98 stories! 1,216 pages! Is the complete J.G. Ballard worth it?

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

It is now half a century since J.G. Ballard invented out of whole cloth in 1960 the true sound of what he had been trying to say from the very beginning of his career; and told us the secret of the world. Unsurprisingly, for his genius could almost be defined as a kind of preternatural alertness, he seemed instantly to understand that he had come through and could now speak in own tongue to us; at the same time, for he was only human, and secular time and its terrors afflicted him like all men, he was only able to speak intermittently in that transfixing voice.

Ballard's greatest works—Breakfasts in the Ruins of Late Ossuary Capitalism like The Atrocity Exhibition and the "Crashed Cars" exhibition and Crash—were still some years in the future, and mark for many of us the heart of his career, a heart that soon began to age out from heavy use.

So it is good that the slightly expanded (but not yet complete) American issue of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (W. W. Norton & Company, $35.00) gives us a chance to penetrate backwards to the start of things, a process made easier because the book is chronological in order of publication; as Ballard was a pragmatic worker who wrote stories to live—he was in fact not averse to double-selling his work—it's likely that composition and publication came close together.

This order of things exposes three facts immediately: More than half of his short stories were published in the first decade of his career; leaving out Atrocity Exhibition material—the condensed novels Ballard himself insisted were a conglomerate entity and not stories at all—almost all of his best short work had appeared by 1964 or so; and—this may be the real surprise—most of the work of the first decade is hugely less competent than the stories in which Ballard seemed almost superhumanly awake to the flavor of the disaster of the world.

It is natural to try to concentrate on the latter.

The world Ballard is right about is not of course the entirety of this habitat of the species we culminate. There is no direct political argument in his great stories, no art, no procreation, no dialogic dance of voices, no parent still alive nor son nor daughter (can this be true?), no bootstrap Edison. As for the physical planet itself, he is not so much indifferent to flora and fauna as incapable of thinking of a truly messageless "utterance" of the natural: Ballard's planet is no more spontaneous than Kubrick's moon; it is exactly as rural as the Brooklyn Bridge. There is nothing empty in Ballard that has not been deserted, nothing vacant inside the skull of the found, inside the steaming corpus of the drowned giant, that has not been vacated.There is nothing in Ballard that has not already suffered a seachange.

What he is so right about, in other words, is wrongness: Ballard is the great poet of the belatedness of the uncanny; like with the work of the ludicrously misunderstood American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), his central stories portray a world just subsequent to the crime. But forensic evidence is lacking. The only evidence of the crime is us. Wyeth and Ballard do not portray action but the unheimlichkeit or Uncanny which succeeds action. What they tell us is that, even though the skull of the world rings with "message," what has been done can not be heard. The world is an echolalia of that which cannot be said.

The world is amnesia.

Beyond a couple of twinges of diction, there is of course nothing new in this late picking away at what I think is the heart of Ballard. Critics and readers have been working to understand him for decades now, and Ballard himself gave us volumes of gloss. All the same, the flood of work in the Complete does induce one to read him again, to see him from a world—this world of 2009—whose incessancy he did not envision, except in words of prose, which anyone can write. In other words, he was cognitively aware of the year he died in, but did not believe in it.

There are hints of the true Ballard, who we are trying to meet again, just as there are subfusc tracts of the Ballard who bores us, as early as the first story he ever published, "Prima Belladona" (1956), the most awkward of the Vermilion Sands sequence about a constantly mutating artist's colony/tourist town venue that slightly resembles a Dying-Earth at dusk with the light behind it, but in daylight turns out to be Orlando, or Weston-Super-Mare. Several other tales published around the same time hint peckishly at densities of revelation, but flounder in Thought-Experiment speculations, for example "Chronopolis" (1960), where Time Police protect vast suburban populations from time tyranny by making sure nobody owns a clock. Ballard handles this kind of cogitation with striking ineptitude, in a prose pocked with nuggets of sententiae of a quality many of us forgot he had a taste for when young. It is easier to understand and forgive the wise we-have-met-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-like homilies that saturate novels like Super-Cannes (2000) or Millennium People (2003), written late in life after Ballard had contracted Porlock's Kublai Syndrome in Older Writers; and it is only now, going back to the beginning, do we realize that much of the tireless amplitude of Ballard's mind was always ordinary.

But then, as we clamber through tale after tale, it happens. The story immediately following "Chronopolis" breathes the air of a different planet. The first sentence of "The Voices of Time" (1960) is the first of many great opening sentences from the author of perhaps more great opening sentences than any other author in the field. As far as the chronological ladder of Complete is concerned, it all comes from nowhere:

Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.

We could unpack the cargo of this sentence for days; the heart of its burden, for me, of course (see above) lies in its assertion of a world that has already been spent. It is a sentence in which the passage of time is as detached as a loose retina, for its first word refers to a recollection that will either come later in the tale, or maybe not until the tale, which is about re-enacting the past, has been told. Belatedness piles on belatedness, under the eye of an implied author who is clearly omniscient but (like god) lets us guess. Then there is the empty swimming pool: an artifact of 20th-century Lonely Crowd culture that cannot any more hold water. And there are the strange grooves, runes as unheimlich as the carved faces that shout out the vacancy of Easter Island, in dead silence. And then, for the first time in the chronology of stories here assembled, we are given to understand that the protagonist is a becalmed professional—a doctor or a scientist of some sort, there will be dozens of him in later Ballard stories, the kind of man who, like a shark, must swim constantly to keep from choking in the obsolescence of his skills kit—and we suspect that his deepest gesture in "The Voices of Time" will reiterate the insectile obedience of Whitby: that both men carve glyphs as ultimately unreadable as termite droppings.

The story itself is set like most great Ballard stories in an isolated research station or institute or enclave which has been partly or wholly abandoned, because the story of the world has subsided below the waterline. The mysterious lethargy that runs "The Voices of Time" down is very clearly caused by a sudden increase in world entropy—perhaps because this is the first of these stories, Ballard felt he needed to incorporate some form of explanation; later on, rightly, he felt no such need. The tale ends in an epiphany of relinquishment, in terms more florid—"golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos"—than he would later feel comfortable with.

So we can show where this story lies early in Ballard's career, and we can suggest that later stories assembled in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard—like "The Terminal Beach" (1964) of "The Drowned Giant" (1964) or "The Day of Forever" (1966) or the incomparable "Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer" (1966)—seem, in 2009, imperishable. We can show that the Memories of the Space Age sequence of tales about the American conquest of space are inherently about the same cenotaphic world as any of his tales in which no vestige of our history can be detected; we can show that even the earliest of these, "The Cage of Sand" (1962), is not so much a prediction of the collapse of the enterprise as a profound assumption that Cape Canaveral was, like Easter Island, a rune. Ballard could not have believed in a space race because he believed that those who dreamed the dreams of science and avarice were psychopaths, acting out the primal scenes that cripple us on this planet: a psychopath in Ballard's world being a person who does not know he is dead.

A volume of this size and scope is beyond the scope of a single response. Briefly, it is possible to suggest that Ballard's later short fiction—it occupies the last 400 pages of the Complete—does mark a slow seeping away of his interest in the form, though flashes of the old cold drowned-giant gaze do occasionally shaken the reader. I know that I, for one, found much to chasten any readerly complacency in the last individual Ballard collection I had a chance to review, War Fever from 1990.

In the end though, we return to the moment when the long spasm of genius lights the page for the first time in "The Voices of Time", and we are told that a witness has begun to speak, that like any witness who tells the truth he is going to touch us like a blight, touch us like blessing.

John Clute is a writer, editor and critic. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and wrote Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in various journals in the UK and America. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes most of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Canary Fever: Reviews, which is due later this year, will contain most of the next 70 or so "Excessive Candour" columns, plus other work. The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006; he is working on a much enlarged third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2009 or so.