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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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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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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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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