The New Science Fiction

This conversation between the poet George MacBeth and JG Ballard was recorded on the Third Programme of the BBC on February 1, 1967. It has been reprinted in the 1970 Doubleday edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, and in The New S.F., edited by Langdon Jones (Hutchison, London, 1969).

GEORGE MACBETH: You have been writing science fiction short stories and novels for several years now, but your story "You and Me and the Continuum" is one of a recent group which, I think, in structure are really quite different from your earlier ones. Perhaps the most striking feature to someone reading "You and Me and the Continuum," for example, for the first time, is that it is constructed not in continuous narrative, but in a sequence of short paragraphs, each of which has a heading -- in fact, they're arranged in alphabetical order. But the key point, I think, is that they are broken up. Why did you move on to using this technique of construction?

BALLARD: I was dissatisfied with what I felt were linear systems of narrative. I had been using in my novels and in most of my short stories a conventional linear narrative, but I found that the action and events -- of the novels in particular -- were breaking down as I wrote them. The characterisation and the sequences of events were beginning to crystallise into a series of shorter and shorter images and situations. This ties in very much with what I feel about the whole role of science fiction as a speculative form of fiction. For me, science fiction is above all a prospective form of narrative fiction; it is concerned with seeing the present in terms of the immediate future rather than the past.

MACBETH: Could I break in there? Would you contrast that with what the traditional novel does in the sense it's concerned with perhaps the history of a family or a person?

BALLARD: Exactly. The great bulk of fiction still being written is retrospective in character. It's concerned with the origins of experience, behaviour, development of character over a great span of years. It interprets the present in terms of the past, and it uses a narrative technique, by and large the linear narrative, in which events are shown in more-or-less chronological sequence, which is suited to it. But when one turns to the present -- and what I feel I've done in these pieces of mine is to rediscover the present for myself -- I feel that one needs a non-linear technique, simply because our lives today are not conducted in linear terms. They are much more quantified; a stream of random events is taking place.

MACBETH: I'd like to ask you a question here about the characters in these stories. Of course, you've written as well as "You and Me and the Continuum" three or four others which have already been published in New Worlds, Impulse and Encounter, and one feature of them is that certain characters seem to recur from story to story. When I call them "characters", they are not always perhaps, to the reader, immediately recognisable as characters so much as named areas of consciousness.

BALLARD: Yes, I don't see them as "characters" in the conventional sense of the term; they are aspects of certain character situations. They haven't got the same name, but they have variations of the same name.

I remember a case of this myself. There's a character called Tallis in one story and a character called Traven in another, and they seem to have something in common.

BALLARD: In effect they're the same character, but their role in the stories is not to be characters in the sense that Scobie, let's say, in "The Heart of the Matter," or any other character in the retrospective novel is a character, an identifiable human being rather like those we recognise among our friends, acquaintances and so on.

MACBETH: Could we take a specific case from "You and Me and the Continuum" here -- Dr. Nathan, who seems to be, as far as the reader or listener can put a label to him, a psychiatrist? Could you elaborate on what his function is in the story?

He serves the role of analysing the events of the narrative from the point of view of the clinical implications. He represents the voice of reason, whatever the limitations of that term might be.

MACBETH: The central "consciousness" or area of character in the story is sometimes a composite one in some ways; somebody who has gone through an extreme situation or a psychological crisis or a public crisis; somebody in a mental hospital who might also be the pilot of a crashed bomber; and so on. What are you trying to do with this sort of merged consciousness?

BALLARD: All these characters exist on a number of levels. I feel that the fictional elements in experience are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false, that one has many layers, many levels of experience going on at the same time. On one level one might have the world of public events, Cape Kennedy, Viet Nam, political life; on another level the immediate personal environment, the rooms we occupy, the postures we assume. On a third level the inner world of the mind. All these levels are, as far as I can see them, equally fictional, and it is where these levels interact that one gets the only kind of valid reality that exists nowadays. The characters in these stories occupy positions on these various levels. On the one hand, a character is displayed on an enormous billboard as a figment in a CinemaScope epic; on another level he's an ordinary human being moving through the ordinary to-and-fro of everyday life; on a third level he's a figment in his own fantasies. These various aspects of the character interact and produce the main reality of the fiction.

MACBETH: Yes, I think this element of layers also comes out in the density of some of the stories -- the way you seem to link together references from a wide variety of fields. I quote if I may, as an interesting example, one passage from "You and Me and the Continuum," which is the kind of passage that recurs in a number of these stories:


Captain Kirby, M15, studied the prints. They showed: (1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jackets, unshaven face half-hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, 7-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500 cc.; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and  third  metacarpal bones. To Dr. Nathan he said: "And all these make up one picture?"

BALLARD: Exactly. They make up a composite portrait of this man's identity. In this story I was examining the particular role that a 20th-century Messiah might take, in the context of mid-20th-century life. I feel that he would reappear in a whole series of aspects and relationships, touching an enormous range of events; that he wouldn't have a single identity, in the sense that Jesus had -- he would have a whole multiplex of contacts with various points.
MACBETH: I see this, but why do certain particular kinds of imagery recur? You may claim that these are the appropriate and inevitable ones, but you do seem as a writer to have a sort of "thing" about certain kinds of imagery; for example, certain kinds of landscape -- landscapes which involve sand keep recurring. Can you give any further explication of why these come in?

BALLARD: I think that landscape is a formalisation of space and time, and the external landscapes directly reflect interior states of mind. In fact, the only external landscapes which have any meaning are those which are reflected, in the central nervous system, if you like, by their direct analogues. Dali said somewhere that mind is a state of landscape, and I think this is completely true.

MACBETH: You do literally, in many of these stories, draw connections between pictures of parts of the human body and certain landscapes, don't you?

BALLARD: Yes. In the story "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe" I directly equate the physical aspect of Marilyn Monroe's body with the landscape of dunes around her. The hero attempts to make sense of this particular equation, and he realises that the suicide of Marilyn Monroe is, in fact, a disaster in space-time, like the explosion of a satellite in orbit. It is not so much a personal disaster, though of course Marilyn Monroe committed suicide as an individual woman, but a disaster of a whole complex of relationships involving this screen actress who is presented to us in an endless series of advertisements, on a thousand magazine covers and so on, whose body becomes part of the external landscape of our environment. The immense terraced figure of Marilyn Monroe stretched across a cinema hoarding is as real a portion of our external landscape as any system of mountains or lakes.

MACBETH: Are you aware of deliberately using Surrealism as references in these stories? Quite often you refer to Dali in particular and sometimes Ernst, and sometimes to real pictures by them. How far is there a direct connection with those pictures and the events or descriptions in the stories?

BALLARD: The connection is deliberate, because I feel that the surrealists have created a series of valid external landscapes which have their direct correspondences within our own minds. I use the phrase "spinal landscape" fairly often. In these spinal landscapes, which I feel that painters such as Ernst and Dali are producing, one finds a middle ground (an area which I've described as "inner space") between the outer world of reality on the one hand, and the inner world of the psyche on the other. Freud pointed out that one has to distinguish between the manifest content of the inner world of the psyche and its latent content. I think in exactly the same way today, when the fictional elements have overwhelmed reality, one has to distinguish between the manifest content of reality and its latent content. In fact the main task of the arts seems to be more and more to isolate the real elements in this goulash of fictions from the unreal ones, and the terrain "inner space" roughly describes it.

MACBETH: Yes, one often has the sense that certain of the events in these stories, inasfar as they are "events," might be taking place within, particularly, a Dali painting. I also have the sense in reading these stories that there's a kind of hallucinatory vividness and clarity about the descriptions which remind me of certain techniques used by the cinema in the 1960s. Are you aware (if being influenced by films at all?

BALLARD: Some films. The Savage Eye had a tremendous impact on me because it presented a completely fragmented and quantified narrative through which the heroine evolved her own identity. Most films, though, are still made in linear terms, and I find that painters, perhaps because a painting is a single image, are much more stimulating; they corroborate my own preoccupations much more.

MACBETH: Yes, indeed; it seems very much that your central preoccupation is, in the very loosest sense, with time and the absense of time, with a massive kind of stasis that embodies a sense of time moving. However, there are a number of difficulties here. I think that particularly this seems to lead you towards the special kind of density I've mentioned, and that, in a way, leads to the stories working perhaps rather more like poetry than like prose; they have overtones, associations and resonances. And I think most readers are likely to find them literally very difficult.

BALLARD: I think that's simply the inertia of convention. If you could scrap all retrospective fiction and its immense body of conventions, most people who, for example, find William Burrough’s narrative techniques almost impossible to recognize -- in exactly the same way that some aboriginal tribesmen are supposed to be unable to recognise their own photographs -- would realise that Burroughs's narrative techniques, or my own in their way, would be an immediately recognisable reflection of the way life is actually experienced. We live in quantified non-linear terms -- we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone, read magazines, dream and so forth. We don't live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.

MACBETH: I can understand that, but I think it's slightly more complicated than that, in that the reader has to move at quite a different speed through these stories; he has to pause, he has to reread, he perhaps even doesn't have to start at the beginning and go to the end, he may want to shift about to get a bigger concentration on certain key sections; he also, almost certainly I think, has to work with a number of reference books available, because there are in all of these later stories words that certainly I didn't know the meaning of at first and I would want to look up. At the same time, interestingly enough, you are publishing in science fiction magazines, which contain material that in terms of structure and content are obviously much simpler. I wonder really how far the audience you're getting is naturally equipped to treat these stories in the right way. Does this worry you?

BALLARD: No, I think the science fiction readership, if there is such a readership, is much more sophisticated than one might imagine, far more sophisticated probably than the general readership of conventional fiction. These devices which I use are not as outrageous as they seem; they don't in fact dislocate the elements of the narrative to anything like the extent they appear to do at first glance at the page.

MACBETH: Yes, I can see that, and historically speaking I can also see that your earlier stories do seem to be preoccupied with certain similar themes, though in a much less dense and exciting way. This theme of time emerges in a number of much more straightforward stories; the story of yours called "The Time Tombs," for example, which does again have this thing about sand in it. Now the turning point, it seemed to me, was a story of yours called "The Terminal Beach," which seemed to be midway between your older stories and your new ones.

BALLARD: Yes, there I made my first attempt at a narrative in which the events of the story were quantified in the sense that they were isolated from the remainder of the narrative and then examined from a number of angles.

MACBETH: The stories you've written which we've been talking about are those such as "You and Me and the Continuum," "The Atrocity Exhibition," "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe" and "The Assassination Weapon." In fact, it sometimes seems, as I've read these, that one could almost translate bits of one into bits of the other. They seem, in a certain sense, not four independent stories, but four fragments of a kind of sequence. Are you aware of them relating, and do you have in your mind further ones which you will write, such that, taken as a group, they will shed extra light on each other?

BALLARD: I think they're all chapters in a much longer narrative that is evolving at its pace. I don't think it's evolving in a sequential sense, in the sense that the events of, say, Moby Dick evolve one after another; they're evolving in an apparently random sense, but all the images relate to one another, and I hope when more stories have been written they will reinforce one another and produce something larger than the sum of their parts.

MACBETH: Despite what you said about the science fiction audience, I suppose you wouldn't think of yourself as a writer of science fiction; you'd think of yourself as just a writer, presumably.

I don't regard myself as a writer of what most people would call modern science fiction, which is predominantly American, even though much of it has been written by English writers. Modern American science fiction grew out of magazines such an the Popular Mechanics of the thirties; it's an extrovert, optimistic literature of technology. I think the new science fiction, which other people apart from myself are now beginning to write, is introverted, possibly pessimistic rather than optimistic, much less certain of its own territory. There's a tremendous confidence that radiates through all modern American science fiction of the period 1930 to 1960; the certainty that science and technology can solve all problems. This is not the dominant form of science fiction now. I think science fiction is becoming something much more speculative, much less convinced about the magic of science and the moral  authority of science. There's far more caution on the part of the new writers than there was.