..let me begin with the work of J.G. Ballard. There has been a systematic re-vision of Ballard’s work in recent years. His uneasy relation to the genre was initially figured in terms of his unrelenting pessimism, his perversion of the teleological narrative of scientific progress so central to “hard” SF. Blish objected to the passivity in Ballard’s “disaster novels”: “you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it” (James Blish, More Issues at Hand P128). Peter Nicholls condemned Ballard’s oeuvre outright: Ballard is “advocating a life style quite likely to involve the sudden death of yourself and those you love” (Peter Nichols, “Jerry Cornelius at the Atrocity Exhibition: Anarchy and Entropy in New Wave Science Fiction.” Foundation, Nov 1975). Ballard’s nihilism is exemplified by his obsessive representations of mutilation, suicidal passivity, and the embrace, the positive willing, of death. One interpretive possibility remains: that the “disaster novels” focus on “the perverse desires, mad ambitions, and suicidal manias of aberrant personalities now free to fulfil fatal aspirations devoid of any rational motivation” (George Barlow, “Ballard.” Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers. Ed. Curtis C. Smith.P32).

However, the re-vision began with Ballard’s dismissal of this “false” reading:

I don’t see my fiction as disaster-oriented…they’re…stories of psychic fulfillment. The geophysical changes which take place in The Drought, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World are all positive and good changes…[that] lead us to our real psychological goals…. Really, I’m trying to show a new kind of logic emerging, and this is to be embraced, or at least held in regard. (David Pringle and James Goddard. Interview with Ballard. Vector , March 1976.)

Peter Brigg and Warren Wagar have subsequently offered the inverted perspective and “perverse” argument that the literal catastrophe is metaphorically “transvalued” into positive narratives of psychic transcendence: that these are fables of “self-overcoming in perilous confrontation with the world” (1991Wagar, J.G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia. SFS , March 1991). Gregory Stevenson, in Out of the Nightmare and into the Dream, has taken this position to its most religiose extreme: all of Ballard’s work is to be encoded into a pseudo-Jungian-Christian mish-mash of transcendence. Death as the terminus, as liminal facticity and the problematic of finitude, is to be re-figured as the metaphorical transgression of the bounds of the bodily into an ultimate, ecstatic (re-)unification and (re-) integration.

In adjudicating on these competing frames, death is undoubtedly pivotal. The issue comes down to what form of death the Ballardian text proposes. Clearly the narrative of transcendence is attempting to shift from the “wrong” (literal) death to the “right” (metaphorical) death. Being-towards-death is replaced by Being-beyond-death. But it is not as simple as this straightforward substitution of deaths suggests. There is a certain violence in trying to elide Ballard’s oeuvre into a singular narrative, which tends to erase important differences between The Drowned World and The Crystal World, where textual evidence for transcendence is clear, and The Drought, which is more rigorously existential in concentrating on what Jaspers would call the unreadable and unattainable “cipher-script” of the Transcendent. Such a narrative is also uncomfortable with The Atrocity Exhibition where the concern for violence and death is displaced onto the figure of the Woman. It is also useful, I think, to retain Ballard’s clear debt to Freud’s speculations on the literal fact of human aggressivity and violence in Civilization and Its Discontents, especially as it is central to the book which so influenced Ballard, Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo.

It needs re-emphasizing that the literal and figural readings of death are inextricable and intertwined; transcendence of the bodily clearly depends on the facticity of the body in order to have any productive meaning. Why is this so important? Because in terms of SF criticism this re-visioning of Ballard forms a kind of meta-commentary on the project of legitimating SF as a whole genre.

Roger Luckhurst
The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic