Images Of The Future
Comments on some recent experiments
By J.G. Ballard
From: JGB NEWS No. 19, January 1993
Science fiction is distinguished from almost all other forms of literature by its prospective character, its interpretation of the present in terms of the future rather than the past. In this it differs strikingly from the great bulk of fiction, which by and large is retrospective in its approach to its subject matter, looking backwards at events and experiences that have taken place in the past, analysing the roots of behaviour and character, the first formative relationships, and so on. The events of the novel or short story are a synthesis of all these elements into the actual experience of a continuous narrative present that is itself cast into the perfect tense -- "he said" or "he did."
By and large this retrospective view of fiction has tallied well enough with the attitude most people take to their own lives -- at least until the present day. Throughout the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century, the retrospective novel provided an instantly recognizable image of all the more significant aspects of experience. The whole tenor of this form of fiction could be summed up as "What happened?" Almost without exception, the literature of the last 150 years answers this question. The social, psychological, economic and other factors that reinforce its retrospective bias are too obvious to need explanation.
By contrast, science fiction is the literature of "What will happen?" Not necessarily in the sense of prophecy -- if anything, the social satire has always seemed to me one of the most old-fashioned and least interesting forms of science fiction, a mere updating of the traditional social novel -- but in its complete acceptance of the materials of the immediate present, and in its eagerness to explore and analyse them in the context of the future. Here, however, the subject matter is radically different. One is dealing not with a formal sequence of events and relationships but with a series of shifting networks of possibilities that resemble the anticipated moves of a chess game. (In passing, one might note the difference in approach between so-called "games-theory," prospective in technique, and "work-theory" with its moralizing and retrospective bias -- perhaps the reason why the English are so bad at games is that they approach even these retrospectively, as enshrined in the very notion of "playing the game.")
Above all, then, the future presents itself to us as a series of quantified images and relationships. To make any kind of fiction out of these elements demands techniques appropriate to them, and it is precisely here, I feel, that science fiction has failed. The principal literary technique of retrospective fiction, the sequential and consequential narrative, is wholly unsuited to analyse events that have not as yet taken place, let alone produce that free play and rapid association of ideas and images that is what we perceive of the future.
Principally, it is this attempt to reproduce the future in linear terms that mars so much science fiction. Partly this is a result of habit, the sheer inertia of the immense mass of retrospective fictions produced during the 300 years of the novel -- or three thousand, if one cares to go back to the Homeric fables. But it is also a result of failing to look with complete honesty at one's subject matter. However much they may deny it, most people are made uneasy by a prospective view of the world around them -- it seems to lack stability, certainty and continuity with the efforts of the past, and instead to be a place of rapidly changing currencies, bizarre images and apparently random or, far worse, inexplicable experiences.
However, over the last decade or so it seems to me that more and more people have come to terms with the past, declaring a private moratorium on their own past failures and experiences, and are becoming more and more fascinated by a future that presents itself in terms of uncertainty, opportunity and the brilliant illumination of the chance encounter. In the place of probability, possibility with all its magic and meaning, the strange logic of the chance encounter, the fusion of apparently irreconcilable images that is the stuff of poetry.
All my own fiction could be regarded as an attempt to escape from time -- or, more exactly, from linear time, as it seems to me that time is quantifiable and non-linear in far more aspects, and that the most significant relationships and experiences of our lives are intelligible only in non-linear terms. (If this seems doubtful, pause for a moment and examine the goulash of ideas, images, activities, relationships and dreams that make up your own life -- how many of them make sense in linear terms, how adequately would a framework such as Pride and Prejudice or The Magic Mountain, to take two examples at random, represent the texture of your own consciousness and behaviour? Far less adequately, I would guess, than a framework such as that of "You and Me and the Continuum" or "The Atrocity Exhibition." This is no comparison of literary merit, I hasten to add.)
In my three novels, The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World, I attempted to construct linear systems that made no use of the sequential elements of time; that is, the events of the narrative unfold chronologically, but what determines their movement forward (or backward in the case of The Drowned World and sideways or inwards in The Crystal World) is the mythological element, the attempt -- particularly in the first two novels -- to validate the linear element of time by imposing a psychological dynamic and necessity. However, a series of non-linear elements and images more and more began to force themselves through the texture of the narrative -- the characters found themselves in situations that owed nothing or little to their place in the sequence of events. Finally, in The Crystal World, this isolation of experience and identity is carried to its ultimate point.
In my latest group of stories, "You and Me and the Continuum," "The Assassination Weapon," "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe" and "The Atrocity Exhibition," the linear elements of sequential narrative have been eliminated altogether. The world of these stories is the nearest I can reach to the matrix of my own consciousness and experience, an expression of the completely quantified and discontinuous flux of events taking place on both sides of my retina.
Note: this article was written in 1966 for a British fanzine called Fusion, edited by Jim Grant; never published at the time, it was passed to me by Mike Ashley who had been given it many years ago by Jim Grant. Thanks to Mike, and to J. G. Ballard for permission to publish it here for the first time -- David Pringle.