Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996)

‘Leisure societies lie ahead of us…’ (Irving Sanger, p.180)

A poolside thriller

Although it’s longer than almost any of Ballard’s other novels, Cocaine Nights feels like a nice easy read, an airport or poolside thriller with an increasingly psychotic edge.

I found Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise a struggle to finish because their stories were so preposterous, but Cocaine Nights fits much more easily into the thriller genre and for much of the time was as easy as eating an ice cream at the cinema. It was published 26 long years after Ballard had published the angular, challenging, Atrocity Exhibition and, reading this book, it feels worlds away in size, form and approach…

Cocaine Nights is a confident first-person narrative told by Charles Prentice, a seasoned travel writer who’s knocked about a bit and knows the ways of the world. When he learns that his kid brother Frank has been arrested and will be going on trial in Marbella, in the south of Spain, Charles flies to Gibraltar, hires a car and drives up the Spanish coast.

Frank has been living for the past few years in an exclusive resort named Estrella de Mar where he was manager of the popular Club Nautico, overseeing ‘a familiar world of squash courts, jacuzzis and plunge-pools’.

Charles checks into a nearby hotel, and makes an appointment to meet Frank’s Spanish lawyer. Here, for the first time, he discovers the charges against his brother. A swanky holiday house overlooking the resort was set on fire in an act of deliberate arson, and the retired British couple who lived there, the Hollingers, along with their niece Anne, an au pair and the male secretary, Roger Sansom, were all burned to death in the arson attack.

Frank was discovered by the police a few hours later in possession of molotov cocktails – wine bottles filled with a highly flammable mix of ether and petrol – of the kind which without doubt started the fire. When Charles finally manages to visit Frank at his Spanish prison he discovers, to his bewilderment and consternation, that Frank is going to plead guilty.

Charles spends a week snooping round Estrella, interviewing as many of the inhabitants as he can. On the surface it’s bustling with good, clean, wholesome bourgeois activities, a theatre club putting on plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, an arts cinema, pottery classes, tennis lessons, choral societies – it’s Surrey by the sea.

In many ways Estrella de Mar was the halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930s, brought back to life and moved south into the sun. Here there were no gangs of bored teenagers, no deracinated suburbs where neighbours scarcely knew each other and their only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store. As everyone never tired of saying, Estrella de Mar was a true community, with schools for the French and British children, a thriving Anglican church and a local council of elected members which met at the Club Nautico. However modestly, a happier twentieth century had rediscovered itself in this corner of the Costa del Sol…

And:

Purpose-built in the 1970s by a consortium of Anglo-Dutch developers, Estrella de Mar was a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe. The resort had turned its back on mass tourism, and there were none of the skyscraper blocks that rose from the water’s edge at Benalmadena and Torremolinos. The old town by the harbour had been pleasantly bijouized, the fishermen’s cottages converted to wine bars and antique shops. Taking the road that led to the Club Nautico, I passed an elegant tea salon, a bureau de change decorated with Tudor half-timbering, and a boutique whose demure window displayed a solitary but exquisite designer gown. I waited as a van emblazoned with trompe-l’œil traffic scenes reversed into the courtyard of a sculpture studio…

What with this thriving art scene, drama club, art classes, pilates, swimming lessons, sailing, tennis and much, much more, Estrella de Mar seems like paradise:

Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

But the more ‘amateur sleuthing’ Charles does and the more he finds out, the stranger the place appears.

One night, sitting in his car outside the resort’s main nightclub, the Club Nautico, pondering his next move, he sees what he takes to be a violent rape taking place in a car parked nearby. He runs over to rescue the woman, the man makes a getaway out the other door, but the woman, although obviously assaulted, with her knickers round her ankles and bleeding from the mouth, shrugs him off, pulls herself together and walks away. More disconcerting, as he stands there confused, Charles realises there was an audience watching: there are couples sitting in all the cars facing the one where the assault was taking place. Exasperated, Charles bangs his fists on their windshields:

‘What are you people playing at?’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake . . .’

But one by one the cars turn on their ignitions, and slowly drive way.

Similarly, Charles notices prostitutes hanging round some of the streets in micro-skirts and boob tubes, mingling with the traffic, waiters, delivery men, shopkeepers and so on of the busy resort. But, on closer examination, he is disconcerted to realise that they are two ‘respectable’ women, wives of two men who run the town’s travel agency. Is it a kind of sex game, played to excite their husbands, or themselves? Or do they need the money?

A similar sense of bafflement surrounds descriptions of the fateful fire which killed the Hollingers. It happened on the Queen’s birthday, 15 June, and wasn’t a secret affair, the opposite. The villa was hosting a big party with everyone who was anyone at the resort invited, and so there was a crowd of over 200 drinking, partying, laughing, around the villa’s massive swimming pool. Hollinger even proposed a loyal toast to the Queen from his balcony, before going back inside (he was, Charles is repeatedly told, patriotic but aloof and rather pompous). Then suddenly the crowd started to realise that the big villa was on fire. Various guests tried to smash in the patio doors or windows, but they were fire-sealed and security-locked. Some guests tried to put ladders up to the first floor balcony and windows but the ladder caught fire.

So a) everyone saw the fire happen happen b) a lot of people tried to intervene but c) the Hollingers didn’t try to open any doors or windows but, apparently, stayed snug inside their separate bedrooms while their villa burned to the ground around them.

Charles visits the scene of the burned-out villa with one of the ex-pats who was there that night and who takes him through the events in detail. He closely questions all the other ex-pats who’ll agree to see him. He has long conversations with Frank himself, on his visits to him in prison, but his brother is infuriatingly vague about what happened or who is to blame. Charles is stunned when Frank’s lawyer tells him Frank is definitely going to please guilty to all five counts of murder.

Why? Why confess to a crime he didn’t commit? What the hell is going on?

To find out Charles decides he has to move into Estrella de Mar itself, so he checks out of the hotel up the coast where he’d been staying (the Los Monteros Hotel) and takes up occupation of Frank’s now-empty apartment, and starts digging deeper into the place and its inhabitants. All this has taken place by about page 70 – chapter 6 of the book’s 28 chapters – and the rest of the novel describes what he finds out.

And he finds out… that there is, as the BBC Sunday night drama has it, Death in Paradise. From the start Ballard had set a tone of aggressive sexuality – Charles has only just got into his hire car at Gibraltar when he spies a sultry woman driver in a nearby car fixing her make-up and has sexual fantasies about her. He is quick to spot the hookers on the streets of Estrella da Mar and quick to embark on a sexual affair with the resort’s troubled doctor, Paula Hamilton, and quickly suspects the bruises around her face are not from some harmless accident, but from the rough sex games, the S&M scene he quickly suspects exists behind closed doors at the resort.

So far so BDSM, so Crash, so porny. But if you park the porn – and Charless quick realisation that a certain amount of drugs is being consumed at the resort, mainly speed and cocaine – if you put all this modish window dressing to one side, the basic structure of the story is the same as a hundred Agatha Christie novels, and a thousand sleepy, Sunday night BBC ‘dramas’, the same basic structure:

  1. at an idyllic country community / stately home / happy family
  2. a mysterious death occurs
  3. an outsider comes in to investigate (Poirot, Miss Marple, Charles Prentice)
  4. who conducts a series of interviews with half a dozen key players
  5. which slowly reveal that any one of half a dozen characters might have had motives to carry out the murder(s)
  6. in which he or she uncovers clues carefully placed by the writer to keep us guessing
  7. so that the outsider/investigator slowly discovers that the idyllic community / stately home / happy family has dark (and hopefully depraved) secrets
  8. until by a process of induction, or through further incriminating events, the outsider/investigator finally discovers ‘the truth’

Thus, although the sex and drugs elements are fashionably depraved, and some of the details are quirky (like when Charles is buzz-bombed by a man-powered glider, which is a throwback to his weirder sci-fi stories) on the whole the narrative unfolds with the utter predictability of a 1930s murder mystery.

As you might have predicted, ‘shadowy figures’ try to warn Charles off, starting with a half-hearted attempt to strangle him on the balcony of Frank’s apartment, which is arranged to frighten him but not to actually hurt him.

As you might expect, Charles accompanies the Spanish detective in charge of the investigation on an extended tour of the burned-out villa as they retrace the stages of the crime, step by gruesome step, lingering over each room in which one or more of the victims were found burned or asphyxiated to death.

As you might expect, the detective reveals some unusual facts, such as that old Hollinger died in the house jacuzzi (good idea) but not with his wife, with young Anna the au pair. And that Anna was pregnant – but with whose child? Tut tut. And that Mrs Hollinger wasn’t in her room but in bed with the male secretary, Sansom. Saucy goings-on. ‘Lawks a-mercy, Monsieur Poirot, whoever would have thought it!’

As you might expect, Charles discovers a videotape in the melted VHS player of the burned-out villa – which the police have somehow overlooked – and takes it back to Frank’s apartment to view. It is, to no-one’s surprise, a porno, an amateur hand-held affair which starts with a standard lesbian romp, but turns nasty when some tough young men enter and appear to genuinely rape the tearful central figure. Yes, Estrella de Mar has a darker side, which grows a lot darker when Charles discovers it was his new girlfriend, Dr Paula Hamilton, who filmed the whole event.

As you might expect, there is a morose outsider, who has his own secrets to hide. In a Christie novel it’s often the gamekeeper or family retainer who turns out to have his own secrets. In this book it is the gloomy Swede Andersson, who maintains high powered speedboats which – on investigation – defy the Spanish navy to import hashish and heroin from North Africa. Drug smuggling.

Stuff happens. Someone sets fire to a stolen speedboat in the harbour. Someone sets fire to Prentice’s hire car. Someone dive bombs him with a hang glider when he climbs to the lemon grove above the Hollingers’ burned-out villa looking for evidence.

He feels himself settling into this world of casual crime, drug-taking and porn film-making, a ‘hidden Estrella de Mar, a shadow world of backstreet bars, hard-core video-stores and fringe pharmacies’, his brother Frank, stuck in gaol, becoming an ever more notional figure. Sanger the resort psychiatrist says he’s beginning to resemble his brother.

The Bobby Crawford effect

Bobby Crawford, the resort’s energetic tennis coach, was drifting down the coast from one sleepy resort to the next. When he arrived at Estrella da Mar he found it as torpid and somnolent as all the others he’d been at. But party by accident he was involved in some petty crimes and observed that it pepped the victims up no end. Experimentally, he embarked on a one-man crime wave, breaking into the luxury villas, nicking video players, pouring wine on precious carpets, spraying graffiti on garage doors, vandalising cars.

The effect is dramatic. People come out of their TV-induced coma to come to the resort offices to complain. They set up neighbourhood watch schemes. Having met each other they have parties to discuss latest developments, discover they have a taste for amateur dramatics or sports. People started turning up at what had previously been Crawford’s moribund tennis club.

I understood how [Frank] had fallen under Crawford’s spell, accepting the irresistible logic that had revived the Club Nautico and the moribund town around it. Crime would always be rife, but Crawford had put vice and prostitution and drug-dealing to positive social ends. Estrella de Mar had rediscovered itself.

The owners and investors – notably the shark-like Betty Shand – in the resort observe all this. They egg Crawford on. Encouraged he explores how far he can take the notion of energising crime. Some of the members of the newly founded film club are encouraged to make saucy films. A handful of the tougher sports club members are recruited into Crawford’s gang which carries out random attacks or thefts.

Ballard’s thesis

So bit by bit, Ballard’s thesis is at first hinted at by various characters, and then finally explained at length by Crawford in what might as well be a Shakespearian soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. The thesis is that society is sinking into a profound slump of boredom and accidie, addicted to TV while its mind vegetates. But people need excitement and an environment of petty crime energises and enlivens entire communities.

What they need, though they refuse to accept it, is a certain amount of amoral crime. And the person who supplies it, the impresario of crime, is the unacknowledged saviour of moribund communities. In the right time and place, the psychopath can be a saint.

‘The psychopath plays a vital role. He meets the needs of the hour, touches our graceless lives with the only magic we know…’ (Bobby Crawford explaining to Charles)

Put to the test – the Residencia Costasol

And all this is put to the test, when the likeable energetic Crawford recruits Charles in him and his rich sponsors’ next project which is to move on to the next sleepy ex-pat resort down the coast, the Residencia Costasol.

Half-reluctant but intrigued, Charles allows himself to be persuaded to become the manager of the main nightclub in the resort down the road. It is dead in the water, an utterly moribund community of numbed zombies who stay indoors all day watching TV. Charles watches how just a few incidents of petty crime begin to waken the dead. Crawford takes him on a car tour of the empty, perfectly manicured streets, with Crawford stopping every so often to break into an empty villa and steal a video recorder, or some jewellery, to spraypaint a garage door or vandalise a slumbering Porsche.

Charles is initially sceptical but then amazed when people start visiting the resort offices to complain, stop to buy some stuff, go into the bars for a drink, a few of them sign up with Crawford’s tennis club, some of them ask about entertainment at Charles’s nightclub.

Charles finds himself sucked into the scheme and becoming compliant to ever greater scandals. When a luxury yacht is burned down in the marina, it not only shocks the inhabitants, it reminds everyone that they own yachts, and soon the yacht club is booming. And so is Charles’s nightclub, doing a roaring trade, with people staying up late partying to the dance music. Which of course attracts drug dealers who Crawford, we find out, is managing and running. Similarly, some prostitutes arrive but Charles is stunned when he realises some of the women tottering in high heels, micro-skirts and boob tubes are wives of well-to-do residents. The Crawford Effect works. Residencia Costasol is becoming another Estrella da Mar.

Charles turns into his brother

All this has taken some months and Charles changes. He had rushed out to Spain on the first flight to help his brother and pestered his lawyers and the police for his first few weeks. Then, as he uncovers more about Estrella’s secret sub-culture, he put off seeing his brother until he understands more. And this quest to understand takes him down the road we’ve described, until he realises he has become his brother – performing exactly the role in the Residencia Costasol that Frank played in Estrella, a lynchpin in the resort’s social life, turning a blind eye to activities which skirt illegality and, increasingly, veer into outright immorality, but not taking an active part so much as trying to restrain or channel Bobby Crawford’s boyish, unstoppable, amoral appetite for stirring things up.

And so it is that Charles puts off opportunities to visit his brother for months on end, and slowly comes to the realisation that he doesn’t want to or need to. When Paul Hamilton tells him that Frank’s much-delayed trial is about to start the next day, Charles brushes it off. His metamorphosis into his amoral brother is complete.

Whodunnit

Eventually we get to the payoff, which comes as little or no surprise. Who set fire to the Hollingers’ villa? They all did or, to be more precise, all the main characters Charles has met played a part. There wasn’t really a central mastermind or fixed plan, but some of the people he’s met got hold of petrol and ether, others filled the villa’s air conditioning with this flammable mix. Each individual told themselves they were preparing a prank, a practical joke, a bit extreme maybe, but essentially harmless. In an act of collective psychosis none of them acknowledged what they were doing, until it began to happen and then it was too late – the fire spread too fast and aggressively for anyone to stop it or the villa’s inhabitants to escape.

And then the collective act had performed its function. The entire community felt bound together by collective guilt, like members of some primitive tribe who kill, cook and eat their chief. They have all partaken of the blood sacrifice. They are bound more closely than ever together.

‘He [Bobby Crawford] stumbled on the first and last truth about the leisure society, and perhaps all societies. Crime and creativity go together, and always have done. The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together. It’s a strange paradox.’ (Paula Hamilton explaining to Charles)

And in fact, to his dismay, his lover Paul Hamilton who finally reveals all this to him, also reveals that Frank did in fact play a key role in the arson. And that’s why he has decided to plead guilty. By pleading guilty he saves the others, saves the community.

Novel or fable?

By this stage you can see how the book has ceased to be a realistic novel or thriller. It is making a case. It is what the French call a roman à thèse – a novel which is didactic or which expounds a theory. Humans are animals. Despite all propaganda to the opposite, they need excitement and thrills. The person who provides this excitement – the psychopath as saint – is reviled but secretly welcomed. The sequence of petty crimes leads inexorably to a great act of collective murder which binds the community in collective guilt.

By this point the book has ceased being a realistic novel and become a kind of elaboration of Sigmund Freud’s highly questionable anthropological theories. In his later writings Freud speculated that early human societies were bound together through the ritual murder of The Father, and claimed to have found evidence for this in ancient mythology, from the Greeks to the ancient Israelites.

If you buy into this logic, or if you are now reading the book more as a Freudian fable than as a Christie-style whodunnit, the final section comes as no surprise, but has a pleasing inevitability about it. Things are thriving at the Residencia Costasol but Charles picks up more and more signals that another extreme event is in the offing, though he can’t discover what it is, and for a while the reader is alarmed that he himself might be the target, or his erstwhile lover, Paul Hamilton.

Or, in a big red herring, maybe the target will be Dr Irwin Sanger, the resident psychotherapist at Estrella de Mar who, we come to learn, has a fetish for under-age girls, and is more or less driven out of Estralla, taking refuge in a villa he’s bought at the Residencia Costasol, close to the one Charles is living in. Is a gang of vigilantes going to attack the increasingly fragile old man and torch his villa?

In the event it is Bobby Crawford. He’d made an appointment to meet Charles, but as Charles approaches the tennis court where Bobby spends all his time between supervising the community’s criminal activities, he finds Crawford lying on the court, shot through the heart. Charles stoops and picks up the small handgun which killed him, moves Bobby’s head, gets blood all over his shirt and hands… just as he hears the siren of the police car, looks up to see Inspector Cabrera, who had investigated the original arson attack, who had quizzed him at length about his brother, who had watched his character slowly transform… Inspector Cabrera walks towards him across the court and in the last sentences Charles realises that he, Charles Prentice, will take the blame, take the rap, plead guilty of Bobby’s murder… for the greater good of the community.

And the novel ends on this Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe moment.


Characters

An indication of its difference from previous novels is the sheer number of characters. A novel like The Crystal World had about eight named characters, Concrete Island only about four, whereas Cocaine Nights feels has the extended cast of Eastenders.

The narrator

  • Charles Prentice, travel writer and older brother of Frank
  • Frank Prentice, long term inhabitant of Estrella de Mar, accused of the murder by arson of the Hollingers

The ex pats

  • David Hennessy, retired Lloyd’s underwriter, now doddery the treasurer of the Club Nautico
  • Bobby Crawford, Club Nautico’s tennis professional and impresario of crime and transgressive behaviour
  • Dr Paula Hamilton, physician at the Princess Margaret Clinic, formerly Frank’s girlfriend
  • Sonny Gardner, barman and crew member on  Frank’s thirty-foot yacht
  • Elizabeth Shand, Estrella de Mar’s most successful businesswoman, a former partner of Hollinger’s
  • Dr Irwin Sanger, Bibi’s psychiatrist
  • Anthony Bevis, owner of the Cabo D’Ora Gallery
  • Colin Dewhurst, manager of a bookshop in the Plaza Iglesias
  • Blanche and Marion Keswick, two jaunty Englishwomen who ran the Restaurant du Cap, an elegant brasserie by the harbour
  • Gunnar Andersson, a young Swede who tuned speedboat engines at the marina, boyfriend of Bibi
  • a retired Bournemouth accountant and his sharp-eyed wife who runs a video-rental store in the Avenida Ortega
  • the Reverend Davis, the pale and earnest vicar of the Anglican church (officiates at one of the funerals of the arson victims)

The five arson victims

  • the Hollingers – he a retired British film producer, she (Alice) one of the last of the Rank Charm School starlets
  • Anne, their niece
  • Bibi Jansen, the Swedish au pair who died in the fire
  • the gay male secretary, Roger Sansom

The Spanish authorities

  • Senor Danvila – Frank’s lawyer
  • Inspector Cabrera, detective investigating the arson case
  • Rodney Lewis, Charles’s agent in London

Strengths

Ballard writes so vividly. Almost every paragraph has a phrase which scintillates with linguistic charge. There is a wonderful clarity and precision to his vision.

  • The pool terrace was deserted, the choppy water settling itself for the night
  • I walked into the dining room, listening to my footsteps as they dogged me across the parquet flooring
  • [after the fire] The remote-control unit lay on the bedside table, melted like black chocolate
  • Shreds of burnt chintz clung to the walls, and the dressing room resembled a coal scuttle in a rage
  • Dominating all the other craft in the yard was a fibre-glass powerboat almost forty feet long, three immense outboards at its stern like the genitalia of a giant aquatic machine

He’s not always on song. Sometimes the rhetoric can become overwrought, almost always when he lapses into cliché, into the expected:

  •  The faint scent of bath gel still clung to my skin, the perfume of my own strangulation that embraced me like a forbidden memory

And so part of the pleasure of reading the book comes from watching Ballard navigate the fine line between acuity and pretentiousness, between vivid originality and something a little more clumsy. For example, which side of the line is this?

He left the boatyard and led me along the walkway between the moored yachts and cabin-cruisers. The white-hulled craft seemed almost spectral in the dusk, a fleet waiting to sail on a phantom wind.

That’s a little over-ripe for me, a bit too self-consciously Gothic. A phrase like this overlays the scene with a forced or pretentious comparison. It moves from the specific outwards to the general and so diffuses the effect. I prefer descriptions which travel in the opposite direction, which zero in, which make you sit up and pay closer attention to the thing itself:

Andersson stopped at the end of the quay, where a small sloop rode at anchor. Beneath the Club Nautico pennant at the stern was its name: Halcyon. Police exclusion tapes looped along its rails, falling into the water where they drifted like streamers from a forgotten party.

This acuteness also applies to his perceptions of people.

As his eyes searched the sky over the town I noticed that he was looking everywhere but at the Hollinger house. His natural aloofness shaded into some unhappy emotion that I could only glimpse around the bony corners of his face.

That feels acute to me, and original. Very simple vocabulary, but conveying a way of perceiving new to most of us. Only prose fiction can do this, surprise us in this way.

Ballard’s sardonic vision of ex-pat communities

The whole narrative is premised on the idea that the ex-pat communities along the Mediterranean have a special atmosphere of zombified inanition. Sometimes Ballard describes this with the seriousness that the premise of a fable requires, but other times he is wonderfully acute and funny at describing the strange limbo world of these kind of over-heated ex-pat resorts. He doesn’t hold back:

While a young Frenchwoman topped up my tank I strolled past the supermarket that shared the forecourt,where elderly women in fluffy towelling suits drifted like clouds along the lines of ice-cold merchandise. I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds -British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations…

The retirement pueblos lay by the motorway, embalmed in a dream of the sun from which they would never awake. As always, when I drove along the coast to Marbella, I seemed to be moving through a zone that was fully accessible only to a neuroscientist, and scarcely at all to a travel writer. The white facades of the villas and apartment houses were like blocks of time that had crystallised beside the road. Here on the Costa del Sol nothing would ever happen again, and the people of the pueblos were already the ghosts of themselves…

Estrella de Mar seemed a place without shadows, its charms worn as openly as the bare breasts of the women of all ages who sunbathed at the Club Nautico. Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

Via his characters, Ballard can be even more forthright in his opinions:

‘Have you seen the pueblos along the coast? Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door…’

Charles is more detached and analytical – he is, after all, a writer by profession – but is given the same point of view:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…

Empty pools and full pools

One symbolic way of indicating the difference between Ballard’s pre-Empire of the Sun fiction and the novels he wrote after that catharsis, is that, in all his pre-Empire stories and novels, the swimming pools are drained and empty; in all the post-Empire stories, the swimming pools are filled to the brim, reflecting the bright blue Mediterranean sky, and denoting a world of timeless, affectless plenty.

Weaknesses

It’s hard not to notice Ballard’s use of a deliberately limited descriptive vocabulary, a very restricted number of moods or gestures which all the characters display, as if they are androids with about five settings. This lexical narrowness bespeaks, indicates and enacts a sort of emotional and cognitive narrowness in his characters.

People are always needing to be ‘calmed’, because something is ‘unsettling’ or over-exciting them; many of the characters or situations are described almost from the start as ‘deranged’ or ‘demented’; the narrator does no end of ‘sensing’, ‘sensing’ that people know more than they let on, ‘sensing’ that he is unwelcome, ‘sensing’ that characters really mean this or that secret motive.

Calm

  • Paula tried to calm me, sitting me in the leather armchair and putting a cushion behind my head…
  • Cabrera watched me from the door, restraining Paula when she tried to calm me…
  • She turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • Before I could remonstrate with her she turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • ‘Now, sit down and try to calm yourself,’ Sanger steered me from the garden door, whose handle I was trying to turn, concerned for my overexcited state…
  • One of them touched my cheek, as if calming a child…
  • Trying to calm myself, I sipped Frank’s whisky and listened to the shrieks and laughter as the sun came up over the sea…
  • I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.

Demented/deranged

  • I remembered the disagreeable Guardia Civil at Gibraltar and speculated that the fire had been started by a deranged Spanish policeman protesting at Britain’s occupation of the Rock.
  • Andersson stood astride the grave, spade held across his chest like a jousting pole, glaring in a deranged way at the psychiatrist.
  • Repeated cleanings had blurred the pigments, and the triptych of garage, windows and door resembled the self-accusing effort of a deranged Expressionist painter
  • The bedrooms were daubed with graffiti, a riot of black and silver whorls, a demented EEG trace searching for a brain
  • As Laurie Fox screamed in her demented way, spitting out the blood she had sucked into her mouth, Sanger seized her around the waist.
  • In the soil scattered from the plant tubs a demented geometer had set out the diagram of a bizarre dance of death…

Unsettled

  • ‘You’ve unsettled a great many people since you arrived, understandably so…’
  • His talk of re-opening the case unsettled me…
  • The frankness of her erotic response, the unashamed way in which she used her sex, seemed to unsettle Crawford..
  • I fingered the plastic sachet, tempted to help myself to this forgotten cache, but I was too unsettled by the visit to the Hollinger house
  • The testy humour, and the edgy manner of someone unsettled by standing more than a few seconds in front of a mirror, would have appealed to Frank…
  • Cabrera hesitated before getting into his car, unsettled by my change of tack
  • Crawford sat forward, speaking quietly as if not wanting to unsettle the silence.

Sensed

He uses the phrase ‘Already I…’ to convey the sense that something is creeping up on the narrator, that things are overtaking him, that things are moving at pace…

  • Already I sensed that she was looking on me with more favour, for whatever reasons of her own…
  • Already I sensed that I was being kept under surveillance…
  • Already I could sense the freedom that this intimate world would have given to Alice Hollinger…

Narrowness and repetition

Obviously we all have restricted vocabularies, our own idiolects (‘the speech habits peculiar to a particular person’) and Ballard is a very clever, self-aware writer.

Sol much so that I wonder whether the repetition of actions, of moods and of the relatively small range of words that he uses to describe them is deliberate – that he accepts the same narrow set of words which suggest themselves as he writes, because doing this adds to the stylisation of the text. That the repetitions not only of plot, but of specific words and phrases, adds to the sense of stylisation which accompanied, in the old days, coronations and religious rituals, and in our media age, define the camera angles and gestures of movie actors.

So that when the any of the other characters tell Charles to ‘calm’ himself, we remember Jim in Empire of the Sun continually being told by the adults to calm down. When the narrator remembers his father sparring with the Saudi police and so ‘unsettling’ his mother, we remember all the other Ballard characters who have been ‘unsettled’ by a drowned world, crystallising forests, the inhabitants of high rises killing each other, and so on.

This narrowness of plotting, and the narrowness of vocabulary, are central issues in critiquing Ballard’s work.

Running Wild is about a luxury gated community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Cocaine Nights is about a luxury ex-pat community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Super-Cannes is about a luxury business park for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Is the repetition of the same basic plot, told in prose which heavily features the same stylised attitudes and words (unsettle, calm, deranged) a bad thing or a good thing? Does the repetition of ideas and phrases cumulatively build up a powerful vision of the world?

Or feel like the repetition of a writer who’s lost inspiration? I think it’s more the former, that the hammering away of the same vocabulary is like a miner hammering away at a coal seam underground, relentlessly chipping away at the same pressure point to try and achieve a breakthrough into a new way of seeing.

Ballard’s improbable dialogue

Dialogue in thrillers is always pat, neat and snappy. Think of any of the classic American writers, Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. By this late stage in his career Ballard had evolved his own version of this stagey dialogue in which characters don’t speak like hard-boiled gangsters but like lecturers in media studies, all very savvy and smart about Freud and Fellini. Here’s Crawford the tennis coach talking to Charles the narrator about his brother, Frank:

He stared at the air with his arms raised to the sky, as if waiting for a sympathetic genie to materialize out of the spiralling dust.
‘Charles, I know. What’s going on? This is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho. You’ve talked to him?’
‘Of course. He insists he’s guilty. Why?’
‘No one knows. We’re all racking our brains. I think it’s Frank playing his strange games again, like those peculiar chess problems he’s always making up. King to move and mate in one, though this time there are no other pieces on the board and he has to mate himself.’

‘This is Kafka reshot in the style of Psycho‘ and then moving on to make comparisons with chess games. Do you think anyone, anywhere has ever spoken like that, let alone a professional tennis coach?

Here’s Charles sparring with nervous Dr Paul Hamilton.

‘Besides, my patients need me. Someone has to wean them off the Valium and Mogadon, teach them how to face the day without a bottle and a half of vodka.’
‘So what Joan of Arc was to the English soldiery you are to the pharmaceutical industry?’

Has anyone ever said something is sharp and snappy as that to you? Here’s Charles talking to Inspector Cabrera:

‘Inspector, when I meet Frank I’ll say that I’ve seen the house. If he knows I’ve been here he’ll realize how absurd his confession is. The idea that he’s guilty is preposterous.’
Cabrera seemed disappointed in me. ‘It’s possible, Mr Prentice. Guilt is so flexible, it’s a currency that changes hands . . . each time losing a little value.’

Ah, the literary policeman as philosopher. Here’s Charles with Dr Hamilton, again:

‘Who is he exactly?’
‘Not even Bobby Crawford knows that. He’s three different people before breakfast. Every morning he takes his personalities out of the wardrobe and decides which one he’ll wear for the day.’

Snappy. Or:

As we stood together I placed my hand on her breast, my index finger following the blue vein that rose to the surface of her sunburnt skin before descending into the warm deeps below her nipple. She watched me uncritically, curious to see what I would do next. Without moving my hand from her breast, she said: ‘Charles, this is your doctor speaking. You’ve had enough stress for one day.’
‘Would making love to you be very stressful?’
‘Making love to me is always stressful. Quite a few men in Estrella de Mar would confirm that. I don’t want to visit the cemetery again.’
‘Next time I’m there I’ll read the epitaphs. Is it full of your lovers, Paula?’
‘One or two. As they say, doctors can bury their mistakes.’

Boom boom, as artful as Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton. Here’s Charles interviewing Andersson the boat repair man:

‘You don’t like looking at the Hollinger house, do you?’
‘I don’t like looking at anything, Mr Prentice. I dream in Braille.’

It’s all as slick and stylised as the dialogue in a Noel Coward play, mingled with a pleasant stream of sub-Wildean paradoxes.

‘Money, sex, drugs. What else is there these days? Outside Estrella de Mar no one gives a damn about the arts. The only real philosophers left are the police.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘Selfish men make the best lovers. They’re prepared to invest in the woman’s pleasure so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘The arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.’ (Dr Sanger)

This whip-smart repartee mixes oddly with Ballard’s very limited set of emotional responses, and then again with the off-hand references to hard drugs or kiddie-porn or BDSM sex. It’s an odd combination.


Ballard’s erroneous futurology

‘Everything comes sooner these days. The future rushes towards us like a tennis player charging the net.’ (The psychiatrist Irwin Sanger)

Ballard is routinely trotted out as a ‘prophet’ or ‘futurologist’, but this strikes me as plain wrong.

Cocaine Nights obsessively repeats the idea that the enclaves of bored wealthy ex-pats along the Costa del Sol somehow indicate what the future will be like:

  • Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…
  • ‘Frank always claimed that Estrella de Mar is what the future will be like…’
  • ‘In Estrella de Mar, like everywhere in the future, crimes have no motives…’
  • ‘I talked to Sanger the other day – he thinks we’re the prototype of all the leisure communities of the future…’
  • ‘Charles, this is the way the world is going. You’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work or play. The Costasols of this planet are spreading outwards. I’ve toured them in Florida and New Mexico. You should visit the Fontainebleau Sud complex outside Paris – it’s a replica of this, ten times the size. The Residencia Costasol wasn’t thrown together by some gimcrack developer; it was carefully planned to give people the chance of a better life. And what have they got? Brain-death…’
  • ‘It’s Europe‘s future. Everywhere will be like this soon…’

At its bluntest, here is Dr Sanger lecturing Charles:

‘Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.’
‘A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.’

Has anything more inaccurate and misleading ever been written? This is spectacularly wrong, isn’t it? Ballard was reading from a script first devised in the 1970s, which looked forward to a utopian leisure society in which we’d all struggle to fill our countless hours of pampered idleness. Is that what happened? No. The exact opposite has happened:

Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result. Time poverty has also been coined as a noun for the phenomenon. (Wikipedia)

Spending day after day with nothing to do is not really an accurate portrait of Britain in 2020. Do you feel like you live in ‘a leisure-dominated future’? Plus, this whole discussion only takes place among the moneyed bourgeoisie. Most normal people are having to work harder than ever to make ends meet.

More women are in the workforce not because of abstract principles of ‘equality’ but because they’ve been forced to go to work to supplement their husband’s wages. More people than ever before are working on zero hours contracts. All the articles I read are about how work has invaded people’s ‘leisure’ hours, their evenings and weekends because work emails, texts and documents are now sent to people’s personal devices 24/7. And that’s before you get to the dire condition of the underclass, which I was reading about recently.

A few numbers: In 2014 the officially registered population of British nationals in Spain was 236,669, let’s call it 240,000. In 2014 the UK population numbered about 65 million. So British ex-pats in Spain make up less than 0.4% of the UK population. Hardly at the cutting edge of British social trends.

And even more obviously, this kind of thing is highly Eurocentric – it describes a world of overwhelmingly white chaps and chapesses from the professional classes who are all very comfortably off, thank you very much – Estrella de Mar is full of retired bank managers and accountants and doctors and property developers. What has come to be referred to by their impoverished children as the ‘boomers’.

As a vision of the future of the entire world it is obviously flawed for the simple reason that it totally omits, not only most of the population of European countries, but the whole of the rest of the world. A moment’s reflection on the condition of the population of either China or India (combined populations 2.75 billion people) suggests that the future of the planet is not one of luxury resorts offering a wide range of sports activities…

Ballard’s view of the future. My view of the present

Ballard’s vision of an affluent society where the well-off retire at 30 and have so much time on their hands that they take to drugs and murder to spice up their lives is plausible enough when you read it, as is much science fiction or genre fiction.

But the moment you start seriously thinking about it, you realise it is a ludicrously out-of-touch fantasy. The kind of thing only a writer – a person who spends almost all their time at home, staring out of windows, or meeting other like-minded middle class types – could conceive of, and that only academics who’ve spent a lifetime reading about transgressive sex and literary tropes, but who have precious little knowledge of international affairs, geopolitics, environmental or population trends, could take seriously.

This is a clever, very educated and very literary book, with an enormous amount of pleasure to be had from Ballard’s often inspired way with language and his endless stream of acute insights and vivid turns of phrase.

And yet the social vision at the heart of the narrative felt to me curiously dated, remote and out of touch with the actual world the rest of us live in, and are going to live in.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1953)

This is the third of the original Foundation trilogy of books although, as explained in my reviews of the previous two, these books are not in fact ‘novels’ at all. They are volumes into which the original linked short stories Asimov wrote about the Foundation for Astounding Science Fiction magazine were later collected.

This third volume contains the final two stories of the original eight Asimov wrote between 1941 and 1950, namely Search By the Mule (originally published in the January 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title “Now You See It—”) and Search By the Foundation (originally published in the November and December 1949 and January 1950 issues of Astounding Science Fiction under the title “—And Now You Don’t”).

1. Search By the Mule (74 pages)

It is just five years since the events of the previous story i.e. about 315 years since the establishment of the Foundation or 315 F.E. (Hard core fans of the stories can read a detailed timeline of the events in the original and all the later spin-off stories, on Wikipedia.)

The human mutant known only as ‘The Mule’ has taken over the Foundation and used it as a base to expand his power across that Quadrant of the Galaxy. He is now referred to as the First Citizen.

During the previous story, he had learned that there is a Second Foundation, somewhere at the opposite end of the galaxy. The dying psychologist Ebling Mis had been on the verge of telling him its location when he (Mis) was blasted to oblivion by his companion, Bayta Darell, thus temporarily frustrating the Mule’s plans to locate and conquer it.

This story opens with the Mule commissioning two men to set off together to locate the Second Foundation – Han Pritcher, originally a Foundation man opposed to the Mule, who has been ‘converted’ by into a slavish follower by the latter’s psychic powers, and Bail Channis, an ‘unconverted’ man who has impressed the Mule with his unscrupulous ambition.

The reader can be pretty sure that a Second Foundation does exist because after just one chapter Asimov inserts the first of what turn out to be five INTERLUDES in which we briefly overhear the thoughts of the Executive Council of the Second Federation as it reacts to news that the Mule is looking for them.

Channis has a theory the Second Foundation is on a star system named Tazenda, so that’s whither he and Pritcher head in their hyperspace-travelling space ship.

Meanwhile, Pritcher broods on the Mule’s account of what he had seen, via telepathy, in the mind of the dying psychologist, Ebling Mis at the end of the previous story. He had seen that Mis had been surprised. There was something unexpected about the Second Foundation. What could that be?

Oooh, the suspense!

Channis and Pritcher dislike each other. They land on the planet Rossem, an outlier of the sector where Channis thinks the Second Foundation is located. There are some quite entertaining descriptions of the peasant inhabitants of this out-of-the-way planet – in effect caricature peasants out of a children’s book about the Dark Ages transplanted into a sci-fi environment.

But the real thrust of the story, as so often in Asimov, is nothing to do with planets or aliens or space: it is a power struggle between humans, in this case the odd couple Channis and Pritcher.

The latter becomes convinced that Channis is a Second Foundation plant. He pulls out an atom blaster and confronts him. Channis replies by pointing out that he’s noticed Pritcher getting more and more moody. Is it possible that Second Foundation telepaths have been interfering with Pritcher’s mind. As Channis describes why they might do this and what it would feel like, Pritcher begins to doubt his own moods and motivations.

As they stand in this tableau, Pritcher covering Channis with his atom blaster, the Mule walks into the room! Yes, he has been following them!

The Mule adds his interpretation to what is going on, initially making Pritcher think that he is indeed under Second Foundation mind-control but then – switching things round to accuse Channis of being a Second Foundation spy, thus proving initial Pritcher’s suspicions correct.

Hopefully it’s as obvious to you as it is to me that, in its basic structure, this is next to nothing to do with science fiction. It bears much more resemblance to a detective story, even to an Agatha Christie mystery where the great Hercules Poirot commands a grand final scene in which he reveals the true identity of the murderer.

Like a Christie novel, Asimov is very talky. There’s little or no action. The ‘interest’ is in the revelation of the ‘real’ motives of the characters. And ever since he introduced the idea that the Mule is a telepath who can take over people’s minds, and that the Second Foundation are also telepaths who can take over people’s minds, the result is that even the main characters come to doubt their own motives. Nobody knows what’s going on.

There’s a tense moment when the Mule, having taken the atom blaster from Pritcher, and having proved to both of them that Channis is indeed the traitor – at just the moment the Mule is about to pull the trigger and obliterate Channis, the latter uses his telepathic powers to remove the ‘conversion’ from Pritcher’s mind – in other words, removes Pritcher from the Mule’s control.

In that split second the Mule feels a surge of hatred from Pritcher – once his bitter enemy and now restored to that position – and Channis points out that if he, the Mule, zaps him, Channis, that will give Pritcher the milliseconds he needs to throw himself upon the Mule, grab the blaster and zap him, the Mule.

In actual fact, a moment’s reflection suggests this isn’t so – that the Mule could zap Channis then turn and zap the newly liberated Pritcher, as we have all seen happen in literally thousands of American cop shows and movie thrillers. But it’s enough of a pretext for the trio to be brought to an impasse.

Cut to the next scene in which just the Mule and Channis confront each other, because Pritcher, under the mental strain of having been liberated from the Mule’s mental control, has lapsed into unconsciousness.

Except that now the First Mind of the Foundation is also present in the dialogue. In a series of telepathic conversations the Mule tells the First Voice that he knows that Tazenda is the Second Foundation, which is why his fleet has just destroyed it and is now on its way to collect him from Rossem.

Under extreme emotional pressure from the Mule, Channis reveals that Tazenda is not the Second Foundation, Rossem (where they are standing) is. So the Mule announces that his fleet will now come to Rossem and destroy it.

At which point the First Speaker reveals that he and the other Second Foundationers had brainwashed Channis into thinking Rossem is the Second Foundation – but it isn’t!! What??

The Mule hesitates a moment at this new revelation and, it turns out, this is the moment the entire plan has been waiting for. In that millisecond of hesitation, the First Speaker slips into the Mule’s mind, bringing him a new peace and contentment.

The Mule looked up and said: ‘Then I shall return to Kalgan?’
[First Speaker] ‘Certainly. How do you feel?’
‘Excellently well.’ His brow puckered: ‘Who are you?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Of course not.’ He dismissed the matter, and touched Pritcher’s shoulder: ‘Wake up, Pritcher, we’re going home.’
It was two hours later that Bail Channis felt strong enough to walk by himself. He said: ‘He won’t ever remember?’
[First Speaker] ‘Never. He retains his mental powers and his Empire – but his motivations are now entirely different. The notion of a Second Foundation is a blank to him, and he is a man of peace. He
will be a far happier man henceforward, too, for the few years of life left him by his maladjusted
physique. And then, after he is dead Seldon’s Plan will go on – somehow.’

So, as with all of these stories, there’s little or no science or outer space-type content: a) what it boils down to is the confrontation of just a few human characters and their psychological powerplays and b) it ends with a twist.

The multiple revelations of who was controlling whose mind to reveal multiple levels of deceit all turn out to be decoys leading up to that one moment of weakness the First Speaker had been waiting for all along, the moment when his telepathic powers could infiltrate the Mule’s mind and pacify it.

And it works. The Mule goes quietly away and lives out the remaining five years of his life in peace and contentment, ceases looking for the Second Foundation, rules wisely on an empire centred on the planet Kalgan. Then dies.

Search By the Foundation (146 pages)

Twice the length of the previous story, Search by the Foundation is an even more contorted version of bluff, double bluff, triple bluff, quadruple bluff, before bringing the series to an unlikely and rather disappointing conclusion.

It starts 60 years after the first part, 55 years after the Mule’s death by natural causes. Asimov centres the entire long story on a teenage girl, the grand-daughter of the heroic Bayta Darrell who we followed in The Mule. Arcadia Darell is 14, a wide-eyed innocent who likes dressing up like movie stars, wishes she was a grown-up, plays with make-up, her head full of romantic ideas.

We are introduced to her father and a small group of Foundation experts who are concerned about the existence of the Second Empire. The premise of the story is that the Foundation itself risks falling into complacency under the illusion that the mysterious Second Foundation, wherever it is, will protect them forever. Arcadia’s father and his small group are concerned not only about this, but with the fear that the Second Foundation is actively taking over people’s minds.

Which is why he is developing the science of electroencephalography i.e. the reading of people’s brain waves in order to a) identify them, like fingerprints b) identify who has been taken over by telepaths.

The group of five meet in top secrecy, convinced that ‘they’ are out to get them. They decide to send one of their number, Homir Munn, an academic with the largest home collection of Muliana, to the planet Kalgan, in order to enter the Palace which has been kept locked up since the Mule died, and find out if the solution to the mystery is there.

They think the Second Foundation must be on Kalgan. Why? Anthor, the newest youngest recruit to the band of conspirators argues this theory based on the fact that a) although it was not his planet of origin, the Mule chose to make Kalgan the base for his short-lived rule. Anthor argues that the Mule did that, because he was influenced by the Second Foundation to stay close to their base, to stay under their control.

Long story short – Arcadia, full of school girl naughtiness, stows away on Munn’s little spaceship and hops a ride with him to Kalgan. After his initial surprise and dismay, he discovers she’s a confident girl / young lady and they get along fine. Indeed, Arcadia turns out to be useful when they get to Kalgan.

Kalgan is now under the rule of an heir to the Mule, Lord Stettin, and he turns out to be under the thumb of his tubby, ageing mistress, Lady Callia. The idea is that, although Lord Stettin is tall, brutal and imperious, and is constantly vowing to rid himself of her simpering presence, somehow Lady Callia lingers on in the court, continues – to his great irritation – to call him ‘Poochie’, and somehow the Lord ends up making the decisions that she first suggests.

After various melodramatic scenes in which Munn is at first refused permission, and then granted permission, to enter the Mule’s old palace – and after the rather embarrassing scenes where Asimov takes it upon himself to describe encounters between a skittish schoolgirl and an aged courtesan – Arcadia has a sudden insight: she realises that plump Lady Callia is in fact a Second Foundation agent; and she realises where the Second Foundation is!!!

She realises all this while the Lady Callia herself helps Arcadia to run away because the beastly Lord Stettin is thinking about making her (Arcadia) his new consort!!

Evading Munn and the First Lord’s police, Arcadia makes her way to Kalgan’s space travel terminus, where she bumps into a kindly married couple, Preem Palver and wife. They cover for her when the police come to check everyone’s identity papers, and then take her with them to Trantor (which, as you’ll remember, was once the capital city of the First Galactic Empire, before it was sacked by barbarians and fell into ruin).

Why Trantor? Because,now that she knows where the Second Foundation is based, she wants to throw the bad guys off the scent.

Settled into the nice suburban household of Pappa and Mamma (as Preem and wife call each other) on Trantor, Arcadia is horrified to learn that war has broken out between the Lord of Kalgan and the Foundation, in which the Kalgan forces destroyed a Foundation fleet.

Through a convoluted bit of explication, Asimov persuades us that this Pappa figure is head of an agricultural combine on Trantor; and that it’s occurred to the now-pastoral Trantorese that the Foundation planets, currently under siege, will need food.

So Preem sets off to visit Terminus (location, in case you’ve forgotten, of the First Foundation). Under this pretext Preem will be able to visit Arcadia’s father and she (Arcadia) gives Preem her father’s address and a message to give to her father. It consists of just five words: A circle has no end!

It is a riddle. But what does it mean?

The final scenes take place in Arcadia’s dad’s house, among the ‘conspirators’.

What Asimov does is have each of the characters present, with lots of evidence, their version of where the Second Foundation is. Munn, just returned from the Mule’s Palace on Kalgan, is now convinced that The Second Foundation doesn’t exist.

There’s a lot of palavah with Dr Darell’s new encephalography machine to determine whether he is under the control of Second Foundation telepaths.

In fact, the encephalography machine shows that Munn has been telepathically interfered with. This gives the fiery young gun, Pelleas Anthor, the chance to leap up and harangue the group, saying this proves that Kalgan is the home of the 2nd Foundation, and he has a few pages to pull together the evidence making his case.

Darell then takes the floor and blinds his fellow conspirators (and the reader) with the supposed science behind the Big Idea he’s been working on – namely the possibility of a Mind Resonating Organ, which can control human minds.

He has built it to try and replicate the effects of telepathy. But simultaneously, he has been working on a Mental Static device which counters telepathic control.

Now Darell reveals to his startled colleagues that the Second Foundation is here, on planet Terminus!

He reaches that conclusion by interpreting the ancient words of Hari Seldon, namely that he placed the 2nd Foundation at ‘the other end of the galaxy’. But the galaxy has no end. It is not a straight line, it is a circle. If you follow a circle right the way round you arrive back… where you started!

Thus Darell believes the Second Foundation has grown up among the First Foundation without anyone realising it! Which means that everyone on Terminus will need a copy of Darell’s new invention, the Mental Static device, to protect them from Second Foundation mind control.

So the assembled conspirators decide to try the Mental Static device on themselves and… Anthor falls to the ground in agony!

Yes. Anthor is a second Foundation infiltrator!!

Under questioning the weakened Anthor now admits that a) he is an agent of the 2nd Foundation b) the 2nd Foundation is worried by increasing animosity against it c) they know Darell was on the brink of discovering anti-telepathy technology d) they have fifty or so agents scattered around Terminus and beyond but e) Terminus is not the home of the Second Foundation.

The conspirators arrange for the Second Foundation agents to be rounded up.

A few weeks later Arcadia is now safely back in the suburban home of Dr Darell. He quizzes her and she tells him (and for the first time reveals to the reader) that at the key moment, when Lady Callia was dressing her to escape Lord Stettin’s palce in disguise, that was when she realised, in a flash, through intuition, that Terminus was the seat of the second Foundation. She explains how she gave Preem the message to pass on to her dad, and then fled to Trantor in order to throw them off the scent.

But Darrel panics. He realises that this moment of ‘intuition’ came to Arcadia when she was with Lady Callia – who has been confirmed as a Second Foundation agent!

In other words, the thought that Terminus was home of the Second Foundation was planted in her mind!

In panic fear Darell now runs his famous Encephalographic test on his daughter and… she passes!

Arcadia is not under mind control. The Second Foundation is indeed on Terminus, as she said and Anthor said. And having captured the fifty telepaths they have solved the problem and broken its power.

Can you see why, by this stage of the book, I just didn’t care where the bloody Second Foundation was? It is quite clear it has no real importanceto the story. Figuring out its location doesn’t affect anything, since the conspirators have postulated that a) it doesn’t exist b) it’s on Kalgan c) it’s on Terminus, and none of the options made a scrap of difference. Obviously it doesn’t really matter much where it is.

I was on my knees with boredom when I came to the last few pages of the book. Here, in the final chapter in the story and thus of the original Foundation sequence, is (as so often in Asimov) a dialogue which reveals the real story behind events. The wise old First Speaker of the Second Foundation explains everything to a young trainee telepath, tying up all the loose ends and tucking us into bed.

It is, as so often, more like the denouement of a detective story than the climax of a science fiction epic.

Here at last we learn that the Second Foundation is on Trantor!

When Seldon said he planted the Second Foundation at the ‘other end of the galaxy’ he knew that the galaxy is neither a sphere nor a circle: it is a spiral. The other end of a spiral from the outermost tip where Terminus is, is not the opposite end of the rim, but the centre of the spiral.

Trantor – former capital city of the Empire, where all its resources were.

When the barbarians sacked it they unaccountably left the Great Library untouched – because the Second Foundation telepaths prevented them from entering.

When Ebling Mis expressed surprise after all his research in the Trantor archives – it was surprise to find that the secret was under their very noses!

And when Arcadia passed the encephalography test? It was because she was born on Trantor and the Second Foundation took control of her mind, as soon as she was born. Her brain patterns were consistent all the way through her life, and also after her trip to Kalgan when she had been decoyed away from the truth by the telepath Lady Callia – because Arcadia had spent her entire life under Second Foundation control. They had foreseen that she would have a vital role to play. they had co-opted her as a baby.

Now, having fooled the Foundation, the Second Foundation can let it proceed peacefully on its allotted course to rebuild civilisation and remake a Second Empire more glorious than the first – under the impression that they are doing all this free from fiendish Second Foundation telepath control – but in fact the Second Foundation will continue to guard and protect it.

All according to the great Hari Seldon’s plan.

Ta-dah!

But Asimov has one last gag up his sleeve. The identity of the First Speaker, the solemn, all-wise figure who has guided the Second Foundation through this crisis and successfully preserved its secret identity and location and who is even now explaining all of this to the young trainee?

Preem Palver, the supposedly bumbling, kindly old man who took Arcadia under his wing when she was fleeing to Trantor, and who she then begged to take her father a message! It was all a cunning plot after all.

Boom boom!!!!


Asimov’s style

I took Asimov’s style to pieces in my previous post, maybe a bit harshly. A lot of the time he writes fairly clearly and comprehensibly. For example, I’ve just read this scene, where Channis is using a 3-D map of the galaxy to explain something to General Pritcher:

The Lens was perhaps the newest feature of the interstellar cruisers of the day. Actually, it was a complicated calculating machine which could throw on a screen a reproduction of the night sky as seen from any given point of the Galaxy.

So far, so good. But as soon as he tries to describe emotion, intent, or interaction between characters, Asimov’s cack-handedness kicks in:

‘What is it you’re trying to show me?’ Pritcher’s level voice plunged icily into the gathering
enthusiasm of the other.

Not elegant phraseology, is it? You can see what he’s driving at, but have to help him out a bit. Then comes a good, clear descriptive paragraph.

Pritcher had watched the phenomenon of Lens Image expansion before but he still caught his breath. It was like being at the visiplate of a spaceship storming through a horribly crowded Galaxy without entering hyperspace. The stars diverged towards them from a common center, flared outwards and tumbled off the edge of the screen. Single points became double, then globular. Hazy patches dissolved into myriad points. And always that illusion of motion.

Good, strong, clearly visualised images conveyed in clear declarative prose. Unfortunately, as so often happens, Asimov then strives for an effect which he can’t quite put into words –

The darkness was spreading over the screen. As the rate of magnification slowed, the stars slipped off the four ends of the screen in a regretful leave-taking. At the rims of the growing nebula, the brilliant universe of stars shone abruptly in token for that light which was merely hidden behind the swirling unradiating atom fragments of sodium and calcium that filled cubic parsecs of space.

The ‘regretful’ thought could have been expressed more clearly, more elegantly. And I don’t understand the second sentence.

So it might be fairer to summarise Asimov’s style as frequently clear enough to convey his meaning – but routinely disfigured by a striving for visual, logical or emotional effects which he lacks the skill, as a writer, to bring off. By a regular flatfooted cack-handedness.

The Elders of this particular region of Rossem were not exactly what one might have expected. They were not a mere extrapolation of the peasantry; older, more authoritative, less friendly… The dignity that had marked them at first meeting had grown in impression till it had reached the mark of being their predominant characteristic.

What? All through the book are numerous occasions on which the reader sort of understands what Asimov appears to be driving at but has to give the writing quite a lot of help. It’s like watching a toddler learning to ride a bicycle – long stretches of unexpected success, but then – whoaaah! – he falls off and needs to be helped back onto the bike with a few words of encouragement.

There are perhaps men in the Galaxy who can be confused for one another even by men at their peaceful leisure. Correspondingly, there may be conditions of mind when even unlikely pairs may be mis-recognized. But the Mule rises above any combination of the two factors.

What does that mean? Even when Asimov is writing Flash Gordon / Dan Dare-type dialogue, chances are he will trip over his own shoelaces.

‘You clumsy fool! Did you so underestimate me that no combination of impossible fortuities struck you as being too much for me to swallow?’

Worldly wise

One element of the appeal of the thousands of space opera sagas like this is the way they flatter the reader.

Asimov – still only in his 20s – is able to assume lofty man-of-the-world pose in his prose (despite knowing little or nothing about the actual world we live in) because he has created a world, a galaxy, about which he can make grand sweeping statements, without having to worry about contradiction.

And those readers who buy into this premise enjoy the benefits of bethinking themselves into his shoes, colossuses who bestride planetary systems, star quadrants, sectors of the galaxy, who eat imperial politics up for breakfast.

Rossem is one of those marginal worlds usually neglected in Galactic history and scarcely ever
obtruding itself upon the notice of men of the myriad happier planets.

Ah, one of those systems, eh? Yes, I know all about them, a seasoned old hyperspace traveller like myself.

And this is connected to the theme of the series, the decline and fall of great empires. In reality actual, real-world history is extremely difficult and contested. I have now read enough books on the subject to realise that modern historians no longer speak of a Dark Age after the fall of the Roman Empire. The legal and economic structures of the Roman Empire lingered on for centuries, and were co-opted in different ways by successive non-Roman rulers. It is an extremely complicated and contradictory picture, which modern archaeology is making more complex all the time.

By contrast, this space opera trilogy not only uses cardboard cutout characters (goodies versus baddies, the shrewd versus the dumb) in often grating prose and painful dialogue – but it is based on a cartoonishly simple-minded caricature of how history and politics work.

A cartoon version which allows Asimov to make great sweeping gestures, untroubled by having to deal with the inconvenient complexities which characterise actual human history. This can be hugely enjoyable. so long as you’ve switched your brain off.

Imperial history flowed past the peasants of Rossem. The trading ships might bring news in impatient spurts; occasionally new fugitives would arrive – at one time, a relatively large group arrived in a body and remained – and these usually had news of the Galaxy.
It was then that the Rossemites learned of sweeping battles and decimated populations or of tyrannical emperors and rebellious viceroys. And they would sigh and shake their heads, and draw their fur collars closer about their bearded faces as they sat about the village square in the weak sun and philosophized on the evil of men.

Oooh ar, me hearties! Hairy old peasants sitting in the sunshine reflecting on the evils of men. It is like a scene from Asterix the Gaul.

Preposterous premises

The plot immerses you straight into its world of Galactic Empires and drags the reader along into its thriller-style, detective story mechanisms of suspense quickly enough to nearly make you overlook the fundamental problems of the entire conception. In the Foundation books:

  1. The entire galaxy is populated with human beings, and no other life forms.
  2. All humans speak the same language – all the characters from no matter which planets, no matter how many billions of miles apart, speak and understand English, and American English at that – I enjoyed how the taxi driver on Trantor who gives Arcadia a lift is made to talk like a New York taxi driver – it’s another of Isaac’s little jokes, but symptomatic of the oddly parochial feel of the stories.
  3. All these people without exception understand and use the same technologies, whether they’re at the supposed agriculture or coal-and-oil, or atomic power levels of civilisation. I.e. none of the characters, even the peasants, are confused by anything they see or hear. Everything is clear.
  4. There are no alien species anywhere in this galaxy. The more I think about it, the weirder that is, for science fiction.
  5. Which is just part of the way that there is little or no surprise or confusion or wonder or awe in any of the stories. The only surprises are the Hercules Poirot style revelations at the climax of each story when we realise is was the butler all along.
  6. Nothing at all happens which can’t be explained by basic GCSE-level history or psychology.  At bottom, the same thing happens in all of the stories; one bunch of people try to outwit another bunch, the good guys win, but there’s a surprise twist in the tail.

There is, in other words, a complete absence of the weird, the strange, the uncanny, the inexplicable, the horrifying – all the qualities which I, personally, enjoy in the best science fiction.

Instead it is just a preposterous space opera told in barely literate English.

Book covers

The original 1950s Gnome Publishing editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation

The original 1950s Gnome Publishing editions of Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation

Space opera

Only now, having read and reflected on the trilogy, do I feel I understand what space opera is. Having looked it up, I learn that ‘space opera’ is defined by two critics, Hartwell and Cramer, as:

colorful, dramatic, large-scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character and plot action, and usually set in the relatively distant future, and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone. It often deals with war, piracy, military virtues, and very large-scale action, large stakes.

Foundation ticks these boxes. It is set not just in the future, but in the far distant future. It is entirely in outer space i.e. earth makes no appearance. The protagonist of each story is usually a clean-cut hero, from wise old Hari Seldon to swashbuckling trader Hober Mallow: there is certainly never any doubt who the good guys are. The stakes could hardly be higher – the future of the Galaxy.

And, what for me is the defining characteristic, it is optimistic in tone. The good guys win. Society is saved. Everything’s going to be just dandy, reflecting the enormous optimism of 1940s America. Honey, I’m home and the boss just gave me a raise!


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
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 London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion 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 passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring 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 Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to 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

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

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, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

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
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
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 down 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 ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
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, namely the 1950s

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