The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard (1967)

Nine Ballard short stories from the early 1960s, nearly 60 years ago.

  • Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer (1966)
  • The Concentration City (1957)
  • The Subliminal Man (1963)
  • Now Wakes the Sea (1963)
  • Minus One (1963)
  • Mr F. is Mr F. (1961)
  • Zone of Terror (1960)
  • Manhole 69 (1957)
  • The Impossible Man (1965)

Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer (1966)

Five years ago the giant birds attacked. They seem to have been caused by new hormone fertilisers laid down in agriculture. Dead gulls and magpies were found their beaks glutted with the sticky new substance. But later that year clouds of terrifying huge mutant birds attacked, gulls and pigeons and other species with ten or twelve feet wingspans, swooping out of the sky, wreaking havoc on flocks of sheep or cattle and even people.

Short hawk-faced Crispin was the only survivor of an attack on his farm, fighting the huge birds off with a pitchfork. He was accepted into the new volunteer force being assembled to defend Britain from the giant birds. The story opens as, stationed on a rusting picket ship in a river estuary, he opens up with the navy machine gun and blasts huge numbers of birds out of the sky with ammunition brought from below by the brain-damaged hunchback, Quimby.

Although the whole concept of the giant birds, and the industrial-agricultural-scientific experiment which has given rise to them, take some getting used to, this is only the backdrop to the story.

The story concerns Crispin’s growing obsession with a widow who lives in a remote cottage on one bank of the river, and who Crispin sees, through his binoculars, apparently plucking giant feathers from the piles of birds he’s massacred. Her name is Catherine York and her husband was torn to shreds by one of the giant birds – ironically a huge white dove they had captured and thought they could tame – which then made off with her baby son, years ago. Now she is carefully plucking big white feathers to make what Crispin discovers, when he rows across the river to introduce himself, is a kind of bower or nest.

Crispin becomes convinced Catherine is in danger. A few days later a stray bird appears out of nowhere and gets tangled up in the ship’s rigging while Crispin blasts it with his gun. Via an unlikely set of mental processes, Crispin decides to gut the bird and make a man-sized suit out of it. Clambering up to the shallow cliff above Catherine’s house, wearing the suit, he runs down the steep slope and is half surprised to find the enormous wings catching the air and lifting him off his feet.

Crispin is still trying to get the hang of it and maintain his balance when Catherine York comes out of her cottage and lets off two blasts from her shotgun, shooting Crispin through the heart. She waits beside his crashed body till quite sure he is dead, then returns to her self-imposed task, making a nice soft nest for the giant dove who she hopes, one day, will return with her baby boy.

This is a devastating psychodrama, and a weird portrait of deranged obsession, the way traumatised humans retreat into private worlds of their own making.

The Concentration City (1957)

The city has thousands of levels and extends indefinitely in all directions. It doesn’t, in fact, appear to stop, it makes up the world and the universe. Student Franz M has dreamed up the idea of a flying machine, in reality little more than a glider, but he needs space to try it out in and so makes enquiries of his teachers, tries to co-opt his friend Gregson. They find a small sports hall and the glider flies alright, but he needs somewhere larger and so goes to investigate a vast hole which has been opened up in the city by demolishing a hundreds blocks across and several down. He and other bystanders are made giddy with agoraphobia.

At another moment he and Gregson are discussing the glider in a café, when the Fire Police arrive because someone has been breaking the law by having a naked flame or cooking at heat. The point being that, in a city which stretches indefinitely in every direction, they cannot afford to have fires. Anyone cooking at real heat or doing anything else risky is called a Pyro and there are plenty of meatheads like the café owner who applaud when the Fire Police in fact demolish the building the alleged Pyros were.

But the thrust of the story is that Franz eventually decides to buy a ticket on one of the super-express trains heading West, cadges money off Gregson for the food and sets off. He keeps a diary of his journey as he passes through neighbourhoods and sections and territories and federations but – the point is – never leaving the enormous, built-up, three-dimensional city and – here’s the rub – eventually finds himself right back where he started. There is no escape. There is no ‘outside’. The city is all that there is.

Structurally this is like Chronopolis in the sense that the main story is book-cased between the present-day setting: In Chronopolis we hear about Conrad Newman’s adventures in retrospect from the situation he’s now in, which is going on trial for the murder of Stacey, the ‘present’ in which the story opens and closes.

The Subliminal Man (1963)

Dr Robert Franklin works at ‘the Clinic’. Recently he’s been bothered by the unkempt student, Hathaway, who keeps buttonholing him in the car park with various fads and obsessions. The latest one is Hathaway’s conviction that the enormous, 100-foot-high billboards which are being erected alongside all the major motorways and freeways are deploying subliminal advertising.

We witness Franklin’s scepticism, shared by his wife Judith. But then we witness them experiencing strange compulsions to shop for stuff they really don’t need, for example after driving past one of the enormous signs Franklin feels an uncontrollable urge to stop at a services and buy a new pack of cigarettes even though, when he opens his dashboard shelf it turns out he’s already got five packs in there, unopened.

Towards the end Hathaway calls Franklin to tell him he climbed to the top of one of the new hoardings and, using a stroboscope, discovered that there are:

‘hundreds of high speed shutters blasting away like machine guns straight into people’s faces!’ (p.71)

But Hathaway disappears, presumed taken away by the police, and Franklin goes shopping with his wife.

A short, snappy fictional nod to an issue very much in the news at the time, brought to prominence by Vance Packard’s sensational exposé The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

Now Wakes the Sea (1963)

Mason lives in a neat American town with white picket fences and a nice local church. His illness kept him off work for six months, sleeping on a sofa in the lounge but luckily his wife, Miriam’s, independent income kept them afloat. But recently, in just the last three weeks, he has started to have visions (p.80). He is woken at night by the sound and smell of the sea and, opening his front door, sees most of his town underwater, only the top of the church spire emerging from the tumultuous waves which diminish down to the surf roaring onto the road just beyond his lawn. Eerily he walks out across his lawn and along the road washed by the sea, sometimes for hours, returning tired to his house, and waking the next morning to be questioned by his wife who is concerned about him.

During daylight hours he fingers the fossilised conch shell which they have in the house, which has become a sort of talisman, which he weighs in his hand:

like a capsule of time, the condensation of another universe (p.79)

After trying and failing to convince her that what he sees is real, Mason realises it’ll be wiser to drop it. She insists on staying up for a few nights to try and share his visions, admitting that she almost thinks that she can hear it too

‘like something very old and blind, like something waking again after millions of years.’ (p.85)

But both times falls fast asleep and Mason tiptoes past her. On these last few occasions he sees the figure of a woman dancing on the headland overlooking the town and tries to make it towards he but she disappears before he can struggle through the rising surf and he is forced back to his house, waking next morning exhausted, with grazed hands and, eerily, smelling of salt water.

The climax of the book comes from a conjunction of circumstances more like a ghost story than sci fi. In the present a team of paleontologists led by a Professor Goodhart are excavating up on the headland, using an abandoned mineshaft as entrance to geological layers buried far down. The climax of the story comes when Mason wakes again, to find the surf lapping across his garden, and this time makes a determined effort to circle around the ‘beach’ established by the perimeter of the sea and up onto the headland, to confront or speak to the slim young woman in the diaphanous dress.

But as he approaches and she turns round, Mason realises with a shock that her head beneath her flowing white hair is that of a skull! and the arms she reaches out to him are the bones of a skeleton! He backs away from her and… stumbles against the barriers roping off the disused mineshaft and… falls falls falls down it.

Cut back to the present and the town police interviewing Professor Goodhart. Mason has been missing for two days. Meanwhile the Professor is puzzling how two proto-human (Cro-Magnon) skeletons can have ended up in geological strata laid down 200 million years ago in the Triassic Age!

Minus One (1963)

A would-be humorous story in which a patient, Hinton, goes missing from the Green Hill Asylum, and its director, Dr Mellinger, takes the unusual step of coming up with a metaphysical solution, which is to persuade the other three doctors on the staff of the possibility that Hinton never existed but was a function of their paperwork. He is shown slyly insinuating this thought into each of their minds (and handily destroying Hinton’s file) before the boom-boom punchline where all four doctors are sharing a nice glass of sherry before dinner and agreeing that Hinton was purely a bureaucratic figment when there’s a knock at the door and… Hinton’s wife is announced, come for a visit.

Mr F. is Mr F. (1961)

Freeman’s wife is pregnant but as she grows he finds himself shrinking. Really shrinking, losing weight, his moustache becoming light, his hair blonde. Weighing himself he finds he’s losing pounds each day. When he can’t reach the top shelves at work he calls in sick but continues to decline. Meanwhile his wife orders a suite of baby clothes, a cot, a playpen and so on.

Freeman continues diminishing, to the size of a 14-year-old, then a six-year-old, then his wife has to help him in and out of bed, until he’s a toddler and she puts him in his playpen. He’s hoping against hope that his friend Hanson will come round and he can explain his plight, but Hanson never shows and then Freeman is so small his wife puts him in baby clothes. He watches her pack up his shirts and suits and send them off to the charity.

And when he tries to express himself all that comes out is baby talk. Soon he can’t speak at all. He lies, an insensate bundle next to her naked body. And in a very odd passage we infer that he has, er, returned inside her!

A few days later she is walking back to the house when a car draws up and dashing Hanson gets out to pay his respects. Freeman’s wife smiles flirtatiously. Needing no encouragement, Hanson sees her to her front door, and through it and, three hours later, Freeman is negatively conceived i.e. dies, in some metaphorical sense as Hanson inseminates his wife.

Strange, eh, but a grown man reverting to childhood has been done by Hollywood a number of times, and a life described backwards done by several other authors.

Zone of Terror (1960)

Larsen works with Bayliss the psychologist at a chalet complex on the edge of the desert which is a sort of recreational centre for burned out executives. Except it’s Larsen who’s burned out, after working hard for three months on a huge brain simulator made of linked computers. Bayliss spotted he needed a rest and got him time off and orders to rest, sleeping 12 hours a day in an isolated chalet.

Trouble is Larsen’s been having hallucinations. He opened the garage door and saw a man in a suit walking towards, realising his suit seemed striped because he could see right through him. He slammed the garage door down and was holding it tight shut, sweating and trembling, when Bayliss drove up half an hour later.

So Bayliss has put him on tranquilisers but is taking an irritatingly abstract view of the ‘case’. A few days later it happens again, Larsen re-entering his living room and seeing a man in a suit sitting on the sofa, before he runs off. This time he realises the spectral figure is… himself!

When Bayliss appears a bit later he doses Larsen with whiskey and gives vent to his pet theory about ghosts, that they are sort of retinal memories we all create, information about our location in time and space recorded on a continual memory tape in our minds, but the player sometimes gets confused and replays the temporal-spatial experience but externalised.

Whatever the scientific cause Larsen is so scared he digs up an old revolver he’s got and hides it in his letterbox. And then another phantom appears. Then two! Two of them! In positions he was in only a few moments before. He runs off into the desert, then turns, turns and crawls back, determined to alert Bayliss in the nearby chalet.

But Bayliss has seen one of the phantoms and comes running, Larsen can see him and then.. sees him talking to one of the phantoms! The phantom is pointing… pointing at him! Bayliss thinks that he is one of the phantoms and the phantom talking to him is the real Larsen. He turns. He runs. Bayliss is running after him wielding the revolver.

He only hears the first of the shots…

Manhole 69 (1957)

Dr Neill is carrying out an experiment on three volunteers, Lang, Gorell and Avery. He has operated on their brains and removed the structures responsible for sleep. Neill is bullishly confident that sleep is a waste of time, given over to an eight-hour peep show when the unconscious is set free in the form of unedifying dreams, All stuff and nonsense, his pioneering work will ‘reclaim some of the marshland’, push back the domain of the unconscious, and produce a new race of 24/7 humans, who will enjoy a third more life experiences.

His assistant, John Morley, is sceptical. It’s not so much the classical reasons for sleep – to allow the brain to recuperate and process the day’s information – that worry him. He puts it in a novel way: what if we need a rest from ourselves? How much of yourself can you actually stand, without a break?

Shrewd point.

Halfway through the story begins to see the world from the patients’ point of view. They are playing chess or ping-pong or listening to music in the observation room of the clinic as they have been doing for over two weeks non-stop, under constant observation from Neill or Morley or other clinic staff when… when the room suddenly starts shrinking… slowly the walls, and the ceiling, begin closing in on the three men… slowly they suspect the room is bugged and begin looking for microphones… wonder what happened to the doors… find themselves walking round the small coffee table as the walls cram in closer and closer and then…

Morley only stepped away from monitoring them for ten minutes, into the administrative office. When he returns, he finds all three of them in an irreparable catatonic state.

The Impossible Man (1965)

Conrad is a 17-year-old orphan, parents dead in a plane crash. He’s on a trip to the beach with his uncle when he’s hit by a sports car, is seriously injured and has one leg amputated. In the weeks that follow we learn that the world he’s living in has become old. Due to medical advances most people are elderly, so the birthrate has fallen. Except… Dr Knight who is treating Conrad explains that the hospital they’re in is a specialist unit specialising in restorative surgery. In the past fifty years [so is the story set fifty years in the future?] replacement surgery has moved beyond organ replacements to replacing and fixing just about anything. And so Dr Knight proposes to replace Conrad’s amputated leg with the leg of the driver of the car which crashed into him and was killed when the car ploughed on into the beach wall.

Except that… Dr Knight shares the fact that the desire for restorative surgery has dropped right off. The hospital used to be packed and turn away patients so desperate they paid big bribes. Now it functions at barely 1% of its capacity. The old have seen the kind of world they’ve created, a civilisation of oldsters, and they don’t like it. A counter-movement is in train, a movement away from extending life as long as possible.

Conrad’s Uncle Theodor (who was also injured in the car accident, losing two fingers) takes Conrad to see a friend of his long-dead mother’s, another doctor, Dr Matthews, who is in an advanced state of decay, but makes the case to a reluctant Conrad that he and many others like him, refuse the restorative medicine.

We value our lives so much that we refuse to diminish them. (p.189)

Six months later Conrad has had a new leg grafted onto his stump and is walking down along the beach, near the road where the accident happened. He and his stump have never gelled. He resents it. At night they lie in bed silently like a married couple who aren’t getting on. Now he hears the scream of the gulls just like on the day of the accident. He sees a truck thundering down the sandy road, trailing a storm of dust behind it, just like on the day of the accident. And drawn by a compulsion he can’t explain Conrad runs out into the road and towards the oncoming traffic.

Thoughts

1. Lots of doctors. This is doctor-heavy fiction, stories

  • the police surgeon who interviews Franz M
  • Dr Robert Franklin
  • Professor Goodhart
  • Dr Mellinger, Dr Normand, Dr Redpath and Dr Booth
  • Bayliss the psychologist
  • Dr Neill
  • Dr Nathan, Dr Knight and Dr Matthews

2. Wives

  • Judith
  • Miriam
  • Catherine York
  • Mrs Hinton
  • scarey Mrs Freeman

Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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