Archive for J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard, War Fever

Posted in sf, short story collections with tags , on March 14, 2009 by Matt

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 “literaryā€¯ 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.


New Worlds Science Fiction June 1960

Posted in magazines, sf, time warp with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by Matt

Another time warp post, for a flea market find. This isn’t, apparently, the New Worlds magazine that led the British new wave. This New Worlds was published in New York, and appears to have carried reprints from the British New Worlds. A fanzine listing including “Eustace #1” produced by a Mike Moorcock out of Surrey, England.

The first story is “Grapeliner”, a “short novel” by James White. The story is in the golden age style, with technology exploration taking center stage, and minimalist characters. The technological question here is how to build a space ship out of plastic, so as to avoid the medical effects on crew and passengers of cosmic radiation interacting with metals. The solution reached skirts the border between far-out thinking and silliness. There’s very little here that can still capture the imagination today.

Next is Robert Presslie‘s “Confession is Good”, a typical early artificial intelligence story, in which its assumed that AI will always draw perfect logical conclusions from muddled human inputs, in this case leading to the most horrible kind of error. Another story that doesn’t resonate today as it might have when written.

“Aberration” by Roy Robinson and J. A. Sones looks at a perfect computer-operated society that is threatened from within by a telepath. As in much SF (and political thought) from this time, the authors seem to assume that if government can just get more information and power, it could run the lives of its subjects to perfection. Telepathy, also seen in “Grapeliner” seems to have been in the air when this was written. In both stories, the protagonists make amazing conclusions about the abilities of telepathic opponents who in fact they know almost nothing about. Here its a flaw that’s harder to overlook, since the telepath is the central point of the story.

“Almost Obsolete” by Donald Malcolm is a short piece about a kind of epidemiological study that leads to the revelation of a coming radical trend in human evolution — women are beginning to reproduce without the help of men, and men will soon become extinct. The revelation would probably have seemed bold in 1960, and would indeed be a dramatic change for human society. This story is certainly interesting as a historical marker in the development of this sf-nal idea.

Finally comes the reason I bought the magazine, a story by J. G. Ballard; an author I’ve heard plenty about, but never read. “Waiting Grounds” appeared well before the new wave was recognized, but does show Ballard’s leadership in bringing literary themes and style to sf, especially by contrast to the other, entirely old-school, stories in the magazine. The story is about a technician sent out to monitor a radar station on a distant planet or moon. There he discovers an alien artifact that implies mankind will soon join an interplanetary society. The story presages Arthur Clarke’s 2001 in the nature of the artifact, even naming it a monollith, and somewhat in the revelatory end-sequence in which the protag is mentally transported by the object into a mind-bending dream sequence. It would be interesting to work out the relationship between this and Clarke’s work (including the even earlier “Encounter in the Dawn“, which I can’t remember reading, so I don’t know if it includes the monolith or dream sequence.) The writing is clearly a cut above the other stories here, and I’ll definitely be looking in to Ballard’s later work after reading this one.