“extreme Possibilities”: Mapping “the Sea Of Time And Space” In J G Ballard’s Pacific Fictions

Colloquy 17:44-61 (2009)

One of the more enduring misconceptions surrounding the work of J G Ballard is that it operates in the classical dystopian narrative mode, supposedly mining pessimism, repression and the negativity of a postindustrial age. Robert Collins’s commentary is typical, placing Ballard’s Crash at number three in a list of “the top 10 dystopian novels”: Fictional dystopias are almost always cautionary tales – warnings of where our political, cultural and social surroundings are taking us. The novels [on this list] share common motifs: designer drugs, mass entertainment, brutality, technology, the suppression of the individual by an all-powerful state – classic preoccupations of dystopian fiction. These novels picture the worst because, as Swift demonstrated in his original cautionary tale, Gulliver’s Travels, re-inventing the present is sometimes the only way to see how bad things already are. However, as this paper will argue, to locate Ballard within this literary tradi- tion is a fundamental misreading. The “state,” for example, barely features in his writing, and politicians or any kind of external authority are almost wholly absent. This is amplified to comical proportions when the polic e make a token appearance in High-Rise , which depicts the breakdown of the social order in a high-tech apartment block. At first suspicious about the building’s car park, with its damaged vehicles and debris thrown from balconies, they are quickly turned away by a group of residents, who set about “pacifying the policemen, reassuring them that everything was in order, despite the garbage and broken bottles scattered around the building”; 3 the police duly leave and are never seen again, even as the high-rise descends further into anarchy. The residents prefer to remain within their “dystopia,” rather than reacting against it, embracing the “brutality and technology” that Collins thinks they should be reacting against – there is no external “Big Brother” forcing their hand. For the residents: even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. 4 This dynamic is even more apparent in the subset of “Pacific fictions” in Ballard’s oeuvre, stories set on abandoned Pacific islands where there is no need to even allude to the presence of the State, for these are stateless worlds – “between owners.” They are neither straight utopia nor classical dystopia, but an occupant of the imaginative space between: what might be termed “affirmative dystopias,” which, as this paper will argue further, reach similar conclusions as to the question of how to “revive the spirit of utopia” that Fredric Jameson does in his exhaustive study, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. As such, they provide an enduring template for Ballard’s more well-known urban works, of which Crash is the exemplar
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