Grave New World – review

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Under Polish Eyes:

J.G. Ballard Reconsidered

Dominika Oramus. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard.
Warsaw: U of Warsaw P, 2007. 279 pp.

James Graham Ballard seems to be the sf writer most loved by academicians: four book-length critical essays have been devoted to his oeuvre, and there are very few authors in the field who have been honored that way. This latest installment of Ballard’s academic canonization is possibly more striking than the previous three, as they (Roger Luckhurst’s 1997 The Angle Between Two Walls, Michel Delville’s 1998 J.G. Ballard, and Andrzej Gasiorek’s 2005 homonymous monograph) were all published in Ballard’s own country, while Grave New World has been published by the University of Warsaw in Poland. The author, Dominika Oramus, teaches contemporary British fiction there, and has written another monograph on Ballard (The Voices of Disaster: J.G. Ballard and the Disaster Story Tradition in England, 2005), plus a book in Polish on sf, Stacja Kontroli chaosu: Postacie i zjawiska wspólczesnej fantastyki [A Chaos Control Station: Contemporary Science Fiction: Writers and Subgenres] (2004), and a book-length essay on Angela Carter, not to mention several articles on sf authors.

So there are all the makings of an important contribution to the growing secondary bibliography on J.G. Ballard, though one cannot avoid wondering whether a new monograph on Ballard can really add something—after just two years—to Gasiorek’s exhaustive and meticulously researched essay. The reviewer’s opinion is that Oramus’s Grave New World does offer a remarkable added value in terms of hermeneutical penetration, notwithstanding its defects.

Before describing the few weaknesses and the many strong points of Oramus’s book, one should make a distinction. Gasiorek’s J.G. Ballard aims at introducing the figure of Ballard by exploring his works and the secondary bibliography on the British writer without a general interpretive hypothesis on his oeuvre: its prospective readers are evidently (though not only) university students who may need to put Ballard’s single works in the context of his imaginative world. In contrast, Oramus has a very strong interpretive hypothesis: reading “Ballard’s fiction (and some of his non-fiction) as a record of the gradual internal degeneration of Western civilization in the second half of the twentieth century” (8). This is what the pun on Huxley hints at: the Grave New World is our world, seen by Ballard, according to Oramus, as dying because “growing increasingly hostile to individuals and erecting a cult of violence” (8). All in all, though potentially useful for students, Oramus’s monograph seems aimed more at Ballard scholars, and also, as we shall see, at scholars of British literature in general.

I have said that there are a few weaknesses in the essay. Actually I should say that there are three major shortcomings. The first is that the book badly needs a careful copy-editing: it has been printed in a non-English-speaking country and this shows, though Oramus availed herself of an American editor, Philip Earl Steele, a historian currently teaching at the University of Warsaw. The editing by a native speaker did not prevent typos, plus some slips that are almost self-evident. For example, Oramus tells us that Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (one of her and Ballard’s key sources of inspiration) was “written during World War II” (108), but a few pages later she says that Freud’s essay was published in 1929 (actually the correct publication year is 1930). There are small inaccuracies also when she quotes the titles of some works by Ballard, such as “Theatre of War” (1977), which is mentioned as “The Theatre of War.” There are also a number of awkward sentences, such as this: “[Jim] is proud to be coping on his own and bored by the scenes of death and mutilation, ones simply too numerous to impress” (93).

It should be added that there are a few terminological inaccuracies: for example, Oramus defines sociological science fiction as depicting “an usually small and isolated society whose members are being manipulated and kept in ignorance as far as the outside world is concerned” (106n). For those who find it difficult to reconcile this definition with the works of sociological sf authors of the 1950s such as Pohl and Kornbluth, we should explain that Oramus is referring to such Polish sf writers as Janusz Zajdel and Ermund Wnuk-Lipiński.