Grave New World – review

.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.

Oramus seems to be unaware that the phrase “sociological sf” has generally been used by critics and historians of the genre to define a specific decade of US sf, and that a book written in English which aims at an international audience should allow for this. (Here we are not promoting any form of US-centrism; surely Polish sociological sf could be a very interesting discovery for us Western scholars. Yet Oramus’s terminological choice should have been more careful.) This small defect is arguably connected to a greater one—that is, the absence of Ray Bradbury, an author Ballard has always admired and whose influence (especially when one thinks of The Martian Chronicles [1950]) on Ballard’s Vermilion Sands cycle (1971) (and probably not only there) is undeniable, but apparently ignored by Oramus. This is the second weakness of the essay: Oramus only partially explores the ties between Ballard and the sf tradition, privileging the British models (e.g., H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley) over the US ones.

The third weakness is to be found especially in the first chapter of the book, “Grave New World.” Here Oramus devotes herself to tracing an intellectual genealogy of the Shepperton visionary, which unfortunately sounds a bit too much like an attempt to justify Ballard’s importance to a resistant local academic scene. Oramus sets forth several theorists as Ballard’s “gurus”: Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, Freud, Jung, Laing, Baudrillard, Debord, McLuhan, Fukuyama, and Huntingdon. Some of these figures are believable sources of ideas that Ballard has repeatedly woven into his narrative fabric: nobody can deny the importance of Jung and Freud to Ballard, and Oramus has the great merit of explaining how those founders of psychoanalysis have influenced him (for example, the obsession with timelessness in Ballard is brought back to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents [1930]). Had Oramus simply used the ideas of Spengler and Toynbee, for instance, to underpin her reading one would not object, but she does not sufficiently support some of these purported influences with textual evidence. Oramus boldly states that “the characters of early disaster stories Ballard wrote in the late fifties and early sixties read Spengler’s The Decline of the West [1918] and are fascinated by his determinism in describing the inevitable end of every social structure” (46). Actually, Spengler and Toynbee are only mentioned in a single story, “The Voices of Time” (1960), where they are mentioned only once by a single character, and do not reappear in Ballard’s fiction, nor are they a widespread presence in his interviews or nonfiction. Other unsupported statements occur in this chapter, such as the footnote where Oramus says that “critics usually claim that Ballard is influenced by the poetic diction of Lautréamont” (62), but does not identify those critics, nor does she bother to quote from Isidore Lucien Ducasse, a.k.a. Comte de Lautréamont, to show us how the proto-surrealist poet’s “poetic diction” influenced the British novelist. All in all, the “Grave New World” chapter is the weakest in the book, and does not add much to our knowledge of Ballard and his fictional worlds. Besides, one cannot escape the feeling that Oramus missed some figures who really influenced Ballard, such as Bradbury, or T.S. Eliot, whose Waste Land (1922)is important both to The Drowned World (1962) and The Drought (1965). An analysis of Ballard’s brilliant recycling of Eliot’s apocalyptic imagery might have strengthened Oramus’s main argument.

The added value of the book can instead mostly be found in the Introduction (especially in its second section, “J.G. Ballard’s Auto-Creation” [25-36]), and above all in the five long chapters that follow the theoretical introduction: “Battlefields,” “Cityscapes,” “Mediascapes,” “Mindscapes,” and “Wastelands.” These are the 187 pages (out of about 280) that make Grave New World absolutely worth reading and inspiring for JGB scholars to come.

“Battlefields” deals with Ballard’s war fiction, his works directly or indirectly related to WWII and the war that never happened (or has not happened yet), WWIII: the two imaginary memoirs Empire of the Sun (1984)and The Kindness of Women (1991), some parts of The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and the short stories “The Terminal Beach” (1964), “The Dead Time” (1977), “The Killing Ground” (1969), “Theatre of War” (1977), and “War Fever” (1989). Oramus’s thesis is that “World War II is the true intellectual and spiritual beginning of [Ballard’s] output” (82), and this is an idea to which we can wholeheartedly subscribe. Besides, it is postmodernist fiction itself that was born in that war: consider such seminal texts as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962),and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), just to remain on the science-fictional turf. No wonder then that a great postmodernist who started from sf (and later, just like Vonnegut, forsook it) acknowledges his historical matrix. Moreover, this apocalyptic starting point fits the apocalyptic tone of the essay perfectly.