Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
The commercialization of culture maims both SF film and SF literature. Ballard is aware that in the 1970s there is no place for ambitious writing of the ‘New Wave’ kind. In “The Cosmic Cabaret” (1974), the review of Brian Aldiss Billion Year Spree, he announces that modern SF has come to an end. “Anything that happened five minutes ago is already the center of a cult, embedded in Lucite and put on display shelf. Modern SF… has already become a victim of this nostalgia” (Ballard 1974b: 203). There is no interesting new movement and the tendency of more ambitious writers is to come back to stylized ‘retro’ poetics. The authors who ten years earlier had been the ‘New Wave’ abandoned SF and their postmodernist experiments are being misunderstood,
One of the most inaccurate jibes leveled at the so-called ‘New Wave’ is that its writers suffered from delusions of literary grandeur, that they took themselves far too seriously. In fact in my own personal experience, it is the absolute reverse that is true. (Ballard 1974b: 203)
Such a decline in SF is for him the result of a huge civilizational change, which is taking place in America, the center of the world’s SF. The concepts of future no longer cause excitement, the stress falls on the present day and, moreover, huge moral and imaginative reserves possessed by the USA in the first part of the century are exhausted. In the times of pessimism, distraction and social entropy there is no place for the literature exploring the excitements of tomorrow. The post-Vietnam world abandoned the future and then SF. This process was enhanced throughout the decade, and, at the beginning of the 80s, Ballard’s voice sounded even more pessimistic. In “New Means Worse” (1981) in the Guardian, he wrote:
In fact, science fiction today… is entering the most commercial phase it has ever known. The ‘New Wave’ along with almost all the more intelligent magazines and anthologies, has long since been inundated by a tsunami of planet fiction, sword-and-sorcery sensationalism… What science fiction needs now is a clear, hard and positive voice. (Ballard 181b: 190)
Nostalgia and dissatisfaction with the contemporary world with its stupid escapist fables made Ballard concentrate on history of SF rather than its present state. The ability to probe deep down our psyche is the ultimate goal of literature. Nevertheless, in the 1970s something wrong happened to SF and culture at large. For some years Ballard kept toying with SF ideas in playful and less serious way. A good example of this kind of journalism is his cooperation with Vogue. In the late 1970s he published in this magazine a few impressions on future. Easy and nice to read they described a make-believe 21st century. In “The Future of the Future” (1977) he talks about the world dominated by TV. Each one of us lives in a room full of TV screens that report on our daily life and bodily functions. People spend their evenings editing the material recorded by cameras – their own talks and interactions with the family and friends. The actors in our personal films we live keeping in mind the film we continuously are making. Gradually we step back into our rooms and perform our work and family life only via TV screen unable to cope with un-mediated reality.
This article is interesting for few reasons. Firstly, soon after Ballard used this idea to write two short stories “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977) and “Motel Architecture” (1978), both picturing a society in which people live separately in screen-filled studios. Secondly, it is worth noticing that 1977 is long before the invention of virtual reality, therefore he quite rightly anticipated the development of media. Thirdly, compared with earlier texts on SF – engaged artistic manifestos teaching how to write, read and think – this article shows his disappointment in SF, which he now treats as a plaything only. Lastly, we can see here Ballard’s growing obsession with TV screens and media culture, very much characteristic for his fiction (and journalism ) at the time.