Ballard’s Millennial Legends

Myths of the Near Future is the first of J.G. Ballard’s two major late-career short story collections. In terms of the chronology of when the stories emerged, the anthology spans 1976-1982 – a narrower span of years than any Ballard collection since The Terminal Beach – and so covers much of Ballard’s late flowering of short story output from this period. From 1984 onwards, his short story output would be more sporadic, but as in Low-Flying Aircraft we find Ballard here using his well-matured talents to provide both somewhat more refined takes on earlier ideas and toying with a few new ones.

The title story is a phantasmagoric blend of a massive number of distinctive Ballard themes and images from across his entire career, combined together in a single narrative that reaches a Messianic culmination. Light aircraft… abandoned beachside resorts occupied by transients and hangers on… a long-decommissioned Cape Kennedy… the failure of the Space Age… empty swimming pools… people on the verge of turning into birds… new life forms emerging in a zone where the future is just a little closer than elsewhere… jeweled animals… obsessive blends of pornography and geometry… strange ritualistic behaviour… a world winding down into slow disaster, or perhaps preparing for a massive evolutionary leap… accreted time… a man chasing his wife, who may be dead… a renegade neurosurgeon… a strange sort of time-sickness which may be a transformation of how we see perceive the universe itself…

All these Ballard ideas and more besides crop up in the story, making it a sort of Platonic ideal of his writing and the keystone through which everything fits together. Look through it in this direction and you can see The Crystal World; rotate it a little, like a multifaceted gemstone, and you might see glimpses of The Cage of Sand, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Dead Astronaut, Low-Flying Aircraft, The Voices of Time, Storm-Bird, Storm Dreamer, and more besides.

What’s startling is just how well all these ideas blend together; it’s like this is the story which Ballard has been working towards, and he needed to master all the individual ideas in it before he could bring them all together in one bizarre vision. Whereas one of Ballard’s earliest stories, Passport To Eternity, fell down because it was trying to do too many things at once and Ballard was still honing his skills, here Ballard is able to throw in even more at once and make it all work beautifully.

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A History Infected By Its Own Subject

Neal Wilgus’ The Illuminoids: Secret Societies and Political Paranoia had its moment in the sun some 40 years ago – initially released in 1978, it last got reprinted in 1980 and from there so far as I can tell it dropped off the face of the Earth. It was enthusiastically promoted by Robert Anton Wilson – who, on the strength of the Illuminatus! trilogy he co-wrote with Robert Shea and an interminable number of spin-offs yielding ever-diminishing returns, had become the post-hippie counter-culture’s resident Illuminati expert, and who even contributed an introduction to the volume. (Naturally, he hamfisted in a lot of his hippie-libertarian pet themes and too many Discordian in-jokes, because if there’s one thing Wilson was good at it was taking a moderately fully joke and playing it out until it had become utterly risible.)

The book offers a look at the conspiratorial view of history through the lens of the various theories that have swirled over the years around the Bavarian Illuminati, but does not limit itself to this; the “Illuminoids” of the title are Wilgus’ term for various institutions or individuals which, whilst not part of the Bavarian Illuminati themselves, have been alleged to conduct themselves in a similar manner.

Conventional history tells, broadly speaking, the following story about the Bavarian Illuminati: they were organised by Adam Weishaupt in 1776 in (naturally) Bavaria, and were a secret society of freethinkers out to promote rationalism, secularism, gender equality, and various other ideas that both church and state were not so keen on at the time. They expended a lot of energy on various dramatic spats with other secret societies, largely stemming from the Illuminati’s use of entryist tactics to infiltrate Freemasonry and various connected bodies and use them as recruiting pools. (In the process of doing so, they ended up being useful allies to the more rationalist school of Masons, who opposed the more mystical-religious attitudes of the Rosicrucian strand.

Eventually, the combination of this drama, internal friction, and leaks to the authorities led to Charles Theodore, the ruler of Bavaria, including them in a 1785 blanket ban on secret societies, and they were suppressed – with Weishaupt fleeing and the organisation apparently collapsing in a big heap of drama.

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A Perfect Circle Or a Downward Spiral?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Western audiences who had previously rather overlooked Japanese horror (especially outside weeaboo circles) suddenly became very excited by it. Though it’s likely that the massive commercial success of Resident Evil and the critical acclaim drawn by Silent Hill was a factor in this, both of those games set their story in the United States and played up influences from Western horror.

Though they were horror games hailing from Japan, they didn’t spawn the “J-horror” tag in the way that The Ring did. (Look, I know the Koji Suzuki novel the film was based on was called Ring, not The Ring… but they wrote it that way on the original posters. If the filmmakers didn’t want me to call the movie that, they shouldn’t have translated it that way.) Though it eventually spawned an American remake, the remake largely relied on the existing audience enthusiasm for the original Japanese movie to get greenlit in the first place.

The combination of Japanese horror aesthetics (in particular the appearance of Sadako), which Western audience were not particularly used to, plus a tasty urban legend concept to draw you in (the infamous “videotape where you die a week after you watch it” angle), plus the buzz from it becoming a monster hit in Hong Kong (where it outdrew The Matrix) all added up to it becoming a bit of a sleeper hit in Western markets, and now to mark 20 years of Sadako-flavoured cinematic nastiness Arrow have put out a boxed set containing Blu-Rays of The Ring, The Ring 2, and Ring 0: Birthday – plus The Spiral, the original The Ring sequel which… well, I’ll get to that.

Does Sadako’s curse still hold up in an era when VHS is a hipster retro-medium, or has it – like actual VHS tapes – ended up degrading after repeated viewings?

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Scavenging For Deep Space Scraps

Among the clutch of J.G. Ballard collections that came out in the 1960s, there was a set I’ve not covered yet called The Overloaded Man. After the publication of the Vermilion Sands collection, later revisions of The 4-Dimensional Nightmare/The Voices of Time would drop the stories Studio 5, The Stars and Prima Belladonna so as to keep the Vermilion Sands stories exclusive to their own collection, and substitute in Thirteen To Centaurus and The Overloaded Man (the story) from The Overloaded Man (the collection).

This left the remaining stories from The Overloaded Man rather orphaned; eventually, the collection was revised and reissued in 1980 under the title of The Venus Hunters (after all, The Overloaded Man was no longer in the collection) with three otherwise-uncollected stories tacked on to fill the gap.

The resulting collection is therefore a bit of a weird grab-bag. On one level, it’s the most wide-ranging of Ballard’s main UK anthologies (other than The Complete Short Stories, of course), since the stories in it span from 1956 to 1976. On the other hand, the distribution in that timespan is far from even. You have the seven stories orphaned from The Overloaded Man, which span from 1956 to 1963 but err towards the earlier part of that (there’s more 1950s stories here than in any of the other Ballard collections I’ve covered), and then the added-in stories come from 1969, 1976, and 1978.

The overall impression, looking at the collection from this perspective is of a grab-bag of stories which didn’t quite make the cut for any other collection – including sets like The Terminal Beach or The Day of Forever, which I already felt were a tier below other collections published at around the same time of them. Is that fair, or are there overlooked treasures here?

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Where Does Challenge Become a Chore?

Darkest Dungeon is, at the heart of it, a very old-school type of CRPG. There is a spooky dungeon, and some other adventuring areas, in the general vicinity of a run-down old hamlet. Your late ancestor called you back to the family lands so that you could apply yourself to the challenge of tackling the evil that threatens to awake within the Darkest Dungeon before it is too late.

To even have a hope of tackling the dungeon, you’ll need to train your party members up on quests in various other areas – the horrible Warrens where the pig folk live, the Weald haunted by witches and bandits, the Ruins of your family’s old ancestral pile, and the Cove where particularly Deep One-esque creatures lurk. As you progress against the challenges there, it becomes apparent that many of the bosses that lurk in those areas are the way they are as the result of traumatic encounters with your ancestor in the past. What threat inside the Darkest Dungeon could possibly justify such atrocities done against these people?

Then again, you’re hardly in a place to judge. Adventuring is more traumatic than more romanticised dungeon crawlers make it out to be. Your party members will gain foul diseases, suffer terrible fates, and undergo assaults on their mental health just as cutting as their physical injuries. And as you make your progress and build up the facilities in the town, you may find you need to occasionally discard a member of your roster who has become too broken. Never mind – there’s always fresh meat coming in on the stagecoach…

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Cosmic Horror and Classic Crime

Though both the majority of her output and the bulk of her commercial and critical success came in the realm of crime fiction, Agatha Christie didn’t solely work in that field. In 1933 she published a collection of stories hovering in the borderland between crime fiction, outright horror, and the hazy borderland of supernatural mysteries that neighbours those two.

With stories representing at both extremes of this genre spectrum and most conceivable positions between, The Hound of Death represents work from her first highly productive decade of writing (the earliest publication of any story from it in the magazines has been traced to 1924, other stories may well be original to the set), and reveals her to be adept at a far wider range of writing styles than anyone who’s only read a few Poirot or Miss Marple novels may have realised.

In fact, neither Poirot nor Miss Marple show up in any of these stories – even the one story we can confidently say is a pure crime yarn with no supernatural aspects even hinted at sits somewhat outside the accustomed atmosphere of their stamping grounds. Here are found enigmas which often stay a little mysterious – not the sort of thing which will succumb suddenly to the attention of Poirot’s little grey cells or any of Miss Marple’s flashes of inspiration whilst gardening.

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Ballard Glides Into the 1970s

Collecting stories spanning from 1966 to 1976, Low-Flying Aircraft is a J.G. Ballard collection which represents a significant step forward from the various short stories collections I’ve covered so far as I’ve been working my way through his Complete Short Stories.

The collections I’ve covered so far – The Voices of Time, The Terminal Beach, The Disaster Area, The Day of Forever, and Vermilion Sands – have all essentially centred on Ballard’s work from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. (Vermilion Sands includes some stories set after this, but rooted sufficiently in the approach of the earlier tales in the collection to feel like all the segments are in the same general style.) Likewise The Atrocity Exhibition, if you take it as a short story selection rather than a novel, is more the product of an intense burst of experimental writing on Ballard’s part spanning 1966-1969, and each of the experiments were so thematically tied to each other that the tales there constitute its own little anomaly.

The end of the 1960s, however, saw Ballard’s short fiction output tailing off. After he broke into the market in the 1950s, the 1960s was really the main flowering of his short story writing; even if you set aside the components of The Atrocity Exhibition, comfortably over half his short story output took place then, with the bulk of it from 1960-1966 or so. Following The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s short story output tailed off as he placed a greater focus on his novels, with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise finding him shift his novel-writing in a direction which shifted away from both the different flavours of post-apocalyptic fiction he explored in The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World, whilst stepping back from the high-experimentation approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

As a result, despite containing stories separated by a decade or so, Low-Flying Aircraft actually contains all of Ballard’s short story output of 1970 to 1974 and (again, if you don’t account the components of The Atrocity Exhibition as short stories) the majority of his output from 1968 to 1975. This means that as well as catching some of the last fruits of Ballard’s major run of short stories ending in the late 1960s, Low-Flying Aircraft also captures the start of the burst of new short stories he produced from 1976 to the early 1980s which would be the focus of collections like Myths of the Near Future.

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Green’s Hellenic Shadowlands

Alongside King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, the most substantial of Roger Lancelyn Green’s treatments of major bodies of mythology aimed at young readers was the two volumes of Greek mythology he put out in 1958, Tales of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy, which between them wove a narrative which spanned from the revolt of Cronos’ children against him to the fall of Troy and the demise of the heroes of the Trojan War.

As well as solid introductions to the relevant bodies of myth in their own right, Green’s two Greek volumes offer an interesting insight into his view of mythology, and in particular an interesting contrast to the handling of similar subject matter by C.S. Lewis. If the Inklings were the Jedi Council of mid-20th Century English fantasy writing, Green was Lewis’ padawan, and Greek myth was a subject both of them were keen on after a fashion; Green and his wife June would accompany Lewis and Joy Davidman, on a 1960 holiday to Greece shortly before Joy’s health failed completely, and it seems all but certain that a certain healthy appreciation of the mythic landscape was part of the draw. However, in my view Green’s approach to mythology was much more fulfilling than Lewis’, and this is particular apparent in the first book of the duology.

Tales of the Greek Heroes

In both volumes, Green takes the same approach he had with Arthurian myth by pulling together all of the disparate stories selected for incorporation and fitting them into structure that has a narrative arc running from beginning to end providing strong interconections between all of them, so they’re all episodes in the same grand saga rather than a bunch of disconnected stories that happen to share a setting and a cast of stock characters. For the second volume, The Tale of Troy, that was simple enough: the Trojan War itself and its immediate aftermath provided that central plot, as it has for retellings for thousands of years, job done.

For the purposes of first volume, however, Green has a bit more of a challenge on his hands, but has an elegant solution. Tales of the Greek Heroes is bookended by the Titanomachy at the beginning and the Gigantomachy at the end. In the immediate wake of the Titanomachy, when Zeus gets angry at Prometheus for giving the power of fire to humanity, Prometheus taunts Zeus with the knowledge that sooner or later the Gigantomachy is going to come, and the Immortals will need a mortal hero to hand who can actually slay giants if they are to avoid the vengeance of Rhea. By the end of the book, Heracles has proved to be the hero in question, Zeus has mellowed out and permitted the release of Prometheus, and the giants are soundly defeated.

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Ballard’s Obscene Display

Though I’ve been looking over J.G. Ballard’s short stories as collected in The Complete Short Stories of late, I’m switching tracks here to tackle The Atrocity Exhibition, since I think I’ve now hit an appropriate point to consider that and, according to some schools of thought, it’s a collection of short stories instead of a novel, since each individual chapter of it was published separately somewhere in 1966-1969 before it was all brought together in the book.

On rereading it, I don’t agree. Although each chapter can be taken as its own self-contained thing, the mosaic Ballard creates when putting them together like this reveals a kind of narrative arc spanning the entire book, from its opening chapter (The Atrocity Exhibition) to its conclusion, The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As a Downhill Motor Race, which had been originally devised by Ballard as his contribution to Dangerous Visions before an interfering publisher decided to reject the story before it even reached Harlan Ellison for consideration.

This was not the only censorious response to the book’s contents. In the UK, a booklet publication of the penultimate chapter/story, Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan, was one of the subjects of obscenity charges brought against the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton; Ballard was in the end not called as a witness by the defence because in an interview with the defence attorneys he stated that yes, obviously the story was obscene, the whole point of it was to present a grotesque obscenity as a means of taking a stab at then-Governor Reagan and the far-right tone of his policies at the time. (In Ballard’s assessment, Reagan toned things down a notch by the time he was President, but that’s perhaps more a measure of how extreme Reagan was in the late 1960s than how mellow he was in the 1980s.)

Its original US publication by Doubleday had the entire print run pulped when Nelson Doubleday Jr. decided that there was too much risk of legal action taken by the real-life celebrities named in the book. Doubleday’s worries are interesting here because the book doesn’t actually depict any of those celebrities doing anything which they have not been demonstrably shown to do – it merely depicts a very, very strange way of looking at and interpreting those people – and so it feels like a defamation action would have struggled, but such was the offense that publishers feared would be caused by the book.

Grove Press would issue the book in 1972 under the alternate title of Love and Napalm: Export USA; though this was one of the chapter titles in the book, Ballard objected to using it as the name of the entire novel because he thought it implied that the whole thing was exclusively an anti-American polemic, when in fact he thought that the sort of mass media assault on the public psyche the book obsesses about was as present in Britain as it was in America, and had probably been taken further and become more sophisticated.

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The Sprawl: Cyberpunk Ground Zero

You can argue about who counts as the first cyberpunk author – some would advocate for Philip K. Dick, others might make a case for John Brunner, Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty is often cited as a potential influence on the genre – but it would hard to say that William Gibson wasn’t the definitive cyberpunk author. Quite simply, if Gibson’s seminal work in the genre does not count as cyberpunk, then the term is pretty goddamn meaningless.

That said, as the world has caught up with the requirements of his fiction, Gibson’s writing has become less stylised, less science fictional, and more like modern-day techno-thriller material: computers are now at a point where Gibson can tell many of the stories he wants to tell without resorting to science fictional departures from current tech. When it comes to Gibson’s cyberpunk writing, the truly definitive stuff is his work from the 1980s, and specifically the stories of the Sprawl setting, “the Sprawl” being in-setting slang for the continuous urban development extending from Boston down to Atlanta along the East Coast of the US.

Though the Sprawl itself is not as central to most of these stories as you’d think – they tend to be more globe-trotting affairs – the tales keep looping in and out of it, so it’s a fairly apt term for the series. It’s now some 40 years after these stories first started being published, and we are now very much living in the sort of future Gibson was envisioning, so let’s see how well these have aged.

Burning Chrome

Before we get into the Sprawl series itself, it’s worth looking at this short story anthology. Collecting more or less all of Gibson’s short fiction up to 1986, the majority of the material here predates Neuromancer and finds him developing ideas he’d later use there, and three of the stories actually take place in the Sprawl setting and provide little prequel snippets to the Sprawl trilogy itself. Some of the other stories have sufficient thematic overlap that they feel like they could be Sprawl stories, but only three – Johnny Mnemonic, New Rose Hotel, and Burning Chrome – are the subject of significant callbacks in the Sprawl novels.

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