My personal Ballard retrospective has continued with me reading two of his short story collections on the trot: The Voices of Time (aka The Four Dimensional Nightmare) and The Terminal Beach, both of which I first read as a teenager in the 70s when they were part of my father’s smallish but (for me) very influential SF collection. I loved them both on re-reading as much as I did first time round. Indeed I’ve been engrossed by them in a way that I haven’t been engrossed by any work of fiction for a very long time. Sad to say it, but true.
I read The Crystal World immediately before these two collections and enjoyed it very much too, but reading the stories convinces me that the short form was Ballard’s natural medium. The Crystal World, gorgeous as it is, doesn’t really have any more to say than the short story on which it’s based (‘The Illuminated Man’, included in Terminal Beach). I remember throwing aside High Rise unfinished when I realised that the characters had accepted from the very beginning the collapse of civilized norms that the whole book was supposedly about and were going to simply watch the whole thing amusedly from the off. My son made a very similar observation about Empire of the Sun. Events happen, vivid scenes are shown, but there is no real progression. Jim is already reconciled to darkness and violence before it even begins; he doesn’t change, but simply watches. The novel is not the obvious form for an artist who is interested in inner states rather than relationships or external events. The short story is much better suited for that (as is painting, to which Ballard frequently refers).
These stories are full of characters whose inner life is much more important to them than human relationships or the external world. One rips out his own eyes, like Oedipus, the better to immerse himself in his inner world. Another, with an injured foot going septic, refuses to move from the spot where he is communing nightly with legions of snakes (and feels grateful to the colleague who is meanwhile having an affair with his wife because it gets her out of his way). Not all of the stories fall into the same mould, but the typical character is assertively passive – see also ‘The Overloaded Man’, ‘The Giaconda of the Twilight Noon’, ‘The Terminal Beach’, ‘The Voices of Time’ – insisting on his right to sink into his obsessions and dreams and deeply sceptical of rational modernity, with its busy projects of mastery and control. Several of the stories read like re-writes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which apparent darkness turns out to be the true light, and western civilization merely a futile neurosis:
…there was a deeper reason for his scepticism, underlined by Ryker’s reference to the ‘real’ reasons for the space-flights. The implication was that the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the western technocracies, and that the space craft and satellites had been launched because their flights satisfied certain buried compulsions and desires. By contrast, in the jungle, where the unconscious was manifest and exposed, there was no need for these insane projections… (From ‘A Question of Re-entry’ in Terminal Beach)
At least there was a passive repose about the Indians, a sense of the still intact integrity of flesh and spirit… It was this paradigm of fatalism which Gifford would have liked to achieve – even the most wretched native, identifying himself with the irrevocable flux of nature, had bridged a greater span of years than the longest-lived European or American with his obsessive time-consciousness, cramming so-called significant experiences into his life like a glutton. (From ‘The Delta at Sunset’ in Terminal Beach)