Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ballard's Complete Short Stories

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Max Ernst

I've just read the Complete Ballard short story collection that came out after his death. It's thick and took me two borrowings to get through it. Before this my experience of Ballard was limited to Crash, the film adaptation of Empire of the Sun, and the novel the Crystal World. Certainly his fans (especially one old friend and sometime reader of this blog) play up his strangeness and the oblique apocalyptic imagery of his work, and maybe this is why I'm left a little cool by his short stories - my bar for shock and surprise were set a little high. In fact I would put most of these stories on the margin of mainstream 60s-90s science fiction; in fact P.K. Dick, with his non-hierarchical realities and attendant narrative structure games and unreliable narrators, is inarguably further outside.

Positive observations: it's hard not to get the sense that Ballard is a guy who spent a lot of his time alone in introspection, and the essential isolation of his protagonists is near universal, whether they're in some kind of inexplicable post-London wasteland or in an unhappy marriage. His imagery of the deserts and ruins, and especially his accounts of the internal dialogue of the characters wandering them, are expertly drawn. His description of the strange malaise of the permanent desert-beach resort dweller is also incisive. Ballard also solves a narrative problem of speculative fiction - the extended character-less, plot-less extrapolation - by taking out the characters and action, and writes like a historian a journalist, in broad brushes. Hard science fiction especially often grudgingly salts a story with characters just so there are mouthpieces to describe the device or alien ship they've found, but Ballard sometimes tosses them out as superfluous and writes honest prose more true to its narrative purpose.

One trick that Ballard occasionally pulls out is to take advantage of his genre's tolerance of the fantastic by descriptions where it's unclear whether he's speaking metaphorically, or we're seeing the sci-fi version of magical realism. For example: in one story he makes frequent references to a woman who has twitching insect legs for eyelashes. Few of us would be romantically drawn to such a woman, if he's describing her literally. Is this magical realism, i.e. a change in technology which in turn has changed social norms, so the characters react acceptingly to something which would shock us? Or are we to take it as a metaphor, in deliberately alienating terms? More interestingly, is this ambiguity his intention? Without resolving the question of metaphor or realism, it's hard to know whether the characters react as expected or even visualize the story, which produces an interesting and distancing reading experience, and if he conceived and executed this deliberately it's easily my favorite Ballard signature - although so far as I detected, it occurs only in his early works.

The ambivalent: without taking sides in any piece of writing with political overtones, we can observe that those overtones are dated, and Ballard's 80s writing also carries the disdainful flavor of the frustrated liberal at that time in the political wilderness, writing self-satisfied allegories. (Again, I wasn't expecting such a supposedly strange writer to fit so neatly into worn slots left by his contemporaries.) Also around this time or slightly before we see his investigations into the parallel reality produced by consumer culture; maybe even due to its successful penetration of popular awareness, this species of bludgeoning anti-commercialism hasn't aged well either; I found myself thinking, "Yes yes, I get it." I'd rather read Umberto Eco's nonfiction on hyper-reality than this.

Ballard's self-reflection, when encountered repeatedly in a collection like this, is probably less charming than when seen in a single story or novel. But here his obsessions are on full display and in repeated screenings they get stale quickly. In particular, there is the frequent apperance of medical authority figures and psychiatrists in general - not surprising, since Ballard began medical school intending to be a psychiatrist but didn't finish - and in this at least he's different from his early contemporaries, whose heroes were often physical scientist-adventurers with seemingly no internal dialogue. (I'm in medical school right now and psychiatrist is on my short list of specialties, which initially endeared Ballard to me, but the effect didn't last. Introspection is difficult to make interesting to people besides yourself.) His non-standard (at least for mid-century science fiction) protagonists are refreshing but again, certainly not strikingly innovative.

Oddly, one of the aspects of Ballard's short stories that has aged well is a nuanced techno-optimism that places him squarely within the science fiction mainstream. This is probably what surprised me most about the bulk of these stories, relative to his reputation. Although unlike his mainstream sf contemporaries he recognized that science isn't magic and often induces social and moral conflicts that weren't anticipated (sometimes spending too much time on questions that medicine and science either has now answered or which the public became generally comfortable with), at base he shared what many now consider mid-century naivete; technological progress is inevitable, will lead to the betterment of mankind in important ways, and is pushed forward by rugged individuals with scientific training, even if they're a little more reflective than other science fiction protagonists.

The negative: Easily Ballard's most annoying tic is his strong tendency to make a point pretty clearly through allegory or symbolic analogy - and then in the very next paragraph, explicitly state the point he was making. I first noticed this years ago in The Crystal World; the same tic is on display in several of his short stories in this collection. The real issue is that there's no charitable interpretation of this habit. Either he's insulting his reader by feeling he has to explain what he's doing; or he's insecure in his own delivery and just can't bear that someone might miss it; or his editor suggested he make the message more explicit, and he dropped these clunking paragraphs into his stories and left them there, un-smoothed, out of spite or laziness; or he just didn't realize that this repetition would make such an impression. Even if he deliberately wants to annoy the reader (which would be a completely valid goal) there are much better ways to do it, and there's no sign that he's being so clever.

The lesson to me is that Ballard's reputation does him a disservice by setting expectations out of line with his writing. His work is worth our time but it would be much easier to appreciate him if he weren't consistently presented as science fiction's Dali.


dbonfitto said...

Who are you calling old?

I think what you may be missing with Ballard is that his characters aren't characters. They're setting. His settings are massive, invasive, and alien. The characters rarely affect it, but end up getting absorbed into it (or escaping but being broken and haunted).

The Crystal World is supposed to be a parallel set with The Drowned World and The Drought.

As best as I can tell, you're not supposed to really identify with his characters. They're wildlife.

Michael Caton said...

You're right about the interplay between character and setting, and anyone who writes speculative fiction without playing with setting is missing the point of the genre. In that regard Ballard is doing a good job. But my problem isn't with his characters - it's with reviewers who try to make him seem so strange when these protagonists would fit quite well with mid-century science fiction, which frequently used characters as mouthpieces for the setting (when Ballard wants to do that, he does it more honestly and effectively than most, to his credit). I think a lot of readers, including myself, will indeed identify with the thought trains of his characters, whether they're set pieces or not.

dbonfitto said...

I wouldn't call Ballard "strange."
I'd call him "uncanny," as in the valley.

His settings tend to have one relatively minor alteration that snowballs. Characters are pulled along by these changes. What's interesting about them is rarely their normal lives, often their normal lives are stuck in a rut of some sort, but their reaction to the change. They're lab rats.