Myths Of The Near Future
Transcribed by Mike Holliday
Mike's introduction: Here's another old interview with JG Ballard from a rather obscure source. This one is from ZG magazine, in a special issue titled "Altered States" and co-published with Kent Fine Art in New York. This particular issue acted as a catalogue for the "Altered States" exhibition that ran at Kent Fine Art in April/May 1988. The theme was "that concepts of space and time are undergoing radical change", and how this has impacted on our culture.
"I think of science fiction writers as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now (these writers) will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they're just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren't very powerful". These are the words of Professor Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of artificial intelligence and a major research figure in the media lab at MIT in Boston.
J. G. Ballard, author of Crash, High-Rise and Empire of the Sun among many others, has never suffered under the delusion that science fiction was ever anything else: "Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow..."
ZG Magazine interviewed him at his home in Shepperton, England.
ZG: I noticed you have a copy of Icarus up on your bookshelf. The idea of Icarus seems to be rooted in your book The Unlimited Dream Company. And, in a sense, flight seems to be one of the most dominant images in your writing.
JGB: Yes, that's true. Flight does play a very important part in my fiction -- though I never consciously think about Icarus or The Ancient Mariner's albatross or a thousand and one other archetypal images when I write. But that's simply because there's a common pool of archetypal imagery that we all draw on willy-nilly. By and large, we all use the same kind of symbol systems. To mammals like ourselves who are anchored to the ground and yet able to imagine, flight has a whole repertory of powerful meanings. To me it just represents a means of transcending one's own particular time and space and moving to a radically different realm.
I've always felt strongly that there's a profound magic in airports -- and even more so in runways. Deserted runways have a tremendous magnetic pull for me. I can stare forever at aerial photographs of those islands in the Pacific which have abandoned runways -- although some of them are still in use by the US army and navy. But they are so powerful as images. The concrete strip just beckons one into new realms. Indeed, any major airport in the world charges me with a powerful sense of inspiration: they offer new points of departure for the imagination.
ZG: Do you know the writings of the French theorist, Paul Virilio? I mention him because there seems to be a convergence of interests in the ideas of flight and time consciousness. In Pure War he talks about Howard Hughes: about how he created a world of temporal habitation for himself in an effort to cheat time itself. But he ended up as a "technological monk in the desert of Las Vegas", atrophied in a changing world of speed.
JGB: That's really interesting. Actually, I've always found Howard Hughes a terrifically sympathetic character. I absolutely endorse his climbing into the penthouse suite of an hotel in Las Vegas and closing the door on the rest of existence. I admired him for doing that. He's a wonderfully enigmatic figure. He embodies all the great myths of the 20th century in his character and in his life. This young aviator ace was also a great explorer and inventor; bought himself movie studios and airlines; and was extremely rich but untouched by the trappings of wealth. Then there was his obsession with germs. He sort of died of AIDS (not the real AIDS but the imaginary, symbolic AIDS) before his time. He really sums up so many of the obsessions and paranoias of this century. And he was totally American too, in a very attractive way; an utterly democratic man. One can imagine him eating at McDonald's when he was younger -- something no European millionaire would ever do!
ZG: He reminds me of many of the heroes of your books in so many ways. I associate you and Virilio because you do seem to share a common theme; that time has somehow annihilated space and that, now, time is annihilating itself. It's as though we've reached this state of inertia in which, in a sense, we can now only live within our own constructed worlds. That sounds like a classic description of your stories.
JGB: I agree. I think that time, in the strict sense, is dying. The whole progress of the 20th century has been described in terms of death and decline. But I remember too, that the late '30s and '40s were periods of enormously accelerating change. That was the period when the 20th century really invented itself. The super technologies, the military technologies and so on; the changes were absolutely colossal. Time just seemed to race past and govern everything. And this change continued until after World War II. Since then however, everything's begun to slow down. Probably the first casualty of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the concept of the Future. I think the Future died some time in the '50s. Maybe with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb.
In the '30s and '40s people had an intense interest in the future. They saw the future as a morally superior world to the one in which they lived. All the great political movements -- the New Deal, Socialism, Fascism, Communism, whatever -- were all highly programmatic systems, symptoms of a better future. But there was so much scientific change too; from the discovery of antibiotics, to jet travel, consumer society, television. One had a tremendous sense of the future. Magazines in the '30s were full of articles about the fastest train or the fastest aircraft in the world; of how the first passenger planes would revolutionize life on the planet. Yet some time around the end of the '50s, the future somehow lost its hold. I think it died.
ZG: Didn't it just become shorter term?
JGB: Yes, partly. People certainly lost interest in the future. They began to fear the future. And partly, I think, the prosperity in the '60s and '70s induced a kind of infantilism. People stopped dealing with a time scale that lay outside of their immediate present. They began to have no sense of what had happened yesterday or of what would happen the day after tomorrow. So people became immersed in the fulfillment of their own needs and their own satisfactions. They literally lost interest in the future. But by the same token, they also lost interest in the past. These days most people's idea of the past is a rerun of "Casablanca". They have very little idea of history nowadays. So time has dismantled itself.
I can see a time, probably about midway into the next century, when time will virtually cease to exist. The present will annex both the future and the past into itself. All desires will be fulfilled and people will live in a perpetual present. It may be a bit like the movie "Star Wars" where you have a peculiar surface of events taking place. "Star Wars" is very unlike the science fiction movies of the '40s and '50s which always incorporated an intense feel of change; of how technological progress was going to radically alter life on this planet. But in "Star Wars", events take place in a timeless limbo. They don't impinge on anything outside themselves. The events could be taking place far, far into the future or far, far in the past. I imagine life itself is in danger of becoming like that.
ZG: Coupled with your interest in time, your fiction also generates an intense interest in neurology and psychology.
JGB: I've written a lot of stories in which one regime of time gives way to another and people find a new world in the imagination. I'm always taking my position from what I've read of experimental psychology which seems to suggest that the world presented to us by our central nervous system is really a ramshackle construct that serves the purposes of fairly intelligent, bi-poedal [sic] mammals of rather restricted physical and conceptual limits. We may not be able to run as fast as other mammals but we do have stronger imaginations. Our central nervous systems provide us with a kind of modus vivendi. These ramshackle constructs allow us to function within the rather limited ambit provided by our senses and by our limbs. Yet the optical center of the brain -- our visual universe -- doesn't accord with what is really out there. The central nervous system conventionalizes and irrationalizes [sic] reality for us so that we can move through time and space. But I've always felt that one must transcend that space. And there's a way of transcending this rather limited view we have of reality by using the imagination. We've inherited large parts of our view of the world from our forebears hundreds of thousands of years ago, who had much more limited means than we have now. A sense of time gave homo sapiens a way of storing, from minute to minute, information about the world. We may well have outgrown it. Our sense of time itself may now be rather outdated.
But there's an unlimited scope for change and transformation. We can see it now in the sciences. The pace of scientific change is enormous. People aren't aware of it. Most people are scientifically illiterate. The changes that are taking place are only really meaningful to comparatively few specialists in the field. Yet the changes are colossal. Maybe future historians will look back on the 20th century and dismiss the entire artistic field of fiction, poetry or the visual arts as completely irrelevant and as having no value whatsoever; where the greatest achievements of the human imagination in the 20th century took place in the sciences. And they'd probably be right.
ZG: But the sciences, of course, are providing cultural changes anyway. Scientific and technological worlds are providing us with things that we are only now beginning to conceive of as having any basis in our realities; concepts that were literally in the most way-out realms of science fiction only a few years ago - cloning, in vitro fertilization and so on. How do you think of the world of the fifth generation computer? Do you think it's going to be McLuhan's Global Village? Or are we going to be our own "technological monks" in our own self-creating worlds? Is life going to be this fractured experience that it was in the '70s? Or is everyone going to be tuned into "Dallas" for eternity?
JGB: The notion of community which is kept alive now by television and by almost nothing else, may be passing. There's a sort of post-TV generation now who no longer watch TV. They spend their leisure time in various hobby activities like Tai Chi, scuba diving, playing bridge, badminton -- you name it. They simply have no time for television. They don't seem to need it anymore. So life will become so diversified and different by the end of the century that it will be hard to know if there is such a thing as a national culture. People will have retreated into their own heads.
ZG: Do you see this as good or bad? You're ambiguous in your fiction.
JGB: A lot of my fiction is cautionary. It deals with possible end points or trends. I wrote a short story called "The Intensive Care Unit" about a world where people never meet. They simply make contact via TV. Marriage is conducted hundreds of miles apart. And in my story I visualize a man who actually decides to meet his wife and children in the flesh. Of course, it's a disaster. They just cannot bear the sensory overload. On a mere neurological level, they can't bear to be together -- rather in the way that we can't bear to be too close to strangers. So I can believe that, in the future people won't be able to bear to be in the same room as others. Or even on the same street. Of course, it's very difficult to read these kinds of aspects of the future.
ZG: It doesn't seem improbable though, does it, given what is already happening? I mean Michael Jackson walks around wearing a surgical mask because of his obsession with germs. He doesn't like people to touch him. And AIDS has brought about a tremendous fear of touch or contact with other human beings.
JGB: Well, exactly. That's another factor, isn't it? There's almost a sinister sense in which AIDS is a metaphor for all kinds of processes -- whether you call them diseases or not -- that are leading, or inviting similar separations on the viral level. It's almost as if AIDS is a disease that it was necessary for the human race to discover so as to justify all these alienated processes that are taking place on other levels. It's a curious and very terrifying disease. It's almost like a science fiction disease. It's unbelievable. And I say "unbelievable" because I'm not even sure whether to believe the statistics. In parts of Africa for example, they say ten percent of the population have the disease. And if that's true, the population in that part of the world could be extinct in thirty or forty years.
But the whole thing does seem like a designer disease. It's as though our hour has come. The disease has provided a kind of underpinning to the whole processes of alienation that have been taking place in our culture in the last ten years to my mind. AIDS seems to put a cap on it. Whenever the population density increases, in order to hang on to their mental space, people do tend to retreat into their own inward mental worlds or spaces. It seems inevitable.