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

Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings @ Serpentine Gallery

Work No. 003 by Emma Kunz Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 003 by Emma Kunz Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Emma Kunz (1892–1963) was a Swiss healer, researcher and artist.

Emma discovered her gifts for telepathy, prophecy and healing at an early age. She began to use her gifts at the age of 18, around the same time as she began drawing in exercise books.

Work No. 004 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 004 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

The drawings were intended to be visions of energy fields from which she could formulate diagnoses for the patients who began to visit her, seeking help for physical and mental ailments as her reputation as a psychic and healer spread.

From about 1938, when she was in her mid-forties, Emma began making the first large-scale drawings which she continued to produce for the rest of her life.

Work No. 011 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 011 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

She used a process she called ‘radiesthesia’. She would address a question to her divining pendulum and then record the way it swung, started and stopped onto large squares of graph paper. In this way she then converted the pendulum’s motions into meticulously worked-out and coloured-in geometric shapes, in which she discovered the answer to the original question she had posed.

Emma used mostly graphite and colour pencils, working intensely and continuously on each drawing for up to 24 hours. The lines of colouring-in are clearly visible in many of the works, much like the colouring-in of children in junior school.

She didn’t give any of the drawings titles, or date them, or go on record attributing any particular meaning to them. The numbers they now bear were attributed to them by art scholars after her death.

Work No. 012 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 012 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

The drawings were never displayed in Emma’s lifetime, indeed it is not certain that she regarded them as art works in the traditional way at all, but continued to think of them as tools to help with healing.

Geometric abstraction became a means for structuring and visualising her philosophical and scientific research which was not only rooted to her own times and the pursuit of her own restorative practices, but also for the future.

A selection of the drawings was only exhibited in her native Switzerland in 1973, some five years after her death.

This exhibition, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, is the first show devoted solely to Emma Kunz’s drawings to be held in the UK. It features over 60 of these calming, absorbing and intriguing works.

Work No. 013 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 013 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Interpretation

Emma considered the works an integral part of her approach to healing, and as emblems of her holistic worldview. As she explained:

Everything happens according to a certain regularity which I sense inside me and which never lets me rest.

The Serpentine curators agree with this spiritual interpretation. In their words:

Systematic yet expansive in their compositions, her ‘energy-field’ drawings simultaneously contain micro and macro perspectives of nature, chiming with current discourses on ecology, as well as a desire to forge meaningful connections with our environment.

AION A

Emma earned her living as a naturopath but also thought of herself as an explorer and experimenter with natural healing techniques. She made investigations into the healing properties of all manner of natural materials. She used her pendulum on the flowers in her garden which, as a result, bore unusual multiple flowerheads where single flowerheads would have been expected.

In 1941 Emma discovered in a grotto in the old Roman Quarry outside the Swiss town of Würenlos a marvellous healing rock. She gave it the name AION A. The word aion comes from the Greek and means ‘without limitation’.

Emma first demonstrated the healing power of AION A on a patient of hers, Anton C. Meier, who was seriously ill with infantile paralysis. After treatment with AION A Meier recovered, a cure Emma attributed to the rock’s ‘accumulated biodynamic energy’.

45 years later the Emma Kunz Centre was opened at the self-same Roman quarries in Würenlos. Patients can visit the centre to discover more about its healing practices and undergo cures. In 1991 a museum was opened to showcase some of Emma’s 400 drawings.

View of the Emma Kunz Centre in Würenlos, Switzerland

View of the Emma Kunz Centre in Würenlos, Switzerland

AION A, mined from the same quarry, is still sold in pharmacies in Switzerland and is used to treat a host of health issues from joint and muscular pain to inflammatory skin disorders.

I was surprised to find chunks of the rock, in attractive yellow boxes, on sale in the Serpentine Gallery shop, as well as a spray which also, apparently, captures AION A’s healing properties.

Christodoulos Panayiotou

Christodoulos Panayiotou (b.1978) is a contemporary artist hailing originally from Cyprus.

He has collaborated on a number of projects and installations at the Serpentine, and he had a major creative say in the design and hang of this exhibition.

For the most part the approach has been to hang the drawings sequentially on the Serpentine Gallery’s plain white walls. Each one exists in its own space, giving you plenty of scope to study and examine it.

But the plain, one-picture-at-a-time approach gives way in the gallery’s enormous central room to a completely different design. Here around 25 of the drawings have been piled up on the walls to create powerfully cumulative impression.

After spending some time in this big room, looking at individual works then stepping back to survey each wall as a composition, it struck me that this big, white space has the feel of a chapel. The arrangement of the works is loosely analogous to the altar of a baroque or orthodox church, packed with holy images climbing vertically up the wall and framed to left and right by secondary images of saints and apostles. Not directly similar, maybe – but that’s the kind of feel which the images, the peace and the air of reverence encourage: a mood of quiet devotion.

Installation view of Emma Kunz at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Emma Kunz at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Arguably Panayiotou’s main contribution to the exhibition is the stone benches. See the bench in the photo above (on the lower right)? It was shaped from stone from the AION A quarry in Switzerland. It is made from AION A. It has healing powers.

It was Panayiotou’s ideas to have these benches carved and located around the exhibition. Each of the gallery’s rooms has a bench in it. The gallery encourages you to sit on them and, while you are feasting your eyes and resting your soul looking at Emma’s hypnotic drawings, to let the AION A do its healing work on your body.

Variety

I found the single most impressive thing about the drawings was their variety.

A generic verbal description – geometric shapes on graph paper, decorated with coloured pencils – doesn’t do them any justice. In the flesh they display an impressive variety not only of design and pattern, but of resulting visual effect.

Work No. 307 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 307 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Some look like spirograph diagrams and please the part of the mind which likes simple, abstract patterns. Others are highly detailed mathematical diagrams which reward close attention to the way the shapes have been worked out to their logical conclusions.

Some feature what appear to be stylised human bodies – one appeared to contain a stylised man and woman, another contains about ten human forms reduced to geometric outlines and caught in a fiendishly complex web of lines.

Others contain uncanny optical illusions, drawing you into the depths of what part of your mind insists are only two-dimensional artefacts.

And all this is just to comment on the shapes, before you consider the colours, which are themselves very varied. Some contain plain washes, others more subtle gradations of colour; some are almost bereft of colour, others feel super colour-saturated. For me the variety of coloration was as surprising as the variety of pattern, and both were endlessly fascinating.

Conclusion

Whether Emma Kunz was a great spiritual healer, a true naturopath, and did make a significant contribution to human health by discovering AION A, I leave for others to decide.

But there’s no doubting that these lovely works, whatever the precise motivation to create them, are wonderfully attractive, calming, fascinating, varied and inspiring.

Emma Kunz at her working table, Waldstatt, 1958. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Emma Kunz at her working table, Waldstatt, 1958. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon (1930)

I invite you to travel in imagination through the aeons that lie between your age and mine. I ask you to watch such a history of change, grief, hope, and unforeseen catastrophe, as has nowhere else occurred, within the girdle of the Milky Way.

Last and First Men is a towering science fiction classic, a masterwork which influenced generations of later sci-fi writers.

No book before or since has ever had such an impact on my imagination. – Arthur C. Clarke

Stapledon’s literary imagination was almost boundless. – Jorge Luis Borges

There has been no writer remotely like Stapledon and there is no one like him now. – Doris Lessing

Stapledon was the future maker. – Stephen Baxter

The idea is that the current author (Stapledon)’s mind has been taken over by an inhabitant of the far, far, far distant future, who proceeds to tell us the epic ‘history’ of humanity from the present day to his present – two billion years hence!

The impact of the book doesn’t come from the psychological realism, from plot or character, because there is no plot as such, there are few if any named individuals, and these only make fleeting appearances.

No, the impact derives from the absolute vastness of the scale. The story doesn’t just move forward to one moment in the future and set a story in that time – as done by Wells or Zamyatin or Huxley or Orwell.

Instead it presents a continuous and comprehensive survey of all future history stretching from the present until 2 billion years in the future, tracking not only the rise and fall of different civilisations, but the rise and fall of different species of man himself, with all our evolutions and mutations so that, by the end of the book, humanity has evolved through eighteen species or iterations.

We’re not just talking about thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years – but aeons which cover millions of year.

During the first tenth of the first million years after the fall of the World State, during a hundred thousand years, man remained in complete eclipse…

In its final agony the planet was so seriously damaged that mind lay henceforth in deep slumber for ten more millions of years…

For millions of years the planet would be uninhabitable save for a fringe of Siberian coast. The human race was doomed for ages to a very restricted and uncongenial environment…

Not till after millions of years did the bulk of the planet become once more a possible home for life…

The human beings in Asia remained a mere handful throughout the ten million years of the Second Dark Age…

It was some ten million years after the Patagonian disaster that the first elements of a few human species appeared, in an epidemic of biological variations…

And so on, and so on. It’s as if you and I, used to running a household budget and fretting about £5 here and £2.50 there, were suddenly introduced into a circle of millionaires who casually talk about throwing a few hundred grand on a new car, buying a Mayfair apartment for two mill, maybe investing a couple of mill in a start-up company. The effect is dizzying, mind-blowing.

The creation of a World State, largely under American domination, in the first thirty pages or so of the story – the kind of thing which H.G. Wells devoted entire books to – is just a warming-up exercise, which covers a mere four thousand years. Pah! Chicken feed!

The end of the First Men

After four thousand happy years the civilisation of the First Men comes to an end when the coal which fuels it runs out. As shortages and power cuts come in, the culture is kept going by rumours of an alternative power source, but when these are finally revealed as fake, civilisation collapses.

Dismay and rage spread over the planet. Everywhere the people rose against the scientists, amid against the governing authority which they controlled. Massacres and measures of retaliation soon developed into civil wars. China and India declared themselves free national states, but could not achieve internal unity. In America, ever a stronghold of science and religion, the Government maintained its authority for a while; but as its seat became less secure, its methods became more ruthless. Finally it made the mistake of using not merely poison gas, but microbes; and such was the decayed state of medical science that no one could invent a means of restraining their ravages. The whole American continent succumbed to a plague of pulmonary and nervous diseases. The ancient ‘American Madness’, which long ago had been used against China, now devastated America. The great stations of waterpower and windpower were wrecked by lunatic mobs who sought vengeance upon anything associated with authority. Whole populations vanished in an orgy of cannibalism.

This is a good example of the incredibly sweeping, broad brush, generalised way in which this whole future history is told. The narrative features few if any individuals. Instead, Stapledon is concerned only with the highest-level account of the rise and fall of races and societies and cultures. Whole nations are crushed, entire continents sink under the seas, whole species are exterminated.

All this age-long sequence of private living, which is the actual tissue of humanity’s flesh, I cannot describe. I can only trace, as it were, the disembodied form of its growth.

The Dark Age

After America, China, Africa are laid waste, humans descend into a new dark age which lasts for thousands of years. As post-apocalyptic savages always do in this kind of story, the survivors live in superstitious fear of the relics of the Old Ones – in this instance, amid the wrecks of their huge three-mile high skyscrapers – and make up feverish myths and legends about their superhuman powers.

The rise of Patagonia Slowly an organised civilisation arises in Patagonia, partly because of land mass changes which link it to Antarctica. But it is deprived of coal or oil or any of the easily smeltable metals like iron or copper, which the World State had used up.

Stapledon is always more interested in ‘religion’ of these future cultures than in their economics or technology, so he gives Patagonia a religion of ‘the Divine Boy’ who never grows up, an exception to the rule that the new Patagonians age quickly, are middle-aged by 20. Stapleton even gives us a couple of scenes from the life of the actual Divine Boy, who desecrates the temple of their existing god, makes a grand speech, then is led away by the howling mob and executed.

Apocalypse Over hundreds of years Patagonians build themselves up to a renaissance-level of technology and science. But then they discover lost writings in a Chinese tomb which make it clear that all this and much more had been achieved by the World State civilisation long ago. Patagonian society splits in two, some not believing the revelations, some crushed and depressed by them.

The Patagonians achieve industrialisation. A proletariat is created. A hereditary managerial class arises. After four hundred years of this, atomic energy is discovered. But instead of using it to help the poor, it is used to drill deeper into the earth’s core to find the rare metals. This results in increased work and suffering for the proles who, as a result, rise up in protest. Some get hold of one of the new power machines, tamper with it, and it explodes.

It sets off a chain reaction which flashes along veins of the (unnamed) metallic element which is the basis of the technology, and so a vast chain of explosions travels up the Andes, up the Rockies, across the Bering Strait, down to the Himalayas, through the Caucasus to the Alps, turning entire continents into seas of volcanic magma, turning the sky thick with steam and ash, so that:

Of the two hundred million members of the human race, all were burnt or roasted or suffocated within three months – all but thirty-five, who happened to be in the neighbourhood of the North Pole.

Twenty-eight men and seven women – of whom six men and two women are lost when they sail south to discover Britain blasted and France an inferno of volcanoes spewing out molten lava. The entire planet has become uninhabitable. Almost all existing flora and fauna have been exterminated. All subsequent human species are descendants of this minuscule band of survivors.

The new Dark Age

lasts ten million years, during which the continents change and re-arrange – Europe sinks under the Atlantic, Africa is joined to South America, Australia and SE Asia become one – new plants and trees, new mammals and insects emerge. Early in the existence of the first colony it had divided, half remaining on the north coast of Siberia, hemmed in by volcanoes, but developing a strong, healthy culture. The other half set off to see if they could find human survivors elsewhere, never did, and were washed ashore in sultry Labrador, where they degenerated into a more beast-like species.

The Second Men

But all this is just the adventure of the First Men – there are to be seventeen further iterations of the human race – the Second Man who are giants who live to be 300, who develop genetic engineering and are about to begin perfecting the species when…. The Martians invade, the Martians turning out to be fogs of bacteria which can coalesce into ‘clouds’ which have intelligence and purpose.

For fifty thousand years (the time periods keep escalating, producing an increasingly dizzying, vertiginous sense in the reader) the Martians return to earth again and again, causing mayhem and each time are defeated by the Third Men who use electric weapons which create a kind of lightning bolt to disintegrate the Martian clouds. But the Martians’ dying bodies leave behind alien contaminants which spread fatal pulmonary diseases, decimating the Second Men.

It is very typical of Stapledon that he not only goes to great lengths to explain the Martians’s physical being – individual cells which can congregate into unified beings with a kind of group consciousness – but to be very interested in their religion. The Martians, being soft and small and amorphous themselves, have developed a cult or religion of hardness. Having identified diamonds as one of the hardest objects in the universe, on their rampages across earth, the Martians seek out and rescue diamonds wherever they find them, in order to place them in high places where they can be worshipped. And where the Second Men discover them, finally realising that the Martians are ‘intelligent’ life forms, not just purposeless clouds of germs.

Finally, the Martians settle and colonise Antarctica (much warmer than in our day and directly linked to South Africa) and the two species live uneasily side by side on the same planet. Until a Second Man discovers a virus so virulent that it will wipe the Martians out, but probably most humans too. The Second Men are so demoralised by failure to defeat the Martians, as well as by strange viruses which have infected them, that they accept the risk, unleash the virus, wipe out the Martians but also almost entirely exterminate humanity.

The Third Men

Once again there is a vast long dark age. Slowly arise a new species, the Third Men, short, brown-skinned with golden eyes and a cat-like presence, with six fingers. They are interested in music, create a musical religion, consider the universe a great dance to music and, once they have reached a level of technical civilisation, become interested in redesigning living organisms.

The Fourth Men

Hence the Fourth Men. After thousands of years of experimentation, the Third Men create giant brains, which occupy multiple rooms and floors. More and more of them till there are thousands, some deep in the oceans, some in the stratosphere, some at the poles, investigating the secrets of the universe. But the Fourth Men’s intellectual pursuits are stymied when they eventually realise (after the usual millions of years) that there is a limit to purely rational enquiry and that the mysteries of life also owe something to having a physical body, being able to move, having emotions and so on.

The Fifth Men

So now the big brains of the Fourth Men experiment on the humble Third Men – who had been reduced virtually to slaves – in order to create a new breed which will combine the big brains with perfected human attributes. They breed the Fifth Men, twice as tall as us, with additional fingers and thumbs. As you might expect this new super-fit,. super-clever race eventually (after millions of years) comes into conflict with their makers, a war erupts, and the Fifth Men overthrow the big brains.

They rise and thrive and then discover to their horror that the moon’s orbit is decaying. At some point the moon will fall into the earth and destroy it. There are all kinds of reactions, scientific and psychological, to this knowledge, but the wise among them begin making plans to move planet. To Venus.

Voyage to Venus

Venus is second closest to sun, stiflingly hot, torn between a stiflingly hot day and freezing night and, when probes first arrive they discover it is almost all covered in liquid. The Fifth Men devote all their ingenuity to ‘terraforming’ it, removing as much hydrogen as possible from the atmosphere, breeding plants which will survive these conditions and produce oxygen to try and produce a sort of earth-like existence.

But there’s another problem. There turns out to be intelligent life on Venus, dolphin-like creatures which swim in the depths of the endless oceans and don’t like their planet being remade. They retaliate by sending bombs up through the oceans to blow up terran ships, probes, colonies. After all attempts to communicate fail, the Fifth Men have no alternative but to embark on a war of extermination against the Venusians, which succeeds but, as so often in the story, leaves the ‘victorious’ humans with an abiding sense of guilt.

The Sixth Men

Eventually the entire population of Fifth Men, and all the plants and animals worth saving, are transferred from earth to Venus. But the newcomers do not thrive. The conditions are too harsh. Over millions of years a new race emerges, the Sixth Men, stunted dwellers on isolated islands, grubbing for roots among the jungles of flora which have managed to grow on Venus. An entire variation takes to the huge oceans and, over time, develops into a seal-like creature, with mermaid tails. But they eat flesh. And eventually the two species become enemies, both seeking to catch and eat samples of the other, whenever possible.

The Seventh Men

Millions of years pass. Land masses arise on Venus. Populations spread, breed, branch out. Eventually there emerges a new dominant species, the Seventh Men, who can fly. Soaring aloft they create myths and legends of their own, in which flight is the meaning of life, and alighting on land is sadness and woe.

However, over the years they lose touch with the old science, and are also faced with a blight caused by some chemical content of Venusian water.

Now, a certain percentage of their race had always been born without the ability to fly. Previously the Seventh Men had kindly killed these mutants. Now the Seventh Men take the (disastrous) decision to deliberately foster the cleverest of these ‘mutants’, these land dwellers, in order to create a cohort of scientists intelligent enough to combat the water blight. Except that… The mutants – the Eighth Men – do become cleverer than the flyers and grow to resent them.

The mutants breed and slowly take control of the less clever flyers, who they clip and pen up and limit their flying time such that the avian species slowly loses their will to live. Eventually the entire flying population, of its own volition, flies west and immolates itself in a live volcano.

The Ninth Men and beyond…

And we’re not even half way through the eighteen avatars yet! I haven’t got to the part where the threat of a destructive cloud forces the Eighth Men to move planet once more, by ‘ether-vessel’, this time to Neptune, where conditions are so utterly unlike Venus – mainly the crushing gravity – that the Eighth Men have to design and engineer an entirely new type of creature – the Ninth Men, who will make the migration. And then the hundreds of millions of years of man’s  further evolution on Neptune.

Or, as Stapledon puts it, with his typical sober, serious, mind-boggling manner:

We have watched the fortunes of eight successive human species for a thousand million years, the first half of that flicker which is the duration of man. Ten more species now succeed one another, or are contemporary, on the plains of Neptune. We, the Last Men, are the Eighteenth Men. Of the eight pre-Neptunian species, some, as we have seen, remained always primitive; many achieved at least a confused and fleeting civilization, and one, the brilliant Fifth, was already wakening into true humanity when misfortune crushed it. The ten Neptunian species show an even greater diversity. They range from the instinctive animal to modes of consciousness never before attained. The definitely sub-human degenerate types are confined mostly to the first six hundred million years of man’s sojourn on Neptune. During the earlier half of this long phase of preparation, man, at first almost crushed out of existence by a hostile environment, gradually peopled the huge north; but with beasts, not men. For man, as man, no longer existed. During the latter half of the preparatory six hundred million years, the human spirit gradually awoke again, to undergo the fluctuating advance and decline characteristic of the pre-Neptunian ages. But subsequently, in the last four hundred million years of his career on Neptune, man has made an almost steady progress toward full spiritual maturity.

Multiple scenarios

It is not only the almost inconceivable scale of the narrative. It is also that the scale allows Stapledon to explore or experiment or play with whole civilisation-level storylines. Flying humans, aquatic humans, nuclear apocalypse, alien invasion, terraforming other plants, the moon falling into the earth, a flying gas cloud which destroys planets, the creation of artificially massive brains, telepathy, transporting minds back into the deep past – the book is a compendium, a treasure trove of plots and ideas which other writers could mine and explore.

Teleology

Underpinning the huge story is a scientific or biological flaw. Stapledon believes that, time after time, human nature will out. No matter how massacred, no matter how degraded or polluted or redesigned or mutated or evolved, Stapledon believes there is a fundamental unchangeable ‘human spirit’ and that this will always resurface, no matter what.

He criticises the Eighth Men for not having had faith enough in this unstoppable reappearance of ‘human nature’ to have designed the Ninth Men to be primitive, dwarvish thugs – as the conditions on Neptune required – and having the confidence that “man” would sooner or later rise again.

They should have trusted that if once this crude seed could take root, natural forces themselves would in time conjure from it something more human.

‘Natural forces’? Beneath the entire vast narrative is the assumption that there is a fundamental human nature, a triumph of the mind and of the human spirit, which always results in the same kind of civilisation, of self-awareness, technology, reason, the spirit of scientific enquiry. Thus humans may evolve into mermen or flying wombats or rabbit-shaped beings (on Neptune) but underpinning the whole vast fireworks display is the assumption that, given enough millions of years, all these shapes will revert to a roughly human shape (two arms, two legs), walking upright, and with a human type brain which always, in the end, comes round to creating a similar-sounding civilisation, with peaceful communities, great architecture, poetry and philosophy and so on.

This is to suppose that the whole universe is somehow geared to producing ‘mind’, mentation, intellect, soul, spirit and all the rest of it.

Why? There’s no evidence it is. All the evidence is stacked against it. The universe is overwhelmingly full of non-mind, in fact packed out with non-life. There is no God. There is no plan. Nothing is fore-ordained. If humanity is wiped out then billions of other species will truck along quite happily without us, as will planet earth, all the other planets and the rest of the universe.

The book is underpinned by this tremendously optimistic belief in the triumph of human nature, against all odds, perils and mutation, which is very much of its times. The structure of DNA was only discovered 23 years later, in 1953, and the full implications of the evolutionary genetics are, in a sense, still percolating through our culture.

In Stapledon’s time, of course evolution was known about and central to any intelligent person’s thinking; but because the precise mechanism of mutation and variation wasn’t understood it was still possible to think in vague terms of some spirit or mind or some other numinous driving force which shaped and directed evolution. That it had a goal or purpose or aim.

80 years later we are much more realistic and disillusioned. We know that random mutations occur all the time in everyone’s DNA, most are harmless, a lot can be corrected by the body’s defence mechanisms, some persist and result in the numerous cancers we are prone to. The existing genepool is shuffled when sperm meets egg. Every new individual is a genetic experiment.

The advent of ‘mind’, or at least the kind of mind Stapledon is thinking of, has occurred only on one remote twig of the vast bush of life forms and not at all, or not in any form we can recognise, in any of the trillions of other life forms which have or currently do exist.

Which is why Last and First Men is not only a science fiction classic in its own terms, but also a testament to an era of cultural optimism, a period of confidence and anticipation. Lost forever after the Nazis, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the countless other blows which humans have administered to our amour-propre.

Last and First Men – structure

Chapter 1 Balkan Europe
1 The European war and after
2 The Anglo-French war
3 Europe after the Anglo-French war
4 the Russo-German war

Chapter 2 Europe’s downfall
1 Europe and America
2 The origins of a mystery
3 Europe murdered

Chapter 3 America and China
1 The rivals
2 The conflict
3 On an island in the Pacific

Chapter 4 An Americanised planet
1 The foundation of the first World State
2 The dominance of science
3 Material achievement
4 The culture of the first World State
5 Downfall

Chapter 5 The fall of the First Men
1 The first Dark Age
2 The rise of Patagonia
3 The cult of youth
4 The catastrophe

Chapter 6 Transition
1 the First Men at bay
2 The second Dark Age

Chapter 7 The rise of the Second Men
1 The appearance of a new species
2 The intercourse of three species
3 The zenith of the Second Man

Chapter 8 The Martians
1 The first Martian invasion
2 Life on Mars
3 The Martian mind
4 Delusions of the Martians

Chapter 9 Earth and Mars
1 The Second Men at bay
2 The ruin of two worlds

Chapter 10 The Third Men in the wilderness
1 The Third human species
2 Digressions of the Third Men
3 The vital art
4 Conflicting policies

Chapter 11 Man remakes himself
1 The first of the great brains
2 The tragedy of the Fourth Men
3 The Fifth Men
4 The culture of the Fifth Men

Chapter 12 The last terrestrials
1 The cult of evanescence
2 Exploration of time
3 Voyaging in space
4 Preparing a new world

Chapter 13 Humanity on Venus
1 Taking root again
2 The flying men
3 A minor astronomical event

Chapter 14 Neptune
1 Bird’s-eye view
2 Da capo
3 Slow conquest

Chapter 15 The Last Men
1 Introduction to the last human species
2 Childhood and maturity
3 A racial awakening
4 Cosmology

Chapter 16 The last of man
1 Sentence of death
2 Behaviour of the condemned
3 Epilogue


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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
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
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

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

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