Sunday, April 6, 2014

Crashing the Millennium

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.


  1. I've never read any of his work. But I've seen part of "Crash" years and years ago. I should check it out. The film was interesting, but I wasn't quite up for that kind of flick. :)

    Interesting how the "civilization corrupts humans" theme has been popping up around me lately. Just been reading some Robert E. Howard, and that tends to be his major theme too. The barbarians are the reasonable and understandable people. But the civilized great kingdoms are full of corrupted, demented and devolving people.

    What would be a good place to start with Ballard?

    1. "Crash" (1973) -- though it sold well when published -- was rejected by the first publisher's reader with the note "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!" That sounds like a recommendation to me. It deals with a relatively small number of individuals warped by modern life in a peculiar way.

      "High-Rise" (1975) has a full-blown "Lord of the Flies"-like collapse of civilization inside a largely self-contained high-rise.

      Either one would work as a starting point. His early SF is good stuff, too, but it relates less to contemporary life.

  2. I have a book of short stories by Ballard that I picked up cheaply at a book sale. I thought I might like some of the stories due to Crash, and their SF nature. I found his style a bit off-putting however, so I may need to take another look at them again--after I get through reading what I'm currently reading.

    I enjoyed Crash well enough as a film, though it's not one of my favorite Croenberg features. I wonder if his first film Shivers might have been influenced by Ballard's High-Rise as it too takes place within such a facility, but differs in its collapse of the dwellers inside.

    Interesting that Ballard felt the present was in a post-apocalyptic downward spiral. I think we all feel that way as we get older in a lot of ways.

  3. Ballard writes well with a very English way of coolly understating extreme plot elements. I can see how his characters can offput, however. In addition to their psychological oddities, they often seem simply to give up. An example is “Concrete Island” in which a driver’s car jumps a guard rail and lands him in one of those isolated valleys created by intersecting superhighways. Completely out of sight of traffic and unable to climb out of the valley due to injuries and weakness, the driver surrenders to his fate. Novel-length gives him more room to explain his characters of course.

    Maybe we do tend to project our own individual decay onto the world at large.