Photo by Jerry Self
PROFILE: J. G. BALLARD
The Space Age Is Over
By Dr. Chris Evans
Penthouse: Science fiction is supposed to reflect the future. How well do you think it has done that over the years?
Ballard: I think it's been amazingly accurate, not necessarily in terms of the technology itself, but in predicting society's response to technology. Jules Verne, over 100 years ago, was the first writer of any kind to respond to the impending transformation of society by technology, and from his time onwards science fiction has picked out the main preoccupations and anxieties of the Industrial Age, identifying them way ahead of their appearance. Incidentally it has also anticipated the present unease about science which has recently become a public issue, but which was featured in SF as far back as the 1930s. I suspect it will also turn out to have been extremely accurate in the way in which it is now predicting or anticipating the peculiar affectless quality of life in the 1980s and 90s.
Penthouse: What kind of things?
Ballard: Well, for example the way in which the traditional togetherness of the village is giving way to the inbuilt loneliness of the new high rises, or the peculiar fact that people nowadays like to be together not in the old-fashioned way of, say, mingling on the piazza of an Italian Renaissance city, but, instead, huddled together in traffic jams, bus queues, on escalators and so on. It's a new kind of togetherness which may seem totally alien, but it's the togetherness of modern technology, and the science fiction writers of the 40s, 50s and 60s picked it out unerringly as being a dominant feature of the future - often without realising what they were doing.
Penthouse: Can you give an example?
Ballard: You've only got to look at copies of Galaxy Magazine and Astounding Science Fiction of the early 50s to see the anxieties and wish-fulfilment fantasies of modern surburbia and city life -- the escapist dreams of jet liners and airport lounges -- all absolutely contained in the science fiction of the period. Take Pohl and Kornbluth's classic novel, The Space Merchants. Here the future is portrayed in terms of a world totally dominated by the advertising agencies. It's a world run not by the Pentagon and the Kremlin but by Madison Avenue, with giant rival advertising consortia fighting to control everything and everyone through the mechanism of the mass media. And indeed, we can look back now and realise that the logical evolution of Western society of the 1950s would have been a world in which the copywriter was king. It seems obvious in retrospect, but it took science fiction writers to spot it and write about it a quarter of a century ago.
Penthouse: You evidently don't rate too highly science fiction's highly successful predictions about space travel?
Ballard: Well you can't underestimate that achievement, but in many ways space travel was the least adventurous of all SF concepts. It so happens that my first stories were being published at almost exactly the time that Sputnik One -- in case you've forgotten, that's the first artificial satellite -- was launched in 1957. At the time I remember a great mood of optimism in science fiction circles. It seemed that the Sputniks had ushered in the space age, and that everything that the science fiction writers had been predicting for 100 years was coming true. And with the space age, science fiction was set fair for a golden era. Now I remember, paradoxically responding to this general euphoria, by being intensely pessimistic rather than optimistic. Although I had no real evidence to support my hunch -- quite the opposite in fact -- I felt very strongly that the age of space, as far as science-fiction was concerned was ending rather than beginning. And indeed the space age did end and far from lasting hundreds or even thousands of years, its total life span was hardly more than a decade.
One can date its end quite precisely. The space age clearly ended in 1974 when the last Skylab mission came to earth. This was the first splashdown not to be shown on TV -- a highly significant decision on the part of the networks which signalled the fact that space simply wasn't interesting any more. As I said I had a strong hunch that this was the case, but didn't have any unequivocal evidence to back it up. But in the summer of '74 I remember standing out in my garden on a bright, clear night and watching a moving dot of light in the sky which I realised was Skylab. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that there were men up there, and I felt really quite moved as I watched it. Through my mind there even flashed a line from every Hollywood aviation movie of the 40s, "it takes guts to fly those machines." But I meant it. Then my neighbour came out into his garden to get something and I said, "Look, there's Skylab," and he looked up and said, "Sky-what?" And I realised that he didn't know about it, and he wasn't interested. No, from that moment there was no doubt in my mind that the space age was over.
Penthouse: What is the explanation for this. Why are people so
Ballard: I think it's because we're at the climactic end of one huge age of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which lasted for about 200 years. We're also at the beginning of a second, possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to artificial muscles, and right now we stand at the midpoint between these two huge epochs. Now it's my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps, recognise this and also recognise that the space programme and the conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to the past instead of the future. Don't misunderstand me -- it was a magnificent achievement to put a man on the moon, but it was essentially nuts and bolts technology and therefore not qualitatively different from the kind of engineering that built the Queen Mary or wrapped railroads round the world in the 19th century. It was a technology that changed peoples lives in all kinds of ways, and to a most dramatic extent, but the space programme represented its fast guttering flicker.
Penthouse: You were one of the leaders of the "New Wave" in science fiction. Could you say something about that? Was the New Wave a response to the shift from one technological epoch to another?
Ballard: Yes, in a sense. You see technology advances on a number of fronts and opens up a number of different doors. The transformation of London by its tube system in the 19th century, the spread of the telephone in the 1920s and 30s, the coming of radio and the dominance of TV in the 50s and 60s were all tied up with technology, but with communications and information transfer rather than with giant feats of Meccano engineering. I was born in 1930, and I am old enough to remember the popular encyclopaedias of the day, the mass magazines like Life in which space exploration was seen as a natural extension of the development of aviation. It took 50 years from the Wright Brothers to the first faster than sound rocket planes in the '50s. It then seemed only natural that the next step was Outer Space and these were the sort of projections that "Old Wave" science fiction made about the future. And while the logic of our past history seemed to be a continued expansion outwards, a persistent invasion of extra-terrestrial territory, the growth of communications technology in the 50s and 60s was already suggesting that these huge spatial excursions were becoming not only less and less necessary, but also less and less interesting.
The world of "Outer Space", which had hitherto been assumed to be limitless, was being revealed as essentially limited, a vast concourse of essentially similar stars and planets whose exploration was likely to be not only extremely difficult, but also perhaps intrinsically disappointing. On the other hand, inside our heads so to speak, lay a vast and genuinely infinite territory which, for the sake of contrast I termed "Inner Space." The New Wave in science fiction -- it's not a phrase I care for actually -- reflected this shift in priorities, from Outer Space to Inner Space, and in my own writing I set out quite deliberately to explore this terrain.
Penthouse: Was your novel Crash an investigation of Inner Space?
Ballard: Yes and no. Crash was really about the psychology of the motor car, or about people's attitudes to the motor car, and it tried to highlight the vast range of emotional ties that man has with this highly specialised piece of technology. It was a kind of science fiction of the present if you like. I'm not interested in motor cars myself by the way, but I am interested in what motor cars say about modern man, and about how they reflect man's needs and aspirations. Many people make the mistake of assuming that people buy motor cars because of great advertising and external social pressures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since the 1930s when styling first began to be a big feature of design in the States, the automobile industry has emerged as a perfect example of a huge technological system meeting profound psychological needs.
The motor car represents, and has done for 40 years, a very complex mesh of personal fulfilment of every conceivable kind. On a superficial level it fulfills the need for a glamorous package that is quite beautifully sculptured in steel and has all sorts of built-in conceptual motifs. At a deeper level it represents the dramatic role one can experience when in charge of a powerful machine driving across the landscape of the world we live in, a role one can share with the driver of an express train or the pilot of a 707.
The automobile also represents an extension of one's own personality in numerous ways, offering an outlet for repressed sexuality and aggression. Similarly it represents all kinds of positive freedoms -- I don't just mean freedom to move around from place to place, but freedoms which we don't normally realise, or even accept we are interested in. The freedom to kill oneself for example. When one is driving a car there exists, on a second-by-second basis, the absolute freedom to involve oneself in the most dramatic event of one's life, barring birth, which is one's death. One could go on indefinitely pointing out how the motor car is the one focus of so many currents of the era, and so many conscious and unconscious pressures. Indeed if I had to pick a single image which best represented the middle and late 20th century, it would be that of a man sitting in a car, driving down a superhighway. Crash was an attempt to explore this vast facet of human existence, and to that extent, I suppose, was part of the exploration of Inner, as opposed to Outer, space.
Penthouse: What was the general response to this shift of direction in science fiction?
Ballard: Although initially it seemed as though the various "New Wave" writers of the 60s were significantly off-beam because of the apparent success of the space programme, I believe now that we were very much more in tune with the public mood than perhaps we realised. Don't forget that the 60s were the years of the resurgence in pop culture, and a turning away from the external material culture of the early 20th century. People no longer saw their lives in terms of establishing basic material securities -- I must have a job, I must have an apartment, cars, washing machines. They all had jobs, apartments, cars and washing machines.
What people wanted to gratify were psychological rather than material needs. They wanted to get their sex lives right, their depressions sorted out, they wanted to come to terms with psychological weaknesses they had. And these were things that a materialistic society was unable to supply -- it couldn't wrap them up and sell them for a pound down and ten pence a week. Now this rejection of external in favour of internal values was mirrored in the great popular movements of the time. Take the career of the Beatles who began in the traditional materialistic mould of young Rock 'n Roll stars -- flashy cars, expensive clothes, big stadium concerts and all that but turned in the end towards meditation, mysticism, the pseudo-philosophical drug culture of the psychedelics, and so on. In other words there was a great current moving through Western Europe and the USA in the 60s in a direction completely opposite to that emanating from the Kennedy Space Centre The stars and the planets were out, the bloodstream and the central nervous system were in. It's no wonder that by the time Armstrong had put his foot on the moon, no one was really interested.
Penthouse: Does that mean that the space programme has ended once and for all. Are you saying that we'll never go any further?
Ballard: Oh, no, there'll be a space age some day, perhaps 30, 40 or even 50 years from now, and when it comes it will be a real space age! But it will depend upon the development of some new form of propulsion. The main trouble with the present system -- all these gigantic rockets sailing up off the launch pads consuming tons of fuel for every foot of altitude -- is that it just hasn't got anything to do with space travel. The number of astronauts who have gone into orbit after the expenditure of this great ocean of rocket fuel is small to the point of being ludicrous. And that sums it all up. You can't have a real space age from which 99.999 per cent of the human race is excluded.
Far more real -- and we don't have to wait 50 years for it -- is the invisible space age which exists already; the communications satellites, literally thousands of them, television relay systems, spy satellites, weather satellites, These are all changing our lives in a way that the average person doesn't yet comprehend. The ability to pass information around from one point in the globe to another in vast quantities and at stupendous speeds, the ability to process information by fantastically powerful computers, the intrusion of electronic data processing in whatever form into all our lives is far, far more significant than all the rocket launches, all the planetary probes, every footprint or tyre mark on the lunar surface.
Penthouse: How do you see the future developing?
Ballard: I see the future developing in just one way -- towards the home. In fact I would say that if one had to categorise the future in one word, it would be that word "home." Just as the 20th century has been the age of mobility, largely through the motor car, so the next era will be one in which instead of having to seek out one's adventures through travel, one creates them, in whatever form one chooses, in one's home. The average individual won't just have a tape recorder, a stereo HiFi, or a TV set. He'll have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power. No longer will he have to accept the relatively small number of permutations of fantasy that the movie and TV companies serve up to him, but he will be able to generate whatever he pleases to suit his whim. In this way people will soon realise that they can maximise the future of their lives with new realms of social, sexual and personal relationships, all waiting to be experienced in terms of these electronic systems, and all this exploration will take place in their living rooms.
But there's more to it than that. For the first time it will become truly possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology of one's own life without any fear of moral condemnation. Although we've seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating effects on other people. Now I'm not talking about criminally psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most of these, need to be expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting girl's pig tails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find yourself in the local magistrates court if you succumb to them. And the reason for this is that you're intruding on other people's life space. But with the new multi-media potential of your own computerised TV studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and harmless way, every type of impulse -- impulses so deviant that they might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and degenerate.
Penthouse: Can you be sure that their exploration, even if they don't involve other people in the "real sense," will be purely benign?
Ballard: Well it seems to me that these kinds of explorations have been going on, if only in a limited sense, since time immemorial. Take the whole business of organised sports and games which have been a major preoccupation of man for tens of thousands of years. Now there's no point in pretending that these games are played and watched solely because of the fact that they determine some trial of skill or bravery between opposing teams. The exhilaration of sport, from the pumping of one's lungs, the twisting of ankles, the bruising of the rugger field, the physical damage of the boxing match, and right at the other end of the scale the multiple deaths of a Formula Two pile-up are all major components, and all might seem like totally deviant pleasures if they were not long-established components of participant and spectator sports.
Even today the idea that people watching a car race get some measure of excitement from being an observer of an accident which produces pain, mutilation and death, is somehow slightly shocking and yet it's clearly one of the reasons why people go to motor races. But I think we'll shortly be moving into a realm where we will be prepared to take for granted the existence of these seemingly deviant interests and through the limitless powers of our home computers and TV we will be granted universes of experience which today seem to belong to the dark side of so-called civilised behaviour. Of course this doesn't apply solely to sport or to activities like the space programme; with the kind of simulations I'm envisaging it may never be necessary to go into space. One's own drawing room will be a thousand times more exciting and, in a peculiar way, more "real." No, there will be a huge range of activities, our sex lives included, in which we can explore endlessly the permutations of possible relationships with our friends, wives, lovers, husbands, in a completely uninhibited way, but also in a way which is neither physically hurtful nor psychologically or morally corrupting.
Penthouse: Will people really respond to these creative possibilities themselves? Won't the creation of these scenarios always be handed over to the expert or professional?
Ballard: I doubt it. The experts or professionals only handle these tools when they are too expensive or too complex for the average person to manage them. As soon as the technology becomes cheap and simple, ordinary people get to work with it. One's only got to think of people's human responses to a new device like the camera. If you go back 30 or 40 years the Baby Brownie gave our parents a completely new window on the world. They could actually go into the garden and take a photograph of you tottering around on the lawn, take it down to the chemists, and then actually see their small child falling into the garden pool whenever and as often as they wanted to. I well remember my own parents' excitement and satisfaction when looking at these blurry pictures, which represented only the simplest replay of the most totally commonplace. And indeed there's an interesting point here. Far from being applied to mammoth productions in the form of personal space adventures, or one's own participation in a death-defying race at Brands Hatch it's my view that the incredibly sophisticated hook-ups of TV cameras and computers which we will all have at our fingertips tomorrow will most frequently be applied to the supremely ordinary, the absolutely commonplace.
I can visualise, for example, a world ten years from now where every activity of one's life will be constantly recorded by multiple computer-controlled TV cameras throughout the day so that when the evening comes instead of having to watch the news as transmitted by BBC or ITV -- that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world -- one will be able to sit down, relax and watch the real news. And the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the days rushes. "My God, there's Jenny having her first ice cream!" or "There's Candy coming home from school with her new friend." Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, as and how it affects every individual. Anyone in doubt about the compulsion of this kind of thing just has to think for a moment of how much is conveyed in a simple family snapshot, and of how rivetingly interesting -- to oneself and family only of course -- are even the simplest of holiday home movies today.
Now extend your mind to the fantastic visual experience which tomorrow's camera and editing facilities will allow. And I am not just thinking about sex, although once the colour 3-D cameras move into the bedroom the possibilities are limitless and open to anyone's imagination. But let's take another level, as yet more or less totally unexplored by cameras, still or movie, such as a parent's love for one's very young children. That wonderful intimacy that comes on every conceivable level -- the warmth and rapport you have with a two-year-old infant, the close physical contact, his pleasure in fiddling with your tie, your curious satisfaction when he dribbles all over you, all these things which make up the indefinable joys of parenthood. Now imagine these being viewed and recorded by a very discriminating TV camera, programmed at the end of the day, or at the end of the year, or at the end of the decade, to make the optimum selection of images designed to give you a sense of the absolute and enduring reality of your own experience. With such technology interfaced with immensely intelligent computers I think we may genuinely be able to transcend time. One will be able to indulge oneself in a kind of continuing imagery which, for the first time will allow us to dominate the awful finiteness of life. Great portions of our waking state will be spent in a constant mood of self-awareness and excitement, endlessly replaying the simplest basic life experiences.
Penthouse: But isn't this tremendously passive?
Ballard: Just the opposite. I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormously detailed, meticulously chosen re-runs I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons have been trained to exclude. Don't forget that man is, and has been for at least a million years, a hunting species surviving with difficulty in a terribly dangerous world. In order to survive, his brain has been trained to screen out anything but the most essential and the most critical. Watch that hillcrest! Beware of that cave mouth! Kill that bird! Dodge that spear! And in doing so he has to screen out all the penumbral wonder of existence. But now the world is essentially far less dangerous, and the time has come where the brain can be allowed to experience the true excitement of the universe, and the infinite possibilities of consciousness that the basic needs of survival have previously screened away. After a million or so years, those screens are about to be removed and once they have gone, then, for the first time, man will really know what it is to be alive.
Penthouse 1979 (Vol. 14 No. 1) U.K. edition