Fictions Of Every Kind

By JG Ballard
Books & Bookmen
February 1971

Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow -- or, more exactly, in about 10 years' time, though the gap is narrowing. Science fiction is the most important fiction that has been written for the last 100 years. The compassion, imagination, lucidity and vision of H.G. Wells and his successors, and above all their grasp of the real identity of the 20th century, dwarf the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the so-called Modern Movement, a 19th century offshoot of bourgeois rejection. Given its subject matter, its eager acceptance of naiveté, optimism and possibility, the role and importance of science fiction can only increase. I believe that the reading of science fiction should be compulsory. Fortunately, compulsion will not be necessary, as more and more people are reading it voluntarily. Even the worst science fiction is better -- using as the yardstick of merit the mere survival of its readers and their imaginations -- than the best conventional fiction. The future is a better key to the present than the past.

Above all, science fiction is likely to be the only form of literature which will cross the gap between the dying narrative fiction of the present and the cassette and videotape fictions of the near future. What can Saul Bellow and John Updike do that J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest advertising agency and its greatest producer of fiction, can't do better? At present science fiction is almost the only form of fiction which is thriving, and certainly the only fiction which has any influence on the world around it. The social novel is reaching fewer and fewer readers, for the clear reason that social relationships are no longer as important as the individual’s relationship with the technological landscape of the late 20th century.

In essence, science fiction is a response to science and technology as perceived by the inhabitants of the consumer goods society, and recognizes that the role of the writer today has totally changed -- he is now merely one of a huge army of people filling the environment with fictions of every kind. To survive, he must become far more analytic, approaching his subject matter like a scientist or engineer. If he is to produce fiction at all, he must out-imagine everyone else, scream louder, whisper more quietly. For the first time in the history of narrative fiction, it will require more than talent to become a writer. What special skills, proved against those of their fellow members of society, have Muriel Spark or Edna O'Brien, Kingsley Amis or Cyril Connolly? Sliding gradients point the way to their exits.

It is now some 15 years since the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, a powerful and original writer in his own right, remarked that the science fiction magazines produced in the suburbs of Los Angeles contained far more imagination and meaning than anything he could find in the literary periodicals of the day. Subsequent events have proved Paolozzi's sharp judgment correct in every respect. Fortunately, his own imagination has been able to work primarily within the visual arts, where the main tradition for the last century has been the tradition of the new. Within fiction, unhappily, the main tradition for all too long has been the tradition of the old. Like the inmates of some declining institution, increasingly forgotten and ignored by the people outside, the leading writers and critics count the worn beads of their memories, intoning the names of the dead, dead who were not even the contemporaries of their own grandparents.

Meanwhile, science fiction, as my agent remarked to me recently in a pleasant tone, is spreading across the world like a cancer. A benign and tolerant cancer, like the culture of beaches. The time-lag of its acceptance narrows -- I estimate it at present to be about 10 years. My guess is that the human being is a nervous and fearful creature, and nervous and fearful people detest change. However, as everyone becomes more confident, so they are prepared to accept change, the possibility of a life radically different from their own. Like green stamps given away at the supermarkets of chance and possibility, science fiction becomes the new currency of an ever-expanding future.

The one hazard facing science fiction, the Trojan horse being trundled towards its expanding ghetto -- a high-rent area if there ever was one in fiction -- is that faceless creature, literary criticism. Almost all the criticism of science fiction has been written by benevolent outsiders, who combine zeal with ignorance, like high-minded missionaries viewing the sex rites of a remarkably fertile aboriginal tribe and finding every laudable influence at work except the outstanding length of penis. The depth of penetration of the earnest couple, Lois and Stephen Rose (authors of The Shattered Ring), is that of a pair of practicing Christians who see in science fiction an attempt to place a new perspective on "man, nature, history and ultimate meaning." What they fail to realize is that science fiction is totally atheistic: those critics in the past who have found any mystical strains at work have been blinded by the camouflage. Science fiction is much more concerned with the significance of the gleam on an automobile instrument panel than on the deity's posterior -- if Mother Nature has anything in science fiction, it is VD.

Most critics of science fiction trip into one of two pitfalls -- either, like Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell, they try to ignore altogether the technological trappings and relate SF to the "mainstream" of social criticism, anti-utopian fantasies and the like (Amis's main prophecy for science fiction in 1957 and proved wholly wrong), or they attempt to apostrophize SF in terms of individual personalities, hopelessly rivaling the far-better financed efforts of American and British Publishers to sell their fading Wares by dressing their minor talents in the great-writer mantle. Science fiction has always been very much a corporate activity, its writers sharing a common pool of ideas, and the yardsticks of individual achievement do not measure the worth of the best Writers, Bradbury, Asimov, Bernard Wolfe Limbo 90) and Frederik Pohl, The anonymity of the majority of 20th-century Writers of science fiction is the anonymity of modern technology; no more "great names" stand out than in the design of consumer durables, or for that matter Rheims Cathedral.

Who designed the 1971 Cadillac El Dorado, a complex of visual, organic and psychological clues of infinitely more subtlety and relevance, stemming from a vastly older network of crafts and traditions than, say, the writings of Norman Mailer or the latest Weidenfeld or Cape miracle? The subject matter of SF is the subject matter of everyday life: the gleam on refrigerator cabinets, the contours of a wife's or husband's thighs passing the newsreel images on a color TV set, the conjunction of musculature and chromium artifact within an automobile interior, the unique postures of passengers on an airport escalator -- all in all, close to the world of the Pop painters and sculptors. Paolozzi, Hamilton, Warhol, Wesselmann, Ruscha, among others. The great advantage of SF is that it can add one unique ingredient to this hot mix -- words. Write!