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Ballard and the Vicissitudes of Time

Author: • Jul 3rd, 2008 •

Category: America, deep time, features, flying, inner space, Lead Story, space relics, temporality, time travel, urban decay


by Mike Holliday

Ballardian: News from the Sun

ABOVE: Artwork by Jeffrey K. Potter for ‘News from the Sun’ (commissioned for the collection Memories of the Space Age, Arkham House, 1988).

The late 70s and early 80s represent a sort of interregnum in Ballard’s career — between the last of the urban disaster novels, High-Rise (1975), and the success of Empire of the Sun (1984). During this period he published two of his most atypical novels, The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America, and returned to earlier concerns with three short stories that are preoccupied with time, and which recall such works as The Crystal World and ‘The Voices of Time’. These three stories — ‘News from the Sun’ (1981), ‘Memories of the Space Age’ (1982), and ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (1982) — are all concerned with a psychological disturbance of our perception of the flow of time, a dislocation that has been caused, somehow, by human space-flight. These stories are so similar to each other that one might suspect self-plagiarism, were they not written by Ballard. In the chronologically arranged Complete Short Stories, they sit there one after the other, eighty or so pages of obsessive investigation of the same themes.

‘Memories of the Space Age’ can serve as an exemplar for all three stories. Dr Mallory, an ex-NASA physician, has driven from Vancouver with his wife, Anne, to reach an abandoned Cape Kennedy in search of Hinton — an astronaut who murdered his co-pilot whilst in orbit. Mallory and his wife are suffering from a ‘space-sickness’, in which time appears to slow so that a few minutes of normal time seem to last all day. This condition was first observed in returned astronauts, then in other NASA personnel, and has now spread out to envelop the whole of Florida. Mallory hopes that by returning to the source of the sickness he can understand its true meaning:

The murder of the astronaut and the public unease that followed had marked the end of the space age, an awareness that man had committed an evolutionary crime by travelling into space, that he was tampering with the elements of his own consciousness. The fracture of that fragile continuum erected by the human psyche through millions of years had soon shown itself, in the confused sense of time displayed by the inhabitants of the towns near the space centre. Cape Kennedy and the whole of Florida itself became a poisoned land to be forever avoided …

As time slows, it seems to Mallory that the world is bathed in a bright light, with ‘photons backing up all the way to the sun’. The descriptions of surrounding objects resemble those in The Crystal World: a fountain turns into ‘a glass tree that shed an opalescent fruit onto his shoulders and hands’, and ‘the waves were no longer running towards the beach, and were frozen ruffs of icing sugar’.

Ballardian: Memories of the Space Age

ABOVE: Artwork by Jeffrey K. Potter for ‘Memories of the Space Age’ (commissioned for the collection Memories of the Space Age).

At the Cape, Hinton has collected a number of antique aircraft, apparently in an attempt to engineer his own escape from time:

We had to get out of time — that’s what the space programme was all about. … Flight and time, Mallory, they’re bound together. The birds have always known that. To get out of time we first need to learn to fly. That’s why I’m here. I’m teaching myself to fly, going back through all these old planes to the beginning. I want to fly without wings …

Hinton attacks Mallory from his aircraft, and Mallory realizes that his own real aim is to kill Hinton. They seek each other through the deserted Cape and abandoned suburbs, but eventually Hinton sets fire to his aircraft and, taking Anne Mallory with him, he climbs the Shuttle launch platform and steps off with her ‘into the light’. Knowing that time will have stopped for his wife and Hinton as they experience this final moment of flight, Mallory looks forward to his own ending — he plans to open the cage housing a tiger that was once part of a small zoo:

… without time the lion could at last lie down with the lamb. … The key to the tiger cage he held always in his hand. There was little time left to him now, the light-filled world had transformed itself into a series of tableaux from a pageant that celebrated the founding days of creation. In the finale every element in the universe, however humble, would take its place on the stage in front of him. … He would unlock the door soon … lie down with this beast in a world beyond time.

The other two stories repeat the formula, with variations. In ‘News from the Sun’ people who have been associated with the space-programme, or who watched the flights on TV, are suffering deep fugues that leave them unconscious and motionless for increasing periods each day. Some of the victims eventually learn to become conscious through these fugues and they then become aware of a world where objects are endlessly multiplied as their past, present and future selves become simultaneously present. The sickness in ‘Myths of the Near Future’ is characterized by a ‘reluctance to go out of doors, the abandonment of job, family and friends, a dislike of daylight, a gradual loss of weight and retreat into a hibernating self ‘ and in the later stages by a perception that time is slowing-down to an eventual frozen instant.

All three stories are remarkably similar. In each case, (i) the time distortions represent a psychic disorder caused by mankind attempting to leave the planet; (ii) each of the protagonists realizes that this change makes available to them a world where time no longer exists and all events — past and future — are simultaneously present; (iii) this new ‘world without time’ is characterized by a bright light; and (iv) the stories all include astronauts (or people who believe they are astronauts) and characters obsessed with flight, for example with micro-light planes, antique aircraft, and birds. Even minor elements are repeated: in all three stories the main protagonist has taken a long journey to or from Cape Kennedy once the psychological disorientation becomes apparent, and they each lose a considerable amount of weight as the condition progresses.

This repetition of themes in three stories in such a short space of time is rather puzzling, particularly as the concept of transcending time had already featured strongly in Ballard’s fiction in the early and mid-1960s. Why should he return to this theme in 1981-2? And why visit it three times in such a short period? In trying to understand this conundrum, it’s interesting to look at some of the comments that Ballard has made about his own creative activity, where he admits that the forces driving his imaginative processes are obscure, even to himself:

I just tend to write whatever comes mentally to hand, and what I find interesting at a particular time. These decisions as to what one’s going to write tend to be made somewhere at the back of one’s mind, so one can’t consciously say: ‘that’s what I’m going to write’. It doesn’t work out like that! (interview in ‘J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years’, 1976).

I’m barely aware of what is going on. Recurrent ideas assemble themselves, obsessions solidify themselves … (interview in ‘The Paris Review’, 1984).

I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seen obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind (‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’, 1963).

If we take these comments at face value, then something within the landscape of Ballard’s mind was presumably driving him in the direction taken by these three stories from the early 1980s. Perhaps a clue is evident in his own personal situation. Following the death of his wife, Ballard had brought up his three young children on his own. His close involvement and the deep satisfaction he got from his family is evident in both his semi-autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women and his recent autobiography Miracles of Life. But by the late ’70s all three children had left home, and interviews at the time show the deep impact this had on him:

… the absence of those three children left a colossal vacuum in my life. … It is very strange … So I’ve been asking that question for at least a year — what the hell do I do now?’ (interview conducted in 1979 and published in J. G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1984)

I get up in the morning and the day just sort of stretches like the plains of Kansas, with not a speck on the horizon. Which is great, of course! (interview conducted in 1982 and published in Re/Search #8/9: J G Ballard, 1984)

And in The Kindness of Women, the fictionalized version of Ballard explains ‘I spent the whole of my adult life with children. Suddenly, when I’m fifty, there’s this colossal vacuum. Mothers feel the same way. Nature hasn’t provided a contingency plan — or, as Dick would say, nature’s contingency plan is death.’ So it isn’t surprising that Ballard’s unconscious creative processes should turn once again to the notion of time, and of time’s involvement with the creation of meaning in one’s life.

Ballardian: News from the Sun

ABOVE: Artwork from Ambit for ‘News from the Sun’. Illustration by Mark Foreman.

But why the specific obsession with a ‘frozen time’? I think that to comprehend this, we have to go back to Ballard’s idea that reality is, at bottom, a construct of the human brain. This has long been has been one of his favourite themes in interviews, and here’s a typical example:

What I do have is the notion, which I take from modern experimental psychology, that the universe presented to us by our senses is a kind of ramshackle construct that happens to suit the central nervous system of an intelligent bipedal mammal with a rather short conceptual and physical range. We see rooms and people and have perceptions — but it’s all a construct (interview in ‘Rolling Stone’, 1987).

The roots of this idea seem to lie in Ballard’s boyhood in Shanghai and his early grasp of the notion that the everyday world is a sort of stage-set, as he describes in his autobiography Miracles of Life in a passage where he and his father enter a deserted nightclub:

[I] walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales. But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.

If our reality is a constructed reality, then this applies equally to our notion of time and those aspects of our lives that are closely connected with our sense of lived time, such as our memories, hopes, and ideals:

… the view of modern psychology [is] that the brain presents us with only a ramshackle view of reality, a partial construct imperfect in numerous ways, from the more trivial — the geometry of the rooms we inhabit — to the more serious — our sense of time, memory, our hopes, ideals and private mythologies (interview in ‘Impulse: The Magazine of Time and Space’, 1988).

And if our sense of lived time is a construct, then it becomes possible to conceive of an alternative form of reality that contains some form of timelessness or a non-linear time. But the source of this alternative notion of time must lie within ourselves, or as one of the characters in ‘Memories of the Space Age’ tells Mallory, ‘Doctor … The real Cape Kennedy is inside your head, not out here.’

Implicit in what Mallory refers to as ‘a world without time, an indefinite and unending present’ is the disappearance or metamorphosis of the future and of the past. The evanescence of the future is heralded in each of these three stories by the failure of the manned space programme and the resulting psychic disorientation, and is reflected in the landscapes, which are derelict or overgrown and largely deserted of inhabitants: ‘an immense silence of deserted marinas and shopping malls, abandoned citrus farms and retirement estates, silent ghettoes and airports.’ The shedding of the past can be seen in the loss of weight that occurs in those who experience time dislocation — as Mallory puts it, ‘he and Anne had each lost more than thirty pounds, as if their bodies were carrying out a re-inventory of themselves for the coming world without time.’ And the past explicitly withdraws in ‘Memories of the Space Age’:

Thankfully, as time evaporated, so did memory. He looked at his few possessions, now almost meaningless … The minutes were beginning to stretch, urged on by this eventless universe free of birds and aircraft. His memory faltered, he was forgetting his past, the clinic at Vancouver and its wounded children, his wife asleep in the hotel at Titusville, even his own identity.

But the stories do not represent the past and the future as disappearing completely. Instead they become available again in a new form of existence that brings past, present and future together simultaneously. In ‘News from the Sun’ and ‘Myths of the Near Future’ this occurs explicitly through a process that is reminiscent of the crystallization of the universe that takes place in The Crystal World — the multiplication of objects so that all the different versions, past, present and future, exist at one and the same time:

The sun was annealing plates of copper light to his skin, dressing his arms and shoulders in a coronation armour. Time was condensing around him, a thousand replicas of himself from the past and future had invaded the present and clasped themselves to him. … The flow of light through the air had begun to slow, layers of time overlaid each other, laminae of past and future fused together. Soon the tide of photons would be still, space and time would set forever (‘Myths of the Near Future’).

Ballardian: News from the Sun

ABOVE: Artwork from Ambit for ‘News from the Sun’. Illustration by Mark Foreman.

But sometimes, the merging of time is more indirect, as in ‘News from the Sun’ where Franklin describes himself as having a ‘premonition of the past’ and a ‘nostalgia for the future’, or in this passage from ‘Myths of the Near Future’:

There was a sense of stop-frame about the whole of his past life — his childhood and school–days, McGill and Cambridge, the junior partnership in Vancouver, his courtship of Elaine, together seemed like so many clips run at the wrong speed. The dreams and ambitions of everyday life, the small hopes and failures, were attempts to bring these separated elements into a single whole again. Emotions were the stress lines in this over–stretched web of events.

The essential thesis of these three stories is that the withdrawal or transfiguration of past and future should enable us to live in a more real and rewarding eternal present, and this new mode of being is described as transcending our everyday existence entirely. When Hinton and Anne Mallory step off the Shuttle gantry into empty space, they will continue to exist in an eventless eternity that others will perceive as merely a few seconds as they fall to the ground. As Dr. Mallory reflects,

It was curious that images of heaven or paradise always presented a static world, not the kinetic eternity one would expect, the roller-coaster of a hyperactive funfair, the screaming Luna Parks of LSD and psilocybin. It was a strange paradox that given eternity, an infinity of time, they chose to eliminate the very element offered in such abundance.

One of the underlying attractions of apprehending the simultaneity of all existence is that it will somehow enable us to transcend death. In ‘Myths of the Near Future’, Sheppard is convinced that his wife is still alive even though she has died, and explains: ‘Everything that’s ever happened, all the events that will ever happen, are taking place together. We can die, and yet still live, at the same time. … No one who has ever lived can ever really die.’ And in an interview, Ballard tells us why The Crystal World is one of his favourite novels: ‘the idea that time might condense like ice, that we might somehow escape from that flux of time that sweeps us towards the end … is intriguing’ (interview in SFX, 1996).

If we can put to one side the ecstatic descriptions in Ballard’s fiction, it becomes apparent that an eventless eternity is the predictable result of the emasculation of the past and the future. Without memories, hopes or ideals to give meaning to the events of our lives, we find merely a series of occurrences, and the present starts to blur into an endless procession. But if this is the case, then the nature of such a world-without-time is ambiguous — instead of being a life lived to the full, an endless present can instead be deadening and boring, a major concern in Ballard’s later writings:

Once you move to the suburbs, time stops. People measure their lives by consumer goods, the dreams that money can buy. I think that’s more dangerous. People have no loyalties anymore. … Maybe we’re going to live in an eventless future. In a hundred years, the world might be very, very boring. (interview in ‘The Face’, 1988)

That Ballard holds this two-fold view of an endless present is not surprising, given the ambiguity that runs through all his work. Responding to a comment by Hans Ulrich Obrist that ambiguity is central to his writings, Ballard enthusiastically agrees: ‘I hope everything I have written is ambiguous, reflecting the paradoxical faces that make up human nature.’ Given this ambivalence, it is best to view an eternal present as one of Ballard’s extreme metaphors, or as an example of his predictive mythologies:

which in a sense provide an operating formula by which we can deal with our passage through consciousness — our movements through time and space. … mythologies that you can actually live by (interview in Re/Search #8/9: J G Ballard, 1984).

These predictive mythologies can be utilized via our imagination, and in Ballard’s iconography the imagination is often symbolized by flight:

Deserted runways have a tremendous magnetic pull for me. … The concrete strip just beckons one into new realms. Indeed, any major airport in the world charges me with a powerful sense of inspiration: they offer new points of departure for the imagination (interview in ‘ZG Magazine’, 1988).

Imagination has special significance because our perception of reality is, for Ballard, an artificial construct, and more particularly a type of construct that may have been necessary when mankind was struggling for survival in a dangerous world but which is limiting and restricting in a society where external dangers are largely absent and the need is rather for an exploration of alternative possibilities. Hence it is to imagination that Ballard looks for help in understanding how we are now to live:

Don’t forget that man is, and has been for at least a million years, a hunting species surviving with difficulty in a terribly dangerous world. In order to survive, his brain has been trained to screen out anything but the most essential and the most critical. Watch that hillcrest! Beware of that cave mouth! Kill that bird! Dodge that spear! … But now the world is essentially far less dangerous. (interview in ‘Penthouse’, 1979)

Bearing in mind the difficulties that a wholly rational being would have in coping with a largely hostile environment, there must be enormous evolutionary advantages in possessing a powerful imagination, contrary to what one would assume, or the pressures of natural selection would long since have eliminated anyone handicapped by this confusing ability to invent an imaginary alternative to the world presented to us by our senses. And that, I take it, is the vital function which the imagination performs for the central nervous system and a brilliant stratagem for dealing with crucial limitations in the brain’s picture of reality. … The more we can engage our imaginations, therefore, the better, and the most important task for each of us is to test the imperfections of reality against the perfectibility of the dream. (interview in ‘Impulse: The Magazine of Time and Space’, 1988)

We can now see why symbols of flight — antique planes, gliders, birds — figure throughout these three stories. It is only by using our powers of imagination that we can work out what Ballard’s extreme metaphor might mean for us, how we might live in a manner other than that ordained by a linear time that ‘runs into the future like a narrow-gauge scenic railway’ as Ballard tellingly describes the chronology of our lives.

Ballardian: Myths of the Near Future

ABOVE: Artwork by Jeffrey K. Potter for ‘Myths of the Near Future’ (commissioned for the collection Memories of the Space Age).

In fact, at the end of ‘Myths of the Near Future’ the metaphor changes when the characters find that they can merge their past, present and future selves into a single body:

[Martinsen’s] body was now dressed in a dozen glimmering images of himself, refractions of past and present seen through the prism of time. … [Sheppard] embraced the helpless doctor, searching for the strong sinews of the young student and the wise bones of the elderly physician. In a sudden moment of recognition, Martinsen found himself, his youth and his age merged in the open geometries of his face, this happy rendezvous of his past and future selves. … they would move on, to the towns and cities of the south, to the sleepwalking children in the parks, to the dreaming mothers and fathers embalmed in their homes, waiting to be woken from the present into the infinite realm of their time-filled selves.

There is no suggestion here of a transcendent and eternal existence within an instant of time. Instead, the present is re-established by incorporating the past and future within itself, and they once again become available to create a meaningful life.

So the continual struggle is to how to relate the present to past and future. If these relations become too rigid, then our understanding of reality becomes conservative and restrictive, a theme that occurs regularly in Ballard’s interview comments:

One needs to break the conventional enamel that encases everything. … All around us, in practically every aspect of our lives, decisions are being made for us to guarantee our safe passage through this world. … There’s a sort of constant struggle on a minute-by-minute basis throughout our lives, throughout every day; one needs to dismantle that smothering conventionalized reality that wraps itself around us. There’s a conspiracy, in which we play our willing part, just to stabilize the world we inhabit, or our small corner of it. One needs at the same time to dismantle that smothering set of conventions that we call everyday reality. (interview in ‘Re/Search #8/9: J G Ballard’, 1984)

The danger is that our memories, hopes and ideals act as conventions that stabilize our lives only too well. In reaction against this, we are driven towards the metaphor of a world without past or future, a world that is depicted in its most extreme form in Ballard’s ‘The Summer Cannibals’, one of the pieces that was included in The Atrocity Exhibition. The story concerns a visit by the protagonist (not named in this story, but I shall call him Travis) and his wife to a Mediterranean resort, the entire action taking place within a brief period of time — perhaps a couple of days. There’s much play on the way in which people’s lives are enervated at this type of resort: ‘exhausted by the sun, the resort was almost deserted’, ‘bodies … as inert as the joints of meat on supermarket counters’, and so on. Time passes, but nothing much happens, rather as in Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories. This enervation is reflected in Travis’s relationship with his wife: ‘An enormous neutral ground now divided them, across which their emotions signalled like meaningless semaphores.’ And this neutral ground, which the sun opens up by bleaching away meaning, feelings, etc., is something that Travis can utilize — it opens up new vistas for him to explore. As meaning drains out of the resort and out of the lives of the people within it, the normal sense of time disappears. So the past, instead of being a history, becomes something that exists in our imaginations, and Travis can play around with his memories:

He remembered these pleasures: the conjunction of her exposed pubis with the polished contours of the bidet; the white cube of the bathroom quantifying her left breast as she bent over the handbasin; … her right hand touching the finger-smeared panel of the elevator control. Looking at her from the bed, he re-created these situations, conceptualizations of exquisite games.

And just as ‘the past’ disappears, so does ‘the future’, or at least that idea of the future as something that helps tie together our activities and lives. Instead, we have an open plain of endless possibilities — more exquisite games for Travis: ‘Was he playing an elaborate game with her, using their acts of intercourse for some perverse pleasure of his own?’

In a way, the absence of time passing, the lack of change, is reflected in the first and last paragraphs of ‘The Summer Cannibals’, both of which feature Travis’s wife waiting for him in the car as he wanders around on the beach. These two paragraphs, which bookend the story, are very similar — but are they two alternative versions of the same event? … or two different moments between which nothing much has changed? … or is there in no real difference between these two alternatives? And right at the end of the story, the disappearing footprints of the young man walking past Travis’s wife are symbolic of everything that may have happened: ‘she looked down at the imprints of his feet in the white pumice. The fine sand poured into the hollows, … [she sat] watching the last of the footprints vanish in the sand.’ The footprints just disappear, as if they were never there, vanishing to leave no trace. They have been erased just as surely as the events of the story. The past isn’t in the story at all, except in the memories that Travis plays with. And there’s no future referred to — the end paragraph is virtually identical to the first. So the short period of time in which the events of ‘The Summer Cannibals’ takes place is entirely self-contained — it only means as much or as little as Travis makes it mean.

‘The Summer Cannibals’ is one of Ballard’s extreme metaphors. However, if we turn from the fiction to reality, we see that we might be able to escape the conventionalizing effect of the past and future and live in a more congenial type of endless present, as Ballard did when bringing up his young children, such that one’s everyday life somehow ‘sits right’ with one’s memories and hopes without being determined by them. But (pace Ballard) time does not stand still — memories and hopes can always turn into constraints or into hollow catechisms, and the endless present can resolve into a mere series of events so that time stretches out in front like ‘the plains of Kansas’. This seems to me to be the sort of position that Ballard may have found himself in when he returned to the subject of time and wrote ‘News’, ‘Memories’, and ‘Myths’.

Ballard’s own resolution to these vicissitudes of time is hinted at in a contemporaneous vignette, ‘The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B******’ (1984), in which ‘B’ wakes up to a world totally deserted except for himself and the birds. After wandering around for some months and ascertaining that no-one else remains, he stocks up for the winter:

But his only visitors were the birds, and he scattered handfuls of rice and seeds on the lawn of his garden and on those of his former neighbours. Already he had begun to forget them, and Shepperton soon became an extraordinary aviary, filled with birds of every species. Thus the year ended peacefully, and B was ready to begin his true work.

Ballardian: The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B******

ABOVE: Artwork from Ambit for ‘The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B******’. Illustration by Mark Foreman.

+ ‘News from the Sun’, first published in Ambit #87, Autumn 1981.
+ ‘Memories of the Space Age’, first published in Interzone #2, 1982.
+ ‘Myths of the Near Future’, first published in F & SF, Oct. 1982.
+ ‘The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B******’, first published in Ambit #96, 1984.

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4 Responses »

  1. Brilliant, Mike — truly well done! Your analysis convinces me once again that Ballard, like Kafka, means to “take an axe to the frozen sea within us” and reveal the beauty and terror of the lived life…

  2. Excellent insights, especially re JGB’s children. Somehow it makes me want to read Kant alongside Myths of the Near Future.

  3. thank you mr holliday. my mind is now filled with astronauts wandering an empty florida landscape, where fountains have frozen into light, and carcasses of planes await a new beginning, and time stretches and contracts with every bend in the road. it has also made me want to revisit those stories, and one of my favorite books: the crystal world.
    the surreal artwork enhances your article perfectly.

  4. Excellent and impeccable work! It’s the flying stuff… that sweeps us in.

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