The Catastrophist

The haunting science fiction of J.G. Ballard

Another early story (though not represented here: the claim of this volume to be “complete” is somewhat deceptive) in something of the same style, “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” ignited a ridiculous fuss in the very news rags whose ghoulish coverage of her life Ballard was intending to satirize. Randolph Churchill led the charge, demanding punishment for the tiny magazine that printed it. This “modest proposal” furnishes one of many clues to a spring of Ballard’s inspiration, which is fairly obviously the work of Jonathan Swift. In 1964 he even wrote an ultra-macabre story, “The Drowned Giant,” which tells of what happens when the corpse of a beautiful but gigantic man washes ashore on a beach “five miles to the north-west of the city.” The local Lilliputians find cheap but inventive ways of desecrating and disfiguring the body before cutting it up for souvenirs and finally rendering it down in big vats. One might characterize this as the microcosmically ideal Ballard fantasy, in that it partakes of the surreal—the “Gulliver” being represented as a huge flesh statue based on the work of Praxiteles—as well as of the Freudian: “as if the mutilation of this motionless colossus had released a sudden flood of repressed spite.” In the pattern of many other stories, the narrator adopts the tone of a pathologist dictating a detached report of gross anatomy. A single phrase, colossal wreck, is a borrowing from Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which may be the closest that Ballard ever came to a concession to the Romantic school.

Another and nearer literary source is provided by the name—Traven—of the solitary character in “The Terminal Beach.” This is one of two tales—the other being “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”—in which Ballard makes an imaginarium out of the ruined scapes of World War II. Like his modern but vacant cities full of ghostly tower blocks (he is obsessed with towers of all sorts) and abandoned swimming pools, the Pacific and Atlantic beaches, still covered by concrete blocks and bunkers, furnish the ideal setting for a Ballardian wasteland. The beach in the first story has the additional advantage of having been the site of an annihilating nuclear test. The revenant shapes of long-dead Japanese and Germans are allowed a pitiless flicker before their extinction.

Ballard is not the most quotable of authors, because he takes quite a long time to set a scene and because his use of dialogue is more efficient than it is anything else. But he can produce arresting phrases and images. He is especially observant about eyes. On succeeding pages of “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D,” we find that “memories, caravels without sails, crossed the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes” and that the dwarf, Petit Manuel, regards this same woman “with eyes like crushed flowers.” This entire story is infused with an eerie beauty, as the wings of gliders carve marvels out of the cumulus, and one aesthetic pilot “soared around the cloud, cutting away its tissues. The soft fleece fell toward us in a cool rain.” The cruel capricious beauty who becomes the wealthy patron of this art is careless of the human cost it may entail: “In her face the diagram of bones formed a geometry of murder.”

Ballard wrote his heart out, especially after the random death of his beloved wife left him to raise three children, so I don’t especially like to say that he wrote too much. (This book has almost 1,200 pages.) But some of the stories are in want of polish and finish. In “The Last World of Mr. Goddard,” a department-store supervisor keeps a microcosm of his town, complete with live-action human figures, in a box in his safe at home. Each evening, he can watch what everybody is doing and use the knowledge the next day. At first I was surprised that he never exploited this advantage to observe anybody having sex, and then I noticed that Ballard had oddly deprived his minutely supervised miniatures of the power to be overheard, so that Mr. Goddard actually had no idea what was going on. Like a movie that is only part talkie, this scenario is leached of its initial power. In compensation, several of the stories are pure jeu d’esprit, where the charm of the conceit hardly requires any suggestion of the sinister or the doomed. Despite the menacing title of “Prima Belladonna,” the first of the collection, one is immediately bewitched by the very idea of a flower shop where the gorgeously different blooms are all live stand-ins for musicians and opera singers (such as a “delicate soprano mimosa”) and where the owner of this hard-to-manage “chloro florist” establishment eventually confronts “an audio-vegetative armageddon.”

If this innocuous environment could not deflect Ballard from his insistence on apocalypse in familiar surroundings, it is hardly startling to find that his penultimate tale is titled “The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B.” For most of his life, our great specialist in catastrophe made his home in the almost laughably tranquil London suburb of Shepperton, the sheltered home of the British movie studios. He obviously relished the idea of waking one day to find himself the only human being on the planet, to explore a deserted London and cross a traffic-free Thames, to pillage gas stations and supermarkets and then to drive contentedly home. “B was ready to begin his true work.”

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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