J G Ballard’s early novels
I’ve been reading J G Ballard’s early novels. They’re sometimes referred to as his disaster novels. In them, the world is afflicted by a naturally occurring phenomena: hurricanes, rising sea levels, drought, or a crystalline invader.
In The Drowned World (1962) increased solar radiation has melted the ice caps. In The Drought (1964) the lakes, rivers and sea are drying up. And, in The Crystal World (1966) an invasive crystalline form emerges in the African jungle. The novels are classic suspense stories. We know from the title and the tone what’s going to happen. We don’t know how it will play out and what effect it will have on the protagonist. The entropy, chaos and disturbance in the natural world is echoed by the turbulence within the protagonist’s ‘inner landscape’.
In my view, Ballard perfected this formula in High Rise (1975), but it was already there in these stories, like The Drought:
The disaster stories are a strange mix of genre fiction, literary fiction, and satire. At one point in The Drowned World, characters attend a dinner party dressed in tuxedos. There’s a tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness as the characters try to maintain appearances.
Ballard’s work also has a strong autobiographical element. The protagonists face surreal and traumatic experiences, which can be viewed as metaphors for his own troubled childhood experiences. In a way, his protagonists were versions of James Graham Ballard.
The downside of a novel like The Crystal World is that women and Africans (in a story that’s set in Africa) are bit part players. On the up side, The Crystal World is Annihilation (2014) almost forty years before Annihilation.
The disaster novels are sandwiched between cheesy Hollywood disaster B-movies of the 1950s, like When Worlds Collide (1951), and the disaster movies of the 1970s. As an example of mid-century science fiction, John Wyndham’s iconic The Day of the Triffids (1951) offers a more engaging story. Ballard’s disaster fiction is akin to Existentialist theatre. He’s interested in the psychology of the mind, the ‘inner landscape’. The protagonists tend to hang around, waiting for the end to come. The descriptions are particularly rich, so good they seem incongruous within a genre type of story. This sets up an ongoing tension – are the novels genre science fiction (speculative fiction) or literary fiction? Labels aside, these stories are really about psychological trauma, which puts them more into the realm of literary fiction for me.
Miracles of Life
Miracles of Life is J G Ballard’s autobiography. Written shortly before his death, it covers his life, and the effects that his childhood experiences had on him.
The book begins in pre-communist Shanghai, his internment in a Japanese camp in World War 2, to life back in England, the tragic death of his wife, and bringing up three children as a single father. I think it’s fair to say, Ballard was interested in ideas and psychology more than action sequences and plots. He was fascinated by the human psyche, and explored it in his fiction in an increasingly subversive way. This becomes apparent in Miracles of Life. Where his earlier fiction was influenced by Surrealist art, his later work mimicked the intrinsic values of the artwork itself.
John Brunner’s science fiction
John Brunner was a science fiction writer. His work in the 1960s and 70s is synonymous with New Wave sci-fi, which became synonymous with the so-called 70s ‘future shock’ science fiction dealing with rapid technological change, overpopulation, racial tensions, authoritarian governments, and ecological disaster.
Brunner’s novel, Stand on Zanzibar (1968), is often noted for predicting a black US President in 2010. The name of Brunner’s US President, President Obomi, sounding uncannily like President Obama. Stand on Zanzibar is remarkable, and frustrating. It uses an intertextual, collage-like document format, with little attempt to convey a conventional story. Brunner’s 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, is perhaps the first cyberpunk novel. It goes for a conventional story, but it feels strangely detached with its matter-of-fact prose. The protagonist of The Shockwave Rider is a phreaker and a computer hacker. He lives in a ‘plug-in’ society. There’s a clear precedent here for The Matrix (1999), and eXistenZ (1999), both of which depict actual plug-in worlds. And, in typical cyberpunk mode, the protagonist attempts to bring down the system by hacking into a computer network. It’s cyberpunk a decade before Neuromancer.
Make Room! Make Room!
Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966) is one of the first novels to explore the idea of overpopulation. It depicts an America that’s suffering from depleted resources (especially food and water), and a crumbling infrastructure. It’s a world where taking a shower is a luxury. While ordinary people struggle, the corrupt rich and powerful enjoy comfortable lifestyles. The book was loosely adapted into the film Soylent Green.
In the novel, Soylent is a simple soya and lentil steak. I have mixed feelings about the plot twist in the film. Parts of the film are great, other parts are ridiculous and schmaltzy. The novel’s world building is far more nuanced and less cartoon-like.
How many eyes should a banana have?
My daughter had a kid’s magazine, which came with a pack of stick-on eyes. She decided to use them to put eyes on some fruit. I suggested putting two eyes on each of the fruit, but she wasn’t happy with this.
Moments later, when I looked back, she’d added multiple eyes to the fruit, and she was delighted with the result. It made me think about rules and expectations.