The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
The Best American Short Stories 1978
There was a time, some ten or fifteen years ago, when the notion of “inner space,” usually associated with the writings of J.G. Ballard, threatened to change the direction of science fiction. The mind, it was suggested, was the genre’s true subject. Down here in the human head, away from the galaxies, was virgin land, Freud’s new frontier. Hamlet would no doubt have been surprised to learn that the mind was a fresh topic for literature, but the arriving slogan did bring an altered emphasis, since, effectively, it entangled certain fading symbolist doctrines with certain strands of contemporary psychology. Verlaine, so to speak, was revisited by R.D. Laing, and “every landscape is a state of mind” became “most states of mind can be depicted as eerie landscapes”: the objective correlative turned to nightmare. Surrealist painting also lurks somewhere in the background here.
Science fiction soon settled back into its old tracks and took to the stars again, but fantasy and dream, long outlawed by the more earnest practitioners, had found their way back into the form—at least in some of their more clinical aspects. The word terminal, for example, echoes mournfully through Ballard’s stories and novels. Visions of endings are everywhere: a world winding down, its inhabitants dropping off one by one into a collective final sleep; an all but abandoned earth, its oceans bleached dry, its surface a desert of sand and salt; a group of dead astronauts circling the planet like satellites, doomed to orbit for decades until their capsules cave in; Eniwetok, a cluster of disused concrete bunkers and runways and weapons ranges, littered with broken B-29s and Superfortresses, natural home of a missed apocalypse, “an ontological Garden of Eden,” as one of Ballard’s characters ironically says.
It is difficult, in these scenes, to separate the private terror from the public possibility, the personal nightmare from the nightmares of history. In all the stories the stress clearly falls on the mental conditions being shown, the inner spaces of psychosis and the approaches to psychosis. The historical places and imaginable historical disasters are figures; they are shapes and traces the psyche has found for the making of its own portrait. “This island is a state of mind,” a character says of Eniwetok, unconsciously (or perhaps even consciously) paraphrasing Verlaine. “The psychotic never escapes from anything,” a doctor says in another story. “He merely adjusts reality to suit himself. Quite a trick to learn, too.” And yet another character thinks, “If primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, twentieth-century man had reversed this process….”
But however much these stories point us toward the adjusting, projecting mind, the fact remains that our own history has provided all the adjusted material, has set the scene for every projection. It is the literal content of all these disturbed and disturbing metaphors. And indeed history skulks inside even the most insulated mind, infecting every privacy with its preferred varieties of madness; just as…
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