Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Future in Need of an Update

For English white boys of a particular vintage and reticence, the novels of J.G. Ballard were as close as we got to pornography in our early teenage years (indeed, for some of us, it was as close as we got to women at all). Quite what impact the clinical descriptions of Elizabeth Taylor's armpit and Jackie Kennedy's left orbit had on our collective sexual development is difficult to say, although I suspect early exposure to H&E magazine, swapped in Mell Square for a packet of 10 Park Drive, was more likely to deprave us (and perhaps the fags would have depraved us still more).

Sadly, none of that obsessive attention to the fetishistic is apparent in A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. Despite the first half of the title, this collection already feels severely dated, leading one to wonder which particular millennium Ballard had in mind. Indeed, a number of these pieces date back to the early 70s, when some of us were just getting to grips with Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition and looking for more of the same (maybe "getting to grips with" is an inappropriate metaphor to use here!).

Unless you're interested in inaccurate predictions about the future of science fiction or the shape of cities and automobiles to come, there isn't much in here that will grab you. Some of Ballard's reflections on Shanghai may be of passing note, but much of it has been covered elsewhere in his oeuvre. Only the final piece, a "Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century," held my attention, and then perhaps only because its central idea was stolen from Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary. Here's a quick sample:

The Warren Commission Report: The novelization of the Zapruder film.

Lysenkoism: A forlorn attempt not merely to colonize the botanical kingdom, but to instil a proper sense of the puritan work ethic and the merits of self-improvement.

Telephone: A shrine to the desperate hope that one day the world will listen to us.

Typewriter: It types us, encoding its own linear bias across the free space of the imagination.

Hallucinogenic drugs: The kaleidoscope's view of the eye.

and last but most humourously

Automobile: All the millions of cars on this planet are stationary, and their apparent motion constitutes mankind's greatest collective dream.

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