It is the year of “Soylent Green.” Still people casually toss aside Science Fiction functioning as Literature with a jokey wit. In a 1970’s interview with J.G.Ballard, he plainly states “the requirement for understanding science fiction is living in the world today.” When his interviewer attempts to put aside one of his stories as implausible, she is only drawn back in by the reality of confronting a late-night science program where they are discussing genetic engineering. Suddenly to this critic, the genre has become particularly real.
The works of J.G.Ballard basically extend the realms of possibility. Within the progress that science and technology afford us, it would be possible for a sinister force to slip in or even technology to tower over its masters and go horribly awry. When Frankenstein was creating his monster from the scraps of human life, it was automatically feared and found to be inhuman. Fear and its irrational output are sometimes the only forces needed to place other humans in doubt. This human reaction to the growing, swelling, soon-to-be-all-encompassing great unknown is largely Ballard’s language of communication.
While his most famous novels speak largely to the dystopian worlds that even now cross over into Literature, his humble beginnings as a Science Fiction short-story writer may have something to reveal.
In his first published work “Prima Belladonna” (Science Fantasy, Dec. 1956,) “A walking galaxy of light with insects for eyes” is drawn to the allure of a shop. The shelves are lined with arachnidic orchids who correspond with musical notes. When the insect-like woman casts her spell on the shop owner, she also entrances his most special plant. With a combination of H.G.Wells and modern SciFi, “Prima Belladonna” unfolds with a Robert Heinlein-esque narrator in conducting its “symphony of horror” to its peak. While plants and electronics mixing serve as the union between technology and human life, its most thought provoking consideration is that any living creation functioning with the right combination of dissonant frequencies inside of it may only be able to stop the noise by killing itself…or others.
His other December 1956 work “Escapement” (New Worlds of Science Fantasy) is an update on the classic “time loop” trope used everywhere from Doctor Who to “Groundhog Day.” Written in almost real time as it is happening, “Escapement” is a more Earth-bound companion to Stanislaw Lem’s exemplary “The 7th Voyage of Ijon Tichy” (1971/translated to English in 1976.) “Escapement” mixes mystery and menace with the rigors of pleasure in everyday life. Tucked away in Maida Vale, a nation is beginning to bask in three channels of cathode ray-delivered entertainment. However, once the play loops around once again and then more times, the protagonist (and narrator) seeks out menial relief in the correct time from neighbors, drinks with the wife and the distraction of a crossword puzzle. Never quite able to figure out elusive 17 down, our narrator turns to calling neighbors, friends and even the TV station with knowledge of what is about to happen to them. Though drinking never makes him drunk, their is a sinister wordplay in effect here as Ballard hints slightly at how the opening frame of a breakdown in civilization might play out.
It might be that the novel in all of its complicated ways is not the best place to either try out or (as the reader) unfold the complex social mirroring within Science Fiction. The time loop-jumping becomes a harsh reality due to sleep deprivation in 1957’s “Manhole 69.” How many times have you thought to yourself-what I could truly accomplish in one day without having to pursue eight hours of sleep? Three volunteers quickly discover they are startlingly more useless than ever. Or take a future away from Earth in the first story he had published in the US in March 1960 in “The Waiting Grounds.” Here we encounter twin “monoliths” built like Rosetta Stones ready to translate everything into the miasma of the old universe about to give birth to new one.
In essence, these short stories are Ballard building from the standard architecture of Mystery and Space stories into tales with a new level of responsibility and understanding of the world around us as we are discovering it too. While it would be easy to portray all things unknown as “good” or “bad,” Ballard finds all the areas of grey that make it both fantasy and a possible reality. With that, Ballard ascends above the escapism of Science Fiction to use other untapped worlds as places for classic literary storytelling.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.