Monday, 20 April 2009

J.G. Ballard

The occasion of Ballard's passing is clearly not the most opportune time to attempt any critical appraisal of his legacy; that would be churlish, bad taste. Although each of us on this blog have been reading him for over 20 years, it must also be acknowledged that this is considerably less time than many of his most hardcore fans.

So rather than attempt to compare and contrast him with any sociological paradigms (say the Glasgow Media Group's position regarding media "effects" research, Raymond Williams on mobility, the "shrinking island" of British modernism etc), I'll take the opportunity instead to highlight a piece that successfully downplays the more common "postmodern" association of Ballard's work with Jean Baudrillard. There may also be scope within said piece to qualify to some extent Burling's Marxist evaluation of Ballard as representative of the first generation of "new wave" sci fi.

In so doing, however, I mean no disrespect to Bill Burling, who was obviously a wonderful teacher and an astute critic. I recommend following this link to investigate Burling's legacy, which includes a close association with Kim Stanley Robinson, leading to this upcoming title.

In any case, here is the passage from Burling's text which really captured my attention:

British SF over the past four decades often engages with socialist and even Marxist thematics, which may be said to begin with Michael Moorcock’s assumption of the editorship of the magazine New Worlds in 1964. Encouraging the pursuit of experimental and radical social critique in SF, Moorcock published what would in due course become an impressive generation of Left SF authors and their followers, including Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard. Taking William Burroughs as their literary inspiration, the first “new wave” SF evinced a latent Left position, that is, one advocating Left views of consciousness but not highlighting the requisite socio-economic components. A second wave was, however, depicted manifestly Left extrapolations: Iain Banks’ “Culture” novels, such as Consider Phlebas (1987) offer an extended post-scarcity, left socio-techno vision; Ken Macleod actively engages Marxist ideas in the “Fall Revolution” series, as in The Star Fraction (1995); and China Miéville’s remarkable and generically innovative “Bas-Lag” series incorporates an extended meditation on Left political and social issues, most clearly in Iron Council (2004).

Of special and final note is the work of two recent women authors. Tricia Sullivan’s Maul (2003) vigorously interrogates social and political issues in her depiction of a near future, but non-utopian, world administered solely by women. Also important is Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love (2001), winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the ensuing namesake series: Castles made of Sand (2002), Midnight Lamp (2003), Band of Gypsies (2004), and Rainbow Bridge (2005). Jones near-future depiction of the U.K., originally sketched out in a short story in 1992, grapples with gender, political, economic, social, and environmental issues emerging from the breakdown of the capitalist status quo and the resulting revolutionary possibilities. The novel sequence aggressively challenges the reactionary dystopian bent of much SF by presenting a plausible utopian vision grounded on Left-based values emphasizing shared resources and decision-making. Jones’ work thus stands as one of the most important contemporary works of Left SF.

Even this short and admittedly selective survey demonstrates the essential interconnection between SF’s representations of the production and consumption of technology and the resulting implications as theorized by Marx and later Left thinkers. While only a few SF works have manifestly engaged the concomitant and irrepressible social, political, and economic issues inherent in their alternative worlds, every SF story, film, or television show bears the latent burden of ideological commitment.

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