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.


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…


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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’

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

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

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

Octopussy by Ian Fleming (1966)

There are two collections of James Bond short stories – Quantum of Solace published in 1960 containing five stories – and Octopussy and The Living Daylights containing just those two stories and published in June 1966. When the paperback edition of the latter was published in 1967 another story, The Property of a Lady, was added; and the short sketch, 007 in New York, was added to the Penguin paperback edition in 2002.

1. The Living Daylights

(32 pages) First published in The Sunday Times colour supplement in February 1962.

The barbed wire fence which would evolve into the Berlin Wall was only erected in August 1961. This story a) comes from the period before there was any physical barrier between East and West, b) is the only Bond story set anywhere near the Eastern bloc.

Agent 272 has a been a long-term sleeper inside the Soviet Union. He has accumulated a wealth of information about their atomic missile programme. Now he’s trying to escape and he’s made it as far as East Berlin. He radioed a ciphered message saying exactly where he will run across the line from East to West Berlin on one of the following three evenings. However, the message was intercepted by the Russkies, who have sent their top sharp-shooter, codenamed ‘Trigger’, to be ready & waiting to kill 272 as he makes the crossing.

MI6 know about the message interception, and so have sent Bond to kill ‘Trigger’ before ‘Trigger’ can shoot 272.

So Bond undergoes a few hours intense target practice with a state-of-the-art sniper rifle at a military firing range at Bisley, before driving to London airport and flying to Berlin.

Tired, he is taken by a Foreign Office minder, Sender, to a service flat overlooking the wasteland between the Russian and Western zones (where the Berlin Wall would eventually be built) and here makes a base. The rifle he’ll use can be set up on a stand and Bond can lie on the mattress of a bed set against the window, which is almost completely covered by curtain, so that just the rifle barrel pokes out.

Sender explains that ‘Trigger’ will almost certainly be based in a big, new, concrete block for East German officials which is off to one side of the waste land – hence the rental of this derelict flat and the orientation of the window, and so on, to give Bond good sight over the ‘killing zone’ but also up into the Russian building.

Over the next three days, Bond spends the daylight hours ambling aimlessly round Berlin (which he doesn’t like very much) making sure he is back in the flat ready for the 5pm set-up and for the expected crossing time around 6pm. Two nights in a row he gets tense and hot in his blackout clothes, finger on the trigger, scanning the windows of the big Russian building – but nothing happens.

However, during these trial runs he notices something. Every day a Russian women’s orchestra troops into the Russian building and spends a couple of hours rehearsing. Bond realises that, among all the musicians, the cello player’s cello case is suspiciously light, too easily swung and carried. The woman carrying it is an attractive, vivacious blonde, smiling and joking with her fellow players. Slowly Bond forms the conviction that she may be ‘Trigger’.

On the third evening Bond is all set to go when Sender jumps to life and says he can see through his binoculars a man in the shadows on the other side – must be 272. And, yes, Bond sees a gun barrel being poked out of one of the windows of the Russian building. Bond uses his powerful telescopic sight to zero right in on the protruding gun barrel, as Sender gives him a running commentary of how our man is approaching the wide open stretch of floodlit ground where the dash for safety will take place.

With a last minute look round, 272 makes a break for it, running into the illuminated strip of land. At the same moment Bond sees in his scope a blonde head move forwards over the enemy gun. He hesitates a fraction of a second, allowing ‘Trigger’ to get off a burst from her Kalashnikov, then fires one well-aimed sniper bullet. It hits the enemy gun and sends it spinning out the window to the ground. Bond tells Sender to duck and a fusillade of bullets pours through their window. But 272 is safely across and into the waiting Opal car kept revved up by a British Army corporal, which now speeds off.

Sender and Bond crawl into the relative safety of the windowless kitchen where Sender tells Bond off, saying he will have to report that he hesitated, and then did not kill ‘Trigger’ as ordered. That hesitation could have led to 272’s death!

Bond considers lying but then tells the truth. He had developed a fellow feeling for this beautiful woman, who is his mirror image – also a paid assassin. His shot a) disabled her gun b) probably broke her hand or even arm. And she will be severely punished by the KGB for her failure. It is enough.

Bond is sick of killing. Send your message to my boss, he tells Sender. Maybe it will get me out of the wretched 007 section and into a nice cushy desk job.


The waiting for someone to cross the neutral zone is reminiscent of the opening of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Bond’s malaise, sick of killing, reflects the illness and depression which afflicted Fleming at the end of his life.

2. The Property of a Lady

(42 pages) First published in The Ivory Hammer (Sotheby’s annual) in November 1963.

Significant that it was published in the Sotheby’s annual since this the whole story is an advert of sorts for the famous auctioneer’s. A valuable Fabergé egg worth anything up to £100,000 has been given to Sotheby’s to auction. It is given as ‘the property of a lady’ but M explains to Bond that it’s actually been put up by one of their own MI6 staff, a certain Miss Freudenstein. Miss F is in fact a double agent working for the KGB. We learned this after she had been hired but before she took up her post, and so MI6 created a special section just for her, the ‘Purple Cipher’ department, which handles worthless information mixed with occasional nuggets of disinformation. For three years Miss F has been cunningly passing secrets to the KGB which are not secrets at all.

Now she has come into possession of the egg, apparently legitimately. An expert who works with Her majesty’s Customs says a parcel insured for £100,000 was stopped by Customs and opened. it contained the egg along with validating documents showing that is had been in Miss F’s family since before the revolution. On the death of her mother, it is being willed to Miss F.

M explains this is probably a legitimate way of rewarding Miss F’s devotion to duty without the messiness of bank accounts. The egg will be sold for a fortune, and thus some ‘capitalist’ collector will be in effect paying a KGB spy. Very droll.

Bond has an idea: the KGB will probably send along to the auction an ‘underbidder’, someone who is paid to make the running on an expensive lot, and push it to the maximum before abandoning the chase just in time. In all probability the ‘underbidder’ at the egg auction will be the KGB’s Resident in London.

So Bond organises for a photographer and other officials to attend the auction and identify their man. Sure enough, after the opening salvoes, the bidding settles down into a battle between someone invisible in the crowd and the very cultured and helpful Fabergé expert, Mr Snowman, who works for the firm. The ‘underbidder’ pushes it all the way to £155,000 then quits. The photographer and Bond both get a view of the stocky, anonymous figure who did the bidding. Outside Bond jumps in an MI5 taxi and tells it to follow the stocky man’s.

Sure enough Mr Stocky’s car turns into Kensington Palace Gardens and he enters the Russian embassy. Bond’s scheme has ensured he will be identified as the Soviets’ Resident in London and expelled. A small victory in the endless chess game of the Cold War.


I was expecting a clever reverse or unexpected twist – which never came. Maybe Fleming wrote it as a favour or special commission and the real point was to flatter Sothebys.

3. Octopussy

(44 pages) Posthumously serialised in The Daily Express from the 4th to the 8th October 1965.

I think this is Fleming’s second best short story after Quantum of Solace and, seeing as that was a deliberate pastiche of Somerset Maugham, maybe this is the best. It combines a number of Bond themes: it’s set in Jamaica (as so many of his stories); there’s skin diving and the beauty of the undersea world; there’s Bond’s stern, almost Puritanical, sense of duty; and, by complete contrast, Fleming’s feel for the Alps and mountains which he got to know so well as a young man.

What’s missing is sex, gadgets or an overblown baddy. For once a Fleming fiction is a realistic portrait of the failings of human nature.

Major Dexter Smythe was a fine figure of a man during the war in the latter part of which he commanded an Intelligence section. Now he is 54, fat, drinks and smokes too heavily and has had two heart attacks. He is, in other words, something of a self-portrait of Fleming himself, who had a dashing war but by the early 1960s was in failing health.

Since Smythe’s wife died he has let himself go and now only barely manages to stay alive with the help of numerous pills. One of his last pleasures is patrolling the acre or so of foreshore off his beach-front house, where he puts on a snorkel and enjoys feeding the fish and other fauna on the reef. Recently he has been trying to tame an octopus – feebly nicknamed ‘Octopussy’ – who has a home in a certain part of the reef, and is interested in conducting a little experiment – he wants to see how the octopus will react if he offers it a scorpion fish, one of the most poisonous fish in the world.

However, his world has just been turned upside down, because that morning a man from London, a man named James Bond paid him a call. Bond coldly and officially told him that the authorities have uncovered the full story of his wartime crime. The body has been found and the bullets identified as coming from his gun.

As the pair of chaps politely sip their drinks, Smythe slips into a flashback which dominates the rest of the narrative. He begins to explain the situation at the end of the war, and his role of visiting German command bases with a mission to confiscating all their paperwork, assessing it and sending it back to London. Mostly boring, until he found one sheet among thousands, which seemed to refer to hidden Nazi gold.

Smythe pinpointed the location of the stash in a climber’s hut up a nearby mountain, checked the location on Army maps, then burned the incriminating document. He made some casual enquiries and got the name of a local mountain guide, one Herr Oberhauser. Smythe drives out to Oberhauser’s hillside house and terrorises him into accompanying him up the mountain.

It was a tough five hour hike, described by Fleming in gritty detail, but they eventually reached the hut and found the cairn of rocks indicated in the document. At which point Smythe cold-bloodedly shot Oberhauser in the back, threw his body into a crevasse, and dismantled the cairn to find an old ammunition box containing two huge bars of Nazi gold. He lugs it down off the mountain – again described in gruelling detail – and hides it in some woods. Back to base, shower and a deep sleep. Next morning Smythe is up with his unit and travelling on to the next base.

Six months later, well after the end of the war, Smythe returns, find the stash in the forest, and uses his security clearance to fly several times back and forth from Germany to England – with a gold bar each time in his suitcase.

Smythe then he met and married a pretty, middle-class gel, Mary, and told her they were moving to Jamaica. Here he rented a desirable property and made enquiries, quickly discovering that the most powerful underworld figures were a couple of Chinese brothers, the Foos, in Kingston. He approaches them with the bars and they agree to dispose of them for a 10% commission.

And from that day to the present Smythe has lived a merry life – no work, golf all day or skin diving, bridge at the club or dinner parties in the evening. But he has gone to seed. In fact it was his heavy drinking that set Mary against him, nagging him to stop until he took to hiding bottles and lying about them, and then everything else. Finally, Mary made a ‘cry for help’ overdose which actually resulted in her dying – since when he hasn’t cared about anything.

And now this man Bond arrives with his accusations. ‘How did you know?’ Smythe asks. Bond explains: The glacier has given up the dead body of the Oberhauser, along with his identity papers. The bullet holes in the skull made the cause of death obvious. His family identified the British officer he left with, all those years ago. The trail led to the Foo Brothers who have admitted their role in disposing of the gold. It is a cut-and-dried case.

We realise the flashback narrative we’ve just read was also Smythe telling Bond the true story. Confessing. Bond stands; the interview is at an end. He says the police will be here to arrest him in a week at most and prepares to leave. ‘Yes, but why do you care, why are you here?’ Smythe asks him, puzzled.

James Bond looked Major Smythe squarely in the eyes. ‘It just so happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father figure to me at a time when I happened to need one.’ (p.44)

What can Smythe say. Bond looks at him with contempt, and departs.

And so Smythe has a few more stiff drinks, slips on his diving mask and goes out into the sea in search of a scorpion fish to tempt his ‘Octopussy’ with. And sure enough he finds one, with its odd ‘eyebrows’ hanging over its glaring red eyes, and the spine of venomous quills rising from its back. As he goes to spear it, the fish darts up and under Smythe’s stomach and then off into a crevice in the reef. But Smythe spears it a second time and wades out of the sea holding his trophy aloft. Only when he sits on a rock on the beach does he realise there’s a numb patch on his stomach. Christ, the bloody scorpion fish must have stung him with is poisonous barbs! He knows from the books that he could be saved by anti-histamines and antibiotics, but the nearest doctor is an hour away. And he knows he has just fifteen minutes to live.

Smythe pulls on the mask, determined to continue his silly experiment and wades back out into the reef with the dead scorpion fish on his spear. He arrives at the Octopussy’s grotto, but is delirious with pain by now. ‘Octopussy, octopussy, look what I’ve brought for you,’ and he feebly jabs the dead fish at the octopus. But Octopussy recognises a real feast when she sees one and darts out a tentacle which grips Smythe’s arm. And then another tentacle. And, as Smythe screams into his mask, the octopus’s other tentacles close around him, pulling him into range, and the creature’s big sharp beak starts to bite!


What sets the story apart is the sense of gnawing guilt for his wartime crime which both made and ruined Smythe. He is no typical Bond baddy, no garish ogre. He is an all-too-fallible human being. The gruesome climax of the story has all the elements of the sadistic and macabre which Bond fans could want – but it is the surprising psychological power of Smythe’s wartime narrative which lingers in the memory.


Octopussy and The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming was published in June 1966 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1985 Panther paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1966

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

To Catch A Spy edited by Eric Ambler (1964)

Seven short stories about spies, selected and with a genial introduction by Eric Ambler, who gives a useful summary of the spy genre from the turn of the century up to the early 1960s:

  • the late-19th century background of Sherlock Holmes/Rider Haggard popular adventure yarns
  • then suddenly the first classic spy novel, The Riddle of The Sands (1903)
  • the unexpected and not at all thriller-ish The Secret Agent (1907) by literary novelist Joseph Conrad
  • a flood of popular spy novels by the prolific William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • then the sequence of five Richard Hanny novels by John Buchan (1915-1936) raising the tone
  • overlapping with the proto-fascist Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’
  • the standout early spy novel of them all, Ashenden (1928) by Somerset Maugham
  • the comic spy novel The Three Couriers by Compton Mackenzie
  • then Graham Greene’s secret agent novels of the 1930s – A Gun For Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear
  • overlapping with Ambler’s own six great thrillers set in the murky eastern Europe of the late 1930s
  • the hiatus of the war
  • then the explosive rise of Ian Fleming (first Bond novel 1953)

Writing in the early 1960s Ambler is unaware that the release of the early Bond movies (Dr No, From Russia With Love) would spark a spy boom, including Len Deighton’s fabulous Ipcress File novels (1962-67), the comic strip adventures of freelance agent Modesty Blaise (1965), the Quiller spy novels of Adam Hall (debut 1965), the ‘agent’ novels of Alistair MacLean, the arrival on the scene of Desmond Bagley who wrote spy novels in the early 1970s, and the most enduringly successful of English spy novelists, John le Carré (first novel 1961). Many of these novels were filmed very soon after publication to create a tidal wave of spy books and movies throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Spies went from being a minority pulp interest to becoming big money literary and Hollywood genres.

Ambler is no scholar but you can’t fault his opinions:

  • The Riddle of the Sands ‘one of the finest books about small sailing-craft ever written.’
  • ‘Although, on the whole, Buchan’s spy stories achieved a higher level of reality than those of Oppenheim, and were certainly better written, they had peculiar defects. His spy-heroes were mostly hunting-shooting-fishing men who went about their work with a solemn, manly innocence which could lapse into stupidity.’
  • Ashenden ‘is the first fictional work on the subject by a writer of some stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about.’

The short stories

The Loathly Opposite by John Buchan (21 pages) Buchan’s pukka heroes – Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot and others – are sitting round jawing when one of them, Pugh, remembers his World War I work supervising codebreakers who struggled to crack the work of one particularly fiendish German coder and how, years later, recovering from war nerves, it turns out the mild-mannered German doctor treating him at a sanatorium is one and the same coder. Well, well.

Giulia Lazzari by Somerset Maugham (56 pages) One of the short stories which make up Maugham’s masterpiece, Ashenden (1928). In his frigid, well-mannered prose the narrator describes being given a mission by his controller, R. A dangerous Indian nationalist and terrorist, Chandra Lal, has fallen (improbably) in love with a travelling Italian entertainer-cum-prostitute who performs as an ‘exotic’ Spanish dancer, known as Giulia Lazzari. She’s been arrested in England and is being sent under guard to the French border with Switzerland because Chandra is in Switzerland.

Ashenden’s mission is to keep her under arrest and coerce her into persuading her lover, Chandra, to cross the border into France where he can be quickly arrested by the authorities, who can’t touch him in neutral Switzerland. Ashenden politely but implacably wears Guilia down until she consents to write the fateful letters asking her lover to join her. The whole affair ends squalidly when, cornered in a waiting room of the ferry by which he’s crossed the lake into France, Chandra swallows poison and dies immediately. As promised, Ashenden gives the broken Giulia the papers she requires to travel to Spain, and feels degraded.

The First Courier by Sir Compton Mackenzie (79 pages) Broad good-natured comedy. Year two of the Great War and Roger Waterlow is a naval officer, fed up with acting as intelligence officer in an unnamed boiling hot city (unnamed but obviously in Greece). He has a fat incompetent number two, a dodgy Cockney driver, a boss (Captain X) back in London who ignores his pleas to be transferred, and a clutch of comedy French diplomats to deal with.

Just as remarkable as the many genuinely amusing comic scenes, is Mackenzie’s often weirdly  convoluted prose, which maybe explains why he’s so little read today.

His own reward would be the Légion d’Honneur, the scarlet ribbon of which would seem to a little man so fond of dark habiliments and obscure subterranean trafficking a whole world of vivid colour. (1984 Bodley Head large print edition p.124)

The French Naval Attaché waved cordially to Waterlow as he mounted his car where, so full of nervous energy was he in repose, he seemed to flutter in the hot breeze like the spruce little tricolour on the bonnet, himself in that huge Packard like the flag a miniature emblem of his country. (p.130)

I Spy by Graham Greene (5 pages) A young boy sneaks down into his father’s tobacconist’s shop after dark to nick a packet of cigarettes and smoke a crafty fag. Approaching footsteps make him hide under the till from where he hears the conversation between his father and two official-seeming men, as his father scoops ups some packets and grabs his coat before going away with them. He appears to have overheard his father being arrested by police… Only a spy story in the broadest sense of the word ‘spy’, in which almost anyone overhearing anyone else hidden in a closet could be said to be ‘spying’.

Although famous for the variety of exotic locations for his fiction, I’m not the first to point out that Greene’s mind and imagination were often very mundane and humdrum.

Belgrade 1926 by Eric Ambler (31 pages) A chapter from The Mask of Dimitrios, which many consider Ambler’s best novel from the six he wrote before World War II, considered by most critics to be his finest period. It is an episodic novel about a writer’s quest to track down a legendary criminal, Dimitrios, which takes him across Europe to meet various people who knew Dimitrios and who describe key episodes from his life – hence the text is so easy to divide into sections.

In this excerpt the writer, Charles Latimer, writes to his Greek informant describing a long encounter with ‘G’, a spymaster in Eastern Europe, now based in Geneva. Working for Italy, G organises a scam to blackmail an official in the Defence Ministry in Belgrade to bring him charts of the marine minefields Yugoslavia is laying down in the Adriatic. G hires Dimitrios to act the part of playboy, and between them they flatter the clerk and his wife with high living and promises of big jobs until they lure them into a casino, where they arrange for them to lose a fortune. Thus, in fear of being exposed, of losing his job and going to prison for debt, the clerk is persuaded to steal the charts for a night and bring them to Dimitrios who will photograph them.

The clerk brings the charts, alright but unfortunately Dimitrios double crosses G, demands the photos of the charts at gunpoint, before going off to sell them to the French embassy. G has no choice but to inform the Yugoslav authorities, who promptly change their minefield arrangements, arrest the clerk and sentence him to life imprisonment. Dimitrios disappears. G concludes his business and leaves town.

You can see how, in Ambler’s hands, the spy story is more about betrayal and double crossing than glamorous adventures. That is how he made his name, moving the genre decisively away from the schoolboy heroics and naive patriotism of Buchan and Sapper into the amoral modern world – where it has firmly stayed ever since.

From A View To A Kill by Ian Fleming (40 pages) A motorcycle courier riding from NATO to SHAPE headquarters is assassinated by an identically-dressed motorbike courier, who takes the wallet full of battle plans and disappears. James Bond is staying overnight in Paris en route back to London from a bodged job in Hungary. He is ordered into going along to SHAPE HQ to help out the investigation and is not welcomed because SHAPE has its own security service and can do without the British Secret Service’s interference, thank you very much.

Bond pricks up his ears when casually told about the gypsies who camped in the forest during the winter. He goes and stakes out the gypsies’ old camp, which is when he sees the high-tech doors to the secret Russkie base open up and three men bring out the motorbike the assassin must have used. Next day Bond impersonates the daily courier and entraps the baddie into following him, but shoots first and kills him, then takes his team of four agents to capture the remaining men in their underground base. This leads to a shootout and Bond is rescued by the rather sexy woman agent who collected him from his hotel at the start of the story. Mmm. ‘Will you have dinner with me tonight?’ ‘Of course, commander.’ Perfectly, effortlessly entertaining.

On Slay Down by Michael Gilbert (24 pages) Never heard of Gilbert but this is arguably the best short story in the book. Two elderly middle-aged men, friends from the first war and both in ‘the Service’, discuss the need to assassinate a woman secretary who – investigations show – has been passing information to the enemy.

One of them, Calder, drives out to the fake rendezvous they’ve arranged between her and her contact, arrives way before her and sets up shop with a rifle. She arrives, gets out her car and he is about to shoot her when an Army lorry appears and the driver starts taking pot shots at rabbits. Smiling, Calder waits for the soldier to shoot and instantly fires, as if an echo, killing the woman. He packs up and leaves.

However, the two men running this grim project are puzzled that, by a few days later, the body has still not been found or reported. They track down the identity of the soldier, an officer, who was driving the lorry and nearly interrupted Calder’s assassination. Turns out he is now leading a small exercise in the same area.

Calder, obviously with the blessing of higher authority, dresses up as a senior officer in the man’s regiment and confronts the soldier in his tent. There can be only one explanation – the soldier must have found the body and, thinking he’d killed a harmless civilian, buried her. So, asks Calder: ‘Where did you bury her?’ The soldier’s first reaction is to reach for his pistol, but he thinks better of it and admits everything. In fact, he buried her on the very spot where their tent is pitched; he was horrified to find an exercise was planned for the same area and made sure he got there first and pitched tent above the grave. At which point Calder reveals his identity and… offers him a job in the Service. As he later recounts to his partner, over their evening game of backgammon.

‘He realised that he wouldn’t be able to get his gun out in time, and decided to come clean. I think that showed decision, and balance, don’t you?’
‘Decision and balance are most important,’ agreed Mr Behrens. ‘Your throw.’

Like the Bond, despite a spot of killing, this is essentially a comic story, slick and clever. Ambler, in his introduction, says it could have been retitled ‘On Slay Down, or the Recruitment of 008‘.

First sentences

Burminster had been to a Guildhall dinner the night before, which had been attended by many – to him – unfamiliar celebrities. (Buchan)

Accurately conveys Buchan’s milieu of upper-class, professional men who, however, are Country not Town; hunting, shooting, fishing types who mix with the rich but don’t know much about corrupt city ways, about this art or literature malarkey, dontcha know. Hence the importance of the ‘- to him -‘ clause. The hero is high-born – but pure.

Ashenden was in the habit of asserting that he was never bored. (Somerset Maugham)

Not only portraying the lofty detachment of Ashenden, the fictional writer-spy, but Maugham’s own enjoyably seigneurial tone.

It was hotter than ever in the city of South-East Europe some time round about the second anniversary of the war. (Mackenzie)

Sets the tone of complaint, one aspect of the Mackenzie’s comedy about the unhappy Naval officer forced to become a spy in this feverishly hot Mediterranean location and constantly moaning about mosquitoes, the awful food and the absurd machinations of the local French officials.

Charlie Stowe waited until he heard his mother snore before he got out of bed. (Greene)

Indicates the mundane banality of Greene’s settings and the flat, colourless tone of his prose. Why is he so famous, then? Due to his gimlet-eyed focus on seediness and loss, deception and guilt.

My dear Marukakis, I remember that I promised to write to you to let you know if I discovered anything more about Dimitrios. (Ambler)

Obviously the Ambler story’s format of a letter dictates the tone a bit, but this opening is nonetheless strongly indicative of Ambler’s good humour and amiability. His novels are excellent company.

The eyes behind the wide black rubber goggles were cold as flint. (Fleming)

You can immediately see the change in tone: Most of the preceding stories (with the exception of Greene’s cold-eyed heartlessness) have exuded chaps-in-the-club-with-a-cigar bonhomie. Fleming introduces pure physical excitement, a foretaste of the sadism, sex and shiny gadgets his novels delight in and which made him the most successful spy writer of all time.

‘The young man of to-day,’ said Mr Behrens, ‘is physically stronger and fitter than his father.’ (Gilbert)

Rather suave, man-of-the-world savoir faire of two older male friends discussing their professional interests ie security, spying and agents.


Of these seven texts the Maugham, Mackenzie and Ambler are in fact chapters from longer works. Maybe there aren’t (or there weren’t in 1964) that many good spy short stories.

Related links

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Original 1964 hardback cover of To Catch A Spy

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of their plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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