A passing reference to English author JG Ballard in last week’s blog prompted me to look up his books on Amazon. I hadn’t bought anything by Ballard in the past decade or so. Though he died in 2009, I thought there might have been a late novel I’d missed. To my joy, there were two: Millennium People and Kingdom Come. I’m deep into the former and pleased to have the latter waiting.
Ballard is best known for his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, based on his experiences as a boy in WW2 Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Spielberg directed the movie adaptation in 1987. Although this is an atypical book for Ballard, in many ways it informs the others. Acquired in his boyhood, his sense of human nature, of the limits of individual sovereignty, and of the desire to escape those limits in extreme situations bleed into the characters of his novels.
I first encountered Ballard’s writings in the 1960s. At the time he was producing some of the best-written science fiction to be found anywhere, much of it post-apocalyptic: The Drowned World, Terminal Beach, The Crystal World, and more. The stories typically center on the way characters intellectually and emotionally cope with (and often surrender to) circumstances beyond their control.
In the ‘70s his fiction took a new direction that he would pursue for the rest of his life. He came to believe that we already are living in a science fiction-like world – one so far removed from the natural state of our ancestors that, from the perspective of a hunter-gatherer, it is post-apocalyptic. He explains, “I thought: here is a fiction for the present day. I wasn't interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television - that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.”
In William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, the boys slide into savagery when they are removed from the trappings of civilization. In Ballard, civilization itself evokes savagery. When animals in zoos are placed in enclosures too much at variance with their natural habitats they develop behavioral disorders. As post-modern humans, we have enclosed ourselves in far less natural environments than most zoos, experiencing angst rather than pleasure while trying to maintain them. Ballard’s characters develop behavioral disorders – they go postal as individuals and as groups. In High-Rise, the residents let their ids cut loose in every imaginable way. In Crash they find psychic release and erotic satisfaction in auto wrecks. In Running Wild, the children in an upper-crust gated community kill their parents and vanish. In Super-Cannes, respectable professionals become roving violent thugs at night, egged on by their employer’s resident psychiatrist and amateur philosopher: “Psychopathy is its own most potent cure, and always has been. At times, it grasps entire nations in its grip and sends them through vast therapeutic spasms.” In Millennium People, middle class folks rebel violently against their own lifestyles, taking up terrorism and burning their own neighborhoods.
That the requirements of civilization are at odds with our basic instincts is not a new idea: see Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud. The trade-off has been for security. But, once achieved, is security enough? Will post-industrial civilization totter as our darker instincts refuse to be suppressed permanently? Is a rebellion of the middle class truly in the works? Probably not, though arguably the rise of neo-fascist parties in much of the world contains a hint of one. But the very fact that we understand Ballard’s men and women – and we do understand them, even if we wouldn’t join them – suggests that he is onto something. In the First World we have built a culture and a physical environment based on a misunderstanding – perhaps a self-delusion – about what sort of creatures we are. The rest of the world is rushing to join us. Ballard describes the concomitant abuse to our own psyches as well as anyone can.
Crash (1996), based on JG Ballard’s novel. High-Rise is in pre-production.