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'Child of the Diaspora': Sterling on BallardAuthor: Chris Nakashima-Brown • Oct 7th, 2005 •
Category: Ballardosphere, Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk, enviro-disaster, flying, interviews, invisible literature, medical procedure, science fiction, sexual politics, Shepperton, urban decay, William Burroughs
Bruce Sterling is a prolific science-fiction writer, futurist, social critic and design professor, best known for his bestselling novels and seminal short fiction, and as the editor of the Mirrorshades anthology that defined the ‘cyberpunk’ subgenre. His nonfiction includes works of futurism such as Tomorrow Now; a regular column and blog for Wired; and his Viridian Design listserv that presciently riffs on climate-change issues and Green design. He’s also wrapping up a one-year tenure as Visionary in Residence at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. In his hometown of Austin, Texas, Sterling sat down in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after a day spent visiting the local evacuee center, to talk about the continued importance of JG Ballard in an increasingly apocalyptic world.
Chris Nakashima-Brown writes short fiction and criticism in Austin, Texas. See www.nakashima-brown.net for more.
So, have you read any Ballard lately?
I read Super-Cannes and the User’s Guide to the Millennium essays. And I come across his critical work with some regularity – newspapers columns, interviews and so forth.
Yeah, he’s kind of a regular in all of the English newspapers.
He is. He’s doing a lot of occasional journalism these days. It’s surprising how often I’ll be reading something and just think to myself “Gosh, this is so lucid and stimulating and – wait a minute, this is Ballard!”
You wrote in the introduction to Mirrorshades that Ballard had a key role in cyberpunk.
I think I may have name-checked him in the introduction to that book, but that wasn’t the half of it. Ballard was the first science-fiction writer I ever read who really blew my mind. I was reading a lot of basic Andre Norton ‘space-squid’ nonsense at the time – I must have been 13 or 14 – then I read The Crystal World. And the assumptions behind The Crystal World were so radically different and ontologically disturbing compared to common pulp-derived SF. If you just look at the mechanisms of the suspension of disbelief in The Crystal World, it’s like, okay, time is vibrating on itself and this has caused the growth of a leprous crystal…whatever. There’s never any kind of fooforah about how the scientist in his lab is going to understand this phenomenon, and reverse it, and save humanity. It’s not even a question of anybody needing to understand what’s going on in any kind of instrumental way. On the contrary, the whole structure of the thing is just this kind of ecstatic surreal acceptance. All Ballard disaster novels are vehicles of psychic fulfilment. But at the age of 14 I couldn’t begin to think in terminology like that. All I knew was that there was something going on in this book that was radically different from the sensibility of everything else I had seen.
They’re narrative laboratories, right? They’re constructed to explore the subconsciousness of the humans that inhabit them rather than getting at it the other way around.
Sort of. Ballard’s a medical student. And he’s also a guy who’s really good at pastiching things that he finds in the wastebasket: the sterile language of the Warren Commission or crash-injury textbooks. He’s really good at repurposing found material. It’s like Mark Pauline – you ask him, “Gee, Mark, how do you make your machines so monstrous?” Pauline says, “I try to get close to them and understand what it is they’re really trying to do”. Right? So it doesn’t surprise me that Pauline is a big Ballard fan, because Ballard has a very similar approach. If you show him some kind of techno-social-medical innovation, he’s always trying to peel it back and understand it from the unconscious urgings that power it.
So how do you position him as an influence on you and the other seminal cyberpunks? Would cyberpunk have happened without him?
Well, I’m sure cyberpunk would have happened without him because cyberpunk is just science fiction by another name. It’s just another attempt, another wave of technical development, and another wave of literateurs trying to jump the gap between the two cultures. Trying to literarily repurpose the computer revolution. And Ballard is someone who’s really good at repurposing scientific material to literary purposes without ever speaking that kind of spavined pop science-ese. The kind of lame language that says something like [holds up digital camera]: “You know, if you could see the tiny grooves that have been carved on the chip of this digital camera, why they would stretch to the moon and back three-and-a-half times!” Which is an attempt to invest wonder in a dry, industrial process. It’s the Carl Sagan school of trying to pump mystic scientism into the dryness of physics. There’s just something phoney-baloney about it because it’s taking an intellectual process that’s very much about methodically stripping the mystery out of natural phenomena and then trying to re-mystify it by approaching it from some more “friendly” sensibility. And there’s just something bogus about that. It has the bogusness of an adult telling a pre-pubertal child about the birds and the bees without talking about the burning needs of sexuality.
That’s what a lot of pop science writing is like. It talks down to the reader, and it covers the stark majesty of Euclidean insight with redigested pap. You don’t get that kind of talking down from Ballard. He’s someone who really seems at ease in the science world, basically because he was writing for science magazines in the early years of bitter struggle. He knew how to get the stuff, translate it down, and pass it out to the readers of technical mags. So he’s not buffaloed by the material. He doesn’t go in for mystic scientism. He doesn’t dress things up in any kind of literary majesty or outrageous metaphors or phoney-baloney sideshows, style, extended similes.
Is he a science-fiction writer?
Oh, yeah. In some sense he’s the only science-fiction writer. He’s a figure who ranks with Stanislaw Lem in that regard, I think. He’s just repurposed the tools of the genre to such a tremendous extent that he’s doing things that are unheard of. He’s like a Hendrix figure who’s, like, this guy that picks up a guitar and instead of doing the things you expect to hear from a guitar, there are notes coming out of it that are like flutes and saxophones. That’s the kind of creative idiosyncrasy that Ballard brings to the genre.
But he’s not extrapolating anything. He’s not a futurist, is he?
Well, he is a futurist, and he’s always extrapolating something or other, but he’s usually extrapolating dark motivations.
More social science than physical science?
No, I don’t think it’s even social science. I mean, a book like Crash is like a guy who’s studied hardcore porn, like bondage porn. The kind of porn where people are so trussed up in like ropes and bags that it’s weirdly asexual, like latex porn, or one of these really extreme levels of fetishism that are close to mental breakdown. And he’s thought: why doesn’t someone do this with cars? That’s an extrapolation. It’s like saying, okay, given A and given C, given latex porn, what about people who have sex with car collisions? And in point of fact, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why people couldn’t get obsessed with car collisions. On the face of it it’s like saying, given a car, why not a flying car – which is a very standard sci-fi extrapolation.
Ballard is one of the few people who would extrapolate that kind of interiority in the human psyche – to say, okay, given bondage porn, why not cars colliding? Take his story “Manhole 69” – it’s about an experiment that renders people sleepless, and they end up with attacks of claustrophobia. They’re sort of liberated and they don’t sleep, and at the end they succumb to a massive mental breakdown where they feel like their psyches have been crushed in a box. And that’s an extrapolation, but it’s an extrapolation along the lines of madness. It involves someone thinking about the human reaction to technical innovation in a way which is not cut and dried. It’s not design thinking, it’s not science thinking, it’s not technical thinking, it’s not medical thinking – it’s really surreal thinking.
Is it the reaction to technical developments that makes it science fiction, or is it the surreal element?
Well I don’t know what else you would call it besides science fiction, because it posits a breakthrough. It’s got cognitive estrangement. It’s got an arc of idea development. In some sense it’s a reasonable extrapolation, but it’s also just very horrifying, and you don’t see many science-fiction writers who are willing to push that line of development – the flaws in the human psyche and what might happen under such circumstances.
You mention Lem. Are there other writers within the genre that you think come at science fiction from a similar angle?
Well, the British New Wave writers. Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head – that’s a pretty Ballardian work. But Aldiss is very prolific and he can sort of do anything for anybody, whereas Ballard does stick to his last.
A lot of his work has an apocalyptic setting, similar to more contemporary climate-catastrophe works from people like Kim Stanley Robinson; some of your mid-90s work has that going on. Ballard comes at it from a very different angle, like he’s one of these cosy English catastrophe-school writers, but with a perverse enjoyment of the liberating aspects of the disaster.
Well, I think it’s Ballard’s youthful acceptance of life in a prison camp that allows him to cheerfully look at the major breakdowns of the bourgeois world and accept them. Lem is very much the same way. I remember Lem saying something along the lines that the Nazi concentration camps had conclusively destroyed the ability of literature to be written about the individual – that from now on you could only write serious work with the scope of the annihilation of a whole population. It simply made no sense to write to any scale less grand than a response to genocide. Lem has the experience of somebody who has witnessed the unspeakable. It’s like going out one day and finding your capital city reduced to ruins by Stuka bombers – that gives him a grandeur of the imagination.
< < Italo Calvino
Do you suppose the next Ballard or Lem is going to come out of the Ninth Ward?
Well, I’m not sure if we saw the next Ballard or Lem we’d be able to recognise them as such. We’d just say, well, okay, he’s William Vollman, or whoever. He’d be as sui generis as these other two characters. You know, another guy who I think is oddly in Ballard’s camp in some profound way is Calvino.
Yeah. Calvino is similar because his work is very extrapolative in a lot of ways, an Oulipo-style mathematical game playing. A Calvino story will posit something unusual, and then it’s chewed over from a whole mathematical-philosophical perspective. And there’s a great deal of mental fireworks in it, but it’s not the sort of thing that makes your Analog engineer-reader slap his forehead with a sense of fulfilment: “Oh, that’s my kind of story”. No, afraid not.
Some of your work has some really overt Ballardian influences, like “The Beautiful and the Sublime,” where you have these people hanging out at this kind of Alpine Vermilion Sands, and you have grounded astronauts and people flying gliders and they’re all very bourgeois and it’s got this English parlour thing going on – it’s a beautiful story, like the kinder and gentler aspects of Ballard. Are you cognisant of those similarities?
I internalised the guy’s work at an early age but I never wanted to write a Ballard pastiche, any more than I would have wanted to write an Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche. There have been moments in stories where I’ve written a phrase and thought, “Well, that’s very Jimmy Ballard”. But I wouldn’t dare write a Ballard story. I just wouldn’t do it.
Do you perceive that he had a similar influence on some of the other seminal cyberpunks like Gibson or Neal Stephenson?
Lew Shiner talked a lot about Ballard – he was a Ballard fan. Gibson is certainly a Ballard reader. A lot of cyberpunks were major Anglophiles. We’re really kind of New Wave 2.0, and if you were into New Wave, you really had to be into British New Wave because that was where it was happening. Of course, I’m a Harlan Ellison disciple, so I’m American New Wave by right of inheritance. But, yeah, you had to read Ballard. I know for a fact that John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly and a lot of the other humanist writers were jealously anxious of Ballard. They didn’t appreciate the idea that cyberpunks were somehow appropriating this guy – someone they really thought of as a hero of their own – as somebody who was willing to write real literary fiction about scientific things, without doing these annoying cyberpunk tropes like “my deck’s got more RAM than yours”.
How do you think it is that Ballard transcended the genre in terms of critical acceptance?
Well, mostly because he really knows what he’s talking about. Ballard can write a movie review that I would dare any other science-fiction writer to do. Science-fiction writers can’t write about popular culture, even high culture, without trotting out their own self-importance. Which is sort of humiliating. Ballard never does that. He’s said things that are very affirmative about science fiction, like “it’s the only true literature of the twentieth century,” “Earth is the only alien planet,” and other wise things. Ballard’s the kind of guy – the kind of science-fiction writer – who can put on a performance in a pop art gallery that would cause a riot! If you took most science-fiction writers and dropped them in a pop-art gallery, they’d be saying things like “I didn’t get it about Picasso”, or “I kind of like Bridget Riley op art. Is that her real name, Bridget Riley?” They wouldn’t grab the bit between their teeth and push the world of artistic expression to a place that caused people to freak out.
There’s a disconnect between the science-fiction community and the rest of popular culture.
Well, science fiction’s a form of popular culture. But if you’d look at most science-fiction practitioners, they basically come across like a Nashville hat act. They’re hicks.
William Gibson wrote an introduction last year to Eileen Gunn’s short story collection, Stable Strategies, in which he recalled his younger self yearning for SF as Bohemia. Ballard seems like he really pulls that off in the context of London in the swinging Sixties. He takes the genre more into the same territory as abstract painters or pop-art practitioners.
I think that’s right. And of course he’s a real scholar of the surrealist movement – he really gets it about André Breton and Max Ernst and the other surrealists. Take early Ballard books like Crystal World with its Ernst frottage cover – that wasn’t by accident. He just has better taste than most science-fiction writers. He’s better read than most science-fiction writers. He takes a coherent intellectual interest in things that aren’t science or technology or engineering. He’s cognisant of those things because he’s got a more variegated tool set. He’s better read. He’s a widely travelled guy. He’s a child of the diaspora. He grew up in China, mostly. He’s not a Little England kind of guy. There’s nothing parochial about him. He never succumbs to nationalist cant. He’s not religious. He just has imagination on the cosmic scale. He’s a hard guy to surprise.
Ballard wrote in the French introduction to Crash that “science fiction is the only true literature of the twentieth century”. Is that still relevant in the 21st century?
I’m not sure that that’s going to hold any water. But I would bet that, in the 22nd century, if someone read that, then Ballard, and if they themselves were of a Ballardian frame of mind, then they would certainly agree with him. Unfortunately, they would also think that if science fiction was the only true form of literature in the twentieth century, it’s only genuine practitioner was JG Ballard. Which may in fact be the case. The judgment of history is still out, but my suspicion is that he has a better chance of being read in a hundred years than ninety percent of his colleagues.
What about Burroughs? Ballard seems to talk about Burroughs a lot. Do you think he can be situated in the same territory roughly?
No. I think Ballard is actually about ten times smarter than Burroughs. I mean, Burroughs is like a drunk who found a sharpened screwdriver in the gutter. His work is claptrap, but it’s marvellous claptrap. So that gives it a weird demented Bohemian majesty. Whereas Ballard is a very fastidious kind of guy who’s very much on top of his game. He’s willing to stare into the same abyss as Burroughs, but he’d never sit there in a heroin stupor as the abyss started eating its way up his leg. You look at the colleagues of Burroughs and you just tick off the body count. It’s unbelievable. Whereas the colleagues of Ballard did pretty well for themselves. Burroughs may be a greater artist than Ballard, because he’s really pushing right past, and over, the edge. But I think Ballard as a creative figure is much more on top of his game than Burroughs. His muse is not a carnivore. He doesn’t have a monkey on his back. He’s really in command of his material.
Over the course of his career we’ve seen this retreat from conventional science-fictional settings and situations, at least in the novels, where we start out with the post-apocalyptic scenarios of the early novels, and then we go to the 70s novels – the urban laboratories of Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise – and on to the contemporary novels, set in a very contemporary setting with very apparently conventional protagonists: Super-Cannes, Cocaine Nights, and Millennium People, where we have middle-class revolutionaries in Chelsea. Any thoughts on what drives that kind of progression?
Well, probably living in Shepperton…
I see similar trends with the cyberpunks: you and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson all write books that have a more contemporary setting. Your most recent novel, The Zenith Angle, is a kind of contemporary, cyberpunky techno thriller; Gibson’s last book, Pattern Recognition, is a post-9/11 quasi-thriller about a cool hunter…
I don’t know. You get good at something and you want to refine it. I think young men have a lot of trouble just keeping the muse down to a hard, steady glow. You tend to see an awful lot of fireworks when you’re a young science-fiction writer, and you tend to use a lot of found material, which I think Ballard did. You look at Ballard, you find a truly deracinated guy in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in the Air Force with nothing to do with himself, suddenly discovering American pulp magazines and thinking, “Jesus, I had no idea this stuff even existed”. So he finds his toolkit at hand and he repurposes all of it. That was certainly the case in the first three books I wrote. They’re all stock material and I’m just trying to bring them up to date, file off the serial numbers, and adjust them to my own sensibility.
Do you perceive a lingering influence of Ballard and the other British New Wave writers in the new British SF?
< < China Mieville
You know, I’d like to say that I did, but I don’t know. There is a kind of edginess to, say, China Mieville – this kind of really “go for the Grand Guignol” thing, something you don’t see American fantasy writing do very much. British SF and fantasy generally just has a broader emotional palette than American fantasy. But the new British space opera, or even British New Weird, doesn’t feel particularly Ballardian to me. They really feel like the Beatles repurposing Chuck Berry or Little Richard. I mean, these are guys who were reading mostly American cultural product and recognising that the Americans had fallen mute in some terrible way and this is their chance to really step out onto the stage and play the pipe organ.
Who’s the real standard bearer in American sci fi these days, other than people who are just writing rack product?
I would guess it would be something like Small Beer Press or maybe McSweeney’s – if you want to read something that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, that would be where you would go. I mean, that really has a very British feel to it. McSweeney’s feels British to me – you read it and it’s all these arch little overeducated statements by guys who are making sort of dry, semi-British kinds of…I don’t know, it’s weird.
Ballard’s early novels were centred on environmental disasters: the environmental devastation is used as the excuse for the creation of a surreal landscape with its own strange logic. Do you see a new awareness of these issues of environmental disaster in the genre? Do you think that science fiction has a role to play in that debate?
I guess. There’s The Drought, The Wind From Nowhere, Crystal World, The Drowned World – his apprentice works. Those works, to me, don’t show any serious environmental awareness; The Wind From Nowhere is literally a wind from nowhere, which makes no sense on the face of it. It’s not like it’s a work of meteorological extrapolation. This isn’t Kim Stanley Robinson manfully tackling climate change. It’s really a guy who saw his world comprehensively destroyed as a young man trying to come to terms with what he himself went through, I think. They’re classic period pieces. The subtext of all those works is British imperial decline. If the question is whether we’re going to be seeing more works of imperial decline, then yeah, I’d be forecasting a few of those, actually. That wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
Do you see any early tremors of that out there?
I don’t know. My suspicion is that in another four to five years you’re going to find people writing about climate change in the same way they wrote about the nuclear threat in the 50s. It’s just going to be in every story every time. People are going to come up with a set of climate-change tropes, like three-eyed mutants and giant two-headed whatevers, because this is the threat of our epoch and it just becomes blatantly obvious to everybody. Everybody’s going to pile on to the bandwagon and probably reduce the whole concept to kindling. That may be the actual solution to a genuine threat of Armageddon – to talk about it so much that it becomes banal.
To me these late-Ballard pieces, these Shepperton pieces – Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and so forth – really seem like gentle chiding from somebody who’s recognised that his civilisation really has gone mad. They’re a series of repetitions that say, “Look, we’re heading for a world where consensus reality really is just plain unsustainable, and the ideas that the majority of our people hold in their heart of hearts are just not connected to reality”. I think that may be a very prophetic assessment on his part. I think we may in fact be in such a world right now – where people have really just lost touch with the “reality-based community” and are basically just living in self-generated fantasy echo chambers that have no more to do with the nature of geopolitical reality than Athanasius Kircher or Castaneda’s Don Juan.
Any reasons for optimism?
Well, yeah. I think it’s an optimistic thing that Ballard’s lived a long time. He’s sort of a great, spreading oak tree, really. If you had looked at the wild boys of the British New Wave in their heyday, you might’ve thought, “Oh, well, they’ll all hang themselves,” or “They’ll throw themselves into the sea like beatniks,” or “This will end in murder”. And if anybody was going to come to a wicked end, it would have been Jimmy Ballard – the obsessive, the psychotic crank, the man who’s staring right into the eyes of it. His condensed novels [collected in The Atrocity Exhibition] really have a freak-out quality to them. But he didn’t die of that. On the contrary, he just sort of fed on it. You can read his critical works now and he’s obviously in full possession of his senses. He’s funny, he’s on top of his game. He’s still an interesting guy to read even though he’s at an advanced age now. He’s got things to say that are remarkable and make you feel better about things and really demonstrate some analytical insight. I envy that. I hope that if I live that long I have that many marbles left in my little velvet drawstring bag. To me that’s reason for optimism. I don’t like to call it optimism, because as a futurist I think there’s something wrong with that term. If you say you’re optimistic or pessimistic about the future, it’s just giving you an excuse to place a patch over one eye and ignore half of the determining factors. You should struggle hard not to be optimistic or pessimistic about a future prospect. What you should do is be engaged and in command of the facts. So to be optimistic or pessimistic are really intellectual vices. But on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a role model.
Ballard is somebody who really has something to say. He’s saying it to a lot of different people. He’s never sold out, never wrote a cheesy trilogy. He had movies made of his books. He recovered. He didn’t care. They were okay movies, even. He had some money. His children grew to adulthood. He has grandchildren. He was never arrested. He hasn’t been in a jail or a clinic. He’s not Jeffrey Archer. He didn’t come to a bad end. He’s not an alcoholic. He has a life that many people would envy. And justly so. To that end, I feel very pleased about him. Not that I am an optimist about him or his worldview. I would not want him to have another worldview. I’m not going to criticise his sensibility. He’s a great artist. He’s given something very few people can give; in his case, he’s the only one who could possibly have given that. He gave a lot of it, it was good, it was consistently interesting. What more does one want?
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