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.

In “Cityscapes” Oramus explores those texts that deal with metropolitan space: the novels High-Rise (1975), Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974), and the short stories “The Concentration City”(1957), “The Largest Theme Park in the World”(1989), and “The Ultimate City”(1976). Those works substantiate the thesis that “the affluent, turn-of-the-millennium Western culture … is primarily an urban phenomenon” (110). I would like to point out Oramus’s reading of Concrete Island, which considers the text as the delirium of the protagonist’s dying brain, so that Maitland represents an extreme form of unreliable narrator.

The subsequent chapter, “Mediascapes,” is devoted to those works in which the media dominate. Obviously Oramus is aware that the media are omni-present in Ballard, but she chooses some texts as more representative than others: the novels Hello America (1981), Rushing to Paradise (1994), The Day of Creation (1987), Running Wild (1988), parts of The Atrocity Exhibition, and the two short stories “The Subliminal Man”(1962) and “The Air Disaster”(1975). One might wonder why The Day of Creation was included in this section only, as the novel might be easily read as a variation on the narrative device already used in Concrete Island, but the basic thesis orienting the readings in this chapter is that “TV and other audiovisual media in Ballard’s fiction not only give people models to follow, but they also shape the way people perceive reality” (148), and there is no doubt that The Day of Creation is set in a (probably deliberately bogus) Africa built with media materials and based on how a media-shaped mind perceives reality (whatever may go under that name nowadays).

“Mindscapes” deals with the apocalyptic sf novels of the 1960s: The Wind from Nowhere (1961), The Drowned World, The Drought (which Oramus reads in such an innovative way as to redeem it from its current status as minor work), The Crystal World (1966),and its embryo, the short story “The Illuminated Man”(1964), plus parts of The Atrocity Exhibition. Far from reading the early sf works by Ballard as apprentice works (or ignoring them), Oramus considers these novels as showing “the inner landscape of contemporary people living in the constraints of [Grave New World’s] cityscapes and media culture” (191).

The last section, “Wastelands,” deals primarily with Ballard’s more recent productions: Rushing to Paradise, Running Wild, Millennium People (2003), Super-Cannes (2000), and Cocaine Nights (1996), plus a novel of the 1970s, The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), and the short story “A Guide to Virtual Death”(1992). Here Oramus explores “realms of decadence” where “the prevailing feeling of an approaching end makes people indulge in diverse fantasies, the communication landscape enslaves them and the environment is hostile to mental health” (230). These waste lands are the world we live in now, in 2008; and Oramus’s willingness to offer a panoramic reading of Ballard’s oeuvre that allows for his latest developments can be appreciated by her inserting an appendix discussing Ballard’s latest achievement, the 2006 novel Kingdom Come.

Oramus’s readings of the texts are generally very productive and sometimes illuminating. But it is the way she groups the novels and short stories that is fascinating and thought-provoking. Rather than using chronological order or conventional genre borderlines (between novels and short fiction, between sf and crime fiction, between autobiography and novelistic invention), the Polish scholar has detected five major issues in Ballard’s output and coherently uses them as coordinates of a penta-dimensional charting of a most complex fictional space. This is an intellectual effort that deserves attention and should be acknowledged by Ballard scholars in the next decades, its shortcomings notwithstanding. It is to be hoped that some university press may consider publishing a revised version.—Umberto Rossi, Rome

From Science Fiction Studies 2008