After High-Rise (1975), J G Ballard wrote one of his strangest novels, The Unlimited Dream Company. Published in 1979, it won the 1980 British Science Fiction Association award for best novel — which was, as the SF Encyclopedia points out, the only SF award he won — but, perhaps because it stands shadowed between the Ballardian monoliths of Crash (1973) and Empire of the Sun (1984), it’s a book that gets little attention, not least from Ballard himself, who rarely seems to have mentioned it in interviews — certainly nowhere near as much as The Atrocity Exhibition, to which it could well stand as a sort of opposite. It is, in a sense, his magical realist novel, his most outrightly fantastical. It’s also, compared to the novels that came before it, perhaps his first non-dystopia. But it doesn’t seem right to call it a utopia, either. Rather, it seems better to call it a sort of imaginative vision.
The narrator, Blake, is a young ne’er-do-well whose schooling and early attempts at employment are nothing but a series of increasingly bizarre and self-destructive failures:
“Whatever new course I set myself, however carefully I tried to follow a fresh compass bearing, I flew straight into the nearest brick wall.”
One morning, after an abortive and seemingly spur-of-the-moment attempt to murder his latest girlfriend, Blake steals a light aircraft (having picked up the basics of operating one while working as an aircraft cleaner at London Airport) and pretty soon crashes it into the Thames by Shepperton (which he calls “the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere”, and where Ballard himself lived for most of his adult life). Soon after emerging from the drowned aircraft (where he may have spent as long as eleven minutes trying to free himself, meaning he may actually have died underwater), Blake discovers that he cannot leave the town. If he approaches its borders they recede before him, meaning he can walk infinitely in any direction without ever leaving Shepperton.
He also learns he has begun to develop magical, even god-like, powers. The blood from his wounded hands has the ability to heal; he can transform himself, and others, into fish, birds, and animals; he can fly, and can give others the gift of flight, too. His bodily fluids — and it’s a novel rather full of bodily fluids — cause exotic plants to grow. His presence leads all sorts of birds to start appearing in Shepperton, from pelicans to penguins to parrots and condors. He eventually finds he can absorb people into his body, feeding off their existence within him while they reside there, awaiting release.
With so many miracles on show, he soon wins the people of Shepperton over, and it’s not long before, as in High-Rise, the commuters are ignoring their trains, doffing their clothes, and (unlike High-Rise) giving away all their possessions. Bank managers lay out the currencies from their vaults on tables for anyone to take, supermarkets and white goods stores abolish their checkouts.
The town comes to see Blake as a sort of messiah — as does Blake himself, who soon progresses, in his own estimation, to local god, and then to “the first god, the primal deity”. The only exceptions are the seven people who witnessed Blake’s crash and subsequent revival. (One of whom, Blake suspects, may have attempted to murder him, judging by the hand-shaped bruises on his body.) These seven, whom Blake comes to think of as his “Family”, often resist his orgies of transformation and flight, but they are the ones Blake most wants to transform.
Among their number is a widow, Mrs St Cloud, and a priest who dabbles in archaeology, Father Wingate (a father-mother pair whose names both mix sky/flight with religion). There’s also Mrs St Cloud’s daughter, Dr Miriam St Cloud, whose running of a local clinic is disrupted when Blake begins healing all her long-term patients. Stark, a young man who owns a nearby zoo and amusement pier, is the most immune to Blake’s wonders — when the whole town is giving away its possessions, it’s Stark who drives around collecting TV sets and washing machines, stuffing his pockets full of free foreign currency. Finally there are three children, a blind girl, a lame boy, and another boy with Down’s Syndrome. Although clearly affected by Blake’s crash, they’re almost shy when it comes to his attempts to include them in his town-wide transformations, as though they see a value in their disabilities that Blake’s easy cures and magical transformations into birds, fish, or flying humans would do away with. Blake’s relationship with the townspeople of Shepperton goes through dark patches — one of his festivals of free money and flight is about to swerve into violence at one point, and, oh yes, they later shoot him and dump his body by the town War Memorial — but ultimately it’s his relationship with these seven, his “Family”, that drives the novel in its strange, dream-like progression.
Ballard often said he was a moral writer — that his dystopias, despite the way they offered his protagonists a sort of inner fulfilment, were nevertheless meant as warnings — but it’s hard to see the moral in The Unlimited Dream Company, whose protagonist/narrator’s mix of self-deification and lack of self-recrimination often treads a line between the god-like and the infantile. The Blake who begins the novel with an attempt to murder his girlfriend is hardly a reformed character by the end, nor is he ever really challenged or taught any lessons. He comes close, several times, to crossing a line even a pagan god shouldn’t cross with Shepperton’s children, and it’s only because of a moment of distraction that he doesn’t go through with it.
Instead, the book seems to be a pure, if brutal, dream-like vision of transformation. Nothing matters, between its covers, but Blake’s, and Shepperton’s, ultimate liberation through flight. When things change, when Blake discovers a new power, or when the town turns either for him or against him, there doesn’t seem to be a particular reason for the change, as though these are ritual stages that have to be gone through rather than the results of cause and effect. At times, the transformation Blake seems to be offering is harsh, almost inhuman, and The Unlimited Dream Company, to my mind, sits alongside some of the more blatantly visionary writers about fantastical transformations, like Clive Barker, or the Robert Holdstock you find in the second half of Lavondyss.
Ultimately, The Unlimited Dream Company seems to work best as a dream or vision, an intense dose of imagery centred on flight, freedom, and transformation, and a literal rising above the everyday life of a suburban town.
It’s a book that took Ballard two and half years to write, something true only of Crash before it. And despite the seemingly effortless sequence of dream-like scenes in the novel, he found the writing of it “imaginatively exhausting”. At first, when you read one of Ballard’s few comments about the novel, it’s tempting not to take him entirely seriously when he says something like:
“In many ways I feel that, without realising it at the time, I was writing a piece of my own autobiography — that it’s about the writer’s imagination, and in particular my imagination, transforming the humdrum reality that he occupies and turning it into an unlimited dream company.”
(This is quoted in Interzone #106, but originally comes from Sam Scoggins’s 23-minute film, The Unlimited Dream Company — which is not an adaptation, but mostly an interview with Ballard, and well worth a watch.)
The more I think about it, though, the more the idea that this novel is a sort of inner autobiography fits. It’s an allegory of the imaginative writer’s life. It begins with a troubled and unconventional young man’s difficulties in finding a place in life (“the police harassment and third-rate jobs, the dreams running off at half-cock”). Then the crisis, the breakdown and break-away in one last desperate attempt at self-expression, trusting himself entirely to his purest impulse, “the simplest and most mysterious of all actions — flight!”
Then, realising he’s as trapped in Shepperton as an imaginative or visionary artist is trapped in the mundane world, he sets about doing his best to transform it and its residents through the power of his imagination, bringing his own particular magic into all these humdrum lives, elevating them, freeing them, changing them at the deepest level. And he passes through darkness, and through self-aggrandisement, and through death, but ultimately he’s freed from his old, ne’er-do-well self, that history of failure.
(And the character Stark could be seen as the sort of man Blake would have become without a visionary imagination — a peddler of cobbled-together amusements, a pier-attraction zoo-owner, doing his best to bring a little exoticism and fairground magic into people’s lives, but never going to amount to much.)
The Unlimited Dream Company is an expression of Ballard’s faith that “a powerful and obsessive enough imagination can reach, unaided, the very deepest layers of the mind” — a faith in the transformative powers of imagination, a kind of creative dream-manifesto. As I say, it could be seen as an equal-and-opposite to The Atrocity Exhibition, standing in the same relation to that earlier book as Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet stands to his traumatic Red Shift — a necessary and healing counter-balance to the earlier work’s images of dislocation and trauma.
I must admit I still don’t fully get the title, though.