Posts Tagged ‘JG Ballard’

JG Ballard, “The Unlimited Dream Company” (1979, 2014) & Jane Mai, “See You Next Tuesday”(2015)

February 29, 2016

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I found it interesting to look at Unlimited Dream Company through the lens of the previous Ballard novel I read, High-Rise. Both revel in the destruction of suburban symbols, the most carefully-maintained orders in our modern society – homes and businesses (the specific identities and descriptions emphasized in the same way the vocations and hobbies of the people are) become enveloped by the chaos unleashed by the events of the book, and the people themselves embrace it, having awaited the chance to throw off the shackles of their quaint lives. The big difference between the two, then, is in the nature of the upheaval – High-Rise was a savage apocalypse, its setting wholly separate from the outside world and left in a disgusting disarray, garbage and death abound – but the apocalypse in Dream Company is one where the urban is retaken by the natural world, with plants overwhelming the concrete and the sky dominated by birds spawned (pretty much literally) by Blake, and the people inspired to look to the freedom of the animal world. Ballard delights in describing these microcosms in their broken state, but only in this one does something more beautiful grow from the cracks – it’s not just erasure, it’s renewal.

In the plot as well, there is a tension between those two types of change (erasure and renewal, I mean), as Blake slowly learns how he will use his messianic powers to instigate what he sees as an improvement of mankind. Although mostly unaware of it at first, he initially thinks that the way is through destruction – and so many of his early encounters with his multiple lover figures is capped off with attempted murder. This is the underlying ethos for much of the book – even in his creation of life there seems to be a lack of empathy on his part, and when he tries to teach, there is still part of him that wants to take and horde the people he is trying to uplift. The natural beauty of his power is diluted by the depraved humanity that underlies him – he knows something important is there, but hasn’t figured out how to handle it in a decidedly unselfish way. His inability to unlink violence from his revolution is reflected also in his search for the person who revived him – an emphasis on their apparent strength, Blake’s musings that whoever did may have also tried to kill him – and although the answer is clear from early on, he still manages to elide that solution by antagonizing the figure in the plane, avoiding it because of its symbolic tie to death. He only fixes course in the end when he realizes that he was not resurrected in an act of violence, but in an act of difficult but necessary self-driven change, and so inspires others to find the same path.

The cynical (but often well-founded) belief in the inevitability of violence has been a core part in much of Ballard’s work, but in this case he presents an alternative view. Not one that eliminates the violence completely, to be sure, but one that shows it as something that is to be overcome, a part of a cycle of human reinvention. The anarchic free-for-all of Ballard’s text, in this case, has a purpose other than solely reflecting our own capacity to perpetuate it.

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This book really plays with its diary/sketchbook format – the scribbled lines and extra text in the margins suggests that every comic is stream-of-consciousness, but also thoroughly considered, reworked and drawn over to best get the story across. There isn’t a time line to any of the comics – which the introduction tells you upfront – so everything feels less like a straight diary and more like a series of recollections – everything in past tense, memories flooding back in response to something – with the short text pages (written in the same brush strokes as the the notes on the comics themselves, but larger, getting you to pay more attention to what’s written) indirectly commenting on the undercurrents of the comics, conflicts of identity and self-worth. The book is often having a conversation with itself, an ongoing project that is constantly self-reflecting even when it doesn’t make direct callbacks.

Identity plays a large part in the humour and sadness in the comics – the book is about a person named Jane Mai (referred to almost exclusively as Jane Mai), who may or may not reflect the life and personality of the author, who is also named Jane Mai. The character introduction includes three different characters named Jane Mai, as well as Nurse Janey, “a fictional character” – in the page before, the text that explains the non-linearity of the stories also says “I’m not even sure I exist tbh” – which is a joke, but also keys you in on one of the main concerns of the book – the identity in something autobiographical is never completely clear. Mai (the author) mentions it directly in one of the text pieces (and even in an introductory “making of” comic at the beginning), but there’s an idea in the world of diary/sketch comics (as part of social media) that you are trying to sell your personality, hoping the amusing or “relatable” details of your life will ingratiate you with the audience (“What is Jane Mai? She is a product I made and sold” she writes, “And the sadder she got the more popular she was” – because depression and self-esteem issues make for funny and very “relatable” comics, it seems.) This is only one manifestation – many of the comics and asides deal, in one way or another, with how you as a person exist for others, be it family, friends, or (if you’re a creative sort) an audience – you perform to meet their expectations, or to shrug off those expectations in your own way – but in either case, it may feel that everything is forced upon you by the rest of the world, and you can’t seem to escape wanting to shape how you are perceived.

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Tailoring your life details like that, however, can also be used as a distancing tool, to help avoid the internal and external pain by making others (and maybe yourself) laugh about it – but in See You Next Tuesday, it’s also clear that Jane Mai’s goal is to eventually be okay with herself, in whatever form that takes. The book is an intentionally scattershot depiction of that journey – there’s no definite line to say why it ends where it does, but that’s sort of the point.

John Gardner, “Grendel” (1971, 1989); Jen Lee, “Vacancy” (2015); & JG Ballard, “High-Rise” (1975, 2014)

July 27, 2015

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Grendel’s journey throughout the book is to weather the outside world and defend his own semi-nihilistic philosophy. Although his ways do come from some sense of morality (for example, his disgust with the human’s capacity for hypocrisy and lies, as demonstrated by the Shaper’s deft ability to craft and create both), he decides his ultimate purpose is to create and also deny meaning to others, especially wannabe heroes like Unferth. He even denies it to himself – when he finds beauty and empathy in Wealtheow, he intentionally forces himself to attack her not only to belittle his nemeses, but to prove to himself above those petty feelings (but they leave their mark, for sure.) But for him to be on defensive, he has to recognize that others exist – and that is also the underlying basis for his decisions, the constant need to find some way of communicating with people in the ways he can’t with beings like his mother. Nothingness is not necessarily a blank slate, after all – it can be a reaction, a conscious decision to remove things from one’s life, and while Grendel often observes nothingness around him in nature, his own acts are deliberately made to be the antithesis of the Danes in one way or another.

From his first encounter with them, Grendel decides to be what Hrothgar and his band think of him – a malignant natural being, or an angry spirit (and at various points, he even tries to play both roles among different humans.) Since he is, for the most part, unable to communicate with them verbally, he uses the definitions thrust upon him as his mode of expression – violence becomes his language. He can even justify it, being told by the dragon and later telling himself that his violence inspires the Danes to even greater things, even if Grendel himself finds many of these things (like the eternal warring and powermongering) distasteful. As ultimately destructive as their interactions are, Grendel feels a part of something in his battle against the Danes, in some kind of conversation, the kind he can never have with his mother (who ironically seems to be the only one with genuine concern for Grendel, despite his never ending condescension) and the mindless animals whose actions he explains to the readers.

The great challenge for Grendel following his meeting with the dragon is keeping the bits of his stance he agrees with while defying the others – and especially seeks to balance the inherent meaninglessness of everything while still having full control of his life. Being an instigator is his main method of proving that despite the dragon’s claim of omniscience, that there might not be an inevitable end for him. He loses that sense of control when Beowulf appears, ending his reign in a way he could never foresee (and by someone who shares the need for violence, but in a way that Grendel does not abide by, seeing him as insane) – and Beowulf is conflated with the dragon because of this, becoming the embodiment of the ideas Grendel wanted to defy. The dragon (and by extension, Beowulf) is a kind of Satan figure in Grendel’s life, offering the possibility of evil but taking it out of Grendel’s hands – but even at the end, Grendel will not allow his self-direction to be taken from him, turning his defeat into a stupid mistake, an “accident.” It could happen to anyone, he taunts his animal oppressors in the final lines – but it happened to him.

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I’m personally quite fascinated with what legacy our modern society will leave, especially in the theoretical future without us. Vacancy isn’t necessarily about that, but every image in it is based around a very similar idea, at least – in the background, the abandoned locales, and the hand-me-down clothes worn by all the animal characters. Most interestingly, through the circular sequence of the events – starting in the suburbs, going to the wild, and ending in the suburbs – we see how the world left behind has become an integrated whole, our hollowed towns becoming yet another ecosystem with its own rules. The only thing separating our homes from nature is our human perception of difference – take that away, kick down the wooden fence, and suddenly it becomes a continuum, as it probably always was (after all, animals like raccoons have treated it as such for so long…)

Simon, the dog, he hasn’t quite figured that out at first. He seems only a recent oprhan, desperate to find a new family to join, but not quite able to make the transition. He sees the opportunity once the two wild scroungers appear, following them into the wild world just beyond his familiar one – desperate to prove himself as an adaptable, wild animal himself. But he’s still, at heart, a pet, and even beyond that a creature bred far away from eating rotten garbage off the dirt. It’s not that he wants to leave what he knows, but that he thinks he has to – with the separation of ecosystems gone, with no one else left protect as a guard dog should, there is a void he feels he has to fill. He does that, eventually, but not in the way he thought – him and his wild companions find that the abandoned remnants of human society are as good a home as any. It’s all an animal’s world, anyway, and at least it holds some aura that protects them from the dangers of the woods (the wolves talk of the danger of the suburbs, but is it just a memory, or is there something else still there as well?)

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Whatever quick-acting apocalypse left these animals in a human-free world did the majority of the work blending the town and the woods together – even when beyond the fence, the evidence of our existence forms permanent new pillars of the wilderness. A crashed plane blends in with the autumn trees, abandoned buildings become places to hide, and garbage and belongings that hold little meaning blanket the ground. There are certainly other boundaries, in-between places, but we seem to have left behind much, reshaped the world in our absence. We can see the visual remnants of our lives in almost every panel, and while still subtly highlighted, through the colours alone we can see how those remnants are simply part of the landscape. In the land, and in the animals, the memory of our time remains.

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Once a Ballardian societal breakdown begins, it usually continues on as you’d expect, but part of the angle in High-Rise is how quickly it happens. It doesn’t seem like the escalating violence and hatred found in the tenants was a particularly grand shift in those people – quite the opposite. From the moment the plot kicks in, pretty much everyone (especially the trio of characters we follow) seems anticipatory, giddy, about the possibility of their petty annoyances being used to justify greater and greater destruction. There are external elements brought in, too, the idea that the crush of always being surrounded by an all-encompassing mass humanity (the whole thing doesn’t kick off until all two thousand or so apartments are occupied) is a contributing factor, and scenes of the tenants interacting (mostly by tossing their trash downwards) on their numerous leeringly used balconies establish a distinct lack of privacy. But these, while sometimes interesting, seem more and more like asides as the novel continues. No, despite how oppressive and divide-enforcing the design of the complex is, what really instigates the mini-apocalypse is what the tenants themselves bring into the building.

This is fairly obvious from those characters we follow – Laing and Royal both have plenty of baggage they bring in from the beginning (the former’s divorce, and the latter’s accident as well as his unique position as the designer of the high-rise itself) but those are used primarily as excuses more than anything. These background details serve as feeble justifications for eschewing society in order to force themselves into the roles they imagine themselves in – trying to find some sort of definition to their lives that only a lawless land could provide, a differing but philosophically related need for control. Royal, in particular, remembers how he’s always wanted to build a zoo, hides himself away from the people to stay in the company of animals (his dog and the gathering mass of gulls), but returns when he determines that he has successfully created his zoo after all (only to have it all taken away when he realizes the animals don’t stay in their cages.) They reflect each other in scale determined by their home floor – of course Royal wants to lord over everyone at the top of the high-rise, while Laing on the lower (but not bottom) floors seems perfectly fine trying to jockey for power among a small group of abandoned people – but he’s the one who makes it through to the end, as his lower ambitions are more achievable in the chaos.

More broadly, as a corralled cross-section of middle class life, many of the tenants are treated as some degree of non-entities – names eschewed for job descriptions or social roles. This seems not only to kind of show what kinds of people we are dealing with generally, but also helps reinforce the class hierarchies – the upper class jewellers and executives with their endless parties above, and the decreasingly less prestigious working people (often with the social butterfly-crushing burden of children) as one descends. When the degradation sets in, many of them throw away their obligations to anything outside the pointless tribal warfare of the apartments (and Laing is used to demonstrate this as he slowly argues himself out of never leaving the apartment) – so in effect, many of them remove the only defining characteristic the book gives them, and then what? They become anonymous mobs, with the hazy recollection of their former positions informing their behaviour, abstracted beyond memory – and while the hierarchy remains, it becomes ingrained rather than something tangibly delineated by occupations and money, prejudice both random and encoded in their DNA. Eventually, a great number of them then become corpses in a swimming pool, the logical conclusion of their identity -erasing devolution.

Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.

Stanislaw Lem, “Mortal Engines” (1977, 1992) & The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (1978)

September 29, 2014

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The robots in Lem’s futurist fairy tales are really more like people than machines – in their societies, in their whims, and even in the format of the stories told (going beyond the fourth wall) – just with some modifications. Modification is one of the central themes of many of the stories, actually – as the robots can be or become anything, and can seemingly also create anything, their forms and the changes they make to themselves are often shown to be folly, with the more adaptable (or sly) coming out on top, as in “How Erg the self-inducting Slew a Paleface” (which is one of the stories to end up as a parody of fairy tale moralizing.) This gets used to absurd degrees in “Uranium Earpieces” and “The Tale of King Gnuff”, where characters can change to become impossibly massive and all-encompassing, yet still are outwitted. In this way, despite the medieval setting, the robot tales become an indictment of our own modern times, showing how technological solutions to problems, and the arrogance of technological might, are tripped up, or in some cases create as many problems as they solve. This is even integrated into the origin stories like “How Microx and Gigant Made the Universe Expand” – Genesis reinterpreted as technology giants trying to one-up each other.

That the robots come to represent our worst excesses is clear, but they’re not the only ones – Lem uses the actual humans who appear in these stories, the fairy tales especially, to demonstrate much darker views of us. The contrast between the perfectly crafted machine-people and the (to them) disgusting and oozing biological form is played for laughs, but in stories like “Two Monsters” and “The White Death”, humans are portrayed as hate-filled destroyers of their robot creations (the last line of “Two Monsters” is “The universe is infinite and has no bounds, but their hatred also has no bounds and…it can overtake us too.”) While the tales show humanity more as a monstrous or trickster figure in the world of robots, the more traditional stories near the end of the book explore their relationship further – “The Sanatorium of Dr. Vliperdius” showing robots unable to adjust their own psyches in a shared world, and “The Hunt” a more standard adventure story with a rebellious robot worker that suddenly turns into a question of humanity.

The longest of those stories, “The Mask”, is also the most interesting, as it goes through some of the same ideas, but all from the robot’s perspective. Like “Dr. Vliperdius,” it has a machine who shows great difficulty adapting to its true nature (though in much different circumstances), and once it does figure out what it is, it constantly struggles with the after effects of its brief human existence once it becomes a single-minded killing machine. The robot constantly questions its identity, never being able to tell if its feelings are “real” or have been pre-programmed, and so it even becomes an unreliable narrator at points. Even in the ending, the narrator’s actual goals remain ambiguous – which actually makes it all the more tragic.

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The Ballardian wasteland always feel like the culmination of some human experiment, even in the few cases where it isn’t one explicitly – but the glare of some controlled disaster always seems omnipresent. In a few of the stories (“Manhole 69”, “Chronopolis”), its an experiment in attaining maximum human efficiency, altering biological and sociological situations to reach the potential – only for it to come crashing down, the unforeseen psychological after effects coming into play. “The Concentration City” feels the same – a landscape created to efficiently cram in as much of humanity as possible (as explored in the population explosion-based “Billenium”), so perfect that it turns out to be inescapable – new or created societies of such scope also being a regular feature of these stories. The destruction of freedom is inevitable in pursuit of these perfectly cyclical civilizations, and by the time the protagonists in Ballard’s story discover this, they too end up being destroyed by it. That theme recurs in stories of another tact, as any rebellion or attempted outmanoeuvring of the world in decline ends tragically – no human ingenuity can seemingly reverse it.

The common fate amongst the protagonists in these stories is an attempt at mastering their strange environment, either by the aforementioned subversion or understanding – their folly being their inability to accept a situation much larger and more powerful than themselves. One of the best examples is in “Thirteen for Centaurus”, where the scientist Francis finds himself battling for control of his wide scale social experiment, outside of it against his government backers and (as he discovers) inside from one of the younger test subjects, and ends up losing in both situations – having given himself that much power (and no longer able to justify it), it inevitably spirals out of control. Ditto for “End Game”, where the prisoner tries his best to manipulate his mysterious prison guard/eventual executioner – but realizes he is in a game where he cannot know what moves his opponent will make, or when, that he is utterly powerless in the situation, despite his best efforts to convince the guard (and himself) otherwise. These stories accentuate the smallness of the individuals, the futility of their attempts to overcome a natural world or societal mechanism – attempts to overcome them are futile, as they exist in a reality utterly outside their control.

On the other end of the spectrum, “The Overloaded Man” is about someone who has no control of his life finding a way to regain autonomy, by essentially dissolving concepts into their meaningless component parts – with horrific results. That theme ultimately culminates in “The Atrocity Exhibition”, where a man inundated with media images and broken landscapes attempts to reconcile them in his own mind (under the auspices of “starting World War III” – one important symbol the outside world has projected onto him), blurring the lines between internal and external in the process – as in “Overloaded Man”, modern life has reduced him to deconstruction of his environment to make any sort of sense of it. These are not dystopias like the other stories (although you’ll find enough literature about suburbia like “Overloaded Man” to suggest otherwise), but posit modern life as a very similar sort of thing – a deluge of outside forces with a jumbled meaning and nowhere to go, making the only solution disassociation and destruction, a fleeting but seemingly worthwhile way of finding meaning in a meaningless existence. No matter how scaled the fantasy is, from world-ending scenarios to small-scale personal breakdowns, it always feels like the whole of everything is fundamentally broken.

J. G. Ballard, “Concrete Island” (1973, 2001)

June 11, 2014

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I have a keen interest in stories that attempt to find hidden places in the modern world, if only as a sneering counterargument to social Luddites who believe the interconnectedness and conformity of the urban landscape allows for no mysteries, strangeness, or wonder. The titular island is as good an example as any – just about the only place where a man can be stranded in plain sight, the speed of living represented by the motorway preventing human contact once Maitland is off the track, an impersonal and deadly barrier from the fleetingly omnipresent civilization. The land itself, which Maitland comes to identify with, is a perfect mixture of the cycle of urban decay and renewal (scrapyards, garbage, abandoned roads, old movie theatres and WWII bomb shelters, all left to rot as the modern motorways were built overhead) and natural reclamation, as the tall grass covers the remains of the vehicles and with isolation has grown wild. All old things left to their devices as the city curved around them, giving them a freedom from their constructed surroundings that becomes less frightening and more enriching to Maitland the longer he is forced to stay.

This is the modern deserted island, and so most of the survival tropes are played out – but with the imperialist undercurrents of the Crusoe lineage made quite prominent. It is repeatedly suggested that Maitland crashed his car intentionally – an escape from his back-and-forth lifestyle, between family, job, and mistress, vying to return to a more “natural” existence, even if that involves eating garbage and drinking wine in the back of his totalled vehicle. Though his desire for escape remains, once he realizes that no one will stop for him, and that no one seems to be looking for him, he more readily accepts that learning to survive in this dislocated space may be a rewarding experience. However, Maitland’s ideas of back-to-nature freedom – after his almost serenely gruesome disassociation fantasies where the tall grass and other island features replaces him – are revealed to be far more about control than freedom, the chance to finally enact all the things his social ranking and privilege should allow him. After all, he seems to be far from a hen-pecked husband or slave to his job – he seems to have plenty of say in his own life, as his dalliance with the doctor indicates – yet, he craves more power over his own existence, and the existence of others especially.

It begins only in his mind – playing out the roles of the women, removing all autonomy from them – and continues on when he discovers other people in his hidden enclave. At first, as in many encounters with “natives”, he is intimidated and ultimately reliant on Jane and Proctor – but once he realizes that neither have any intention of helping him, he returns to his survivalist mode and violently dominates them, his self-proclaimed connection to their home trumping theirs. Outcasts who seem unable to fit back in civil society, they have a reason to want to live in isolation – Maitland is there through carelessness or subconscious self-destructiveness, and takes advantage of their broken status to more or less enslave them, though he still recognizes the possibility of revolt, as all smart slave drivers do. Transliterating the shipwrecked tropes to a modern city, the story then becomes one about how the upper class abuse the lower classes, taking even the little scraps of living they have for themselves. After all, the story ends with Maitland remaining on the island as the other two exit (one way or another) – driving out those who once needed that space and making his rule of the land absolute. Their isolation was forced upon them, and they adapted – his eventually became self-imposed, something only a person in his position could do.

The conclusion of Concrete Island is that the modern world is not too dissimilar from the wilds of the centuries before, untamed spaces finding ways to co-exist with the constructed worlds that people like Maitland build over them – and that the treatment of them, and the people who find themselves there, have not changed much, either. Maitland ends up conquering the island, no longer hobbled by injury and able to escape on his own – but he wants his conquest to be decisive, so he eschews Jane’s help and decides to stay there until he chooses to leave on his own terms. According to Ballard’s narrative, the existence of wild terrain means that the people like Maitland will eventually find them, demystify them, and exploit them – the eventual fate of all islands.

Various (Ed. Harlan Ellison), “Dangerous Visions” (1967, 2002) [Part three of three]

October 18, 2012

For this book, I’ve decided to take a different approach. Since I feel each of the stories is worthy of at least some attention on their own, I will try to get all my observations for each out there within 100 words, which for 33 stories would equal about three standard posts. Who needs all those extra words, anyway?

Sonya Dorman, “Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird”

A gripping little number where Dorman explores the logical conclusion of the utilitarian society. That this world is brutal should be obvious, but what really makes this revelation devastating is how betrayed the motherly protagonist feels when its her time to be “useful” to her offspring. A cycle of altruism is at the heart of how we humans imagine a family, and this is an ideal the mother clings to despite everything else. In the end, though, these ideals are futile in the face of desperation-led selfishness, which is portrayed as too sadistic and organized to even be animal savagery.

John T. Sladek, “The Happy Breed”

For years, the claim has been that our society is becoming increasingly infantilized, people willingly seeking to have adult responsibilities and considerations taken away and left to others out of laziness and in the name of “security”. Sladek essentially presents an early version of that idea here, with the threat of machines slowly taking away every semi-adult pleasure, even the simple ones like pet ownership, competition, and creativity. It starts off with this small-scale, and then slyly moves into much bigger issues (such as the removal of any sort of danger or challenge), before getting quite literal with its themes.

Jonathan Brand, “Encounter With a Hick”

Once again, we’re dealing with the issues of God and man, but in this case it’s a humorous deconstruction of the idea of human exceptionalism and “purpose”, reminiscent of what Douglas Adams would be doing later. Corporate construction, the main mode of “creation” in the modern age, is properly recognized as meaningless – the greatness of human ingenuity turned to the task of making products, entire structures built in the name of brief economic advancement; permanent impermanence. This acknowledgement is why, as seen here, it would be particularly demoralizing to find out that our entire existence was produced this way.

Kris Neville, “From the Government Printing Office”

It’s ironic that our increasing knowledge of psychology, which has freed us from the older superstitious interpretations of the mind, lead us to a new, more specific brand of human conditioning and categorization. This is the starting point for Neville’s story, where a parent’s hope for their childrens’ future becomes a series of technique to produce specific types of people. Much like the Dorman story, this is a utilitarian society where the emotional bond between parent and child is broken down for some “greater purpose”, this time shown from the child’s perspective, where this appears as a failure of authority.

R.A. Lafferty, “Land of the Great Horses”

There are many things going on in this story, even with its seemingly simple high concept. The idea of a true motherland, with that concept’s religious significations; how well-integrated people of many origins in society really are; and the question of whether a nomadic lifestyle is a constant search for the new or the old. We look at the modern nomadic people, the Roma in this case, as a strange throwback to an older time; but Lafferty sees them simply as a people in waiting – and then shows what happens when someone else ends up in the same situation.

J.G. Ballard, “The Recognition”

I am willing to take Ballard at his word when he says the story is about “a cordial distaste with the human race”. In our worst excesses, we become barely recognizable – as hinted by the narrator – and as shown with the subsequent taunting crowds, we are willing to be both victim and victimizer, as long as the attention is on us. The woman and dwarf who run the circus never seem too pleased with their line of work, the necessary task of putting up a mirror to every passerby – giving them the greatest freak show of all.

John Brunner, “Judas”

The last of the God and Man stories, Brunner’s particular take on the matter is one where man creates God rather than overcome Him (which might be the same thing, anyway). This leads to a strange inverted scenario where the robotic God takes its place as a figure of worship (supplanting its creators just as humans did in the early stories) and is confronted by its creator, which is then followed by the revelation that humans can very quickly rationalize irrationality, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The attempt to preserve imagined “meaning” also connects this to Brand’s story.

Keith Laumer, “Test to Destruction”

I have a personal inclination towards stories that incongruously combine genres – in the case, a dystopian thriller and alien science fiction. The opposing forces (opposed both stylistically as well as narrative-wise) representing this blend both attempt to take control of the protagonist by subjecting him to a great internal challenge – which he succeeds in overcoming. But in victory, he has essentially become his enemies – both the human and the alien – taking their particular positions of power. And in his mastery, he loses the connection with other people, something that was frequently tested in his mental “trials”.

Norman Spinrad, “Carcinoma Angels”

A funny story about the lengths someone will go to get what they want, and what would happen if they were confronted with a no-win situation. As the author notes, we do tend to look at cancer as a sort of malignant entity to be fought, and not simply a strange biological quirk – thus the various mythological (and modern mythological) battles Spinrad imagines that Harrison Wintergreen is imagining (because the whole thing is simply his brain rationalizing itself). The cancer section of the story is entirely “self-absorbed” – literally- very similar to the nature of cancer…and to Harrison Wintergreen.

Roger Delazny, “Auto-da-Fe”

We’ve seen machines take over almost every other facet elsewhere in this anthology – institutions, humans, gods – so in this story, we have machines take over the role of animals. It’s a very simple image – a matador facing a car – which Zelazny imbues with many underpinnings. For example: how humanity uses its fellow organisms for challenge and glory (it’s less sad that a car is wrecked, but how is it treated any differently than a bull would?) and how important cars and other tools have become so important in our lives they are integrated into our traditions.

Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah…”

Understand, we are very unsuited as a species to many things – which leads to stories like this, where people are physically altered, bits of their humanity removed for the benefit of human progress. But those alterations can have some weighty consequences on the people and society – thus this story about the genderless spacers and those who fetishize them. The spacers are completely objectified – both as workers in constant motion and figures of desire for the frelks – and must either exploit the situation or confront their own inhumanity. This establishes a tragic cycle of people using people.