In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the prophetic visions of a highly original writer
Say ‘Myths of the Near Future’ to many people and they will think of the album by the Klaxons, but the Klaxons named their 2007 debut after a 1982 collection of short stories by J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), a writer who has joined the ranks of such visionaries as Kafka and Orwell by having an adjective named after him: ‘Ballardian’ is defined by Collins Dictionary as ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.’
The last 18 months or so have been especially Ballardian, but I would argue that the book which foresaw our current world of Zoom meetings and social isolation is not one of Ballard’s better-known books, such as Crash or High-Rise, but a relatively obscure book from the Ballard canon. Myths Of The Near Future is a slim collection of ten stories published in 1982, but many of them feel as though they could almost have been written as satires on the world of 2021.
Three stories in particular stand out from the collection. (I discussed one of them in my recent post about quitting social media.) All three of these are about figures who are isolated from society in some way. ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ (1977) is about a man who, like everyone else in this future world, has lived his whole life without ever meeting his wife and children. He has only ever interacted with them via a TV screen (the children were presumably created through some form of IVF – curiously, Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, was born just one year after Ballard’s story was published). Against social and governmental edicts, the narrator suggests that he and his wife and children meet up in person. They end up attacking each other in a violent frenzy. Society has become too used to interacting at a distance that they cannot handle being physically in the same room as each other.
The second story, ‘Motel Architecture’ (1978), is about another world where social isolation is the norm: everyone lives in their own ‘solarium’ (perhaps a nod to Asimov’s The Naked Sun, set on the planet of Solaria where social isolation is also firmly established), a single room surrounded by TV screens, with most people not working because virtually every job – except that of the protagonist, a TV critic – is now performed by robots. Instead, people sit in their pods without ever leaving their homes, or even their chairs: Pangborn, the protagonist of ‘Motel Architecture’, moves about his solarium in a motorised wheelchair. People are encouraged to exercise in their homes, though predictably, Pangborn has long since stopped doing that. (Another reason I think Ballard, for all his differences from Asimov, may have had The Naked Sun in mind here is, oddly enough, nakedness: in Asimov’s novel, people don’t usually need to wear clothes at home because only their faces are seen on the screens they use to communicate, and similarly, Pangborn is completely naked for much of ‘Motel Architecture’.)
When a young cleaner and repair-woman from an agency shows up, she arouses something in Pangborn: not just an erotic desire but a sense, a reminder of his own forgotten physicality and presence in the world. People have lived so long on their own that they have become completely disattuned to their own bodies, their own selves. With the arrival of this young and attractive visitor, Pangborn finds himself aware of a mysterious intruder in his solarium, someone who eats his food and can be heard breathing nearby. This intruder – spoiler alert – is himself. He has become so cut off from his own self that he has ‘othered’ his body, so that when he is reminded of himself he believes it to be someone else. He cannot handle this consciousness of himself, without which he has lived happily for twelve years. I won’t say any more about how the story ends, but let’s just say that the title alludes to the Bates Motel from Hitchcock’s Psycho, the shower scene from which Pangborn watches over and over again on the TV screens on the walls of his solarium.
But in some ways the most unnerving of the three stories is the last I wish to consider, ‘Having a Wonderful Time’. As the title suggests, this story takes the form of postcards written in 1985-6 (Ballard published the story in 1978). The author of the postcards is a woman, Diana, who has gone on a fortnight’s holiday to the Canary Islands with her husband, Richard. Her short missives to a friend back home in England begin as solid (and very funny) social satire about the middle classes, but after a couple of pages things take an unexpected turn. When their two weeks in the sun is up, the couple’s flight home to Gatwick is mysteriously delayed because of a ‘muddle’ in the computer back in England, and their plane won’t be ready until tomorrow ‘at the earliest’.
Diana and Richard are allowed to stay at the resort while things are resolved, but over the course of the next few postcards it gradually becomes apparent that this is no technical glitch and the couple have been deliberately marooned out on Gran Canaria forever, along with countless other Brits whose jobs are now redundant back home. They cannot even leave the resort to travel into the nearby town. (The manual workers in other resorts on the island have presumably had their jobs replaced by machines. Richard belongs to the managerial class, but one thing the next few years of economic hardship will probably reveal is the redundancy of many middle-class ‘manager’ roles in the UK. As one of my associates often wryly remarks, ‘everyone’s a manager these days.’)
This short story – one of the shortest in Myths of the Near Future – sees Diana and Richard become estranged as she embraces the vacuous entertainments at the resort which have been designed to keep the enforced expatriates docile and occupied (endless productions of ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ [sic] and other am dram favourites), while Richard, realising something’s up, goes off to try to found a resistance movement. (Spoiler alert: he is later found dead in suspicious circumstances.)
I say I find this story the most unsettling, and perhaps the most poignant, because although it is also shot through with Ballard’s characteristic black comedy (and Ballard, like Kafka, is a very funny writer for all of his bleak visions – or perhaps because of them), it also perfectly captures the Godot-like absurdism of people seeing a state of hopeless permanence as merely temporary, and the way different people respond to this, either becoming immediately conditioned to it (Diana chooses to ignore the ugly truth, dismissing Richard’s theory about what’s really happened as a ‘preposterous story’) or becoming a sceptic who is unable to accept this new way of life that has been dictated for them. Lockdowns, of course, have brought about both kinds of person, and I’m sure the inevitable winter one this year will only reinforce the divisions between these two ‘camps’.
Myths of the Near Future has not received a great deal of attention from other bloggers, and what’s out there can be pretty questionable in its analysis (outside of the excellent Ballardian website devoted to his work). One blogger reviewed the whole collection in February 2020, just a month before our everyday lives changed in response to the pandemic, and although they offered some wonderful critique of the stories in the context of Ballard’s overall body of work, they strangely dismissed Ballard’s visions of enforced isolation (and the social and psychological decay that would inevitably follow years of prolonged interaction with screens instead of real people) as ‘ludicrous’ and ‘silly’. (They updated their blog post in 2021, in light of everything that had happened in the last year, to concede that Ballard was right about the isolation and screen-interaction, but maintained that we were not witnessing the psychotic outbreaks of violence Ballard had predicted and instead were seeing ‘kindness and community’. Not sure I can agree there.)
Myths Of The Near Future may not be the most famous book in Ballard’s oeuvre, but if you’re new to his work and interested in his prophetic powers, and how he came to be known as ‘the Seer of Shepperton’, this collection is a fascinating place to start exploring his convincing and powerful vision.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.