“In another life, I might have joined a radical church, a star cult. In this one, I attempted a PhD.”
To engage thoughtfully with the work and life of science fiction*-and-literary-and-postmodernist author J.G. Ballard is, perhaps, to risk transforming oneself into a J.G. Ballard protagonist who must struggle through a J.G. Ballard world without the benefit of J.G. Ballard constructing the plot of his or her trajectory. Such is the lesson of Applied Ballardism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe, Simon Sellars’ much-anticipated exploration of how a greatly admired author can colonize a person’s imagination to an extent that borders on the dangerous.
Written as an unflinching and self-critical semi-fictional autobiography — Sellars’ account and narrative voice reminded me more than a little of Dostoevsky’s self-hating narrator in Notes from the Underground even though it’s over a decade since I read that — as well as a story of a man afflicted with symptoms of a disease we don’t yet have a name for, or the side-effects of a treatment we don’t yet have in our particular universe, Applied Ballardism is bookended with accounts of Sellars’ attempts to become a credentialed scholar specializing in J.G. Ballard’s life and work. As usual, his failures are more interesting than his successes, as Sellars comes to grips with what it really means to live in a world that seems hell-bent on fulfilling every prophetic scrap of J.G. Ballard’s fiction simultaneously.
For those unfamiliar with Ballard (I dread having here to even try to encapsulate what his work is like, but at least am comforted by the fact that the people who know more about him than I do, on the whole, are not the types to be abusive jerks about it. Ballardians are cool people.), he started out in the 1960s writing what are usually called “Elemental Apocalypse” fiction — several short novels exploring different ways in which human civilization might end and how an ordinary schmoe, interested and intelligent but largely passive, might experience them. Works like The Drowned World (my personal favorite from this period), The Crystal World, The Wind From Nowhere and The Drought (aka The Burning World), along with an early run of truly imaginative and excellent short stories, earned Ballard an early reputation as a potential master of the genre, and today he is usually accounted as same even though most of his later work has a debatable place within it (for more on this issue, check out D. Harlan Wilson’s volume on Ballard in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction collection).*
Ballard himself encapsulated his relationship to science fiction in his 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life, in which he said he’d originally been drawn to science fiction because it examined the trend towards “politics conducted as a branch of advertising.” Sellars points out that this arresting phrase, which has only become more reflective of reality as time has moved on, first appeared in 1973, in Ballard’s introduction to one of his most famous novels, Crash.**
It’s with Ballard’s later work, though, that Sellars comes mostly to grips. Most prominently, the controversial Crash (made into a film by Stephen Soderbergh and David Cronenberg) and The Atrocity Exhibition (which I still consider one of the worst books that I’ve ever read twice, and one of the best books that I’ve ever screamed at and wanted to throw against a wall) inhabit his and his reader’s thoughts as Sellars proceeds through a failed PhD, a nightmarish turn as a presenter at conferences-cum-explorer of Europe’s experiment with cyberpunk chic in the 1990s, a turn as his English teacher girlfriend’s assistant in Japan, a moderately successful but ultimately unsatisfying career as a travel writer, and an uncertain participant in the odd paranormal experience or two.
Where for me the book really gets going is in its second half, roughly, in which our hero’s publisher has put him in charge of covering the North Pacific for its updated travel guides. The region is still studded with detritus, both physical and cultural, from World War II, and it is in exploring these islands that he comes most intimately close to what J.G. Ballard always pointed to as the formative experience of his life, in which the author-to-be (as depicted in the novel and film of Empire of the Sun) essentially grew up in and around a prison camp in Shanghai where the Japanese kept captured expatriates like Ballard’s family during the War. Images from Ballard’s and Sellars’ experiences echo each other in complex and (of course) disturbing ways as Sellars explores what the war did to these islands, especially as regards Japan’s relationship to them. I kind of want to hunt up the “real” Sellars’ Lonely Planet guidebooks now, after this interlude.
It’s a struggle for all of us to cope with what our species has made of the world even as we are all still driven by the impulses and instincts of brains and nervous systems that evolved to cope with the world as it was before we ruled and ruined it. Every change we have made to it — Ballard famously uses architecture as the lens through which to examine this, and Sellars extends this work admirably throughout Applied Ballardianism — has changed us, but not necessarily in ways that improve our fitness to live with what we have done. Thus we are a society of paranoiacs, drifters, and denialists, hyper-aware of our images, of how we are perceived, even as we rage against being judged solely on appearances as compared with the impossible perfection projected by mass media. Ballard was telling us about this over and over, in more or less (usually less) palatable fictions, and Sellars, bouncing as he does between the strictly factual and the imagined-but-still-grounded fantastical, firmly drives the message home, in the process reminding us that science fiction — that literature — isn’t for sissies, even as he rails against what has become of the genre we at Skiffy and Fanty dearly love:
In the face of this cultural tidal wave, what is science fiction? Does it matter anymore? Does the genre matter? What possible purpose could be served by marking its boundaries if the only alien planet is Earth. Reality has hemorrhaged uncontrollably, rendering genre policing a pointless pursuit, the preserve of those unwilling or unable to confront the fluidity of a phenomenon that threatens to erase us at the same time as it promises to liberate.
By contrast, Sellars continues, novels like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition confirm that “we all speak science fiction.” Even those who have never picked up an Asimov, a Heinlein, a Clarke, a Vonnegut novel know the lingo, think in its terms.
As I finished the book, I became increasingly curious about something I can never directly know. How would someone who decided to read Applied Ballardianism before any of Ballard’s own work come to apprehend that work? Could it be a good preparation for Ballard’s idiosyncracies and obsessions, or would it create too strong a set of pre-conceptions? If any of you readers of Skiffy and Fanty choose to take this route, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Regardless, whether you’re already a Ballardian or someone who is just thinking maybe they should check out the man’s work someday, Applied Ballardianism should be on your radar. And in your library.
*I, for one, agree with Wilson et al that all of Ballard’s work can be accounted as science fiction because “the world has become science fiction.”
**A book that many argue marks Ballard’s departure from the genre, perhaps for good, but just as many view as entirely science fictional in its exploration of sexual pathology, inner-space, and how both are colonized by the automobile and its overwhelming attendant infrastructure — and what happens to both when that and human bodies collide. I cannot opine on this. Crash is very likely the one Ballard novel that I will never, ever read (though I have seen the film adaptation); it hits way too close to home for me. I spent a decade working as a night shift emergency services dispatcher for a statewide agency responsible for a vast swath of territory, simultaneously taking phone calls from panicked, injured crash victims so distraught and confused that they didn’t know where they were or what precisely had happened, and struggling via radio to coordinate the emergency response needed to give them the assistance they were begging me for (I’ve even listened to people die). The experience has left me with a ruined nervous system and a set of phobias most find comic: though I know intellectually that automobile crashes are rare occurrences in most individuals’ lives, I think of them as constant ones that mean every car trip, even just a few blocks to the store, puts me at severe risk of screeching, crushing, hemorrhaging injury or death. I have to do special breathing exercises before I get behind the wheel or even sit in the passenger’s seat to this day. I’m probably the only person you’ll meet who is more afraid of travel by car than of flying, falling or public speaking. So no, I’ll pass on Crash.