Memories of the Space Age
Should literature aspire to the condition of painting and is J. G. Ballard's work sometimes its attempted manifestation? "I accept that an imaginative writer, like a figurative painter, takes for granted perspective, illusionist space, the unlimited depth of the picture plane". (Paris Review) Ballard also says, "I think I always was a frustrated painter. They are all paintings, really, my novels and stories." (Science Fiction Monthly) This is obviously evident as he references various painters' work. In 'Memories of the Space Age', he mentions Edward Hopper, Max Ernst and Henri Rousseau, and we can note how throughout the story Ballard's chief interest is in creating images. Martin Amis claims that we needn't worry about whether Ballard's work is "admonitory or sobering", (The War Against Cliche) whether he cares for complex characterisation or not, and that what interests Ballard is to create visions that allow him to write well: to provide him with imagery. We will contest the certitude of Amis's claim without countering the premise that Ballard more than most is a writer who thinks in images, and for whom the story is a premise on which to hang them. But if there is a Ballardian vision of the world, if philosophers like Jean Baudrillard, famous for the term simulacrum, and Benjamin Noys, who coined the phrase accelerationism, have been so fascinated by Ballard's work, it hasn't chiefly been because of its painterly qualities. Simulacrum is a term coined by Baudrillard to describe the failure to distinguish the real from the unreal, from the sign and what it represents. Accelerationism can be utopian or despairing, hopeful or dystopian, but can find in figures like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk those who reckon capitalism just moves far too slowly and needs to speed up all the better for us, or them, to reach a more efficient way of living. One way of looking at all the strikes in 2022 is to view them as the worker trying to retain their place in a neo-liberal world that may increasingly wish to have no role for them. As far as back as 1979, James Dale Davison and William Rees-Mogg fretted over "the exploitation of the capitalists by workers." (London Review of Books) If the workers lack the efficiency of the machine, why would you keep employing them? Community, a sense of purpose, the notion of craft, all potentially irrelevant to an accelerationist discourse that insists technology knows best.
If all that interested Ballard was writing well, writing in a way that would generate images as vivid as paintings, then that doesn't mean this is how we should understand his work, which in the process of his writing well managed to help us comprehend an ever-changing world. After all, Ballard wasn't writing well on the 18th or 19th century, describing undulating hills and viridescent pastures. He was describing the world that was unfolding in front of him while hinting at what was in front of us. As Baudrillard says of Ballard's Crash, "everything is like a huge simulated and synchronous machine; an acceleration of our own models, of all the models which surround us, all mixed together and hyper-operationalized in the void." (Science Fiction Studies)
In 'Memories of the Space Age', Ballard takes space travel as his subject and time as his theme. Man it seems has like Icarus overstretched himself and, in turn, time has contracted as the planes being flown by a mysterious pilot are from an earlier era of aviation. There is a Spad, a Fokker, a replica of the Wright flyer. Central character Dr Edward Mallory and his wife Anne choose to drive to the epicentre of this temporal catastrophe and find themselves at Cape Canaveral, famous of course for the various space launches and called at the time of the story's writing, Cape Kennedy. But time is running out for them as Ballard uses a stale idiom and puts some decelerated mileage into it. Anne is even more short on time than Mallory and spends most of it in a state of fixity. "She breathed peacefully with her upper lungs, her pulse as slow as a hibernating mammal's." Time it seems is a subjective thing but with an objective aspect. If often time is seen loosely as clock-oriented or personally delineated, as a dull chore can seem to take forever, an exciting activity passes in what seems like a minute, Ballard shows us a subjectively objectified time, a paradox perhaps but one he insists on imagining for us. Time the narrator says had become "like a film reel running through a faulty projector, [it] was moving at an erratic pace, at moments backing up and almost coming to a halt, then speeding on again. One day it would stop, freeze forever on one frame." But in the meantime, it will move faster or slower according to the individual experiencing it. Mallory is thus much more physically active than his wife but equally can at any moment be hit by an attack that will reduce his movements to slow motion: "his weak legs carrying him across the leafy ground with the grace of an Olympic athlete." In another moment, we have a young woman, Gale, who is at Cape Kennedy hoping for her late, astronaut father to return to Earth in the docking module in which he was set adrift by another astronaut Hinton, who turns out to be the person flying the old planes at the dilapidated space station. Gale has a small zoo there and "only the cheetah was moving, still able to outrun time...but Mallory felt no fear for this violent cat. Without time it could never reach him, with time the lion could at last lie down with the lamb, the eagle with the vowl."
For a writer who merely wants to write well, Ballard manages to throw a hefty philosophical punch here, proposing a first principle that doesn't say that creatures are innately violent but that time is the problem. If we could abolish time we needn't fear others and the food chain ceases to exist. Nirvana would be immobility and everything would become a tableau. This may seem like nonsense but many a philosopher has offered absurd premises all the better to argue their point, from Descartes' Evil Genius to Berkeley claiming that everything disappears when we leave the room. What Ballard wishes to do is take images and turn them into hypotheses which are given fictional form. In a 1977 article for Vogue, he mused over a future where physical contact needn't be necessary even with our loved ones. "Conceived by artificial insemination, brought up within the paediatric viewing cubicle, we will conduct our courtship on television...our wedding nights will be a masterpiece of tastefully erotic cinema, the husband's increasingly bold zooms countered by his bride's blushing fades and wipes, climaxing in the ultimate close-ups." ('The Future of the Future')
The cliche of the television age is given absurdist form and the same year he published the fictional 'The Intensive Care Unit' which expands on this very idea and wonders what violence might ensue if the family members actually did meet. It really could be Christmas every day, though not quite as the band Wizzard imagined it. It would be more as a moment of familial acrimony where people, who can choose their friends but not their family, end up in the same room together. Will Self used the story as central to an article written during the pandemic, with Self offering a "rather pessimistic view of the increasing virtualisation of our lives zooming us towards mass neuroticism in a ghastly mass synergy of fetishism and frigidity." ('Self-Mandatory Virtualisation') Perhaps, but Ballard suggests if you keep people away from each other long enough, don't be surprised if an atavistic impulse becomes evident when you do finally put them together. If in time's fixity the lion can lie with the lamb, in televirtuality, when you do have actual contact, it can quickly become a combat sport. The irony of keeping people in perfect isolation becomes the very imperfect interactions that do take place when they eventually meet.
While Ballard captured an aspect of virtual living before the event, in The Largest Theme Park in the World, written twenty years later, he muses over a lethargic, luxurious, unified Europe, where the strong currency leaves many of the continent's citizens taking it very easy indeed. Tourists take increasingly long holidays on the Costa del Sol and the Cote d'Azur, and others fail to catch their return flights altogether. "At first this decision was largely confined to the young and unmarried, to former students and the traditional lumpen-intelligentsia of the beach. But these latter-day refuseniks soon included lawyers, doctors and accountants" as people pursued the perpetual vacation. However, the numbers kept increasing and there were now five million exiles in these beach communities. The locals weren't happy but the exiles had become spartans, with a year of sun and exercise turning their bodies firm and agile. Tensions arise and by the end of the story the beach hordes who now number thirty million, decide it is time to migrate. They choose to travel back north, reoccupying their empty homes, a mass exodus of refugees that were only tourists prolonging their stay.
There is much humour in Ballard's story and he manages to critique the European Union, vegetarians, practitioners of martial arts, narcissists, daft Thatcherites, jingoistic Churchillians and nationalists generally. When well-heeled and healed ladies in one-piece bathing suits invoke the speech we will fight them on the beaches and never, never surrender, we see a dig at the Brits, but the Gaullist French don't come off much better. Ballard's purpose is to look at things differently, not polemically, and if he can often come across as prescient it is chiefly because he simply offers insightfully the mood of his time.
But we shouldn't forget that Ballard's purpose is to write well, and in this he differs from many a writer of science fiction. "Virtually everything Isaac Asimov ever published", Darragh McManus says, "could be rewritten and restyled without too much guilt." Philip K. Dick's "...writing was often dreadful. Hammy dialogue, amateurish narrative pacing, some truly terrible descriptive prose...Great ideas, but often a poor command of the language." (Guardian) Even Ballard gets a passing mention as McManus hammers S/F prose but he escapes the claim better than most. He may be interested in the conceptual possibilities of time, in how we adjust to a constantly evolving future, but Ballard also wants to use words carefully and specifically. He does this by often adding an adjectival or adverbial modifier to a noun that could stand on its own in a sentence. Here are several examples. "A frantic machine", "a flapping engine", "cracked concrete" "amber air". Ballard could have said of the plane that it was a "machine lost in the silence of Florida", and that "the engine of the old Curtis biplane woke Dr Mallory soon after Dawn". But the precision lies in the adjective added to the noun.
Some writers will of course deliberately eschew modifiers when seeking a less ornate style (like Hemingway and Carver), writers given to cliche will use obvious ones to give their writing a bit more energy, and bad writers add them redundantly. But maybe in Ballard's work they exist chiefly because he thinks in the images that he cannot apply with pigment and finds in the modifier the equivalent approach to colour and line. To say the machine was lost in the silence of Florida helps tell the story. However, it's the use of flapping that gives it imagistic detail. Equally, when later the narrator says "two wizened cheetahs sat in the shade under its wing, watching Mallory with their prim eyes" it is wizened and prim that gives the story imagery rather than just the animal's sense of threat. Indeed, the details weaken the tension, as though Ballard were asking the reader to imagine a world rather than follow a narrative. If Ballard can say "sometimes I think that all my writing is nothing more than the compensatory work of a frustrated painter" (Paris Review), then we can do worse than look at how he uses modifiers to prioritise the visual aspect over the narrative thrust. In this, the story is a perfect encapsulation of the tension between fictional form and painterly desire. 'Memories of the Space Age' suggests that time will eventually cease to exist except as fixed matter, and become, if you like, a painting.
© Tony McKibbin