elements that give his stories their power are related directly to his generic apprenticeship. I'm thinking not only of his use of such traditional SF fare as space travel, the ends of the world and the combination of the two but also his facility with much-derided formal conventions.
Ballard dreams up extraordinary situations, yet they create for him the prosaic challenge of explaining their genesis. Blithely ignoring the injunction beloved of creative writing teachers everywhere to "show, not tell," Ballard is happy, where necessary, to use the SF technique known as the "infodump," in which undigestible nuggets of necessary facticity are simply thrown in, to bob about like gristle in a stew or pennies in a Christmas pudding. "The frantic mining of the oceans in the previous century to provide oxygen for the atmospheres of the new planets had made their decline swift and irreversible, and with their death had come climatic and other geophysical changes which ensured the extinction of Earth itself" ("Deep End"). "The outward growth of cities had at last been checked; in fact, all over the world former suburban areas were being reclaimed for agriculture and population additions were confined within the existing urban ghettos" ("Billennium"). Backfilling a story with an infodump can sometimes be vastly smoother, particularly in a short story, than torturously constructing conversations or flashbacks. There is a place in fiction for the unapologetic infodump, and there is something charming about the fact that it is this most visionary, most illuminating, of modern writers who so cheerfully vindicates this most lumpen, pulp technique.
There are other alchemies. While there have always been outstanding exceptions within the genre, those of us who admire and love it should admit that the clichés about SF dialogue--that it is clumsy, unnatural and deeply unconvincing--are not always unfair. At his best Ballard can take something so base and gold it. "I may actually be stepping out of time," he has one character tell another in "The Overloaded Man." "Eliminating the vector of time from the de-identified object frees it from all its everyday cognitive associations. Alternatively, I may have stumbled on a means of repressing the photo-associative centres that normally identify visual objects." But his friend's not having any of it. "The subject-object relationship is not as polar as Descartes' 'Cogito ergo sum' suggests. By any degree to which you devalue the external world so you devalue yourself." Oh, snap!
It is trivially obvious that real people do not speak in such a way. But is that a demerit, any more than such studied unnaturalism is, say, in Beckett? Certainly in its sheer artificiality, such dialogue, like the infodump, might decouple readers from the internal world of the story--by no means necessarily lessening the work's hold on them but barring them from an enjoyably ingenuous inhabiting of it. But even if this is inevitable, it doesn't follow that this would be a problem--certainly not for Ballard, for whom strange cool distancing from extraordinary events, the kind of negative hysteria at brilliant work in "The Drowned Giant," is carefully cultivated. For Ballard, then, these techniques might operate as a kind of pulp-derived Verfremdungseffekt, for which he is perfectly willing to breach received literary good taste. He will tell, not just show; his dialogue can be as stilted as a highbrow Star Wars; he has no fear of the passive voice. This last choice is one that in a lesser writer might evidence timidity and, as Stephen King argues in On Writing, might be used "for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with." In Ballard, contrariwise, the passive voice is part of an invocation of paranoid totality and helps create a baleful world stripped of human agency in which things occur and are done to things.
Such detachment cannot keep all the world's maggots under control. Ballard's analyses are delivered in a new jargon that evades complete decoding, yet sometimes his acutely symptomatic writing replicates what might better be investigated. It is not an author's duty, for example, to be "interested in" race, and Ballard mostly is not, but race is certainly interested in him. Where there are occasionally sympathetic or intriguing characters of color, there are also groups of opaque "natives" operating as some kind of vaguely threatening social function. In "A Question of Re-Entry," Ballard's revisiting of Heart of Darkness, a-rational cannibalistic "Indians" are "prone to these sudden irresistible urges" "like lemmings"; they are "a jabbering pack" whose terrifying behavior is predicated on their category error in--that hoary imperial slur-cum-boast--worshiping an incoming white man as a god. Those of us committed to Ballard shift in our seats and regret that such tropes were not subject to more assiduous skepticism.
Another tradition of much SF--though not of SF alone, God knows, and for Ballard Surrealism is as much a culprit--is an equally unwelcome inheritance. The stories are populated by many mad, beautiful women, dolls and metaphoric lamias (mythical succubus-like part-woman-part-snakes). These inhabit particularly Vermilion Sands, one of the most enduring but, to me at least, less successful of Ballard's settings, in part because its dunescape seems inextricable from supposed hysterical femininity, jealousy and pathologies brought on by male maltreatment and an inability to countenance aging.
These tics are considerably less compelling, because they are more rote by far, than the more outré anxieties Ballard finds in architecture, rockets and car crashes. The most disappointing representations of women are failures of the very estrangement that he elsewhere deploys so effectively. The sheer abstraction not only of his women but of all his characters to varying degrees makes these particular gendered fancies, while by no means unproblematic, relatively bloodless. Most of these women are more iterations of bundles of preconceptions and functions than concrete women, but so--if in less discomfiting ways--are the men more functions than they are men.
There is an enormous amount of eroticism and libido in these stories, and, notoriously, regular fascinated ruminations on pathologically sexualized elements of everyday brutality, such as car crashes. Banal landscapes become littered with dangerous protean drives. These drives, however, and the sometimes gendered gaze that Ballard inevitably brings to them, are, he insists, both more and less than they might seem. In the story with the most famous and by far most shocking and open declaration of lust in the book--"Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan"--the Anglo-Saxon enthusiasm of its title is followed by a dry, hilarious and buttoned-up scientific report. Similarly veering from the overt lubriciousness it had seemed likely to invoke is "The Smile," in which the protagonist, while staring at a doll-woman, gives way to a "wholly unprurient impulse" in undressing her; in "The 60 Minute Zoom," a story of sex, jealousy and murder becomes a rumination on camera angles, colors, framing shots and dispassionate geometric representation. On the one hand all this is (deliberately and bleakly humorous) exculpatory special pleading for the eroticizing (male) gaze; on the other, though, it is not totally unconvincing. These stories, while obsessed with the act and its relentless variety, do not become breathier, more urgent, more vivid, during sex. Ballard's cool distance does not end at the bedroom door: if anything, what goes on behind that door seems to be dreamlike and abstract fucking, and it spills back out and affects everything else. Investigations of the pornographizing drive as much as an expression of it, this porn is all metaporn.