GRAVE NEW WORLD – introduction

Grave New World

The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

In this text he postulates rejuvenation of SF: replacement of outer space exploration and technological detail with interest in the inner space of the human mind. He sites Ray Bradbury as an example of the very few author who are able to “transform even so hackneyed a subject as Mars into an enthralling private world” (Ballard 1962d: 195) but criticizes lesser writers who have made SF synonymous with fantastic stories for small boys. Nevertheless, because of the inherent lack of limits and restrictions:

SF has a continuing and expanding role as an imaginative interpreter of the future… The biggest developments of the immediate future will take place, not on the Moon or Mars, but on Earth, and it is inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored. The only truly alien planet is Earth. In the past the scientific bias of SF has been towards the physical sciences – rocketry, electronics, cybernetics – and the emphasis should switch to the biological sciences. (Ballard 1962d: 197)

Ballard goes on to postulate abstract and ‘cool’ SF, uninterested in dramatic stories but in oblique presentation of phenomena such as the human experience of time, genetic memories, subliminal drives, archeopsychic time. SF should develop vocabulary to deal with the social and psychological problems of tomorrow and, Ballard fervently claims, has chances to become the intellectual and artistic avant-garde.

In the second half of the decade, long after the decline of the ‘New Wave’, Ballard was slowly recognized as one of the theorists of contemporary society and postmodernist culture. Always placed on the margins of the mainstream and associated with scandal and artistic provocation, he was nevertheless often asked his opinions on SF, futurology and different aspects of contemporary life. No longer restricted to avant-garde magazines he published his essays and reviews in a wide range of titles. His most interesting journalism of this decade is concerned with the status of art in the world dominated by mass media and the numerous fictions of urban landscape such as commercials, billboards and ever-present TV screens. Leitmotifs of these essays are the latent artistic potential of SF, regrettable decline of this genre, prospects of future life in postmodernist society and the new kind of imagination shaped by the late 20th century: the Moon landing, Vietnam and the assassination of J.F. Kennedy.

Aware of the rapid changes in culture he formulated a whole new artistic program for a future SF writer. Our reality is now full of people filling the environment with all kinds of fictions, therefore a writer cannot just produce fictitious stories, but has to “out-imagine everyone else”, analyze the minds of contemporary men, and create situations and images able to move, excite and reach to the unconscious. Such an artistic plan soon proved too idealistic. In the subsequent years Ballard witnessed the rapid decline of intellectual SF, the commercialization of the genre and the dominance of visual media.

In his review of Star Wars, “Hobbits in Space?” (1977), his criticism of this film (“totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable, and an acoustic nightmare”) is only a pretext to examine the condition of science fiction: a genre, which is becoming passé as its intellectual values resist translation into cinema:

Although slightly biased, I firmly believe that science fiction is the true literature of the twentieth century, and probably the last literary form to exist before the death of the written word and the domination of the visual image. SF has been one of the very few forms of modern fiction explicitly concerned with change – social, technological and environmental – and certainly the only fiction to invent society’s myths, dreams and utopias. Why, then, has it translated so uneasily into the cinema? (Ballard 1977a: 14)