JG Ballard's "Second Wave"

By John Boston

The second wave of J.G. Ballard stories commenced at the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960, two each in Science Fantasy and New Worlds. They are "Now: Zero" (SF 12/59), "The Sound-Sweep" (SF 2/60), "The Waiting Grounds" (NW 11/59), and "Zone of Terror" (NW 3/60). There was a hiatus of over 18 months between these and his last previous story, "Track 12" (NW 4/58), which as David Pringle mentioned followed Ballard's traumatic encounter with an SF convention. (In Ballard's words, from David's and James Goddard's 1975 interview: "I had this gap after I went to the SF convention in '57. Don't take this personally or anything -- I think times have changed -- but it put me off. I didn't do any writing for about a year and a half, so there was a sort of gap.")

David Pringle's recently posted list of the order of composition of Ballard's stories (view the list here) indicates that these four were published in the order of writing, which seems odd, since there is no discernible relationship between the order of composition and their merit. "The Waiting Grounds" was, incidentally, the second Ballard story to be presented to a US audience, in the June 1960 issue of the short-lived US edition of New Worlds; "The Sound-Sweep" was the fourth, reprinted in Judith Merril's Fifth Annal Of The Year’s Best SF later in 1960. (The intervening US publication was the older "Manhole 69" in the July 1960 US New Worlds.)

The thing that is striking about this group of stories, all published within a few months of one another and apparently written within a similar span, is how various they are, in scope, attitude, execution and merit. Two of them are trivial but the others are the most substantial stories Ballard had yet published.

Taking the trivial first: "Now: Zero" is about as inconsequential a story as Ballard has published. The first-person protagonist discovers that if he writes about somebody's death, it will happen. He tests the power and confirms it, then uses it to remove people who are obstacles to his advancement at his workplace, except he overdoes it a bit and the company shuts down and lays everybody off. At the end of the story, the narrator broadens his field of fire to include everyone reading the story-we're all supposed to die when we read the end of it. This is interesting only as an exercise in narrative voice, and as such it's pretty successful; the story is told in a sort of buttoned-down Poe-ish style of restrained loony grandiosity (think "Cask of Amontillado," not "Tell-Tale Heart"), and Ballard manages to maintain a nice consistency of tone, turning up the dial slowly as the story progresses. But it's more of a finger exercise than a story.

"Zone of Terror" is more entertaining but not particularly substantial. Larsen, who works for an electronics company, has been sent to a company retreat with a psychiatrist, Bayliss, to recover from overwork; he sees an apparition of a man in a suit in his garage, and panics; later, he sees the same man in his living room and realizes it's himself. Bayliss tells him it's not an hallucination but "a psycho-retinal image of remarkable strength and duration" and advises him to confront himself next time it happens. In fact, next time it happens he sees not one but two doubles, panics again, and tells Bayliss to get the gun Larsen had hidden in the letterbox. But Bayliss himself sees one of the doubles, mistakes it for the real Larsen (or at least the narrating Larsen), and shoots the real Larsen-assuming that phrase means anything by now. Explanation: "Now Bayliss too was suffering the same psychotic attack, seeing two simultaneous images, but in his case not of himself, but of Larsen, on whom his mind had been focusing for the past weeks." Well, this is a bit contrived--much more so than Ballard's previous bout of overt psychologizing, "Manhole 69," which had an actual psychological argument; this hasn't much more than a gimmick.

More interesting than the psychological McGuffin is the portrayal of Larsen as a man about to jump out of his skin and of the interaction between Larsen and Bayliss, whom Larsen resents and fears because he so clearly has his own agenda and Larsen's welfare is not at the top of it. This is the first of a long line of shady members of the helping professions in Ballard's work, robustly represented in last year's Millennium People. Incidentally, I happened to look at both magazine and book versions of this story (the latter in the collection The Disaster Area) and see that the story was slightly but pervasively revised for book publication, to moderate both the tone and the slightly pretentious vocabulary and verbosity of the original.

Example, from the magazine version: "The desert site had been chosen for its hypotensive virtues, its supposed equivalence to psychic zero. Two or three days of leisurely reading, of thoughtfully watching the motionless horizons, and the neuronic grids re-aligned, tension and anxiety thresholds rose to more useful levels, creative and decisional activity heightened." Book: "The desert site had been chosen for its hypotensive virtues, its supposed equivalence to psychic zero. Two or three days of leisurely reading, of watching the motionless horizon, and tension and anxiety thresholds rose to more useful levels."

"The Sound-Sweep" is a different kettle of fish entirely. Though far from completely successful, it's a much more ambitious story (Ballard's longest to date by a big margin) and one which is more suggestive of his later preoccupations than either "Now: Zero" or "Zone of Terror." Madame Gioconda is a former opera singer, displaced by the advent of ultrasonic music and constantly scheming about her comeback. She has befriended Mangon, rendered mute as an infant by a blow from his mother (he then was reared in an orphanage). He can't speak but his hearing is acute; thus he is a valued operator of a sonovac, a device which sweeps away the stale residue of old sounds from walls, floors, etc. Now this is all pretty ridiculous, but Ballard isn't embarrassed; he revels in it: "Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords, and chromatic scales than perceptible to the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re-scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg--all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re-scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose. . . .

"The earliest ultrasonic recordings had met with resistance, even ridicule. Radio programmes consisting of nothing but silence interrupted at half-hour intervals by commercial breaks seemed absurd. But gradually the public discovered that the silence was golden, that after leaving the radio switched to an ultrasonic channel for an hour or so a pleasant atmosphere of rhythm and melody seemed to generate itself spontaneously around them. When an announcer suddenly stated that an ultrasonic version of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony or Tchaikovsky's Pathetique had just been played the listener identified the real source. . . .

"But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development--the short-playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30-second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact."

This is high concept as tall tale, a solemnly mischievous parody of Science Fiction, the Literature of Extrapolation. It's not Ballard's first offense in this respect either--he did the same thing with the singing flowers in "Prima Belladonna"-but now he has a clearer idea of how and what he's doing. Think of it as homage to "Meet Miss Universe." (Though editor Carnell says, in a typically tone-deaf blurb: "Eighteen months ago in the April issue of New Worlds, Jim Ballard had a delightful short story entitled "Track 12" which opened up the possibilities of sonics as a plot theme. Here, in this long novelette, he has extended his ideas into a high level and most unusual story.")

All this has put paid to the human voice as musical instrument, since (Ballard says) it can't be re-scored, being generated by "non-mechanical means which the neurophonic engineer could never hope, or bother, to duplicate." Now there's a failure of imagination, but without it of course there would be no story. Madame Gioconda's career is ended, and here we see the first appearance of one of Ballard's characteristic motifs: "In a despairing act of revenge she bought out the radio station which fired her and made her home on one of the sound stages. Over the years the station became derelict and forgotten, its windows smashed, neon portico collapsing, aerials rusting. The huge eight-lane flyover built across it sealed it conclusively into the past."

Actually there are two characteristic motifs here, one the derelict radio station and the other Madame Gioconda herself, the first of Ballard's larger-than-life, theatrically obsessive characters. She and the perversely symmetrical relationship between her and Mangon are at the center of the story: she, silenced in passing by blind technological and economic forces, and never reconciled to it, devotedly served by Mangon, silenced viciously by his own mother but having found a practical niche in society, and an emotional one as the last worshiper of the discarded diva.

She contrives her comeback by blackmailing one of her old lovers, LeGrande, with considerable assistance from Mangon, who takes her out to the dump where the sound-sweeps empty their sonovacs and live in ramshackle cabins, and where they listen to the residues of LeGrande's private conversations. This is the first of the classic Ballardian landscapes, endless stockades among the dunes filled with sound-absorbent baffles. "A place of strange echoes and festering silences, overhung by a gloomy miasma of a million compacted sounds, it remained remote and haunted, the graveyard of countless private babels." "Occasionally, when super-saturation was reached after one of the summer holiday periods, the sonic pressure fields would split and discharge, venting back into the stockades a nightmarish cataract of noise, raining onto the sound-sweeps not only the howling of cats and dogs, but the multi-lunged tumult of cars, express trains, fairgrounds and aircraft, the cacophonic musique concrete of civilisation."

Mangon, ecstatically engaged in this campaign to restore Gioconda's voice, suddenly recovers his own -- although, as she becomes more preoccupied with her own affairs, he begins to stutter; then she moves out of the radio station, leaving him a nasty message, shouted for him to hear its residue, and his voice disappears entirely. Of course she can't actually sing any more; the plan, hatched by the people running the show on which Gioconda was to appear, was for Mangon to start up a sonovac so no one could hear her but herself, leaving the orchestra to play unmolested; instead he destroys the sonovac, the musicians begin to walk off, the audience is in an uproar. "But Madame Gioconda failed to notice them. Head back, eyes on the brilliant ceiling lights, hands gesturing majestically, she soared along the private causeways of sound that poured unrelenting from her throat, a great white angel of discord on her homeward flight."

The story doesn't come off perfectly. Part of the problem is that the notion of sound residues which affect mood and can be heard by the keen-eared is just too damned notional--we know it isn't so in a very concrete way. We know that about elves and demons, too, but that kind of fantasy presents us with a different and easier kind of demand for the suspension of disbelief than does "The Sound-Sweep." Also Mangon's regaining and then losing his voice, central to the story, is just a bit bathetic. But overall "The Sound-Sweep" might be described as the first fully "Ballardian" Ballard story in terms of theme, rhetoric, and image working together.

"The Waiting Grounds," by contrast, is a pretty uncharacteristic Ballard story. For starters, it takes place off Earth. If memory serves, the only other extraterrestrial Ballard stories are "The Time-Tombs" and "Passport to Eternity." The narrator Quaine arrives on Murak, a desert planet whose temperature ranges daily from fatally hot to fatally cold, to spend two years in near-total isolation tending a radio observatory, and discovers a hidden basis with stone megaliths bearing inscriptions in several languages (including "Earth"'s). He loses consciousness and has a vision of beings who have slowed their metabolisms to virtually zero and have become a "great vibrating mantle of ideation," which eventually swallows the cosmos and blows up, starting the next cosmos; at the end of this presentation, a voice informs him, "Meanwhile we wait here, at the threshold of time and space, celebrating the identity and kinship of the particles within our bodies with those of the sun and the stars, of our brief private times with the vast periods of the galaxies, with the total unifying time of the cosmos."

So what exactly are they (apparently, the species whose names are carved like interstellar Kilroys' on the megaliths, complete with translation into "Earth's" language) waiting for? Says Quaine, who now plans to stay on Murak, in the last line: "Whatever it is, it must be worth waiting for." (But "I am certain that whatever we are waiting for will soon arrive.") The more questions you ask, the more the story looks like a protracted shaggy God story. On the other hand, it's a pretty effective read, a sort of Stapledonian fast package tour wrapped in a surprisingly standard mystery/ adventure plot (Quaine arrives, there's clearly something his departing predecessor isn't telling him, there were a couple of geologists who died in the field a few years previously, looks like maybe they weren't really geologists; Quaine finds the megaliths while trying to trace this mystery; he takes his friend the mining metallurgist to see them, the friend becomes enraged and attacks Quaine when he learns that the megaliths are actually made of all the precious material he has been failing to find; Quaine shoots him with a flare gun and sets his vehicle on fire, marooning him in heat that will kill him). But these standard elements are well deployed to set the stage for the final revelation. What is really uncharacteristic about "The Waiting Grounds" is the absence of the irony and distance that characterize most of Ballard; this one is as sincere as Childhood’s End.

There's an author sketch in this New Worlds, complete with photo of the lean and hungry 29-year-old Ballard looking intensely into the camera. Here are Ballard's comments, complete: "What particularly interests me about science fiction... is the opportunity it gives for experimenting with scientific or psycho-literary ideas which have little or no connection with the world of fiction, such as, say, coded sleep or the time zone. [Say what?] But just as psychologists are now building models of anxiety neuroses and withdrawal states in the form of verbal diagrams--translating scientific hypothesis into literary construction--so I see a good science fiction story of a model of some psychic image, the truth of which gives the story its merit. Examples are The Incredible Shrinking Man, Limbo '90, and Henry Kuttner's "Dream's End".

"In general stories with interplanetary backgrounds show too little originality, too much self-imitation. More important, the characters seem to lack any sense of cosmic awe -- spanning the whole of space and time without a glimmer of responsibility.

… "It's just this sense of cosmic responsibility, the attempt to grasp the moral dimensions of the universe, that I've tried to describe in "The Waiting Grounds". Seen as a psycho-literary model, perhaps it represents the old conundrum of the ant searching hopelessly for the end of the infinite pathway around the surface of a sphere. "The Waiting Grounds" offers it a solution, implies that instead of crawling on and on it will find the pathway's end if it just sits still."

This suggests an interesting view of responsibility, cosmic or otherwise, and the "moral dimensions of the universe," since after his revelation Quaine doesn't appear to tell anybody else about it, or to intend to--just like his predecessor Tallis.

Finally, here's editor Carnell's blurb, demonstrating once more his ability to miss the point comprehensively: "Not for a long time have readers seen a story quite like this one. Those with extensive collections or good memories will remember the impact H.P. Lovecraft made in the middle 30s with his all-too-few science fiction stories, particularly 'At the Mountains of Madness.' Undoubtedly author Ballard has a touch of that same genius which eventually made Lovecraft great." Well, I guess 'The Waiting Grounds' does feature some Great Old Ones, in a manner of speaking. . . .

The Waiting Grounds" was popular in its time, voted the best story in its issue of New Worlds by the readers.

David Pringle Replies: Many thanks for the latest instalment of your issue-by-issue study of Science Fantasy -- and also for your Ballard supplement to that. Your readings of those four JGB stories are interesting and stimulating, and broadly I agree with your judgments of them.

Just one little point arising. A while ago we discussed Ballard's very early story "Passport to Eternity" (written 1955). Note that the basic idea, or conceit, of "The Sound-Sweep" -- i.e. the fantasy technology of the "sonovac" and the sweeping away of lingering sound-residues -- was prefigured in that story. The businessman in the early story, Clifford Gorrell, uses a sound-sweeping device to suck away the voice of his nagging wife.

It occurs to me that one obvious reason "Passport to Eternity" remained on the shelf until 1962 was that Ballard had already cannibalized it in "The Sound-Sweep." (And maybe he intended to cannibalize it further -- as, indeed, he eventually did do for the last Vermilion Sands story he wrote, "Say Goodbye to the Wind," which features living clothes.)

Oh, and by the way, Ballard has written four stories set on alien planets -- the three you list, "Passport to Eternity," "The Waiting Grounds" and "The Time-Tombs," and also "Tomorrow is a Million Years" (1966).

Have there been any of his stories that have been substantially different from how you originally thought of them? Perhaps one that impressed you on first reading but which seemed insubstantial on re-reading, or vice versa? Or where the content wasn't quite what your memory thought it was?

John Boston Answers: All of them. Seriously, I have not read some of these stories since their first US publication 40+ years ago, when I was in junior high school. Even those I have read more recently, like "Prima Belladonna" and "The Waiting Grounds," I have never read with an eye to how they work (or don't work) and how they fit together and with Ballard's overall oeuvre (or don't fit), and to how to articulate my reactions to others.  So, for example, I had never really thought about why "Prima Belladonna" as a whole didn't add up as powerfully as its bizarre imagery might promise (the answer being a combination of the bad fit between the telling of that part of the story and the detached jocularity of the frame narration and the interactions between protagonist and friends, and the fact that the story's SF McGuffin had such gaps in logic as to be distracting).

Despite those comments, none of these current readings has yet seriously altered my view of the relative place of any story in Ballard's firmament.  However, there's one coming up in a few more issues of Science Fantasy that I reread last year when I obtained the magazine because I had no recollection of it whatever, "The Last World of Mr. Goddard."  This story has never been reprinted outside of a couple of Ballard's collections (last time being the slightly reshuffled The Day Of Forever in 1971) and the Complete Short Stories.  It blew me away, not because of any great significance either to the universe at large or the understanding of Ballard, but just because it's a delightfully and perversely nifty artifact.