War Fever is an anthology of J. G. Ballard‘s short fiction from roughly 1975 to 1989. I’d been wanting to read some more Ballard for a while, having heard of him as one of the premiere figures of the “literary” branch of SF writing. Indeed, I only found this book in the library shelved under literature, not with other SF. And the stories here do straddle the line between literature and genre writing, even crossing so far into the world of “literature” as to lose my interest in a couple of cases.
One immediately obvious feature of this collection is Ballard’s experiments with non-narrative formats in his writing. One of the most extreme examples is “Answers to a Questionnaire”, which is exactly what it sounds like: A series of answers to unseen questions, from which we have to piece together a story. The story in “Answers” does come together cleanly and effectively. More extreme in form and less effective in storytelling is “The Index”, which is putatively the index to a lost biography, of one of the greatest hidden actors of the 20th century, someone who has a hand in every historical development, though the public rarely hears his name. While its momentarily interesting to try to piece together a story from the various index entries, the need to order the entries alphabetically makes the piece unnatural, as Ballard has pushed, for example, entries meant to convey a picture of the subject’s love life, toward the front of the alphabet, and entries that indicate his political mechanations to the middle of the alphabet, etc. Other stories in the collection are presented as reports, recorded voice memos, and even a set of footnotes to an otherwise missing manuscript.
If anything holds the book together, though, its a theme of distortions of time and space. In “Report on an Unidentified Space Station”, a group of space travelers explore an abandoned station, which seems to grow in size with every dispatched report. In “The Enormous Space”, a man responds to the setbacks of his life by isolating himself in his house, which again seems to expand over time as the narrator’s isolation from the outside world is deepened. And in “Memories of the Space Age”, a curious disease has infested Florida, causing time to stretch around its sufferers. The protagonist’s search for a cure for the disease, if that is in fact his goal in exploring the affected region, is eventually lost as he is separated from reality by his disconnected sense of time.
Ballard’s narrative voice in these stories is generally distanced from his subjects, and in some cases is outright detached, as in “The Largest Theme Park in the World”, where the presentation is in a form reminiscent of an encyclopedia or news magazine article. In the stories of disconnection and disassociation from reality, the distant authorial voice feels appropriate, but in other stories it becomes a distraction from the plot and characters.
In addition to “Memories of the Space Age”, there are a couple of other standout stories. “Love in a Colder Climate” is an interesting look at the consequences of a second sexual revolution, and “Dream Cargoes” is the story of a boathand who becomes captain of a ship carrying a cargo that could change the world, again picking up the theme of isolation from society and disconnection from time.
The collection is certainly worthwhile reading, but its probably best to be careful about the pace of reading it. Taken too quickly, the distant disconnected narratives might start to run together; while read over a long period of time, the thematic connections between the stories could be lost.