photo by T
by Drew Whittet
It is not often that a modern writer achieves the dubious honour of having an adjective coined as a result of their work. But a word has been added to our lexicon in the case of J. G. Ballard, which, if we are lucky enough to have read him, immediately conjures up images from the Ballardian world or universe. Any dictionary definition of this word is likely to include the phrases: dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and some reference to the effect on society and the environment of emerging technology. Some even talk of the ‘Ballardosphere’, which encourages the study of all things Ballard. The latter term focuses on Ballard’s prescience, for a liquid society in which people are increasingly bemused by the erratic nature of rapid change in the modern world. This is something that Ballard’s readers are all too familiar with.
I am not quite old enough to have followed Ballard’s career path from start to finish in real time, but I do get a real pleasure from noting the developments in his work. His first short stories appeared somewhere between the tail end of what was known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction (around 1938-1946) and the start of something that is now known as the ‘New Wave’ of Science Fiction (1960s-70s). In the UK, it was editor E. J. Carnell who helped usher in the new movement by publishing the short stories of Brian W. Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and Ballard. Ballard was one of the catalysts that helped spark this new approach to fantasy and Sci-Fi.
By 1962, Ballard was indeed conscious that he and some of his contemporaries felt that they had a clear plan for the future of Science Fiction. In A User’s Guide to the Millennium, he nails his colours to the mast, stating:
I’ve often wondered why [science fiction] shows so little of the experimental enthusiasm which has characterised painting, music and the cinema in the last four or five decades, particularly as these have become wholeheartedly speculative, more and more concerned with the creation of new states of mind, constructing fresh symbols and languages where the old cease to be valid.
Much has been made of the influence various surrealist painters had on Ballard’s work. In his story ‘Having a Wonderful Time’, in which a couple are trapped on their package holiday, there are elements of surrealism, which are perhaps more akin to the cinematic works of Spannish filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
In Buñuel’s film The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie, a group of middle-class friends try to meet up to eat together. These meals always prove problematic and are normally aborted within a few minutes. Whilst Buñuel’s middle-class characters are continually trying to reach their destination, Ballard’s people have arrived but have no idea when they might return home.
Buñuel’s characters are thwarted in their attempts to indulge in, or conclude, their meal. Similarly, Ballard’s protagonists are increasingly bemused by how or when their holiday will conclude. In the classic surreal world, the unexpected comes at us as a violent shock. In Ballard’s world, the unexpected might well creep up on us, gradually transforming our real world into something sinister and conspiratorial. Famously, one publisher rejected Ballard’s novel Crash with the verdict that the author was ‘unbalanced’.
Ballard had a strange relationship with the middle-class. He seemed to relish living in his cosy home in the London suburb of Shepperton, and it’s from this leafy suburb that he happily wreaked havoc on the world with his various catastrophe stories.
‘Having a Wonderful Time’ is told in a strange epistolary form, in which we only see one side of the correspondence. The main character in this piece is Diana whose story is recounted in a series of ‘postcards home’. We assume they are actually posted, but have no idea if they ever reach their destination.
Richard and Diana are a typical aspiring middle-class couple. They come from Exeter in the west of England. They appear to enjoy taking part in the suburban activities of golf and dinner parties, no doubt sharing the broad values of their class. Even before they board their flight to Las Palmas, they are thrilled to get upgraded to first-class seats. Ballard, once again, enjoys mocking bourgeois sensibilities. The fun begins in the first paragraph:
For some reason of its own the Gatwick computer assigned us the first-class seats, along with a startled dentist from Bristol, her husband and three Children.
The couple arrive safely in Las Palmas and settle into the Hotel Imperial, where their fellow guests are a group of professionals who are all from the West Country in England. Everything is laid on for them and Diana even learns to hang glide. Some suspicion creeps into their minds, as this all seems remarkably cheap.
Events take a strange turn when the couple are due to return to England. The flights to Gatwick are cancelled, due to a computer glitch or for some other mysterious reason. Here we encounter a familiar Ballardian trope: an unknown and unnamed force is controlling his characters’ lives.
This brings out the contrasting English reactions to difficulties. Diana chooses to muddle through and make the best of things. She writes:
The amazing thing is that one gets used to it. The hotel people are charm itself, they’ve pulled out all the stops organising extra entertainment of every kind.
Richard, however, goes for the ‘we are going to get to the bottom of this’ option. He speculates on the various reasons for their predicament and even tries to protest to various authorities, all to no avail.
The line between the real and the unreal is always present in fantasy tales. In Ballard’s work, it is often this added surreal element that creates added tension. Here, Diana is determined to carry on with her normal life, even though they are in an unexplained situation. The reader can speculate on the conclusion, but those who know Ballard’s work will soon realise this is not a conventional tale. In fact, the story reads more like an urban myth or perhaps a near future fable. Ballard returns to one of his favourite themes, time slowing down for people who are losing control of their own destiny: ‘Time moves like a dream. Every morning a crowd of bewildered people jam the lobby, trying to find news of their flights back.’
It’s an enjoyable, even amusing read and, for those who like a slightly more accessible Ballard, it is a return to form. Rather than offer the reader a clear moral, Ballard prefers to turn the concepts around. An eternal dream holiday becomes a banal nightmare. This is a clear warning to those sleepwalking into an uncertain future of shopping malls and social media. In this sense, the story is a foretaste to Ballard’s final three novels. Some feel Ballard’s powers were waning towards the end of his life. I feel he was moving into yet another more interesting phase.