Our Men in Rio: (left to right) Brian Aldiss, tour guide, Phil Farmer, Robert Sheckley and JG Ballard.
Introduction by David Pringle: From SF Symposium edited by Jose Sanz. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Nacional do Cinema, 1969, paper, pages 157-159. Transcript of a talk delivered at a science-fiction symposium held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 1969. Unfortunately, the sense was badly mangled in translation. The following is my attempt at a cleaned-up version, with my guesses as to what Ballard actually said.
Science Fiction Cannot
Be Immune from Change
A speech by J.G. Ballard
I think that this Symposium has been a tremendous idea. Coming all this way and seeing this huge gathering of people has been a tremendous tonic -- though on the first day, I must say, I was very depressed. I went to a symposium about a year ago in Brighton, in England, of a similar character and, again, on the first morning (because I was there for only two days) I was very depressed. For some reason, at these gatherings, what one might call the 'old guard' tend to get in with their opinions first, and I suppose they've got to get them off their chests as quickly as possible. But on the second day I thought that the whole thing came to life: there, completely and surely, the other side of science fiction -- if you like, the future of science fiction rather than its past -- was shown. What I found depressing on the first day, without naming any names, was the tremendous historical 'reprise,' the whole sentimental nostalgia for the great movies produced in the '20s and '30s. I got the impression that science fiction was a literature of the past rather than a fiction for the future.
At present there is a tremendous struggle going on between the so-called New Wave and the old wave. The term New Wave I absolutely detest! I think it must have been invented by someone like Judith Merril, who is a fine woman, a great critic and great champion of mine, and good luck to her; but I think the notion of calling most of what has been written in science fiction over the last ten years, calling it 'new wave,' immediately puts a frame around a certain kind of writing done over the last five-to-ten years which isolates it. I identify with the New Wave rather than the old wave at times. I had a very intelligent conversation -- or rather, I was a pleased listener to Mr Moskowitz's intelligent remarks which have astounded us here this morning. I suddenly saw that I am more on his side than he might realize. I suppose I'm identified with the so-called New Wave, therefore a certain hostility is attributed to me against the older school of science fiction, and now and then people like my friend Brian [Aldiss] show me a fanzine -- those magazines [known as] 'fanzines' -- full of attacks on me, and I get the impression that I am at times regarded as a kind of anti-Christ. In fact, I am the greatest possible defender of the traditional virtues of science fiction. I genuinely believe that science fiction is the greatest literature of the 20th century, without any doubt.
In literary circles there is a convention that the main literary tradition of the 20th century is the so-called Modern Movement, or whatever you would like to term it -- that tradition which runs from French symbolists such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire and so on, all the way through James Joyce, Eliot and so on, to Hemingway, and more or less concludes itself with William Burroughs. A hundred years of literature, which is the literature by intellectuals, the literary culture which all of us in fact base our lives and imaginations on. This is regarded as the main literary tradition of the 20th century. [On the other hand,] science fiction -- which Arthur [Clarke] and I write; many of us write it, let's face it -- has rather been looked down upon, although in the last ten years it has come somewhat into vogue, let's say, among French intellectuals (and certain English intellectuals regard it very highly too) -- but more in the way that they are interested in the iconography of mass advertising, a kind of conceptual and very abstract way.
It has always seemed to me that this notion, this so-called Modern Movement, this literature of alienation and introspection and great literary sophistication (there is no doubt about that), could not possibly be the main literary tradition of the 20th century. How could it be? These writers, such as Hemingway, Camus, Eliot, are writers of deep pessimism, of deep introspection. They are reacting against the absolute financial and sexual authority of the bourgeois paterfamilias. In every respect, it seems to me that the so-called Modern Movement is a 19th-century movement: it is anti-bourgeois, it is alienated, and so on. The 20th-century requires a literature oriented towards what is its main fact -- and the main fact of the 20th century is the notion of the unlimited future. For the first time all of us can declare a moratorium on the past and look instead to the future. While the 19th century was absolutely work-oriented, with people obsessed by character, experience and family background, etc. -- and they produced a literature to suit them. The greatest flowering of 19th-century literature has been in the 20th century, by an appalling paradox.
[But] at last science fiction is beginning to come into its own. Now, what you see in science fiction in the modern sense (I don't know if Mr Moskowitz will agree with me) is roughly 100 years old, from Verne's 'Rocket to the Moon,' published about 100 years ago, to the present. What you see, looking at it, is a spectrum of continuous change from Verne to Wells to Capek, Aldous Huxley, Orwell, the writers of modern American science fiction, and now a new generation of writers. These changes are inevitable. Science fiction cannot be immune from change. It distresses me when I see those who maintain the so-called grand tradition of modern American science fiction refusing to recognize the possibilities of any change at all. It strikes me as appalling in, for example, the American science-fiction magazines. I know they don't compare in circulation or influence even with the mass magazines, but they are nonetheless substantial journals. It depresses me to see them so reluctant to recognize the possibilities of any change or experiment.
Now, science fiction must change, otherwise it will become a literature of the past. I began writing my first science fiction roughly 12 years ago, when Sputnik 1 was sent out, and I chose personally to turn my back on outer space. It seems to me now very odd that at the time when these greatest dreams seemed to have been confirmed -- the great dream of space travel and interplanetary flight -- that what in fact happened was that science fiction, or at least its newer and younger writers, turned its back on this tradition of outer space and interplanetary travel. If one looks at the new science fiction written over the past ten years, one sees not stories about spaceships, interplanetary flight and so on, but in fact one sees a very private and speculative kind of fiction coming in. It is not coming into the American magazines, because it is ruthlessly kept out -- and more's the shame -- but if you look at the British magazines (and for that matter in books published in America and Great Britain) one sees a new kind of speculative fiction that is appearing.
The writers are searching for a new metaphor for the future. The spaceship, and interplanetary travel, was the most magnificent possible metaphor for the future when it was first conceived -- let's say 100 years ago, not to go back too far -- or in its great heyday of modern American science fiction. The most magnificent metaphor that broke away from the rather dull world of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the time when the first American science-fiction magazines came out -- roughly speaking, at the time of the great Depression. It seems to me marvellous that here was a literature, a fighting literature, which revealed this huge optimism about the future of mankind at a time when millions of people were on the dole.
The metaphor of the spaceship isn't any longer a valid metaphor for the present because it is simply an image of the past. I mean, the iconography of space travel, that ringed planet, the spaceship that looks something like that microphone, the notion that the future was anything with a fin on it -- this is something that has gone out. One thing about 2001 that I liked was that the spaceships there did not look like the sort of paper darts of classical science fiction. They looked like early Paolozzi sculptures -- they have no aerodynamic forms, but are almost icons from inner space -- and this was one of the good things about this movie.
The problem then is to find a new metaphor (or a new system of metaphor) for the future, if one can say that the future -- in the old-fashioned sense of the term -- still exists. I personally think that very probably 30 years from now nobody will look back to the past or forward to the future: they will live simply in the present, and the technology will serve the present, will serve their needs within the present, maximizing their own intelligent pleasures, and so on. I think this has something to do with the sort of process that has taken place in science fiction over the past ten years, this rejection of its grand tradition -- space travel -- for some kind of an alternative.
I think that the whole basis of fiction and reality in the world seems to have reversed. Perhaps 100 years ago, one at least can visualize, there was a very clear distinction in people's minds between external reality -- on the one hand, the world of work and industry and commerce and so on, and one's social relationships; and on the other, the world of one's daydreams, the world of the mind, let us say. It seems to me this relationship has reversed itself totally so that the greatest production of fiction today is in external reality, in the materials of ordinary life. It is almost fictional now in the world of politics -- I mean, Vietnam is not just a TV war; it is a war of enormous political fictions that are not solved simply because the people running them are incapable of the kind of happy plot-ending that we, who are sitting here, are. And the same is true of a whole range of activities going on in life. I mean, one doesn't buy an airline ticket to the south of France, or Miami, or whatever place it may be, on holiday; one buys the image of a certain kind of transportation.
It is very difficult, in fact, to find any points of old-fashioned reality in our environment. We are trapped in a maze of fiction, politically-conducted mass advertising, the immense range of consumer goods iconography that is pouring out -- not just verbal but visual fictions all day long. By the same token, given that external realities are a type of fiction, one finds a much more sharp awareness on people's part of the materials of their minds. People are far more aware of their own motives, their own states of mind, moods -- and this is the new reality. One has to find a fiction that will, in some way, express this new interchange, and maybe the writer's role is no longer to invent anything. His role is not a synthetic one but an analytic one. He does not need to invent any fiction because the fiction is already there.
In the writing I have been doing recently, as John Brunner pointed out, I began to use characters like Elizabeth Taylor, J.F.K., and so on, because it seems to me that these are fictional characters far greater than any a writer could invent. Not only that, but they are the main fictional characters who are alive, and our role as writers is to understand the particular points of reality that exist where all these various fictions intersect. And I think a much more private and speculative fiction is going to appear, much more introverted. I use the term in this case to describe something that, I assume, is the landscape of the soul. I think the idea of the future, which is enshrined in science fiction, will go out. I can't see the future... and Brian said that science fiction may not exist. I think definitely it does exist: what I think is that possibly the future doesn't exist.
The notion that our life is predicated ahead of ourselves, by all kinds of possibilities, is something that is probably going out. We are living in the present. I think the main task of the science-fiction writer is to write about his own present; and when he does this, science fiction will at last come of age, and one will have a vital literature, for the first time, that is wholly concerned with the present -- and will be that much more real for it.