THE SEER OF SHEPERTON  -  Monday September 28th, 2009

Original cover for the serialised novella, now known as The Drowned World. 1962.

BALLARDIAN: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (J.G. Ballard; born 1930), the British novelist, or his works. (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

Ballard was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, and yet he remains decidedly at the peripheries of mainstream media. I don’t mean he is a cult figure, not at all – the man was so well recognised in his own lifetime that he had an adjective made of his name. He spawned his own genre of fiction. He influenced such diverse figures as Jean Baudrillard (whose commentary on Crash in Simulacra and Simulation was how I first heard of Ballard’s name), Joy Division, the Klaxons, and Steven Spielberg. There are several websites dedicated to him and his works, the most famous is perhaps the Ballardian. Will Self, who was his friend for many years, recently recorded a production for Radio 4 (online here) in which he pays tribute to the ‘seer of Sheperton’. Also worth a look are these images, inspired by his novel Drowned World.

Ballard died of prostate cancer several months ago.

The purpose of this post is not an attempt at summarising, or introducing, the work of Ballard. Its purpose is simply to identify one more reason that this blog is called Millennium People. Ballard’s prose is rich, and over-saturated, at times heavy, even indigestible. His plots vary in subject, but rarely in theme – there is a coherent trajectory to his writing as he follows several ideas to their logical (or at times, their frighteningly realistic illogical) conclusions. His earlier works generally involve the transformation of people and societies as the world is subjected to some cataclysmic environmental change. These could be considered, perhaps, a type of science fiction set in the present day.

In The Drowned World “21st century fluctuations in solar radiation have cause the ice-caps to melt and the seas to rise. Global temperatures have climbed, and civilisation has retreated to the Arctic and Antarctic circles. London is a city now inundated by a primeval swamp, to which an expedition travels to record the flora and fauna of this new Triassic Age. ” Wiki notes: “In contrast to much post-apocalyptic fiction, the novel features a central character who, rather than being disturbed by the end of the old world, is enraptured by the chaotic reality that has come to replace it.”

This is a similarly prominent aspect of The Drought (as it sounds) and Hello America (due to the diversion in global air and water patterns caused by the damming of the Bering Strait the States are turned into a desert, and 100 years into the future a group of European explorers find themselves suddenly swept up by the remnants of American society, who have centred their new and violent civilization on Las Vegas).

‘Enraptured by chaotic reality’ is a good way to describe his middle and later works – High Rise, for example, is the story of a Corbusian-like ultra-modern tower block occupied by bored housewives and wealthy professionals that descends into a tribal warfare. Or Concrete Island, where an architect rolls his car off an overpass and finds himself trapped, marooned, between on-ramps, unable to be seen or to escape. Perhaps most famously Crash, “a story about car-crash sexual fetishism, its protagonists become sexually aroused by staging and participating in real car-crashes, often with real consequences…”

And so we come finally to Millennium People, written in 2003, and his second-last novel. Put simply, it is the tale of a middle-class revolt in a quiet suburban enclave of London called Chelsea Marina (Chelsea Harbour in reality). The protagonist is a psychiatrist searching for meaning in the death of his ex-wife, who was killed by a terrorist bomb at Heathrow Airport. By degrees he becomes involved with a bourgeois terrorist cell, who target the National Film Archives, libraries and cat shows. They are convinced that the financial obligations of the middle class (associated with consuming and possessing – homes, cars, designer clothes, etc) and the mind-numbing effects of “traditional values” on maintaining elitist social hierarchies amount to a type of present-day servitude. They equate themselves with the powerless proletariat of the Russian Revolution, and their goal is simple:

“‘The travel agency you tried to attack, I assume there’s a larger target… Chelsea Marina?’
‘Far larger.’ Relaxed again, Dexter raised his hands. ‘One of the biggest of all. The 20th Century.’
‘I thought it was over.’
‘It lingers on. It shapes everything we do… the way we think. There’s scarcely a good thing you can say for it. Genocidal wars, half the world destitute, the other half sleepwalking through its own brain-death. We bought its trashy dreams and now we can’t wake up.”

2 Responses to “THE SEER OF SHEPERTON”
  1. Tristan says:

    This fella sounds quite interesting, I might have to look into him.

    Have you read much Kim Stanley Robinson? His 'Science in the Capital' series perhaps fits into the same sort of genre. It details the responses of members of the NSF and government to a collapse in the Gulf Stream due to global warming, resulting in Siberian conditions in Europe and eastern America. Very interesting.

  2. Jack Self says:

    Love Kimmie (he was my inspiration for the terraforming of venus post).

    Ballard still my #1 dude though.