Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Living in the Future

The future is not what it used to be.

My latest book project is a brick of a thing entitled, The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. I read a lot of different blogs, many of them written by authors, and when Ballard died last year they all went into deep mourning. And when this collection came out, it was like Christmas in July. Hosannas were sung to what I was assured was one of the greatest talents ever to put paper in a typewriter (yes, Ballard was that old), accolades poured forth, and I figured I should go out and find this book. I'd never heard of J. G. Ballard, and there was a hole in my reading! A hole that could be plugged with good writing! It sounded like something right up my alley.

I'm about two-thirds of the way through now, and a couple of things have occurred to me.

First, I still have more pages left to go than were in the last novel I read, even counting the title page and blurb on the cover. Ballard was nothing if not prolific. I did not take this book with me to San Francisco for the simple reason that it would have consumed my entire baggage weight allotment, leaving me with nothing to brush my teeth with. Brushing one's teeth with works of literature is not effective, and the library frowns on people using their books in that manner.

And second, well, it's astonishing how dated these stories are.

Science fiction is supposed to be the genre of the future, and these stories are all set in some time other than our own - sometimes a few years into the future, and sometimes centuries. In Ballard's stories there are inventions there that we don't have now, and things have changed considerably from the world we know in political, environmental, cultural and even biological terms as well. But for all those changes, these stories are still about the mid-to-late twentieth century.

It's not just the fact that Ballard, like the rest of us, had no crystal ball to foresee how things would really change, though it is somewhat jarring to see stories set hundred of years in the future where the vinyl LP is still the height of music-reproduction technology. Just in my lifetime we've gone from LPs to 8-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3s, and who knows where it will go from there. I got off that merry-go-round at CDs, but even so - it's odd to see phonographs in the distant future.

No, it's more the culture of the future. In Ballard's futures - dystopian, cluttered by the abandoned, awash in light and, often, sand - the concerns of the post-WWII middle class are writ large. The cocktail culture of the 1950s. The obsession with Freudian psychology (no pun intended). The sexual politics of Updike's Rabbit series. Abstract art.  The lingering political impact of Orwell. The environmental concerns of the 1970s, which are not the ones of today.  And so on.

I haven't gotten to his stories from the 1980s yet, but at this point I don't anticipate any change in overall tone.

As a historian, the hardest thing to get through your head - and by far the hardest thing to get through your students' heads - is the fact that the past is not the present. As one of my professors once told me (slightly misquoting another more famous historian, though I think his version was better), "The past is a different country. They do think differently there." I have a hard time getting the sheer alienness of the past across to my students, who seem to think that people centuries ago were pretty much the same as they are now, with identical concerns, ideas and politics. And any glance at the political rhetoric around me today says that my odds of succeeding at this task are fairly minimal.

It is the same with the future.

But we can't study the future the way we can with the past. We can only imagine it, using the conceptual framework we already have. This makes the future look a lot like the present in our imaginations, and not much like what the future will probably look like in the future.

At least Ballard was, as advertised, a pretty good writer.


Rick McGrath said...

Too bad you see JG as a science fiction writer, because he's not... you're close when you see him as a psychological fiction writer, tho, as it was Ballard who described his work as dealing with "inner space" in the early 1960s and tried to write about the future "ten minutes from now"... most SF and space stuff is basically 19th century fiction... Ballard once artfully described Star Wars as "hobbits in space". You also seem alone in your assessment of Ballard's lack of prescience, as he's generally regarded as the writer who most accurately predicted our current situation.

David said...

Thanks for the comment!

I do see him as a SF writer, which is what he started out as and where, at least through the 1970s where I am now, his stories seem to fit most. Perhaps I have a broader definition of SF than most people.

SF is where the novel of ideas has taken refuge in the 21st century, and he seems to me a precursor to that. His is not the SF of "space ships and goo" as I believe he once complained. It is more psychological, more about the lives of the people he puts into those alternate, SFnal worlds, than about the worlds themselves. It's a strength of his. But it's still SF to me.

I really wasn't commenting on Ballard's prescience or lack thereof. Mostly what I see in these stories are the worries and ideas of a man of his time. As a historian, I really don't have to look at the dates on the stories to know, within about five years, when they were written. Whether he extrapolated those worries accurately is another post!