01/01/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: W.W. Norton & Company. 1199 page hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-393-07262-4.
check out website: www.wwnorton.com
‘The Complete Stories Of J.G. Ballard’ collects together ninety-eight of Ballard’s short stories. It’s worth noting up front that it is not quite as complete as the title suggests, with a few of his short works missing for reasons that are unclear to me. Nonetheless, at 1200 pages long, this is a huge collection of the author’s speculative short fiction. It should certainly be sufficient for anyone coming to Ballard fresh to get a good feel for his writing. This collection is actually a slightly expanded version of one published in the UK in 2001, the only difference being that this edition includes two previously uncollected stories at the end.
The stories are printed in chronological order of publication, starting in 1956 and running through to 1996. Looking at the distribution of stories across the years, it’s interesting to see that fully one-third of the stories in this collection were published in the four years between 1961 and 1964. Given that this is the period during which he first came to prominence as a novelist, publishing his first major novel, ‘The Drowned World’, in 1962, this shows just what a creative burst he must have been having at that time.
In a collection this large, it is clearly impractical to try to summarise more than a mere handful of the stories. I have therefore picked a few of those that particularly resonated with me, in an attempt to illustrate the variety of subjects and ideas that Ballard tackled across four decades of creativity.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ballard’s stories alternated between speculations set in contemporary times and far future Science Fiction. For example, the first story in the collection, ‘Prima Belladonna’, tells the story of a man who sells singing flowers on a far future colony world. When a beautiful mutant opera singer who is visiting his world comes to his shop looking for such singing flowers he falls in love with her, while she falls in love with the largest and most dangerous of his plants. As the story progresses, we wonder whose love will win out? This is a great introduction to the collection, as the surreal nature of the story sets the reader up nicely for what is to come.
On the other hand, the second story, also from 1956, is a contemporary one. ‘Escapement’ concerns a man watching a play on BBC2 with his wife. When the play appears to repeat itself, he queries this with his wife, who has noticed nothing wrong. As the glitch recurs more and more frequently, the man starts to wonder whether it is the television that is stuck in a time loop or him. Either way, what will happen when the delay between each repeat gets down to zero? Surreal in concept but told with great realism, this story shows that Ballard can twist an everyday situation into something fresh just as easily as he can peer into the far future.
In the 1959 story, ‘The Waiting Grounds’, a man arrives on Murak, a far-distant, desolate and almost uninhabited planet. He is to replace the caretaker at the radio observatory for a standard two-year shift. He is amazed to hear that his predecessor has been there not for two but for fifteen years, especially as the man is very reluctant to explain his reasons. When these emerge, they revolve around hundreds of extra-terrestrial megaliths, standing in the waiting grounds of the title. The question is, what are the megaliths for and who put them there? There are real hints of danger here, making this story particularly engrossing.
Turning back to contemporary life, ‘The Last World Of Mr Goddard’ is a wonderfully post-modern piece from 1960. Mr. Goddard works at an entirely ordinary department store, except that he has a fully working scale model of the store and the surrounding area of town locked in a safe at home. Every evening, after dinner, he brings out the model and observes what all his neighbours and work colleagues are up to. He uses this information to help people with their problems or so he sees his actions. When his employers forcibly retire him on his 65th birthday, very much against his will, he expects his colleagues to demand his immediate reinstatement. When they don’t, Goddard realises that they may not have seen his well-meaning interference in their lives in the same way than he did. What can he do to repair the damage? This surreal story has a blackly humorous ending which rounds it off perfectly.
As the 1960s wore on, Ballard seems to have got interested in psychology and psychiatry. Several stories reflect this. For example, his 1962 story, ‘The Insane Ones’, considers a dystopian future where a fascist world government has outlawed psychiatry as a sop to tabloid campaigns against the mentally ill. Those with mental health problems must sort themselves out. If not, they face brutal punishment. The narrator is a former psychiatrist who has just been released from a three year stretch in prison after being caught continuing to practice his profession. So when he befriends a young man who says he wants to assassinate the World President, what should he do? Should he try to treat the man’s mental illness or let him go ahead with his plan? I read this story with mixed feelings. The story itself is very well-written and a pleasure to read. What saddened me about it is that it could have been written today, suggesting that we haven’t progressed very far on this issue in the last fifty years.
In another example of predicting the future, the 1972 story ‘The Greatest Television Show On Earth’ predicts the ultimate in reality TV. Time travel is invented but the costs are sufficiently huge that only the television networks can afford it. They start to televise historic battles ‘live’ but soon decide that they are not spectacular enough. So, starting with the Napoleonic Wars, extras are sent back through time with the camera crews to beef up the action. This is hugely successful in terms of ratings, so they keep doing it with earlier and earlier events. However, when they get back to biblical times and decide to beef up the parting of the Red Sea, the networks meet their match when God himself objects!
Ballard is popularly known as a writer of serious dystopian fiction. However, one of my discoveries from this collection is the amount of black humour that pervades many of his short stories. A great example of this from his later years is ‘The Secret History Of World War 3’, published in 1988. This story imagines that Ronald Reagan was re-elected to a historic third term, after a constitutional amendment allowed this, in 1992 following a disastrous presidency by George Bush Senior. Given Reagan’s advanced age, the White House starts publishing weekly reports on the President’s health. Unexpectedly, these capture the public imagination to such an extent that the TV news is soon dominated by minute-by-minute reporting on the President’s heartbeat and bowel movements. So when World War 3 briefly breaks out between America and Russia, before a ceasefire is negotiated, hardly any of the public notice, as they are too busy worrying about a minor cold the President has contracted!
The collection also includes Ballard’s most well-known miniatures, including ‘The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race’ from 1966 and ‘Why I Want To F*** Ronald Reagan’ from 1968. Although both were seen as highly controversial on publication, forty years on they look pretty tame.
There is a huge amount to enjoy, to like and to admire in this collection. Ballard’s short fiction is always inventive, frequently visionary and often brilliant. The range of ideas he tackled over four decades is phenomenal. With very few exceptions, each story is well-crafted, clearly written and exactly the right length for the subject matter. Until now, I had known J.G. Ballard principally as a visionary novelist. Having read this collection, I think he should be admired just as much for his short stories.
The book itself is beautifully put together and will grace any bookshelf. Inside, the text is set in a clear font that makes reading each story a pleasure. The only thing I didn’t like was the book’s physical size. A 1200 page hardback is not the easiest thing to lug around or indeed to hold open without support for very long. I therefore limited myself to reading it at the dinner table in the evenings. In consequence, it has taken me rather a long time to work my way through all 98 stories. If that’s a concern to you, it’s worth noting that the 2001 UK edition, which is identical to this except for missing the two final stories, is available split into two much more portable paperbacks.
Putting that one minor gripe to one side, however, I would happily recommend this collection of Ballard’s short fiction to anyone, whether you’re a life-long fan or have never read a word of his before. This is a wonderful collection which showcases the author’s many and varied ideas and interests. It is full of exciting discoveries and was a pleasure to read from cover to cover. I look forward to dipping into it repeatedly in future, in order to get a regular fix of Ballard’s unique take on life, the universe and everything.
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