"How To Face Doomsday Without Really Dying"
Unpublished 1970s interview with J.G. Ballard
Interviewer: Carol Orr
Edited from the original tape transcription by David Pringle and Rick McGrath
I think I actually sat down when this sheaf of papers came out of the file folder and was handed to me: 35 pages of unpublished, raw transcription of an interview between JGB and a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) employee, conducted, it said, in 1976 for a radio programme called Ideas.
As background, it appears Ideas was doing a radio series on possible or potential Doomsday scenarios, and the probable programme organizer, Judith Merril, had called on a number of science-fiction writers to offer their creative opinions. Other speakers also mentioned are Fred Pohl and Arthur Gibson. Remember, Alvin Toffler's hugely popular Future Shock had been published in 1970, and various futuristic theories were being discussed at this time.
The transcript is dated 1976, but this is probably a wrong guess. Internal evidence suggests the interview was conducted, most likely, in late 1973 or early 1974; it begins in medias res, as it's evidently the transcript of the second of two telephone conversations...
Style Notes: All comments in (brackets) were made by the original transcriber. Words in italics are in the original transcription in all caps, to show vocal emphasis.
CBC: Where we were... On the phone last night when we were talking about this transcript, you referred to it very briefly as a sort of "airport discussion," as if to say it was quite incomplete.
JGB: Airport thinking... Ahh, I think that it is quite obvious today that people are tremendously concerned with a huge range of problems that in previous generations tended to be handled by professionals, by politicians, theologians, philosophers and the like. Now we find the situation where everybody is concerned about the world in which they live, and to a large extent people have the vocabulary to talk about these critical matters. I think it is a good thing -- I think the more there are the better.
CBC: You implied that the discussion was almost a prelude to where it was going, that it should have gotten farther. I wonder where you would have taken it?
JGB: Sorry, what discussion are you thinking of?
CBC: The one with Frederik Pohl.
JGB: Ahh, no. I'm sorry I gave that impression. I mean, I didn't believe that at all. I thought the range of topics raised there was wide and everybody spoke intelligently. [But] sometimes one feels that there's a little too much discussion and not enough action. The last ten or 15 years have shown that communities and individuals, small groups, can take actions on matters of immediate interest to them and their personal environment. They can get bus routes altered, they can have bridges built for children going to school, they can have lakes cleaned up if effluents pour into them. I'm all for people being engaged.
But at the same time there is a sort of, I would call it neurotic [or] over-emotional backlash against technology as a whole, which I feel is something of a pity. There's been a tremendous reaction against technology in the last ten or 15 years. I would suppose it is one of the consequences of World War II, the A-bomb, the H-bomb. In world affairs in the fifties the whole threat of nuclear, technological warfare turned people against science and against technology, and we're seeing some of the fruits of that now.
I think that's a shame because whatever we may think, science and technology are going to continue to transform our world. You know, it's the old game -- if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em -- and we might as well join science and technology. They're going to dominate the future far more than they've dominated the present.
CBC: Well, then, you don't see -- as Judith [Merril] mentioned in her letter -- you don't see nuclear holocaust being one of the plausible doomsdays we might be discussing?
JGB: I don't think that's likely in any way whatsoever. Not being a nuclear strategist I can't calculate, ahh, the finer points of the nuclear or doomsday arithmetic. [But] I wouldn't have thought if there were any danger to life on this planet it would come from the possibility of nuclear warfare.
Far more from the misuse of, say, antibiotics, the misuse of computers, [or] of overpopulation as a product of better health, better nutrition and the like, and a general lack of control. What I'm concerned with is that people, by reacting against technology, by taking a very Arcadian view of what life on this planet should be, may no longer be able to deal with the real threats when they begin to come from technology, which they probably will.
Threats to the quality of life that everyone is so concerned about will come much more, say, from the widespread application of computers to every aspect of our lives where all sorts of science-fiction fantasies will come true, where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere -- where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information. Now, I think that's much more of a danger.
By turning our backs against technology I think to some extent we are going to prevent ourselves from learning how to cope with it. Because this is something that's got to be done: it's like refusing to learn to drive a motorcar.
CBC: But I gather you are not really agreeing with what I call the dime-store sociologists such as Alvin Toffler. He's written a very popular book, Future Shock, [saying] that humanity should adapt itself to its technology rather than the other way around. I wonder which side of that you are on -- if you are in agreement with him that we should be adapting ourselves to the inevitable technological change?
JGB: We've got to, as far as possible, control the growth of technology, to steer it in the right direction. We've got to make extremely important judgments about our lives and not let technology force its judgments on us. I think we have to look very hard at the extent to which, for example, one is going to allow the widespread use of computers, of data-processing and storage devices, by commercial and governmental agencies. This is a judgment one has to make.
We might reach a point where, say, massive fingerprint files held by agencies like the FBI, and Scotland Yard over here, would have to be destroyed after a certain period. One would have, say, an automatic destruction after five years of all information about ourselves. There might be a legal requirement that all sorts of information would have a finite life, and we couldn't go on accumulating, stockpiling information about people. That's just a minor example, but I think there are huge ranges of examples that one could pick.
I could see, for example, transit systems in the future where one might get the application of computers to road systems -- where one would get into a car, one would dial the destination where one wanted to go, and that one might be told one couldn't go there because the roads were crowded. Well, one might be offered a different destination. Say you were in Toronto and you dial New York, and a voice might reply saying, "Sorry, New York is full. How about Philadelphia, or how about Saskatoon?" Ahh, well.
CBC: That's not a question of totalitarianism, though it's a question of...
JGB: Of convenience, of course; but I think this is the sort of incursion into individual freedom made in the name of individual freedom one has to watch out for. But I'm more interested, actually, in looking further ahead towards the future of technology, and I can see us making a much more intimate marriage of ourselves and technology.
I mean, if I were to trot out a very simple equation I would say "the future equals sex times technology." And by sex I mean the whole organic expression of our personalities in terms of our bodies and our responses to life. I think all kinds of intimate junctions are going to be made between sex and technology, between life and technology, that will reverse the sort of logics that we accept today. One is moving almost towards a realm of morally justified psychopathology.
This is a frightening realm, but it's the sort of logic that works, for example, when you go to any motorcar race. The fact that people are mangled to death in these huge machines spinning around at 150 miles an hour is something that is accepted. We accept the thrills and spills of the speedway track. Now we accept all kinds of violence. For example: for ten years Viet Nam was just a TV war; it was just wallpaper, mental wallpaper. I think one learnt to enjoy -- it's a terrible thing to say -- but one learnt to enjoy some of the apparently insane marriages between violence and technology that took place.
CBC: Is that perhaps one of the questions that we ought to be asking? Ahh well, first of all I'll ask you if you do accept the idea that we're not asking the right questions?
JGB: I don't think we are asking the right questions. I think people as a whole, in the West, and in Europe, and as far as I can see in North America even more so, made a stand against the ever-burgeoning range of technologies that have literally begun to transform the visible landscape.
There's been a tremendous reaction against science and technology, which I regard as mistimed, because it's a reaction against what I would regard as the less important features of modern technology. The fact that one lake is polluted with mercury, the fact that a highway runs past one's back door, is a matter of concern, but it's not all that important in the context of what may come, by comparison, with the threat posed by a nuclear war.
CBC: No, except you just ruled that out.
JGB: No, I don't think that's likely to happen because people are thinking hard about nuclear weapons. Some of the most powerful and intelligent men and women on this planet are concerned with the threat of nuclear war and they have applied their... I mean, the development of nuclear weapons systems continues apace, but it continues within the context of control, of intelligent control. This is what I am saying, this is what has got to be applied to some new technologies that are coming out.
CBC: But what would you say is the critical question now?
JGB: As far as technology is concerned?
CBC: No, not necessarily technology. Just as a matter, first of all, [of whether] you have some kind of faith in the future which you evidently...
JGB: What you mean is -- do I see any radical change in the quality of our lives as a whole? Yes, I think there are going to be enormous changes. The rate of change over the next 50 years is going to be greater. I think sometimes that more events took place in the last ten years than happened in the whole of previous history.
The rate of change is just extraordinary.
Where we are, in the early seventies, [is] in a sense a doldrums period, but I think, for reasons which are difficult to pin down now, so much happened in the sixties that people were exhausted by the change. I think this is the key thing -- that people can only take so much change. Once you could see the enormous changes that took place all over the world during the sixties, you know it was pretty obvious that this couldn't go on forever and it became obvious that everyone needed a period of consolidation -- this is taking place now. But I think the process of radical change is going to begin again.
And I think, now the materials are at hand, thanks to advances in transplant surgery, of developments like the extra-uterine foetus, above all the application of the computer and its various spin-off devices to every aspect of domestic life (as well as commercial and political life) -- I think that computers above all are leading us into a realm of really stupendous change where we'll have to look twice to even identify ourselves. I think they're going to offer us, in the future -- in the next 20 to 30 years -- to offer us a realm of bizarre possibilities that will far transcend anything that's happened so far.
CBC: Well... qualify that. Insofar as we are able to grasp the opportunities more correctly than we have perhaps in the past?
JGB: Yes, but it's getting difficult. We're moving into a realm where it is getting increasingly difficult to make moral judgments, to know what is right. I mean, our views towards all sorts of major topics -- I can only speak chiefly of England -- for example, popular views on capital punishment, popular views on drugs, on pornography, on sexual freedom: these have changed enormously over the last ten to 15 years. Even though there's a certain backlash against permissiveness, we're still enjoying a range of freedoms in those fields which were unthinkable, say, 20 years ago. Now, I think this process will continue.
But we're moving into a realm where it's going to become even more difficult to make a judgment about whether such and such an activity is morally reprehensible or not. Whether it's of moral value to institutionalize, let us say, homosexual marriages between men, between consenting adults whether men or women, whether a whole view of the sanctity of the family as the basic social unit on which society rests -- whether that is going to be jettisoned simply because the range of experiences available to somebody in the future will preclude the establishment of very durable personal relationships of the kind that are necessary to bring up children, and the like.
Again, one sees this in the overlay of an enormous range of changes where it is difficult to make out what is right and what is wrong. The old yardsticks don't really help. Ahh, you know, one can visualize all kinds of forms of social behaviour which run quite contrary to the sort of social and moral principles which we have been brought up on -- sex, drugs, etc. etc. These are all topics which are crying out at us from the headlines. But it is very difficult to apply the old moral yardstick to the new situations. This is why, by retreating from technology, as I think a lot of people are, we are in danger of losing our grip on the changing situation.
CBC: I wonder what your reaction is then to the statement I think was made by Frederik Pohl, in that discussion, that science fiction ought to be propaganda? And, in addition to that, whether or not Wells and Huxley and Swift were in fact writing propaganda?
JGB: Well, yes. I think science fiction has always had a sort of a cautionary role -- of warning people. Warning its readers against the possibilities of the future. But I also see science fiction having a propaganda role. I see the sf writer looking into the future and saying: "well, 20 years from now black may be white, morally and every other way." Think about a world in which this or that social relationship is something that may appall us. Now this might very well be the norm -- it might be a social crime to think about having a child.
The whole tradition of valuing people who bring up large families, by giving them every conceivable welfare benefit and the like, tax advantages and so forth -- that may be turned on its head. I mean, to think in terms of monogamous sexual relationships oriented around the idea of reproduction, of having children, may become morally offensive, it may be a crime on all levels to do this. One's got to bear in mind that a complete reversal of that kind may take place. This sort of casualness in promiscuity may become much admired: they may be necessary virtues which society as a whole will encourage.
CBC: Except that there's a difference we ought to draw here between propaganda and warnings. In order to write propaganda you must necessarily take a moral stance. Mustn't you?
JGB: Ahhhmmm. Yes, I suppose that's true but it's a science-fiction writer's job to some extent to live on a sort of boom, the bowsprit in front of the boat. I mean, he's going to live at least a few minutes ahead of everybody else, if not a few years. He's got to anticipate the sort of world which may exist and offer either encouragement or warning. And I think a lot of encouragement is needed... we must urge people to face the future, for I think that people turn their backs on the future. In a sense, our whole notion of past, present and future has become a little worn-out.
One of the biggest casualties of World War II, for example, certainly as far as Europe was concerned, was that the past ceased to exist. The whole social order, based on an intimate continuing understanding of the past and all its forms going back for many generations, underpinning the present in every conceivable way -- that ended. I mean you now meet people who have no idea who their grandparents were, which in this country, in England, was unthinkable 20 years ago.
But I think another casualty, in a sense, is the future. The present is throwing up so many options, so many alternatives, that it contains the possibilities of any future right now. You can have tomorrow, today. And the notion of the future as a sort of programmatic device, I mean a direction, a compass-bearing that we can look forward to, a destination that we are moving toward psychologically and physically -- I think that possibility is rather outdated.
We're living in a kind of continuum of past, present and future, where anything is possible. The whole notion, the distinction between fiction and reality, is turned on its head. The external environment now is the greatest provider of fiction. I mean, we are living inside of an enormous novel, written by the external world, [by] the worlds of advertising, mass-merchandising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, and so on and so forth. The one node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.
CBC: This is the "inner space" you were talking about?
JGB: Ahhh (dubiously), yesss, in a sense. Umm. I suppose we are moving into a realm where inner space is no longer just inside our skulls but is in the terrain we see around us in everyday life. We are moving into a world where the elements of fiction is that world -- and by fiction I mean anything invented to serve imaginative ends, whether it is invented by an advertising agency, a politician, an airline or what have you; and these elements have now crowded out the old-fashioned elements of reality.
I mean, take an airline: buy an airline ticket from London to Paris, or from London to New York -- you're not just buying transportation any more, you're really buying the image of the particular airline. The calculated smiles those girls, the hostesses, are taught to show. You're buying the system of in-flight movies or the particular kind of meals. You're buying --
CBC: (overlapping) But surely --
JGB: These are all fictional elements.
CBC: But surely that's always been a part of any consumer society. That's not something peculiar to the 20th century. That the cheese manufacturer or whatever --
JGB: I know, that's certainly true, but it's a matter of degree. What I am saying is 20 or 30 years ago the elements of fiction, that is politics within the consumer society or within one's private life, occupied a much smaller space. I can't quantify this exactly but it was sort of 50/50. But now I don't think this is the case. I think we have seen the invasion of almost every aspect of our lives by fictions of one kind or another. We see this in people's homes -- the way they furnish their houses and apartments. Even the sort of friends they have seem to be dictated by fictions, fantasies, by standards invented by other people to serve various ends, not necessarily commercial. But we're living more and more in a hot mix of fictions of every kind.
Now I think the writer's job is to -- he no longer needs to invent the fiction, the fiction is already there. His job is to put in the reality. The writer's task now is to become much more analytic -- he's got to approach the subject matter, and especially the science-fiction writer because I think he's the most important of all writers -- he's writing the true literature of the 20th century, the only important one.
The writer's job, and the science-fiction writer's job in particular, is to approach the subject matter of ordinary lives the way a scientist approaches his subject matter, nature. You know, one devises some sort of hypothesis and then applies it to one's material, to one's subject matter, and tests it to see whether the hypothesis is correct.
I mean, the thing I did in my novel Crash, where I took an apparently absurd -- well, terrifyingly absurd -- idea, that car crashes might conceivably have a beneficial role, and tested that against the reality that people were actually experiencing. It seems to me that it may well be the case, in some strange way, that my hypothesis is correct. It's the hypothesis that fits the facts. That's just one example. But I think the writer's role now is much more investigative.
CBC: Would you use the term "speculative"?
JGB: Speculative. Yes. Speculative and investigative. He's approaching his subject matter exactly like a scientist now. I mean, I can see that fiction is a branch of neurology. It's a branch of all kinds of sciences. It's become now wholly investigative. This is the fiction we respond to -- we are interested in the news now.
CBC: I wonder if we could discuss, as well, one of the points Judith [Merril] was discussing with Frederik [Pohl] and Arthur Gibson. The question was, in planning for the future, if you like, which things do you go about altering? They were discussing reality in terms of altering human psychology, saying that you have to somehow inspire in people a desire to do what is either (a) of personal benefit, or (b) of social benefit. Now it seems to me that those two are contradictory and I wonder if you could talk about your own ideas -- it's really talking about altering one's personal inner space, if you like.
JGB: I think it's very difficult to stand outside one's own time and take a completely dispassionate view of what's happening. I think a kind of relativity applies that makes it extremely difficult to know who we are, where we are, and where we are going at any given time. So I'd be very wary of deciding what our destination should be and suggesting that people should change or conform to it.
CBC: For the people living in the 13th century the 16th century was just as far off as we are now from the 18th.
JGB: We are living now in a radically different environment. We share our environment with the manifold products of science and technology. I mean, you can't say that a man driving a motorcar is alone if he hasn't any passengers -- he's sharing reality with the motorcar and the highway. He's not alone in any sense whatever. I don't think people are getting weak-minded, I think quite the contrary -- they are getting very much more tough-minded than ever before. I think they need to be.
We take in our stride a high degree of ruthlessness in ourselves, in our private lives. We take for granted a wide range of options that we exercise without any second thoughts, without any self-doubts. It's only at the fringes of our lives that we question this or that. I think quite the contrary, that people are getting very tough-minded. I think that is why the future is going to be a very electric and aggressive place.
CBC: Do you agree with Pohl that we need that kind of small apocalypse to force a change?
JGB: I think change will come. By apocalypse you mean what? Some sort of, ahh...
CBC: Like Frederik Pohl's disaster dream.
JGB: Well, I think all the disasters have taken place, haven't they? I don't think there's any need for another Hiroshima or another World War II -- I don't think we need another involved preview of Armageddon. These changes are taking place all the time. I welcome them: the more information flowing, the better. I mean, I prefer high-density information to low-density. I'm all for more and more experience of a more and more random kind: I think it makes for a richer and more exciting life. I think one should embrace all kinds of possibilities, no matter how bizarre, or perverse, or morally reprehensible they may seem -- change is almost good in itself.
CBC: You mentioned Hiroshima -- can that not be used as an argument that mankind is bent on a kind of suicidal path?
JGB: No, I don't, actually. I think nuclear weapons and the limited amount of nuclear warfare that has actually taken place shows that people are fully able to master these weapons in a way that campaigners for nuclear disarmament 20 years ago certainly wouldn't have accepted. I think mankind as a whole -- the small number of men who control the use of these weapons -- have made intelligent and sensible decisions, and the proof is in the pudding. We haven't had any nuclear war and I don't think we're likely to.
CBC: Surely the intelligent decision is not to have them.
JGB: Not to have these weapons? I don't think that's the intelligent decision at all. I mean, the object of having these weapons is to preserve peace and national security and they've achieved that, they've achieved what they set out to do. No major power is likely to renounce them, so any argument about them is academic.
CBC: Well, what about the speculation about other forms of doomsday, if I may use the word -- what about ecology and pollution?
JGB: There again, I think the traditional view (pause). Personally, I'm not that opposed to pollution -- I think the transformation of the old landscape by concrete fields and all that isn't necessarily bad by definition. I feel there's a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on top of it. A certain geometric beauty in a cone of china clay, say, four hundred yards high, suddenly placed in the middle of the rural landscape. It's all a matter of a certain aesthetic response. Some people find highways, cloverleaf junctions and overpasses and multi-storey car-parks -- they find them ugly, chiefly because they are made of concrete. But they are not. Most of them are structures of great beauty.
When Los Angeles is forgotten, probably what will remain will be the huge freeway system. I'm certain the people in the future -- long after the automobile has been forgotten -- will regard them as enigmatic and mysterious monuments which attested to the high aesthetic standards of the people that built them. In the same way that we look back on the pyramids or the mausoleums in a huge Egyptian necropolis as things of great beauty -- we've forgotten their original function. It's all a matter of aesthetics. I think that highways for the most part are beautiful. I prefer concrete to meadow.
CBC: Why? I can see liking one or the other; I don't understand preferring something --
JGB: I feel that a modern high-rise building or a concrete seven-storey car park, or a cloverleaf roadway junction, reflects and embraces within itself the aesthetic laws, all the laws of good design that we apply to the sorts of things we regard as beautiful in our lives -- the well-designed cutlery and kitchen equipment. I mean, they embrace all the aesthetic standards of modern sculpture.
The last 100 years have led us toward industrial design, have consistently led us towards the set of standards, the set of aesthetic yardsticks, which we apply in our everyday lives -- to our judgment of which washing machine we buy, which motorcar we prefer, which coffee percolator we like. But we must apply these yardsticks right across the board. They're the same yardsticks, the same criteria that you see in the design of motorway junctions. They are motion sculptures of great beauty. Now, to say "my God" automatically, because to say something is a road, it must therefore be ugly, is illogical. I simply accept the logic of the world in which I live.
CBC: You, ahh, also seem to be concerned a great deal with the logic of mathematics, which is part of road construction. I wonder if that enters into it. You even express your vision of the future in a mathematical equation.
JGB: Well, that may very well be the case. I mean, umm, I'm merely applying my own intelligence, my own reasoning faculties, if you like, to those questions. They're part of my response to the world in which I live. I don't mind. There's been a tremendous outcry over here. About a year ago, when a section of motorway was built in central London, called the Westway, which was a six-lane concrete highway built on pillars which ran through what had been one of the most shabby areas of London around Harrow Road, there was a tremendous outcry.
People living in these terrible conditions in these old Victorian, [or] pre-Victorian, houses, slums for the most part, raised this enormous outcry about the ugliness of this huge structure that swept past through their neighbourhood. Now, the irony of it was that if you drove along the highway it was actually a thing of great beauty. It's a motion sculpture beautifully constructed and designed. Now, the ugliness resides in the landscape it is supposed to be desecrating -- in these ancient, tilting, collapsing Victorian houses, which are a blot socially, aesthetically, and in every conceivable way, on the landscape. That's an example of the sort of absurd and paradoxical logic that people apply.
CBC: Well, that's part of clinging to the past.
JGB: I think it is. But I think it's clinging to a whole set of conventional ideas that need revisiting every so often, simply because they're no longer relevant to the situation. We see the sort of general reaction against technology that is taking place, the conventional response that anything made of concrete is ugly. Quite the contrary.
Le Corbusier, the great French architect, 50 years ago was claiming the great beauty of concrete, building in concrete. Architects all over the world followed him. Concrete is a beautiful material -- handled intelligently it's much more a 20th-century material than, say, wood or brick. I think we ought to look very hard at many aspects of our lives, where we take for granted that such-and-such a thing is wrong or bad. If we look at it, look at that situation, we will find that we are being illogical.
CBC: Ahh, ahh... there's something I wanted to talk about that is connected with that. If those are the ideas that you want to get across... You were talking about the role of the science-fiction writer -- how does that affect your style? You write in a style that is very difficult, I would say, for a lot of your writings. For instance, the Kennedy piece, and so on.
JGB: Unfamiliar rather than difficult. I think you've got to make a distinction between what is difficult and what is unfamiliar in my writings. Some of my experimental speculative writing is superficially, at first glance, difficult, but in fact it's merely unfamiliar. One could find analogies all over the place -- in the visual arts, say, when a new school of painting appeared on the scene, when the Cubists first arrived, everyone was appalled. What were they doing? Why didn't they paint like the Impressionists? Who in their turn, in the late 1870s, horrified everybody who looked at [their] paintings.
Look at every new school of painting in the same way as aboriginal peoples look at photographs and are unable to identify what's in them because the visual conventions are so strong. We operate -- our whole perception of the visual world around us -- based on a whole system of conventions that help us distinguish a door or a window, or a flat tyre, or what-have-you. Once you begin to provide a new set of conventions, a new set of objects, everybody is thrown into confusion.
CBC: Are you writing strictly in that style now? Or are you still writing some in the style of The Crystal World?
JGB: Well, no. My last two books have been written in a completely straightforward style. When I was writing about the Kennedys I was writing about the world of the 1960s, a world of multiplying confusions of every conceivable kind, and I liked to use a technique appropriate -- an episodic and, if you like, non-linear technique appropriate to the sort of television landscapes that we were living in then. Now, in Crash, my book about the motorcar -- [and] my next book that I've got coming out, called Concrete Island, about a man who's marooned on a traffic island in a rather large city -- I'm using what I think is the appropriate technique, straightforward narration, simply because the ideas themselves, particularly in Crash, are so, ahh, unexpected -- ahh, incomprehensible to some people, challenging, if you like. The best way of expressing them is in a straightforward way.
CBC: You were talking earlier about Crash and some of the ideas in it which suggested to me perhaps some of the questions we ought to be asking about mankind that are not in science. You talked about whether or not there was a positive aspect to the automobile crash, and that suggests to me that we should possibly be asking if Man is, in fact, by nature a killer, and whether he in fact wants to improve his future?
JGB: I think that's a very good question. I myself think that Man, if you like, is a naturally perverse animal, that the elements of psychopathology or perversity or moral deviancy are a very large part of his character. I don't think that can be changed. I think attempts in the past to provide a very rigid moral framework succeeded to some extent. I think they're going to break down now, simply because the opportunities for limitless freedom are so great.
One is moving into a realm where one will be able to practice all kinds of perversions, perform all sorts of psychopathological acts without any feeling of corruption, or without any kind of sense of moral failure. One will be genuinely free to perform, to behave in ways that now seem perverse, just as we ourselves now in the mid-70s have a degree of freedom, feel entitled to behave in ways that, say, our parents would be deeply shocked by.
I think we're moving into a realm where moral yardsticks won't apply anyway. These words, like "psychopathology," "moral perversity" and the like are so heavily loaded in their own disfavour, as it were, that it's very difficult to use them. There simply isn't any other vocabulary. But I think one's got to face an event like the car crash -- it does obviously satisfy people in ways they aren't prepared to recognize. I think that this applies to all sorts of... it applies to violence as a good thing.
I mean, I accept the common view that violence in all its forms is wholly evil, but I think I may very well be wrong. There might be something about violence that provides a necessary salt in our psychic diet. And this is the sort of thing people find very difficult to accept.
CBC: Well, whether you're right or wrong it certainly means that you must ask the question if you are prescribing for the future. And whether or not collective humanity in fact wants to improve its lot. In reading some of The Drought, it seems to me that Ransom expresses that kind of ambiguity.
JGB: Right. I think we are on the threshold of a total moral ambiguity where it will be impossible to make a value judgment, yes or no, bad or good, in large areas of behaviour, because large areas of our behaviour aren't going to be amenable to the conventional wisdom, conventional morality, of the past.
It was obviously better if you were a farmer in the 19th century or the early 20th century, or any previous century, to plant your crops and to harvest them in the traditionally approved, most efficient, most desirable way. This was quite clear if you were building a house: you built the walls straight and true so that people wouldn't be injured by falling walls, and so on.
But that doesn't apply any more because most of our behaviour now takes place in the realm of our own private, our completely private worlds where our imaginations can have full play, where there are no yardsticks to apply -- one can behave in any way one wishes. I think this is the big change that is coming. It is made largely possible by our increased wealth. I mean, we spend, all of us, less and less of our lives actually supplying the basic necessities of food, shelter -- most of our spending is discretionary, more and more of our spending is in the field of what one could call entertainment, of pleasure, or of intelligent pleasure, and this is indeed a realm where anything is possible.
CBC: If you want to go to classic political theory you could attribute it to the rise of the middle class.
JGB: Maybe. I think you are probably right. Well, in Europe we have seen the decline of the so-called "working class." In many countries of western Europe -- Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavian countries -- one has the impression that there is no working class, or there's a very small manual or labouring class. Most people are middle-class -- I think the same is sort of true of North America -- but I think we're moving into a realm where the middle class will be the next to go. Soon everybody -- to use a class terminology -- everybody will be upper-class, everybody will be rich. We're moving into a realm where it will be like California, let's say...
CBC: The miners will be glad to hear that!
JGB: Well, that's another matter...
CBC: Just a second... How are we doing for time?
JGB: You must have a lot of stuff there.
CBC: OK, yeah, well, I have to go through Judy's questions. We're getting a little off-track. Decline of the working class and the rise of the middle (laughs).
JGB: Well, it sort of ties in with the doomsday idea. People have had this obsession at various periods that the world was coming to an end, and in the last ten years the backlash against technology and all the anxieties about pollution and the energy crisis and so on tend to feed this doomsday obsession. The notion that various -- what I call "airport thinkers" -- pronounce it's all going to be over, that western civilization as we know it is going to be over in ten years time -- I find this highly unlikely.
No, Man is much too aggressive and self-seeking and determined a character to go down that easily. I mean, if you ask me if there's going to be a doomsday at all I will say "no". I don't think there's going to be a doomsday. I think the future will offer us a great...
If we could see the future 50 years from now I think we'd all be absolutely shocked. We might regard it as absolute Babylon, in the same way that, let's say, an Anglican clergyman of 50 years ago would regard life in England as being very close to that of Babylon -- 15-year-old girls in mini-skirts having their second abortions, all this sort of thing. The whole freedom of the so-called permissive society would appall such a man, would have appalled my grandparents. Would have appalled my parents when they were my age.
I think we'd be shocked by the future, but I don't think to the people living in the future -- and this is the real criterion you must apply -- do all the people living in the time of this emotional doomsday regard it as such? I don't think they will. I think they'll probably regard that doomsday in the same way the inhabitants of Las Vegas regard their city. And I think the future is going to be like Las Vegas, one enormous jukebox playing some very strange tunes. But it won't be doomsday to the people living there then.
CBC: Could you perhaps talk in terms of, rather than a sort of earthly doomsday, then if you want to talk about it in psychological terms… such as Arthur Gibson's statement that individuals are obsolete. Surely to the individual trapped within his own body that's a doom of some kind?
JGB: I don't think individuals are going to be obsolete, actually. I think people are -- it's impossible to argue about because there are no statistics -- but my impression is that people today are morally, mentally, in every psychological dimension of their lives, stronger and healthier than they've ever been before. If that seems belied by the high rates of divorce, by higher crime figures, by appearance on the scene from time to time of people like Manson in America or the Moors Murderers in England -- I think these people are just irrelevant, on the whole, an irrelevant consideration.
I'm absolutely convinced now people are morally and psychologically stronger and healthier than they've ever been before. There's no reason why they shouldn't be. I think they're strong enough and healthy enough to begin to, in a sense, play with their own psychologies, to be able to play games with themselves. In the sense that one goes out to one's tennis court and plays a set of tennis with a friend. One will be able to play psychological games, one will be able to assume psychological roles of various kinds. One will be able to devise situations, the dramatic kind if you like, which won't upset us, which won't damage the mind in any way, which won't lead to a nervous collapse. I think people are strong enough to begin to play all kinds of deviant games, and I'm sure that this is to some extent taking place.
CBC: I wonder about some of your characters. The Woman in White keeps reappearing, of course, and in some of the stories I have read she always seems to be more a part of the landscape than her own self. Is that a sort of "future-type" of person?
JGB: Well, I think so. If you ask me for a visual picture of the future I think the future is gong to be increasingly lunar. The psychological landscape is going to be somewhat like the physical landscape of the moon. It's going to be a matter of sharp edges, of a very sharp and angular geometry. Individual actions and individual pieces of behaviour and individual thoughts will sit in isolation, like pieces of sculpture embedded in a dune.
I think the future is going to be angular, rather hard geometrically, stripped of ornament. Unpredictable, with rapid temperature changes from black to white in the sun. I think the future will be very lunar, and people will behave in a very lunar way, very isolated from each other. Does that appeal to me? Yes, it does, because I think people will have more freedom there. I mean, the freedom of isolation, the freedom of complete choice in one's behaviour. It's the difference of being in an empty city or being in a resort out of season or being on a crowded beach...
CBC: ... but surely there's something between that. I wonder what you'd say to round, gregarious people like myself. That sounds absolutely horrifying to me.
JGB: I don't think there are going to be any more in-betweens. That's my latest prophecy! No, I think one's moving into a realm where everything will become increasingly stylized. It's quite obvious that, ahh, nothing is going to exist at all that doesn't serve some sort of imaginative role in the future. It won't simply be because we won't notice its existence -- just as we don't notice a piece of furniture unless it happens also to be an aesthetic object, if it conforms to various visual conventions of the day.
We live in a world, part of which is invisible, just because it doesn't have any aesthetic or psychological overtones. There is an in-between; there is a happy medium, of course. But I'm just talking about the general trend. I think that our conventional notions of a happy social order are all right, of course, but are ripe for renewal. We tend to assume that people want to be together in a kind of renaissance city if you like, imaginatively speaking, strolling in the evening across a crowded piazza...
CBC: No, I can't agree with you there. I think it is not a question of conscious decision to people's psychological needs, since that was industrialization, that was....
JGB: These are the sort of dreams these are -- I don't think people want to be together, I think they want to be alone. People are together in a traffic jam or in a crowded elevator in a department store, or on airlines. That's togetherness. People don't want to be together in a physical sense, in an actual running crowd on a pavement. People want to be alone. They want to be alone and watch television.
CBC: I don't.
JGB: Most people do, actually.
CBC: Well, if you want to make that kind of statement. I don't want to be in a traffic jam, but I don't want to be alone on a dune, either.
JGB: No, I didn't suggest that you should be. But I'm saying that you probably have more privacy in your life than you realize. One lives in a world where, even if one's apartment or hotel room tends to be small, one tends to be the only occupant of it. One is not living in something like an 18th-to-19th-century city where, as it were, metaphorically speaking, like a crowded noisy tenement, where we knew every neighbour, where we were surrounded by relations of many generations. Where we were in an intimate sort of social context made up of hundreds of people. This isn't the case. Most of us lead comparatively isolated lives. That being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realize. Oh sure, you may...
CBC: ... as far as you are trapped within your own body...
JGB: No, no, compared with the life you would have lived 50 years ago, or 150 years ago, where you would have been surrounded in a large tenement or a large dwelling in an overcrowded city, say. If you think a mediaeval town, well, probably every inhabitant knew every other inhabitant intimately, or at least knew something of them. One's not living in that world any more.
The city or the town or the suburb or the street -- these are places of considerable isolation. People like it that way, too. They don't want to know all their neighbours. This is just a small example where the conventional appeal of the good life needs to be looked at again. I don't think people would want to have the sort of life that was lived 100 years ago or 200 years ago.
CBC: On that note we're going to have to close up shop. One last word while we're on tape. How formally should you be introduced on the programme, by what books?
JGB: What books? I've published under the name of J. G. Ballard. My novels are.... What books?
CBC: Yes, Judy wants to know which books you would like to be introduced by. I suppose the most recent...
JGB: Any, any will do. She can refer to Crash, that will be great, because it ties in with what we have been talking about.
David Pringle's Comments
Reading it, thinking about it, I'm pretty sure this interview dates from early 1974. Towards the end of the interview Ballard seems to be quoting from himself -- specifically, from the introduction he prepared for the French edition of Crash, which I believe came out in May 1974. So maybe this interview was conducted by phone just after he'd delivered that introduction to his French translator, Robert Louit -- which would put it very early in 1974 or very late in 1973.
If so, it neatly plugs the gap in Ballard's interviews between Peter Linnett's interview, which was done in February 1973, and my own first JGB interview (done with Jim Goddard) in January 1975.
I don't think there were any other Ballard interviews in 1974. (Apart from a couple of French ones promoting Crash.)