Low-Flying Aircraft by J.G. Ballard (1976)

Ballard wrote nearly 100 short stories in his fifty-year writing career (1956 to 2006). They were first published in ephemeral sci-fi and avant-garde magazines and then gathered into collections published periodically through the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Nowadays it’s probably best and/or cheapest to read them in the two massive volumes of the Collected Short Stories, but back in the 1970s and 80s I bought each new collection as it came out, and back then they read like reports from a different planet.

I often wonder who compiled and drew up the running order for these collections, because of the odd way they mix up early and later stories, creating jarring shifts in tone and subject matter. Low-Flying Aircraft contains nine short stories covering the decade from 1966 to 1975 when a lot happened, both in the wider world and in Ballard’s style. Reading them in publishing order they amount to snapshots of his evolving style and approach. I’ve arranged the stories in Low-Flying Aircraft according to dates of composition, as indicated by this authoritative-looking webpage:

Five types of Ballard story

There are probably scores of categories you could apply to Ballard’s short stories. Five categories suggest themselves from this selection:

  • Gags – jokes, boom-boom semi-humorous stories such as the one about TV producers sexing up the Battle of Waterloo, or the rise and fall of interest in the discovery of God, thin one-gag wonders.
  • Tales of the unexpected which are utterly traditional in form and tone but cover an eerie or spooky subject – like The Lost Leonardo in which all the characters are totally respectable middle class types tracking down a valuable oil painting which has been stolen, and – in this collection – The Comsat Angels whose protagonists are nice, middle-class BBC television producers who stumble on an awesome conspiracy. Their middle-class milieu recalls the sensible characters in Conan Doyle or Wells who make mind-bending discoveries.
  • Experimental – The Atrocity Exhibition was the high point of Ballard’s experiments with form: The Beach Murders is written in the same style and format as The Atrocity Exhibition chapters – short paragraphs given their own headings – but applied to create a kind of avant-garde spoof of the then-fashionable subject of spies and espionage. I can see why it was left out, it would have spoiled the intense homogenous atmosphere of Atrocity.
  • Dead astronauts – Ballard wrote so many stories about characters obsessed with dead astronauts trapped in orbiting space capsules which can be seen from earth as silver dots crossing the sky that they count as a distinct category: A Question of Re-Entry, A Cage of Sand and, in this collection, The Dead Astronaut.
  • Psychosis stories – The Terminal Beach is the classic Ballard story about a character whose obsession leads him into another psychic zone and who stops caring for his body, slowly starving to death, and the trope of the terminal zone of abandoned resorts, empty hotels and drifting sand dunes as a location for social and mental breakdown dominates The Dead Astronaut and Low-Flying Aircraft.
  • Dystopias Dystopias deal with futures in which disaster has struck the human race, the subject of his first three novels (The Drowned WorldThe Drought and The Crystal World). Over a decade later, the two longest stories in this collection – Low-Flying Aircraft and The Ultimate City – are also dystopias.

1960s stories

The Beach Murders (1966)

The Atrocity Exhibition was the high point of Ballard’s experiments with form: The Beach Murders is written in the same style and format as The Atrocity Exhibition chapters but I can see why it was left out. It uses the same experimental approach but applied to a different subject matter and it is a joke.

It consists of 26 paragraphs each with a key word or phrase arranged in alphabetical order (Iguana, Jasmine, Kleenex) and each paragraph, as in the Atrocity Exhibition, depicts a different scene or moment or tableau, with the same cast of characters but with the events arranged out of sequence to deliberately confuse.

And what it’s depicting is some kind of spy narrative in which a Russian princess is securing plans for some kind of new technology developed by Lockheed, an Old Etonian English ambassador, a Russian assassin and so on. It is a spoof of a James Bond plot done in the style of Ballard’s experimental fiction. It was originally titled Confetti Royale, a blatant reference to the spoof Bond film Casino Royale. It is a spoof of a spoof. Hence its non-inclusion in the much more serious Atrocity collection.

The Greatest Television Show on Earth (1966)

This is one of those cheap thrill, one-gag, squib science fiction stories that you feel any competent science fiction hack could have written, it barely has the Ballard touch at all.

Time travel is discovered in the year 2001 but instead of giving rise to wars or the dislocation of timelines by people travelling back and changing the past etc, it is played for satire and laughs as Ballard explains that the new technology is quickly bought out by television companies who garner enormous global audiences by sending TV cameras back (in a secure time bubble) to cover super-famous historical events such as the inauguration of Roosevelt, the assassination of Kennedy (inevitably), the signing of Magna Carta, the discovery of America.

The TV companies quickly realise people like spectaculars and so a new genre is formed of war specials, with all the highlights of World War Two covered ‘live’ including Hitler committing suicide in his bunker. Producers then go back further to the First World War which turns out to be a grim and muddy disappointment. but not as much as the Battle of Waterloo, which turns out to have been fought by a lot fewer soldiers than contemporaries claimed, and most of them sick with dysentery.

At which point an enterprising assistant producer suggests recruiting more ‘extras’. Slipping into contemporary costume and armed with gold sovereigns TV researchers and producers fan out across the countryside to pay awe-struck peasants to don army uniforms and take part in the slaughter. With the help of arc lights and careful choreography that Battle of Waterloo is turned into an altogether more ratings-worthy spectacle.

Satire. Suddenly TV producers take to improving history. I particularly liked the way that, after discovering how small Hannibal’s trek over the Alps really was, the producers hired a whole load more elephants and elephant trainers and trounced the unexpecting Romans. And so on.

Finally the tendency reaches its peak with a well-advertised programme which will cover the Parting of the Red Sea ‘live’ on Time Travel TV. As you might expect from t his kind of story, what happens is that when the Israelites (a relatively small mob of scruffy looking survivors) arrive at the red Sea with the chariots of the Pharaoh on their heels, something dramatic really does happen. A strange light appears in the sky and the cameras all go dead. A little while later a few flicker back to life to show the scene, the Israelites have crossed, half Pharaoh’s army has drowned, but so have most of the best Time Travel TV producers, washing about in the flotsam of the flood along with the wrecked TV cameras and stands.

Almost as if ‘someone up there’ doesn’t like being mucked about with.

The Life and Death of God (1966)

A similar rather hammy story, this is also a satire on the notion that there might actually be a God and how humanity would react. The story traces the rise and fall of humanity’s reaction to the news that there is a God which – briefly – passes through a bell curve: from rumours, anticipations and excitement – to wonder, awe and amazement when the news is officially announced – and then a slow slide back to indifference and business as usual.

The announcement is made by scientists that, behind the background low radiation level of the universe they have discovered a permanent low-level hum of ultra microwaves which permeate all things. Not only this, but this radiation contains ‘a complex and continually changing mathematical structure’ which appears to change when observed i.e. responds and ‘thinks’.

So first the awed reaction: the population of the world is stunned by the news that there is a conscious, intelligent mind permeating all matter. The religions of the world come together. the churches and temples and mosques are all packed out. Everyone behave morally. Lots of people walk out of work now God is known to exist. Advertising, with all its mendacious lies, stops, as does most of government. Wars stop. Peace breaks out everywhere. Old enemies sign pacts of friendship, armies are disbanded, and so on.

However, this begins to have impacts. Farmers harvest the autumn crop but show no particular enthusiasm to prepare for the following year. Law and order has ceased as no longer necessary, but this is followed by a wave of spectacular crimes. In this ‘real world’ mode, Ballard’s imagination always reaches for the most obvious, cheesy and clichéd of subjects, so when he thinks of audacious crimes this means bank robberies in the Mid-West which are reminiscent of Al Capone, an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, and someone slashes the Mona Lisa in Paris.

Worried by the way their flocks – everyone’s flocks – are not attending church or temple anymore – the world’s religious leaders announce that they might have been a bit hasty when they announced the existence of a caring loving God. It has become clear that this subtle mathematical matrix may be there but… does it think? Can it talk to us? Does it answer prayers? Does it have ‘moral’ values?

The religious leaders are followed by philosophers: the idea of an omnipotent deity limits mankind. An American politician denounces the discovery, saying his country is built on the notion of unlimited expansion and progress, which refuses to be checked by some so-called scientific discovery.

The team of astronomers find themselves under siege, forced to give another press conference where they are attracted from all angles by all the aspects of society who have a vested interest in there not being a God.

Meanwhile life is becoming unattractive. So many people have quit their jobs that nothing works. Cars break down and can’t be repaired. The shops are empty because factory workers have gone off to commune with God. Meanwhile the churches and mosques and temples have become more choosy – only accepting an elite of believers who pledge to put their faith in the church’s hierarchy and specific written doctrines, rejecting the wishy-washy-pantheism which has swept the world.

There’s a series of natural disasters: a landslide in Peru kills villagers, an iceberg sinks a supertanker. Then war breaks out: the Arabs and the Israelis go at it again; China invades Nepal; Russian nuclear subs are discovered on manoeuvres in the Atlantic.

The satire is brought home as Ballard describes the way most people have drifted back to work: they need the money. And so Christmas decorations appear in all the shops which start filling up with goods again. Carol concerts are held. Mendacious adverts slowly start reappearing on TV. Before you know it, the world is back to business as usual.

The satire is rammed home in the last sentence of the story which announce that, in all the festivities, most people miss the publication of what the Church claims to be the most far-reaching religious statement of all time, an encyclical with the title God is Dead.

Response

Stories like this… I don’t know. They bring a smile to the lips. They’re amusing, this one is cleverly done.

But you read it knowing it makes absolutely no contribution to your understanding of the world. Its mood is one of a clever teenager who has just discovered cynicism, just discovered that grown-ups may not be driven by the purest motives after all. But it hasn’t even begun to take stock of the real complexities of the actual world. It’s made up of headline organisations and headline crimes and has a kind of similarly superficial, newspaper headline level of content. It is the opposite of subtle.

The Comsat Angels (1967)

Comsat is trendy 60s-speak for communications satellites, the new phenomenon of a series of satellites put into geostationary orbits around the earth which allowed the beaming of live television and radio communication in an unprecedented scale.

The narrator, James, is a BBC documentary maker. His boss, Charles Whitehead, the editor of the BBC’s Horizon series, asks him to look into the latest ‘child genius’, Georges Duval, who’s been presented with great publicity in France. James flies over with his boss to interview him, noting the smart villa the teenager lives in with his mother, and the slightly sinister adult man who supervises the interview. Back in the office, on a whim, the narrator starts investigating the history of ‘child prodigies’ which in fact stretches back twenty years or more. He goes off to try and interview an English child prodigy based in Canterbury, has difficultly tracking him down, and discovers his mother has moved to – or been set up in – a nice villa, with a tended garden, and an odd air of detachment. Like the French child prodigy, this one’s father disappeared early in his life.

Back in the office again the narrator discovers that his boss has been doing some research of his own and now has a wall covered with photos, newspaper cuttings and so on. These show the creepy fact that all the child prodigies look the same, with the same high bony forehead and faraway stare. Whitehead has established that the so-called child prodigies never went to university or on into brilliant careers in science of the arts, but without exception disappeared from mainstream view. Now Whitehead has dug up the fact that, without exception, they have silently risen to positions of power. He shows the narrator the photos of the strikingly similar-looking young men in a range of press photos: one is adviser to the leader of the Soviet Union, one is an adviser to President Johnson in America, one is photographed between Mao and Chou En-Lai in Beijing, one is working with Britain’s leading space scientist at Jodrell Bank, another one is a senior adviser in NASA.

Suddenly it dawns on the narrator that there are twelve of them. Like the twelve apostles! Suddenly he realises that the twelve are preparing for the return of… Him! The stage is being set so that all the powers of the earth recognise Him when He returns. As the narrator pithily puts it: ‘This time there will be no mistakes’. And the reader is meant to feel a spooky thrill of understanding shiver down his or her spine!

The Dead Astronaut (1967)

Now this has the true Ballard vibe. It reads like an anthology of early-period obsessions and is a prime example of the strange, wintry beauty of his prose.

Cape Kennedy has gone now, its gantries rising from the deserted dunes. Sand has come in across the Banana River, filling the creeks and turning the old space complex into a wilderness of swamps and broken concrete. In the summer, hunters build their blinds in the wrecked staff cars; but by early November, when Judith and I arrived, the entire area was abandoned. Beyond Cocoa Beach, where I stopped the car, the ruined motels were half hidden in the saw grass. The launching towers rose into the evening air like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra of the sky.

It’s set in the future, 20 years since the last rockets left the gantries at Cape Kennedy. Now the entire area is abandoned and rusting. The narrator is Philip. Twenty years earlier he had been a senior flight programmer at NASA, at the time when the whole space programme was moved to New Mexico. He seems to have been an ‘item’ with a fellow NASA employee named Judith, but soon after the move to New Mexico she fell in love with one of the trainee astronauts, the albino Robert Hamilton. They played tennis etc in the all-American way.

A year later Hamilton was dead, his space capsule hit by a meteorite. For all those years his derelict space capsule has circled the earth, one of twelve capsules carrying dead astronauts who’d died in various mishaps. One by one they fall back to earth, attracted by the homing beacon left active at Cape Kennedy.

Now Philip has driven with Judith down to the Cape because it is time for Robert Hamilton’s space capsule to fall to earth. The entire area is a) utterly derelict and abandoned and covered with drifts of sand b) policed by wardens c) haunted by the relic hunters, who scavenge the crashed capsules, selling mementos illegally on the black market.

Philip and Judith have come well prepared and in the knowledge that they have to a) break through the wire perimeter fence and b) make contact with one of the scavengers, hard-eyed, beak-faced, scarred-handed Sam Quinton. They give him five thousand dollars. He shows them to a ruined but habitable motel room, and promises to bring them Hamilton’s remains.

In the days they spend waiting, there is unusual activity by the authorities. The army appear, driving half-tracks, roaming around the abandoned concrete aprons, Quinton says it’s unusual, but they’ll get to the wreck before the army. Then the capsule descends, roaring past in a giant blade of light followed by a loud crash and explosion. Judith runs to the crash site, staggering dazed among the flaming flecks of metal embedded all over the sand. Ballard’s writing is brilliantly vivid.

Shortly after midnight, at an elevation of 42 degrees in the northwest, between Lyra and Hercules, Robert Hamilton appeared for the last time. As Judith stood up and shouted into the night air, an immense blade of light cleft the sky. The expanding corona sped toward earth like a gigantic signal flare, illuminating every fragment of the landscape.

Quinton and his two fellow scavengers hustle Judith and Philip back to the motel and soon return with various souvenirs including a box containing the dead astronaut’s remains. Judith and Philip remain in the motel room on Quinton’s suggestion, the army are roaming everywhere, any movement will be detected, they’ll all be arrested. Judith pores over the pathetic bundle of sticks and grey ash which is all that’s left of Robert Hamilton.

After a few days, Philip and Judith fall ill. They feel weak, can’t keep food down, vomit, hair starts falling out, skin blistering. Army half-tracks come closer as they continue their search of the area. Philip hears the message they’ve been broadcasting over loudspeakers for days, something about radioactivity.

In a flash he realises they both have radiation poisoning. Hamilton’s capsule was carrying a bomb, an atom bomb. Philip is well aware that all this time Judith has carried an obsessive torch for her one-time lover. Now it has killed both of them.

A Place and a Time to Die (1969)

A political satire leavened with a soupcon of Ballardian alienation. The Chinese army has invaded America. The word ‘Chinese’ doesn’t actually appear anywhere but the vast army plays gongs and bells, its soldiers wear the puffy quilted jackets the Red Army wore during the Korean War, and have yellow faces.

But the focus of the story is on three inhabitants of a little American town in the mid-West. Everyone has fled before the advancing horde except Mannock, the retired and eccentric police chief, the trigger-happy right-wing fanatic Forbis, and a wild-eyed Marxist Hathaway, who can’t wait for the commies to liberate him.

There’s a few pages of bad-tempered interplay between this cracked trio as they dig in to their home-made bunker on this side of the river, while the vast army camps out on the other side and sends a few engineers to scout out the bridge.

But the punchline is that when the Asiatic horde invades, streaming over the river in thousands of boats and pouring up the other bank like termites, as Mannock and Forbis prepare to make a heroic last stand – the Chinese ignore them. They just push past them, ignoring their pathetic little defences and peashooter guns, horde upon horde, even children carrying guns, women carrying nothing but the Chairman’s little red book. The scene is a symbol of the trivial futility of the Western worldview with its cowboy heroism when set against the inconceivable scale of the Chinese population.


1970s stories

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974)

A beautifully poised and tragic story. Set in an abandoned resort (like the abandoned resort in Low-Flying Aircraft anmd the abandoned sand dunes of Cape Kennedy in The Dead Astronaut) Melville discovers a crashed Second World War bomber buried in the sand.

The migraines are coming back, reminders of the ECT shocks which were themselves part of the treatment for the severe head injuries he suffered, we are told, as an RAF pilot who was in a plane crash. Metal plates had to be inserted in his head.

When he is lowered into the cockpit of a Messerchmitt which another plane hunter is excavating further down the coast he has his first ‘fugue’, defined as: ‘a loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment, associated with certain forms of hysteria and epilepsy.’

During his recovery he became obsessed with Wake Island, a refuelling site on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, barely more than a collection of concrete runways and shacks. Its utter isolation and complete psychological reduction to a basic function for some reason has gripped Melville’s imagination.

He is being supervised by Dr Laing who asks him why he needs to fly to Wake island, and about the B-17 he’s spending all his time excavating from the sand. Laing introduces him to an amateur pilot who incessantly flies her Cessna over the dunes. She is Helen Winthrop. Melville drives over to the small airfield and introduces himself. He is knowledgable about planes. Helen explains that she’s planning to break the record for flying the length of Africa to Cape Town. Melville can help her fit long-distance fuel tanks. She is attracted by his intensity and they have a short-lived affair. But, it is revealed in a throwaway detail, she can’t cope with his constant nervous vomiting.

Only now, in the final pages of this brief but fantastically concentrated story, do we learn that Melville wasn’t a pilot who had a crash – he was an astronaut, and the first astronaut to have a nervous breakdown in space, his nightmare ramblings disturbing the millions of viewers watching the space flight on TV. Hence the ECT and attempts at therapy.

He takes it for granted that Helen will abandon her plans and fly with him to Wake. He assures her they’re going to do it, no matter how many times she tells him she has spent to much time preparing for her Africa flight. One day she takes off without warning him. The sound of the engines tells him her plane is fully loaded. Within an hour or so he’s completely forgotten about her as he works away, continuing to excavate the ruined B-17 from the sand. With part of his mind he knows it will never fly, that he’ll never in fact finish excavating it since the wind is constantly blowing the sand dunes back over it. But with the happy part of his mind he knows that if he works hard enough, he’ll soon be flying to Wake Island.

Some of the details, in fact the entire plot can be accused of being overwrought. But the beauty is in the care with which Ballard deploys the details so as to slowly reveal the true reason for Melville’s exile to the abandoned resort, the tremendous lightness of touch with which he paints in the handful of brief conversations the troubled young man has with Dr Laing, and the daintiness with which he sketches the brief failed relationship with Helen.

It’s this handling of the content, as much as the content itself, which makes this short story feel like a masterpiece.

Low-Flying Aircraft (1975)

It’s forty years in the future. Mankind has suffered a catastrophic collapse. Suddenly almost all children born were horribly deformed, their eyes revealing the optic nerves and grotesque genitals. All over the world people took to killing newborn babies or having abortions. The birth-rate actually went up, but the infanticide exceeded it.

Now all of Europe contains only 200,000 people, America 150,000. In another generation mankind might die out. Richard Forrester works for the UN in a much-reduced Geneva, population 2,000, going on trips to the abandoned cities of Europe to do a stock check of the leftover food, drink, cars and clothes and all the other detritus of an abandoned civilisation.

Now his wife has got pregnant again, for the eighth time and, hoping against hope, they have come to the almost completely abandoned Spanish resort of Ampuriabrava, where the sand has blown free for decades and completely overflowed the streets and the abandoned hotels. Only an old couple tend the hotel Forrester and his wife ‘check into’, that’s the entire population of the place, apart from a mysterious Dr Gould, who insists on going out flying in his private propeller-plane every morning.

Forrester and his wife Judith disapprove of Gould flying along the half-ruined runway. One day while his wife sleeps, Forrester notices from the balcony of their hotel room a mystery woman loitering in the shadow of the hangar. Spurred on by lust, Forrester makes his way through the sand-covered town, walking over the roofs of cars almost buried in sand, to the hangar to find the attractive woman wearing dark glasses and a shawl but, as he steps in out of the sunlight, taking her shoulder, she steps back startled and treads on the sunglasses which have fallen from her face.

With a bolt of shock Forrester realises she is a mongoloid, what we would call a Downs Syndrome. In the story this is regarded as a type of deformity or mutant.

Later, after Gould lands, the two men go for a drink and Gould tells her story. He offers to take Forrester on his next flight, next morning. Terrified by the take-off along the crumbling runway, Forrester calms down as they fly into the mountains where, to his surprise, they find a solitary bull, obviously a mutant, surprised because all livestock were slaughtered decades earlier.

Now he learns what Gould flies off to do every morning. He had loaded up the plane with fluorescent paint in its load bay. Now he releases a line of the paint and trails it up the side of the field and into the mountains. For some reason the bull follows it, its malformed eyes capable of ‘seeing’ the shiny paint line.

Gould and Forrester land back on the crumbling airstrip in Ampuriabrava and, returning to the half-abandoned hotel where they’re staying, Forrester discovers that the Spanish practicante or doctor has been to visit Judith and told her that, alas and inevitably, the baby is malformed. After the doctor left, Judith ‘went out’, looking upset.

Forrester fetches Gould to help him then goes running through the sand-choked streets of the abandoned resort, calling her name. They find her in the honeymoon suite of one of the euphemistically named ‘Venus hotels’. She had put on sexy lingerie and see-through clothes etc, and wandered through the hotel stripping them off and sobbing in anguish that she was carrying yet another malformed baby. Now Forrester comforts her as she weeps her heart out.

Once she is put to bed back in their hotel room and given some tranquilisers, Gould has a conversation with Forrester out on the balcony overlooking the abandoned beach resort, covered in sand. What, he asks, if the deformed babies aren’t deformed at all? What if they are the next stage in evolution? What if the industrial scale massacring of them has been a massive social and scientific mistake? What if they – despite looking deformed to us – are the next stage? Forrester is shaken, as he has been by Gould’s kindness in taking the Mongol woman in, and his care for the remnants of the mutant cattle up in the mountains.

A few weeks later, Judith has the baby the natural way and they hand it over to the praticante to get rid of in the usual way (whatever that is). But Forrester follows the Spaniard down into the lobby and there takes the baby from him, swaddling it up and carrying it across town to the ruined airfield and quickly hands it over to Gould’s Spanish Mongol lady. She will bring it up. Maybe the is the Eve of a new race of humanity, who knows…

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This is the first Ballard story I read which seems to have been done by rote, on automatic.

When Gould tells us that the mongol woman he has taken in and is protecting has an enormous collection of clocks and watches, that they are all set to different times, and that he thinks she uses them as a kind of ‘computer’, it’s strange and eerie, alright, but doesn’t have the shock of the genuinely uncanny which the much earlier story, The Voices of Time, give you. or the description of mad Talbot constructing a sculpture made of bits of broken mirror and coathanger on the roof of Catherine York’s apartment block so he can build a corridor to the sun. They felt genuinely weird. This version of the same kind of thing is echt Ballard, alright, but somehow without the feeling.

Or take the ‘Venus Hotels’. According to Ballard these were set up in every city in the West when the population collapse first became evident. They were built with the sole intention of getting people to copulate and reproduce and so are packed full of every possible sex aid, sex mags and sex films available on demand. In the early to mid 1970s when this story was written, the notion of the government setting up sex hotels was probably still scandalous and shocking, and also had some satirical kickAnd yet… and yet…

What seems to have happened is that Ballard is no longer surprised at himself and so no longer surprises the reader. Two key elements of his writing from the 1960s have gone:

  1. the extraordinary verbal lushness which makes the first three novels such a sensual treat to read
  2. the strange and bizarre poetry he coaxed out of the language with the regular use of scientific and mathematical terminology – the geometry of naked bodies, the planes of the face creating jarring angles – the most Ballardian of the 1960s stories are full of this kind of language

Somehow, by the mid-1970s, the fantastically lush prose style and/or the weird way with language have disappeared. The abandoned hotels, the deserted resorts, the alienated characters and the disastrous scenarios are all still there, but described somehow, with a practiced smoothness.

Weird and disturbing though they still are, in some ways, in another way which is difficult to define, the stories have somehow become more routine, more pedestrian.

The Ultimate City (1975)

This long short story, or novella of 90 pages or so takes up half the book’s 180 pages.

It is a dream. Maybe this is the way to think of Low-Flying Aircraft as well. They are not realistic stories, they are more like fantasias in which various familiar elements are rearranged to create new effects, like a painter experimenting with different ways of composing a scene.

The Ultimate City is set fifty or so years in the future after the end of the Petrol Age. The oil has run out and as it dwindled to an end, the population of the earth dwindled in step, people failing to reproduce, as if exhausted. By the end there weren’t many of them left so it was relatively easy for the survivors to migrate from the no-longer-functioning cities out to the countryside and create new, ecological friendly, vegetarian communities run on renewable energy, wave and solar power etc.

Strange how some of us have known for so very very long that our oil-based economy was wasteful and wrecking the planet but it hasn’t made the slightest impression on the real world. 45 years ago Ballard wrote how the post-industrial community’s renewable technologies

had progressed far ahead of anything the age of oil and coal had achieved, with its protein-hungry populations, its limitless pollution of air, earth and sea. (p.16)

‘Its limitless pollution of air, earth and sea.’, Yes, that’s us alright.

Right from the start this background story creates a kind of dreamy atmosphere of wish fulfilment. It is all so convenient and pat and just so. The Age of Oil came to an end. The population gracefully declined. The remainder established harmonious and idyllic rural communes which still benefited from advanced technology. Compare and contrast with the ends of the world foreseen in The Drowned World and The Drought, which are both more fractious, stricken and violent. The salt beach scenes of The Drought are still giving me nightmares.

By contrast every aspect of The Ultimate City seems to take place underwater, in slow motion, as if in a dream sequence of a film.

We are introduced to Halloway, a young man (aged 18) whose inventor parents died in a house fire when he was small. Now he takes part in the annual glider building contest held by his little commune of 300 or so souls. He has been building a particularly big, sleek and powerful one to a blueprint left by his dead father. But when the day of the competition comes and his band of schoolboy assistants help him run the glider along its launch track and into the sky, instead of looping above the community and landing in a nearby field as he’s meant to, Halloway sets off the ten miles to the abandoned city.

Halloway’s arrival in the abandoned city gives Ballard full rein to indulge his favourite subject and describe every aspect of a modern high-tech city which has been left utterly abandoned and derelict.

But above and beyond the long wide avenues lined with abandoned cars and telegraph wires strewn everywhere, there is a typically eerie Ballard touch in the way Halloway discovers among the wreckage strange monuments, huge pyramids built out of old TV sets or washing machines, strange psychic memorials to the dead technologies.

Somewhere in the streets’ echoing canyons he hears an engine and the sound of smashing glass. Freaked out, Halloway decides it’s time to head back to the country and sets off towards the ruined suspension bridge across the river which separates city and country. He gets as far as a vast abandoned airport whose runways are full of gleaming cars, all models, arranged in neat rows (you realise that quite often Ballard is simply expressing the surrealism implicit in consumer society). He discovers a truck whose engine still works. He starts it and drives at full pelt out the airfield gates but has never driven before, so crashes into a roundabout, the truck skewing on its side and he loses consciousness.

When Halloway comes round he is being tended by a kindly young black guy who can’t speak but punches words into a sort of pocket calculator which he’s rigged up to display his words on a screen, so he can converse.

His name is Olds. Half Olds’ face is covered in scars. As a boy he was run over by a housewife driving her classic Oldsmobile to the scrap yard, thus becoming the last traffic accident in the world. He was in hospital and recovering for years, leaving him damaged, traumatised. A few years ago he changed his name to Olds in honour of the make of car which ran him over.

Olds is very like the figure of Melville in Dream of Flying to Wake Island. He too had a traumatic crash/accident. And just as Melville has a ‘fugue’ or mental freeze episode when he climbs into the cockpit of the ruined Messerchmitt, so Olds goes into a fugue state when Holloway tactlessly suggests starting up one of the Oldsmobile motor cars in his collection.

Collection? Yes, it turns out that Olds, like Melville, has set himself an obsessive task – he is restoring the abandoned cars. One by one he is rewiring, oiling and filing the gas tanks of one of each brand of motor car. It is a quest. When he’s finished restoring one of each brand, he explains to Halloway, he will be free.

But he has another obsessive desire, too. He wants to fly. When he learns from Halloway that the latter flew into the city he is enraptured. ‘Take me to your crashed glider,’ he says. ‘I’ll repair it. And then you can teach me to fly!

So they load up into one of the lorries Olds has restored and he drives them back into the city to find Halloway’s crashed glider. But on the way they find themselves behind a huge industrial tractor-type machine which trundles along bearing vast pincers big enough to pick up entire cars. It is being driven by Stillman, a thug in a leather jacket. Olds knows all about him, and they follow the monster rig as it heads towards one of the abandoned city’s central plazas.

And here Halloway is introduced to the two other characters in this strange, abandoned, dream city – Buckmaster ‘Viceroy, czar and warden of this island’), an ageing architect and visionary, and Miranda, his beautiful daughter.

A few carefully planted references are all the reader needs to realise that these characters are taking part in a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with

  • Buckmaster as the impresario Prospero
  • Miranda his beautiful daughter (‘Sometimes I feel like the daughter of a great magician’)
  • the slender Negro Olds as a crippled Ariel who dreams of flying free
  • and Stillman, the surly, grunting ex-convict, wearing leather jackets, who can barely control his anger and aggression, as a hoodlum Caliban

Halloway discovers it is Buckmaster who has conceived and supervised the building of the strange psychic memorials to the vanished petrol civilisation of the city – the ziggurats of TVs, washing machines and so on – and is now creating his masterpiece in the city’s abandoned central plaza, a four-hundred-feet-high pyramid of dead cars!

Halloway is accepted on easy terms by the other characters, chats to Buckmaster who gives his version of how the old Oil Civilisation declined and fell.

But Halloway is himself now seized by a vision and a dream: If Olds can rewire and refuel old vehicles, why can’t he do same to an entire city block? And so Halloway recruits the inhabitants of the island into his obsessive vision to set up petrol-powered generators in an entire city block next to the plaza, and to re-activate the old abandoned police station, the cinema, theatre, office blocks, the derelict supermarkets and corner stores, as well as traffic signs and neon hoardings – to restore the city – in the shape of one of its sub-divisions – back to its loud, garish, polluted heyday.

And it works. Olds works overtime, on the understanding he can work on Halloway’s glider in his spare time, and sets up petrol generators which restore energy to all the buildings, the street lights and digital displays. Buckmaster approves and, in a decisive moment, Stillman switches his allegiance from building the pyramid of cars to reviving the parts of the city which take his fancy, the nightclubs and dives. Soon he is dressing in a snappy black suit and driving a gangster’s white limousine.

(We learn that 25 years earlier Stillman had met Buckmaster at the school of architecture, had an affair with the industrialist’s third wife, then killed her in a lover’s quarrel. And was locked up for twenty years, thus becoming the last murderer to be tried and convicted before the great migration, as Olds was the last road traffic victim. They are all symbolic figures. When Stillman was finally released – at Buckmaster’s request, he was incensed to discover the sexy, funky city life he had spent 18 years fantasising about returning to, had utterly ceased to exist. That explains the savage fury with which he drives his enormous machines around the city wilfully steamrollering over cars and smashing shop windows.)

There is a dreamily comic scene where a rescue party from Halloway’s old commune arrive on environmentally friendly yacht across the sound, dock and punctiliously cycle the five miles or so from the docks to the central plaza. But here Halloway has arranged a suitably high octane, testosterone-fuelled reception. as they enter the plaza at dusk, Halloway throws all the switches, the neon lights and streetlamps come on, the sound form a hundred record players booms out over the square then he jumps into the renovated police car he likes to drive while Stillman terrorises the quaking cyclists in his pimpmobile. the vegetarian cyclists flee.

Halloway is thrilled and excited. Ever since Stillman let him share some of the wild deer he had caught, skinned and barbecued on the 20th story of an abandoned hotel, Halloway’s lusts have been awoken (a scene, incidentally, which is strongly reminiscent of the famous opening scene if High Rise). Now Halloway revels in the noise of the city, the pollution caused by the cars. And in the shadows after the retreat of the cyclists are standing shy youths attracted by the lights.

Slowly Halloway’s city project attracts recruits. From nowhere appear dribs and drabs of young people bored of placid vegetarian life in the communes who are attracted to the bright lights, fast cars, licquor and women of the Big City, until the population of ‘the reclaimed zone’ is a heady two hunred1

Of course all this is wildly unrealistic. Ballard makes a few gestures towards plausibility, suggesting that they are able to raid the half empty petrol tanks of the city’s millions of abandoned cars. But wouldn’t people have driven round in them till the last drop was used up, you ask. And seeing they were all abandoned 25 years ago, wouldn’t the petrol all have evaporated?

But such thoughts are like pointing out the improbabilities in Shakespeare’s Tempest. This is a dream, a fantasia, which accounts for the sense of smoothness and inevitability.

Then, with the inevitability of a fairy tale, or a certain kind of fable, it all starts to go wrong. One of the young hoodlum tendency loses control of a car and smashes into a shop window, running over a girl. Everyone attends her funeral. but instead of chastening the mood, it inflames it. Very quickly Stillman lures young workers away from Old’s workshops and the supermarkets and creates a paramilitary order, dressed in black shirts, who parade with their guns, looted from the city’s gunshops, in the central plaza.

Halloway goes to see Buckmaster to try and recruit him to his side, to the forces of law and order. There is a visionary scene where he finds the apartment block where the old man lives festooned with the flowers that Miranda plants everywhere, and sees her up on a balcony dressed all in white and hallucinates that she is in a wedding dress and the old man will have them married. But then he realises the exotic plants all around him are deadly nightshade. Next morning Buckmaster and Miranda leave the city forever.

Heading back towards the reclaimed zone, Halloway discovers it exploding and melting down, all the generators cranked up to full are exploding the street lights and traffic lights and fridges and record players. Everything is erupting in cascades of flame and broken glass.

And everywhere are littered the pocket computers Olds had adapted to convey his messages and which now convey a demented sequence of birds and wishes of escape. Realising that Halloway never meant to keep his promise to teach him how to fly, and that Stillman is becoming a fascist, Olds has sabotaged the entire social experiment he was vital in creating.

Halloway jumps into a car and follows Stillman and his young thugs out to Olds’ base in the abandoned airport. There on the top of the ten-floor multi-story car park, they see Olds in antique flying mask making last minute adjustments to the glider Halloway flew into the city all those long months ago. He has installed a petrol-powered propeller engine to it and is preparing to take off.

Halloway follows, a neutral party, as Stillman and his thugs try to storm the car park, but Olds has barricaded the ramps upwards with a line of his beloved antique cars. Then, as Halloway watches, a tide of gasoline comes pouring down the concrete ramps and before Stillman and his thugs can move, Olds ignites it in an almighty WHOOMPF, the top of the car park goes up in flames as Halloway escapes down a stairwell.

From the ground he watches Olds propel the glider forward, over the edge of the car park, it swoops right down to the ground as if going to crash and then soars up up up into the sky, heading steadily westwards ‘across the continent’.

Halloway drives thoughtfully back into the centre of town. The last generators are sputtering to an end. The once-vibrant little quarter is derelict and burnt out. Halloway makes a decision. he will head west, He will follow Olds. He will track down the old man and his daughter. he will make amends and marry hr. he will find Olds. And Olds will teach him to fly.


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

Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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