China Miéville Explains Why J.G. Ballard Is A Giant Of Science Fiction

China Miéville's indispensible review of J.G. Ballard's newly released complete stories does more than celebrate Ballard, whose influence permeates all types of fiction. He also makes a great argument for why Ballard belongs to science fiction.

Not only does Ballard's fiction feature such SF commonplaces as space travel and future dystopias, it also makes use of genre conventions, and elevates them to the level of art, Miéville argues:

Ballard dreams up extraordinary situations, yet they create for him the prosaic challenge of explaining their genesis. Blithely ignoring the injunction beloved of creative writing teachers everywhere to "show, not tell," Ballard is happy, where necessary, to use the SF technique known as the "infodump," in which undigestible nuggets of necessary facticity are simply thrown in, to bob about like gristle in a stew or pennies in a Christmas pudding. "The frantic mining of the oceans in the previous century to provide oxygen for the atmospheres of the new planets had made their decline swift and irreversible, and with their death had come climatic and other geophysical changes which ensured the extinction of Earth itself" ("Deep End"). "The outward growth of cities had at last been checked; in fact, all over the world former suburban areas were being reclaimed for agriculture and population additions were confined within the existing urban ghettos" ("Billennium"). Backfilling a story with an infodump can sometimes be vastly smoother, particularly in a short story, than torturously constructing conversations or flashbacks. There is a place in fiction for the unapologetic infodump, and there is something charming about the fact that it is this most visionary, most illuminating, of modern writers who so cheerfully vindicates this most lumpen, pulp technique.

There are other alchemies. While there have always been outstanding exceptions within the genre, those of us who admire and love it should admit that the clichés about SF dialogue—that it is clumsy, unnatural and deeply unconvincing—are not always unfair. At his best Ballard can take something so base and gold it. "I may actually be stepping out of time," he has one character tell another in "The Overloaded Man." "Eliminating the vector of time from the de-identified object frees it from all its everyday cognitive associations. Alternatively, I may have stumbled on a means of repressing the photo-associative centres that normally identify visual objects." But his friend's not having any of it. "The subject-object relationship is not as polar as Descartes' 'Cogito ergo sum' suggests. By any degree to which you devalue the external world so you devalue yourself." Oh, snap!

It is trivially obvious that real people do not speak in such a way. But is that a demerit, any more than such studied unnaturalism is, say, in Beckett? Certainly in its sheer artificiality, such dialogue, like the infodump, might decouple readers from the internal world of the story—by no means necessarily lessening the work's hold on them but barring them from an enjoyably ingenuous inhabiting of it. But even if this is inevitable, it doesn't follow that this would be a problem—certainly not for Ballard, for whom strange cool distancing from extraordinary events, the kind of negative hysteria at brilliant work in "The Drowned Giant," is carefully cultivated.

The whole essay is well worth reading, for Miéville's insights into Ballard, as well as writing generally. [The Nation]