Grave New World
The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard
Though the ‘New Wave’ movement finished by the early nineteen-seventies and Ballard’s career has proved much longer lasting, his early fiction is often discussed in the context of its poetics. The ambitious artistic programme of the movement and the fact that many of its representatives became well-known and important writers (Ballard is the most prominent among them but there are many others, for example: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, D.M. Thomas) attracted the attention of literary critics.
One of the first scholars to study the output of the group was Colin Greenland, who in the late 1970s was a postgraduate student at Oxford. A great fan of New Worlds and science fiction in general he dreamt of writing ‘serious’ criticism about this literary genre which at the time was considered too ‘low-brow’ to study (Greenland is now a prominent science fiction scholar and an author of highly regarded fantastic books). Tom Shippey , then Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, an author of criticism about J.R.R. Tolkien and a contributor of Patric Parrinder’s critical anthology Science Fiction. A Critical Guide agreed to supervise Greenland’s work.
Finally, in 1980 a thesis entitled The Entropy Exhibition Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction was accepted for a doctorate in English Literature at the University of Oxford. Greenland, thanks to a grant from Arts Council of Great Britain reworked the thesis and in 1983 a book of the same title was publish. The Entropy Exhibition is a superb criticism of science fiction, Greenland shows the literary output of the ‘New Wave’ in the context of cultural and artistic life in the nineteen-sixties, and although only one chapter is devoted exclusively to Ballard, it is an important item in Ballardian criticism to date.
Greenland describes the social situation in the sixties, the emergence of the youth culture the influence of the Space Race on popular imagination, the Vietnam War and the stormy history of New Worlds – a magazine that tried to reflect the current cultural phenomena. Additionally, in his book he inserts three monographic essays-chapters present the works of Ballard, Aldiss and Moorcock.
As far as Ballard’s output is concerned Greenland discusses his early disaster novels and stories written in the fifties and sixties (the books written in the seventies High-Rise and Concrete Island are only mentioned, later works are of course absent from the study). His general approach to both Ballard and the whole ‘New Wave’ is to read their output as a new kind of fiction growing out of traditional science fiction and characterized by its fascination with entropy: the universal and irreversible decline of energy into disorder. This fiction is in intimate connection with other cultural experiments of the epoch. Ballard, according to Greenland, is first of all a masterful stylist whose metaphors and allusions recreate the pessimistic attitude of the times showing the Universe doomed to death and frozen in its final stage. Ballard’s early prose is described as pictorial and showed in the context of visual arts – Picasso, Delvaux, Dali, Magritte – Greenland points to colours, shades and figures borrowed by Ballard from concrete paintings.
Greenland also proves to what extent Ballard is indebted to Surrealism as far as his language is concerned, poetic character of his early prose is an effect of a highly associative style:
The Surrealist techniques that Ballard has used involve deliberate dissociations and mystifications. The object is taken from its usual context and dismantled, or put in a new context, or confused with other objects. But the result of the process is not mere nonsense, but a revaluation. The elements acquire new significance from the reorganisation, so that we sense more about the object than we knew or felt before. Surrealism can thus be said to have both a synthetic and an analytic aspect; it consists not only of inspiration, but also of inquiry. This duality Ballard has inherited. (Greenland 1983: 104)