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Walking on the Moon?Author: Simon Sellars • Feb 13th, 2007 •
Joe Kittinger — world’s forgotten boy; never quite made it to the moon…
There’s a footnote in The Atrocity Exhibition, one of my favourite books of J.G. Ballard’s, that sprung to mind when I’d read this report:
“Little information has been released about the psychological effects of space travel, both on the astronauts and the the public at large. Over the years NASA spokesmen have even denied that the astronauts dream at all during their space flights. But it is clear from the subsequently troubled careers of many of the astronauts (Armstrong, probably the only man for whom the 20th century will be remembered 50,000 years from now, refuses to discuss the moon-landing) that they suffered severe psychological damage.”
Perhaps this is partially why Dave Bowman went mad?”
Good point. As former NASA psychiatrist Dr. Patricia Santy remarked when the Nowak story broke: “I really believe that NASA goes overboard in promoting how heroic and super all these people are. They themselves have forgotten these are ordinary people and in that kind of celebrity culture, there’s a sense of entitlement.”
Ms Santy could be describing any of Ballard’s so-called “Cape Canaveral” fictions, and while Ballard’s anti-NASA work is a little-discussed portal into his themes and obsessions, it’s one that I’m betting will be activated as more and more astronauts publicly “fall to earth”. For anyone interested in applying a Ballardian blowtorch to the Lisa Nowak story, JGB’s short-story collection Memories of the Space Age (1988) is essential (If you can’t find it, buy The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, which, of course, has everything.) Following is the list of contents for Memories, accompanied by quotes and criticism. At the end of this list are some further thoughts and some links to essays, audio files and posts exploring these themes in greater detail.
..:: MEMORIES OF THE SPACE AGE: CONTENTS
“The Cage of Sand” (1962)
“[Ballard’s] first short masterpiece … codified his distinctive prose style: a disciplined, hypnotic rhythm; the accumulation of surgically described detail; the sweeping, free associative similes; and humor so dark that most readers are never able to see it.”
Jeremy Adam Smith. Evolution of a Moralist: J.G. Ballard in the 21st Century.
“A Question of Re-entry” (1963)
“The [story] follows its Conradian opening with [a] boat journey up the Amazon … in pursuit of information about a lost space capsule; the UN officer in charge of the search is being taken to meet a Kurz-figure, a Westerner who has gone native, and who holds an Indian tribe around him through the sheer force of his personality — and something more. Although often intense, Ballard is seldom humourless, as the irony of the title’s pun eventually reveals.”
Iain Rowan. The Terminal Beach.
“The Dead Astronaut” (1968)
“Ballard opened [this] story with the eerie words “Cape Kennedy has gone now” (67) … Florida has been long since abandoned by NASA and Cape Kennedy has become a crash-zone, a place where the orbiting satellites home-in on their return to earth and literally crash. In addition to the unmanned satellites in orbit, “a dozen astronauts had died in orbital accidents, their capsules left to revolve through the night sky like the stars of a new constellation” (69).
+ See Playboy magazine for ‘The Dead Astronaut’ in full.
“My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974)
A deeply melancholic, deeply mysterious story about Melville, a former astronaut who flew a solitary mission in space, suffering a mental breakdown that was broadcast live to millions of viewers on Earth. A shell of his former self, Melville resolves to fly to remote Wake Island, in the Pacific Ocean. He’s fascinated by Wake’s geographical isolation and its “psychological reduction” deriving from its former role as an American WWII airbase — much like his own. I visited the North Pacific in 2005 and wrote a piece about the journey, using Ballard’s story as a type of mental travel guide.
“News from the Sun” (1981)
“In “News from the Sun” … Ballard introduces the idea of space/time sickness, fugues brought on by humanity’s ill-guided exploration of space: “the year-long flights … had set off the whole time-plague, cracked the cosmic hourglass” (105). This cracking of the “cosmic hourglass” and resulting madness reflects many of the concepts of the posthuman, including the limitations of the human body and desire for eternal life.”
“Memories of the Space Age” (1982)
“In a sense, we’ve arrived in the future foretold … in … “Memories of the Space Age.” The protagonist’s sense of time becomes increasingly attenuated until he ends up embalmed in a “small installment of forever,” having accelerated into “a world beyond time”: the utopia of the frozen moment. It’s Blake’s mystical vision of “eternity in an hour,” updated for the age of “Doc” Edgerton’s strobe flash. Ballard imagined the moment — our moment — when the headlong hurtle of the modern age finally reached terminal velocity. The image of speed — “blistering speed” — in the first year of the 21st century, is a human being in a chair, staring at a screen, going nowhere at a billion bits an hour.”
Mark Dery. Killing Time.
“Myths of the Near Future” (1982)
“The sinuous musical setting of [Bryan Ferry’s] ”Windswept” works like a photo enlarger on the lyric’s highly charged erotic imagery, blowing up pictures of a curved arm or a single droplet of sweat to near-billboard size, as in the similarly lush and surreal ”Myths of the Near Future” by the British novelist J. G. Ballard. And there is a connection here. Mr. Ballard is a chronicler of obsessions, a man who finds himself spellbound by a handful of images, many of them quite ordinary by themselves, and then examines and distorts these images in every conceivable way.”
Robert Palmer. The Pop Life.
“The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985)
This strange tale of identity transference concerns the unnamed narrator, a jaded journalist (with an interest in science-fiction films), and his friendship with Scranton, a beggar who scams tourists for money on Copacabana Beach by pretending to be an ex-astronaut who had walked on the moon years ago. When Scranton’s health declines, the journalist begins to see through Scranton’s eyes, thereby beginning his own “career in space”. Wandering the streets, his colleagues call to him, but he’s “barely aware of them, as if they were planetary visitors hailing [him] from the edge of a remote crater.” Pedestrians become “remote and fleeting figures, little more than tricks of the sun.” When the journalist’s wife leaves him, he moves into Scranton’s place, only for Scranton to die. Finally, when he takes Scranton’s spot on the beach, begging for money in exchange for his “tales from space”, we fully accept the story’s theme: alienation and withdrawal in the face of an increasingly pointless and banal postmodern world.
Melanie Rosen Brown’s Dead Astronauts, Cyborgs, and the Cape Canaveral Fiction of J.G. Ballard: A Posthuman Analysis takes an unusual — posthumanist — approach: “Ballard characterizes our departure from our planet to explore space as a crime against our very humanity. While in his stories both NASA and its astronauts fare poorly, those who suffer the most are in actuality those left behind to deal with the remains of what falls back to Earth … Only through the merging of technology and humanity — a hybrid of posthuman and human — does the world continue to spin for the astronauts of Ballard’s world.”
Evelyn C. Leeper’s review of the book takes a conservative, “hard science fiction” approach. She writes, “Ballard really likes the image of dead astronauts circling the globe in their capsules, especially when he can have them achieve flaming re-entries as needed for the plot — always landing at the Cape, of course. It’s not clear how this is accomplished, though one story mentions radio beacons in passing. Right — the whole Cape is deserted and covered by sand, but the beacons still work … Ballard’s total disregard for science or scientific law makes it difficult to discuss the issues raised logically.”
However, she then goes on to praise the “cover by Max Ernst … much better than a lot of the artwork one sees on … books these days.” The irony, of course, is that Leeper completely misses the key this cover (a reproduction of Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain”) provides to unlocking the psychological meaning of these stories. Ballard has stated his admiration for “the classic Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and Paul Delvaux, where the laws of time and space are constantly being suspended, and where reality is decoded in an attempt to discover the superreality that lies behind the facade of everyday life.” (quoted in Rolling Stone, 1987). Elsewhere, he has stated that “the classic landscapes of Ernst … confirmed my own .. interior landscape.” (quoted in Friends, 1970).
Leeper labours away with the wrong box of tools and gets nowhere. Imagine if she was an art critic, discussing “Europe After the Rain” with the same bag of tricks. “Ernst really likes the image of life emerging from rock in the middle of a blasted landscape,” I can hear her say. “Of course, it’s not clear how this is accomplished. Right — the whole landscape has been bombed and destroyed, but flora somehow thrives and sprouts from twisted metal. Ernst’s total disregard for the laws of nature makes it difficult to discuss the issues raised logically.”
Ernst escapes such debasement, though, for the simple reason that Leeper believes that superreality — a radical exploration of the subconscious — must be confined to art, whereas literature — and Ballard — must conform to realist modes that haven’t changed shape or form since the 19th century.
As is typical of Ballard’s reach and influence, a number of musicians have been influenced by the astronaut stories. Australia’s Steve Law (Zen Paradox) based an album around ‘News from the Sun’, while Dutch band Sputnik fuses the melancholy of the decaying Cosmonaut program with the utter helplessness of Ballard’s astronauts on their 1998 album Favourite Songs of the Soviet Cosmonauts. More latterly, in a blow for Klaxons fans, we can confirm that the German/Icelandic duo, Mo Boma, were the first to base an album around “Myths of the Near Future” — in not one, but three volumes.
..:: ON SCREEN
Ballard appeared in an episode of The Late Show, entitled “Whatever happened to the Space Age?”, broadcast on Britain’s BBC2 in 1993. Here are the relevant excerpts from the BFI’s time-coded synopsis:
(2.20). J.G. Ballard (Author – ‘Memories of the Space Age’) explains that 50 years ago transport was getting faster and better. There was a sense of excitement – space would be the next conquered domain (15.25). J.G. Ballard – in the future, the moon landings may be seen as the single most important event of this millenium (36.23). J.G. Ballard – image of huge machines billowing smoke and shooting off to space is now seen in the same ‘antique’ way as steam trains. It is not perceived as the future.
..:: ON RADIO
For time-poor urban professionals who can’t find the head space to read books due to the almost total blurring of work and leisure spheres in the early stages of the 21st century, the following links will take you to mp3s of Canadian radio plays adapted from three of Ballard’s astronaut stories:
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