Monthly Archives: October 2018

J.G. BALLARD – Notes on Science Fiction

Extracts from Ballard’s ‘A User’s Guide to the Millenium’

The techniques of surrealism have a particular relevance at this moment, when the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘false’ – the terms no longer have any meaning. The faces of public figures are projected at us as if out of some endless global pantomine, and have the conviction of giant advertisement hoardings. The task of the arts seems more and more to be that of isolating the few elements of reality from this mélange of fictions, not some metaphorical ‘reality’, but simply the basic elements of cognition and posture that are the jigs and props of our consciousness. (…) Surrealism offers a neutral zone or clearing house where the confused currencies of both the inner and outer worlds can be standardized against each other.

The Coming of the Unconscious, New Worlds, 1966 (p. 88)


Turning the pages of this remarkable encyclopedia, one has the sense that science fiction has foreseen every future that the human race can conceivably have in store for itself. Dystopias move past like sinister battleships in a menacing review. Time paradoxes pull inside out the sock of everyday reality. The furthest future is colonized, with mankind abandoning its biological past and assuming the form, first, of hyperintelligent computers and then, finally, of electromagnetic radiation, giving birth to the stars and the planets in an act of generous play. Dreams of virtual reality dismantle our most deeply held beliefs in the difference between the real and the illusory. All this is the stuff of popular culture, and science fiction is the folk literature of the twentieth century, with the folk tale’s hot line to the unconscious. As mandarin culture gradually atrophies, and the serious novel shrinks towards the role now played by poetry, the popularity of science fiction continues to grow, exerting a huge influence on the imagery of advertising, film and television, on pop videos, paperback covers and record sleeves. One can almost make the case that science fiction, far from being a disreputable minor genre, in fact constitutes the strongest literary tradition of the twentieth century, and may well be its authentic literature. Within its pages, as in our lives, archaic myth and scientific apocalypse collide and fuse.

Back to the Heady Future, Daily Telegraph, 1993 (p. 193)


In many respects this fusion of past and present experiences, and of such disparate elements as the modern office buildings of central London and an alligator in a Chinese zoo, resembles the mechanisms by which dreams are constructed, and perhaps the great value of fantasy as a literary form is its ability to bring together apparently unconnected and dissimilar ideas. To a large extent all fantasy serves this purpose, but I believe that speculative fantasy, as I prefer to call the more serious fringe of science fiction, is an especially potent method of using one’s imagination to construct a paradoxical universe where dream and reality become fused together, each retaining its own distinctive quality and yet in some way assuming the role of its opposite, and where by an undeniable logic black simultaneously becomes white. Without in any way suggesting that the act of writing is a form of creative self-analysis, I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seem obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind. The dream worlds invented by the writer of fantasy are external equivalents of the inner world of the psyche, and because these symbols take their impetus from the most formative and confused periods of our lives they are often time-sculptures of terrifying ambiguity.

Time, Memory and Inner Space, The Woman Journalist, 1963 (p. 200)


Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the twentieth century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow – or, more exactly, in about ten years’ time, though the gap is narrowing. Science fiction is the most important fiction that has been written for the last hundred years. The compassion, lucidity and vision of H.G. Wells and his successors, and above all their grasp of the real identity of the twentieth century, dwarf the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the Modern Movement. Given its subject matter, its eager acceptance of naivety, optimism and possibility, the importance of science fiction can only increase. I believe that the reading of science fiction should be compulsory. Fortunately, compulsion will not be necessary, as more and more people are reading it voluntarily. Even the worse science fiction is better – using as the yardstick of merit the mere survival of its readers and their imaginations – than the best conventional fiction. The future is a better key to the present than the past. (…) It is now some fifteen years since the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi remarked that science fiction magazines produced in the suburbs of Los Angeles contained far more imagination and meaning than anything he could find in the literary periodicals of the day. Subsequent events have proved Paolozzi’s judgement correct. Fortunately, his own imagination has been able to work primarily within the visual arts, where the main tradition for the last century has been the tradition of the new. Within fiction, unhappily, the main tradition for all too long has been the tradition of the old. Like the inmates of some declining institution, increasingly forgotten and ignored, the leading writers and critics count the worn beads of their memories, intoning the names of the dead.

Fictions of Every Kind, Books and Bookmen, 1971 (p. 205-206)


On the contrary, I believe that the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game. Within the realm of fiction, the writer of the catastrophe story illustrated, in the most extreme and literal way, Conrad’s challenge – ‘Immerse yourself in the most destructive element – and swim!’ Each one of these fantasies represents an arraignment of the finite, an attempt to dismantle the formal structure of time and space which the universe wraps around us at the moment we first achieve consciousness. It is the inflexibility of this huge reductive machine we call reality that provokes infant and madmen alike, and in the cataclysm story the science fiction writer joins company with them, using his imagination to describe the infinite alternatives to reality which nature itself has proved incapable of inventing. This celebration of the possibilities of life is at the heart of science fiction.

Cataclysms and Dooms, from The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1977 (p. 208-209)