The Intensive Care Unit’ by J. G. Ballard: An Analysis

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Of all the writers of science fiction and speculative fiction writing in the twentieth century, a few names spring to mind as candidates for the most ‘prophetic’ writers in the field: William Gibson, who popularised the term ‘cyberspace’ and the idea of the Matrix; or John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar (1968) predicted a whole raft of things from the rate of population growth in the early twenty-first century to Viagra to videocalls.

And then there’s the English writer J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), who was born in Shanghai and who spent his formative childhood years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp: an experience which provided him with an outsider’s outlook on late twentieth-century Britain, ever since he arrived in post-war austerity Britain in the late 1940s.

This outsider’s view probably helped him to see further than most of his contemporaries, since he had already glimpsed a world plunged into chaos and flux, and he knew that nothing remained constant. While William Gibson said that the future is here, but it just isn’t evenly distributed, Ballard believed that the most pressing concern for him was the next five minutes: seeing how the future will evolve rapidly out of the present moment.

One of J. G. Ballard’s most prophetic stories – and, oddly enough, one of his funniest – is ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, a 1977 story which was included in Ballard’s 1982 short-story collection Myths of the Near Future, a book whose very title hints at this concern with ‘the next five minutes’.

‘The Intensive Care Unit’ is narrated by a man, a doctor, who lives some time in the near future. Bodily contact has become taboo, a thing of the past: people are born by a process known as ‘AID’, which sounds something like IVF (a treatment which was in its infancy when Ballard wrote the story in the late 1970s). They are then raised in creches and never meet their parents.

Contact with other people comes only via the television screen, which is used for childcare and education (parents showing their children cartoons and educational materials via a video screen), for socialising between husband and wife, and even during sex, which takes place while the man and woman are in separate homes. Everything happens on a virtual plane, mediated by the camera and the TV screen.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. What would have sounded faintly prophetic in 2019, when Skype was sporadically used by some members of the population for the occasional catch-up with family members in another country, became, a year later, eerily prescient.

For virtually every aspect of our daily lives, from schooling to work to even doctor’s check-ups (which is how, incidentally, the narrator of ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ meets his wife, Margaret: she’s one of his patients), took place via videocall for much of 2020 and 2021, and in some quarters this remains the norm (in my own place of work, employees recently voted overwhelming to keep departmental meetings online indefinitely).

And, of course, increasing numbers of younger people are effectively conducting their sex lives via online platforms, rather than engaging in the messy business of physical sex involving being in the same room as the other person. Ballard’s story envisions a world in which this has become the permanent norm.

‘The Intensive Care Unit’ begins and ends in the present tense, with Ballard’s narrator (as usual, he’s a doctor: Ballard’s default profession for his protagonists, revealing his own background in medical training) describing the catastrophic results which have ensued from meeting his family in person for the first time. The result (to offer a mild spoiler) is nothing short of carnage: the couple’s two children, a son named David and daughter named Karen, effectively face off against their parents to the death, with the son targeting his father and the daughter going for Margaret, her mother.

Ballard is suggesting that, in a culture where people are conditioned to view physical contact as taboo, being in close proximity with other people – even one’s own loved ones – will end in an impulsive and uncontrollable outbreak of psychopathic violence. The story’s title is a pun on the idea of the ‘intensive care unit’ found in hospitals, treating critical patients who have been injured (as the family in Ballard’s story have been, at each other’s hands). Ballard’s doctor-narrator specialises in the value of the family, which he brands the ‘intensive care unit’ within society, and he ends the story by reminding us how much he and his family love each other.

And yet they are still driven to attack each other when they meet, against societal guidelines, presumably because the reality of being in the same physical space as somebody else is anathema to them.

I think the real ‘moral’ of ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ is that ‘television’ (Ballard’s primary theme in this story: even he couldn’t have predicted the worldwide web) inures us to an illusory version of reality, what Jean Baudrillard would call a simulation or simulacrum. When the narrator first meets his wife Margaret at his home, he is struck by how flawed her skin is in comparison to the woman he has seen so many times via television screen, where the camera and her make-up had flattered her appearance.

As Ballard’s narrator puts it, on the television screen there were ‘no body odours or strained breathing, no pupil contractions and facial reflexes’ and ‘no distrust and insecurity’. Empathy and compassion, he tells us, required distance: as soon as that distance is collapsed and the family find themselves within the same room, violent chaos ensues.

One wonders whether the outbreaks of energy during the various protests that occurred during the ‘lockdown years’, and the almost orgiastic outbursts of violence and vandalism that accompanied them, were products of the same ‘psychopathology’ which Ballard’s story charts within the titular family unit.

I mentioned that ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ is one of Ballard’s funniest stories. Many critics assert that Ballard’s later work, produced in the last decade or so of his life, is much more humorous than his earlier novels and stories. But ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ shows that even mid-career Ballard was capable of an arch sense of humour.

The description of the wedding night in this story as being ‘a triumph of the director’s art’ with Margaret some thirty miles away from the narrator in a completely different room, as the narrator ‘courted Margaret with a series of increasingly bold zooms’, is one of Ballard’s wittiest moments, using his distinctive detached, deadpan style to comic effect.

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