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'Unblinking, clinical': From Ballard to cyberpunk

Author: • Nov 26th, 2008 •

Category: America, Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk, features, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds, technology, William Burroughs, William Gibson

Ballardian: Cyberpunk

Illustrations by Mike Saenz for two Ballard stories in Semiotext(e) SF: ‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ and ‘Report on an Unidentified Space Station’.

Rudy Rucker’s wonderful reminiscences about the early days of cyberpunk (‘it felt like being an early Beat’), Bruce Sterling (who ‘loved all things Soviet’) and William Gibson (the man with the ‘flexible-looking head’) got me thinking once again about Ballard’s role in the shaping of the cyberpunk mythology.

In his introduction to the Mirrorshades anthology, Sterling wrote: ‘The cyberpunks are perhaps the first SF generation to grow up not only within the literary tradition of science fiction but in a truly science-fictional world… the techniques of classical “hard SF” … are not just literary tools but an aid to daily life. They are a means of understanding, and highly valued.’ Sterling’s reference to ‘hard SF’ — time-honoured narratives infused with the spirit of scientific investigation — suggests an affinity with the traditions of the genre, a love of the dizzying ideas and sheer scope of the best SF writing. However, his positioning of the cyberpunk movement as ostensibly a form of realism indicates a shift in the genre’s relationship to the technology it once idealised:

‘Science fiction — at least according to its official dogma — has always been about the impact of technology. But times have changed since the comfortable era of Gernsback, when Science was safely enshrined — and confined — in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.

For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.’

Sterling, introduction to Mirrorshades.

Ballardian: Cyberpunk

Early Sterling (photo courtesy Rudy Rucker). ‘He dug the parallel world aspect…’.

For Sterling, there was no doubt as to Ballard’s importance in shaping this attitude, when he called attention to the latter’s ‘unblinking, almost clinical objectivity’, which makes him an ‘idolized role model to many cyberpunks’. He reiterated this impact at the recent Kosmopolis panel on Ballard:

In the circle of American science fiction writers of my generation — cyberpunks and humanists and so forth — [Ballard] was a towering figure. We used to have bitter struggles over who was more Ballardian than whom. We knew we were not fit to polish the man’s boots, and we were scarcely able to understand how we could get to a position to do work which he might respect or stand, but at least we were able to see the peak of achievement that he had reached.

Sterling at Kosmopolis.

Ballardian: Cyberpunk

Another cyberpunk link worth noting is the inclusion of two Ballard pieces, ‘Jane Fonda’s Augmentation Mammoplasty’ and ‘Report on an Unidentified Space Station’, in the anthology Semiotext(e) SF (1989), edited by Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson (the man behind ‘Hakim Bey’) and Robert Anton Wilson. Alongside Ballard there appeared writing from the three editors, and from Sterling, Gibson, Ian Watson, William Burroughs, Colin Wilson, Robert Sheckley, Philip José Farmer and others. The introduction to Ballard’s stories acknowledges a clear debt:

Without J.G. Ballard, none of this would exist. We’re weak on SF history, but we think it fair to say that Ballard was among the first world-class writers (perhaps along with the Soviets) to realize that SF was no longer merely a pulp genre, but had become the only possible vehicle for a mythos of the modern world, that it had replaced the psychological novel as the central artwork of our culture.

Anonymous, Semiotext(e) SF.

In the Acknowledgements, Bey/Wilson writes: ‘Despite the already daunting size of the anthology, I feel compelled to mention some writers who should be in it, but, for various reasons, aren’t… Samuel Delaney and Thomas Disch … Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss…’ These names suggest Wilson’s desire to replicate the strategies not only of Ballard but also of New Worlds, which is further reflected in the anthology’s collage illustrations, concrete poetry and impressionistic typesetting. The intent is clear and the inclusion of Gibson and Sterling, alongside Burroughs and Ballard, made it plain: for the editors, cyberpunk was the New Wave updated for a new era, its relevance as enduring as ever. And for Wilson, as it was for Sterling, Ballard remained the key, a writer able to straddle eras with deep insight into the increasingly science-fictional nature of day to day life.

Ballardian: Cyberpunk

Peter Lamborn Wilson at Living Theatre, NYC. Photo: amc.

The influence of Ballard on Semiotext(e) is also underscored by the anthology’s inclusion of Michael Blumlein’s story ‘Shed His Grace’. It features a character called ‘T’, who sits before a bank of TV screens displaying various broadcasts from TV and cinema, distorted and magnified many times over. When T selects clips of President Ronald Reagan and the First Lady and freezes on their smiles, he strips naked and projects live-action images of his genitals onto the middle screens. Absorbed inside televisual reality, he then amputates his penis while the Reagans ‘watch’, with T apparently unaware of the consequences to his body in the real world. This seems both homage to and reimagining of Ballard’s own character (often referred to as ‘T-‘) in The Atrocity Exhibition — who of course was obsessed with the then-Governor Reagan. But Blumlein updates the template for the 80s, when Reagan’s presidency was seen as a farce of sickly emotion masking devastating consequences for ordinary people. The story also echoes Ballard’s ‘Motel Architecture’ (1978), which features a character obsessed with a bank of TV monitors, similarly oblivious to the destruction he performs on his own body, so lost is he in the ‘gaze’.

Back in the New Worlds era, in 1964, Ballard noted the SF elements in Burroughs, which: ‘play a metaphorical role and are not intended to represent “three-dimensional” figures. These self-satirizing figments are part of the casual vocabulary of the space age’. For Ballard, Burroughs’s importance is that he ‘illustrates that the whole of SF’s imaginary universe has long been absorbed into the general consciousness, and that most of its ideas are now valid only in a kind of marginal spoofing’. This then provided a test bed for Ballard’s own work, in which ‘the next five minutes’ was to be the focus rather than the next 500 years, documenting the SF of today, so thoroughly absorbed and integrated into our everyday lives as to go unnoticed.

Ballardian: Cyberpunk

Early Gibson (photo courtesy Rudy Rucker). ‘High on some SF-sounding substance…’.

It was a move demonstrably ahead of its time. Almost 50 years later, when asked if the present day had caught up with his work, Gibson replied: ‘I thought that writing about the world today as I perceive it would probably be more challenging, in the real sense of science fiction, than continuing just to make things up… I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way… things are changing too quickly… you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future’.

Today, people continue to reignite heated debate about the worth of SF – re-asking the question ‘Does the future have a future?’, to quote Ballard. But anyone who has absorbed Ballard’s work has been privileged to know the outcome of such a debate for quite some time.

That is, ‘no’. The answer is No. No future for you.

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20 Responses »

  1. Simon… one nitpick: the T- character in Atrocity is not obsessed with Reagan, but with Kennedy. But WIWTFRR was certainly a chapter/short story/part of Atrocity.

  2. Actually, that’s not true — in Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, the subheads read:

    ‘Tallis became increasingly obsessed with the pudenda of the Presidential contender mediated to him by a thousand television screens’.

    ‘Tallis’, of course, is one of the names by which T- is known and the ‘Presidential contender’ is of course Reagan. The ‘thousand television screens’ is another clear indication that Blumlein was homaging Atrocity.

  3. ahh… ya got me in the subhead… as you know, Tallis is also the protagonist of You:Coma:Marilyn Monroe, and by implication her association with Kennedy… Y:C:MM was written in 1966, so JGB must have “updated” Tallis to his new obsession with Reagan when WIWTFRR was written in 1968. It’s also an update in pudenda fixation, from Nader to Reagan…

  4. (Laughing) thx for the early pix of Bruce and Mr. Gibson!

    Bruce Sterling and I first met at the UofTexas at Austin SF Fan society, ca. 1975. I attended a few of the legendary “Turkey Cities” of us beginning wannabe-writers and even got to see and critique the first-draft typescript of Bruce’s 1st published novel, *Involution Ocean*. In the early 90s his support for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and his “Hacker Crackdown” book were invaluable. I remember him throwing that book out as fistfuls of disks to a whole seated ‘hacker undeground” convention, HoHoCon in 1992. He had inserted a clause with his *Hacker Crackdown* publisher enabling him to do that w/o breaking his publisher’s rights to his work. So they had bought SOME (but not ALL) of the copyrights to it.. (A copyright is best thought of legally as a BUNDLE of separable rights, the splitting of the Bundle limited only by your thoughts – and what 2 parties can agree on…)

    A brave, tenacious, and very wise man. And of us all, only he made it to a REAL career as a gen-U-Wine SF Writer! A complex man, and we have enjoyed a complex – but geo-far-off – relationship for many decades now. With his permission, I distributed samizdat-made copies of his story “Green Days in Brunei” when I lived in 2 yrs. in Brunei (see: Borneo, N. Coast) and the Bruneians were blown away that such a great writer had so – umm, honored their country. In return, I sent Bruce a Brunei Dollar. I believe he still has it.

    His blog at WIRED = http://blog.wired.com/sterling/ “Beyond the Beyond”. A Professional Futurist!

    And he spoke the Truth… yes, ALL of us were Ballardians even back then, not fit to polish the Man’s boots. And so we both remain. Each tributing JGB in our own ways. 33 years now and counting.

    Simon, this was the post I was waiting for. THANKS, DOCTOR Sellars!

    Crashman – 0 degrees of separation from Mr. Sterling since 1975-6.

  5. Good stuff, Crashman — thanks for the personal recall. Very interesting. But surely the post you would be waiting for would be one about a dead pilot with a 747’s landing gear wedged up his nose? Heh heh, only joking, man.

    By the way, I’m not a doctor — my thesis is still under examination.

  6. […] ‘Unblinking, clinical’: From Ballard to cyberpunk […]

  7. Simon, do you have to “orally defend” your Thesis before the august Faculty Members in your Dep’t.. in the time-honored Ph.D.Tradition? Or have they dispensed with that little ritual now? It should be dispensed with – it’s merely a personal torment. Your Thesis is, I’m sure, quite clear on a Written Page.

  8. […] Nice piece over at Ballardian looking at J.G.’s influence on cyberpunk. […]

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  10. Crashman — no I don’t. We don’t have the viva in Australia. I wouldn’t have minded defending it, however. If I can fend off some of the trolls on this website, I’m sure I can defend my thesis!

  11. This was AMAZING. Great brainfood, great remix, great think-piece…you gave me a lot to chew on for the evening and I’m grateful. Dope layout on the site itself, too.

  12. Worth noting too that illustrator Mike Saenz did a comic called Shatter in 1985. Kind of Blade Runner-lite storywise, it was the first to be drawn on a computer (though traditionally coloured and lettered). A couple of years later he produced the first digital graphic novel, Iron Man: Crash. Donna Matrix from the early ’90s is worth a look as well.

  13. Hi Big Dentist,

    Firstly, “is it safe?” And secondly, thanks for that info. I love Saenz’s graphics in the Semiotext(e) anthology — they seemed to tap into all sorts of semiological signals. Sort of like state-sanctioned pictograms with subliminal intent. I’ve been looking forward to finding out more about his work, so those titles you’ve supplied will come in handy. Cheers.

  14. Simon, I just dug out some issues of Shatter and I have to say the years have not been kind to the artwork. Although the strip had appeared as a backup in Jon Sable: Freelance and a one-off Shatter Special, Saenz left after two issues of it getting its own title. I remember being pretty underwhelmed by his stuff even at the time; the replacement artists on the following six issues simply drew their artwork normally and had it digitized, until First Comics found someone capable of mimicking Saenz’s technique, and in my opinion it never got beyond the jerky, flat, etch-a-sketch look. I really wish he’d tried producing a comic or some kind of sequential art in the same style as those Semiotext(e) graphics. They remind me of Jim Steranko’s illustrations for “Repent, Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman from The Illustrated Harlan Ellison years ago (with special 3-D glasses included!) – similar kind of abstraction, overlays and repetition.

    I still haven’t read his Iron Man graphic novel. Long out of print now, though I’m amazed Marvel haven’t reissued it. It’s a little piece of history and they’re certainly not shy about caning their back-catalogue in the wake of the Iron Man movie.

    Donna Matrix is more like it. Full 3-D rendering: a bit blocky and sub-Lara Croft but not at all bad for fifteen years ago. And who can argue with a messed-up, tooled-up sexbot who wants you to spit-shine her boots?

    Is it not remarkable? Simple oil of cloves, and how amazing the results…

  15. Thanks for the update, BD. I was so smitten by those Semiotext(e) graphics that I had an artist reproduce the style for an anthology I was working on a while ago. But this is great: there’s lots for me to catch up on!

  16. […] Tagged culture, j.g. ballard, modernism, science fiction http://www.ballardian.com/unblinking-clinical-from-ballard-to-cyberpunk […]

  17. […] The spectre of Ballard is hovering around many of these themes. Ballardian traces the links between Ballard and cyberpunk (with Hakim Bey/Peter Lamborn Wilson thrown in too: it’s where I got the Semiotext(e) SF […]

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