Predicting The Future From The Past
The science fiction author JG Ballard predicted that writers would soon become obsolete. They would be like Victorian stock characters, with no discernible purpose in the world. He suggested that given external reality is now a fiction, you don’t need to invent it anymore.
It’s an idea echoed by Adam Curtis, a Ballardian documentary-maker, here;
More and more I find myself being drawn back to Ballard, and his successors, like Curtis. I wish Ballard’s editors had encouraged him to investigate the modern world in other ways. He would have appreciated the stupidity of an entire nation being told how to vote by a lie painted on a bus. He certainly foresaw the rise of the Millennials.
‘There’s a passive strain in the English psyche’, he said, describing London as ‘an Orwellian nightmare come true, disguised as a public service. We live in a world which is now entirely artificial, almost as though were living inside an enormous novel…People enjoy being infantilised…There’s an unconscious need on the part of the current American government to nuke the rest of the world.’
Now that more than 50% of the world has been labelled ‘Middle Class’, how right did Ballard get the future? Almost every quote of his – including the ones where he mischievously sets out to shock – has a kernel of truth in it.
‘As long as one tenth of one percent of the population is catered for, everybody’s happy, but God help the other 99.9%.’
‘It’s a myth to think that the middle classes are incapable of violence. They’re just very patient. They need to be sufficiently provoked before they explode.’ And ‘London is a place where everyone knows his place.’
Ballard lived in a part of the country now virtually claimed as being in London, that peculiar melding of landscape, islands, yachts and river inlets called Shepperton, once associated with the artifice of film studios. But his ‘five minutes into the future’ books are still startling in their prescience, from ‘Concrete Island’, in which an alternative society forms among the discards of London’s traffic system to the social disintegration of ‘High Rise’.
Ballard’s later books like ‘Cocaine Nights’ and ‘Super-Cannes’ may have been set in Spain and France but felt that they could easily have been set in London, and he completed his quartet of future societal breakdowns with ‘Millennium People’ and ‘Kingdom Come’, which examine the idea of consumption and wealth as psychosis. Readers were quick to misunderstand his intentions with these novels, which saw a future unmoored from the oppression of history and geography as liberating as well as hellish. London is a city shackled to its history, and by freeing it Ballard saw some suffer and others rise to the challenge of change through the extremes of the new freedom.
The brilliance of Ballard is that he created future dystopias to allow us to examine ourselves. What still disturbs me is that he saw, from what is now the distant past, precisely what London is going through at the moment, with its new skyline and areas owned exclusively by the super-rich. What is Boris Johnson but a charismatic, wrong-headed Ballard character?
What’s really bothersome is that Ballard also imagined global warming, societal collapse and the rise of messianic madmen leading uneducated people into states of terrorism. ‘Your purpose is to shop’ says Adam Curtis. But in a world where nothing is true, perhaps only the fiction of the far-sighted can help us.
Ballard’s ideas have been rightly celebrated but I particularly love the cadence of his sentences, and his extraordinary use of colour, light and landscape. I tried to imitate his prose in my early days and failed embarrassingly, because his unique expression came from somewhere deep inside and was not simply chosen as a style.
Shifting sands, rising waters, blazing sun, the refraction of light through crystal – there is something highly exotic and foreign in his writing which cuts like a razor through the most prosaic situations. Who else could set not one but several books around the Westway road in West London, a place so mundane as to be invisible to its users?
This point may not be obvious, but Ballard could be very funny, in that dry English way that does not feel like humour at all. For most overt proof, read ‘The Unlimited Dream Company’. Many of his stories have a streak of gently cruel wit running through them that exposes man’s foibles and preoccupations.
He was often misunderstood by critics, who complained that his characters were ciphers – but I would argue that they were only so when he wanted them to be. The problem was perhaps that he understood the English nature all too well, and our critics don’t always like to be so exposed to the world.
He also gave the dictionary a word – ‘Ballardian’, meaning a dystopian modernist urban environment. The real miracle is that for all his talk of disconnection and alienation he wrote wih more human warmth than almost anyone I can think of, because he understood what it means to be human, and to accept that state with a kind of calm detachment.