Crash And Burn
J.G. Ballard turns the world of genre writing inside out.
By Andrew Asch
“Rushing to Paradise is a cautionary tale, but it's not clear what the caution is,” says legendary sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard of his new novel.
If this book sounds dangerous, it is only a much more subtle variant of the lurid mesh of psychopathy, sex and machines that make up Ballard's classics, such as Crash and High Rise. The softer Rushing to Paradise follows a troubled 16-year-old surfer named Neil Dempsey who spends his life loitering around Waikiki Beach, until he becomes one of the disciples of an environmental gadfly named Dr. Barbara Rafferty.
The doctor's new crusade is saving the albatross on the atoll of St. Esprit, which the French government aims to use as a nuclear testing site. Rafferty uses the power of public opinion to push the French off the island. The world falls in love with this plucky environmentalist but Rafferty soon gives Neil and the world a surprise. The good doctor sets up a murderous regime on the island that only former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot could possibly love.
Rushing to Paradise may be a prescient book. After all, he predicted in the ‘60s that Ronald Reagan would become president of the United States. In this novel, Ballard predicts that the future will be the era of the strong woman.
“When one looks at the bumbling male leaders of the day; Major, Clinton, Yeltsin, they hardly have a grip on anything," says the 64-year-old English writer. “The charismatic dictators of the future will have to be women in the Margaret Thatcher mold: Only women will be able to tap the deep need of the male half of the population to be led, to be drilled, to be frightened. It won't be Big Brother in the future, Big Brother has had his day, it'll be Big Sister.”
According to Ballard, there is no reason to hide from Big Sister yet, because she'll mostly terrorize people in small groups. The trends of liberal democracy and the suburbanization of the world are more powerful than the world's low-rent dictators. “I think the future will be boredom interrupted by totally unpredictable periods of volatility,” he says. “I expect the world's great suburban sprawl to be constantly rippled by all kinds of outbursts of activity, like the tragedy at Waco. What I predict are these outbreaks of psychopathy. We won't be able to predict these and they may provide a necessary role, a little roughage in the social system.”
Islands of psychopathy in a larger world could be a good metaphor for Ballard's career in science fiction. He started writing in the ‘50s while stationed at a British air force base in rural Canada. His writings were a reaction to the pulp magazine sci-fi of his day, stories of space travel in the far future.
Ballard thought that this science fiction missed the point of what was going on the world. He felt that science fiction writers should be exploring the inner space of the mind in the present day. He gained underground notoriety when he started exploring how sex and insanity fit in with technology. Some of his most obsessive pieces include The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise and Crash. These highly original, sometimes lurid novels haunted, confused and often outraged readers and garnered him some backhanded compliments. “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help,” sniffed one Crash reviewer.
Ballard still holds views that are far beyond the pale of many people. “I think that there should be more pornography around,” says Ballard. “It might even be necessary to make it compulsory, but not the criminal end of it.”
The end to the means of mandatory porno is something many would equate with crime, untrammeled imagination. “Maybe the sexual imagination, outside the world of psychopathology itself, is the last free range that we human beings will be able to roam when everywhere else is fenced off and covered with the moral equivalent of asphalt… it may be the only remaining habitat where the human imagination will flourish.”
Ballard's imagination has dreamed of some sticky situations with some of the most unlikely people. In The Atrocity Exhibition he writes of having sex with Ronald Reagan and Jackie Onassis, in a writing style influenced by medical textbooks. His sexual imagination continues in Rushing to Paradise, specifically in his meditation on the sexuality of Barbara Rafferty who is based on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Ballard believes that Thatcher had the same sexual hold on the U.K. that Rafferty has on Neil in the novel.
“Margaret Thatcher was very popular for her time in office, more popular among men than woman,” he says. “She was a powerful sexual object: I've had sexual fantasies about her.”
Ballard says the next Thatcher could be a product of MTV [let's hope it's not annoying GOP would-be sexpot Kennedy - Ed]. “In the future, the people who wield enormous power may come out of the entertainment culture,” says Ballard. “I mean, somebody like Madonna may be a better example. You can imagine somebody like Madonna with the will and brains and the ideological drive of Margaret Thatcher.”
While Fuhrer Madonna may only inhabit our nightmares at present, Ballard reports that Rushing to Paradise has gotten good reviews, many of which have come from women. Ballard credits the good reviews to something many extreme people like Rafferty don't like, satire. “To some extent, Rushing to Paradise is a satire," says Ballard. “I make clear that I thoroughly approve of Dr. Barbara Rafferty, I the author, or at least, my attitude toward her is slightly ambiguous. The author clearly admires her, she represents what for me is a very appealing strain of archetypal womanhood, often cruel, incredibly strong-willed, messianic, ruthless, far stronger than most men, and capable of inspiring fanatical devotion, which the archetype of woman through the ages has done. My feelings toward her are very ambivalent.”
Ballard's next book is sure to provoke some ambivalent feelings as well.
Says Ballard, “It's a psychological study. Oh God, it sounds crazy. It's about the necessity of crime.”
Dr. Rafferty would be proud.