Last month’s experiment in ‘healthy eating’ went well. I started to notice a difference quite fast. That’s important because initial success provides the motivation to keep going. I enjoyed getting back into the whole ‘healthy smoothie’ vibe — that’s something I hope to continue. I’m sure, not drinking alcohol for a month made a huge difference as well. What did I learn? By consuming less food and drink, I felt better, and healthier. Now I’m drinking less beer, but enjoying experimenting with more expensive ones.
I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of reading this month. It’s mostly been catching up on books that I feel I ought to have read. The novels have been speculative fiction, much of it dystopian. This has been the theme for 2021.
Speculative fiction is not so much an attempt to predict the future as it is a mirror to the present. It’s there to explore contemporary issues in an oblique way (much like comedy, or satire). In fiction, the future is a product of the moment the story was written in. Stories age. Sometimes well. Mostly badly. Ideas come in and out of fashion. Culture changes. Technology changes. Getting things wrong comes with the territory.
Having said this, I like the fact that old 1960s and 70s speculative fiction has a peculiar retro-futuristic charm all of its own. The novels provide a fascinating document of their time.
Is it time to reassess these old sci-fi novels? Probably. They depict natural and human-made catastrophe, social turmoil, corruption, and competition for resources. Fifty years later, the future as seen from 1971 looks a lot like the future as seen in 2021. The fear of overpopulation has been replaced by climate change, but the end result looks strikingly similar.
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.
To his surprise he noticed that he no longer cast any shadow on to the sand, as if he had at last completed his journey across the margins of the inner landscape he had carried in his mind for so many years. — 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.
His 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 story. This sets up an ongoing tension. Are the novels genre sci-fi, or are they literary fiction? They’re literary speculative fiction. But, to my mind, it’s an uneasy fusion.
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 apparant 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 1960s and 70s New Wave sci-fi has a lot of synergy with ideas expressed in Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1970). Toffler predicted overpopulation and a resource-scarce, fractious, post-industrial society.
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 the first cyberpunk novel. It goes for a conventional story, but it feels strangely detached. It’s an extreme example of ‘telling rather than showing’.
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.
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 film. Parts of it are good, parts of it are ridiculous and schmaltzy. The novel’s world building is more realistic and consistent.
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. How many eyes should a banana have?