J G Ballard’s Space-Sickness Trilogy

Booklet published by Interzone, 1982

Between 1981 and 1982, J G Ballard wrote what David Pringle, in his Ballard Chronology (published in the Deep Ends anthologies), has referred to as a “time trilogy of long short stories”: News from the Sun, Myths of the Near Future, and Memories of the Space Age. Ballard himself lumped these together in a 1984 interview, saying his recent work included “three long stories all about the same theme, really — … Light and time.” Not a trilogy in any conventional sense (they have different characters, and the nature of the “space sickness” in each story’s world is slightly different) they nevertheless share so many elements that they belong together in the same way the stories in The Atrocity Exhibition do. They could even be seen as a later, more thoroughly digested (and conventionally narrated) treatment of the same Atrocity Exhibition material, with their gone-rogue doctors/architects/pilots engaging in highly conceptual (not to say insane) artistic projects intended to solve some combination of personal trauma and cultural/global malaise.

[Note: I got the order these three stories were written in wrong. “Myths of the Near Future” was actually written first. See David Pringle’s comment below.]

All three of these early 80s stories are set in the now-unpopulated areas around an abandoned Cape Kennedy, years after the cessation of the US Space Programme. In all three a space-sickness, identified in some way with our venturing outside the Earth’s atmosphere, has taken grip on the world’s population, its symptoms consisting of an ever-increasing retreat from the world and an altered perception of time, which are in many ways reminiscent of the “supersaturation of time” portrayed in Ballard’s most hallucinogenic disaster novel, The Crystal World.

Ambit #87

In News from the Sun (first published in Ambit #87 in Autumn 1981), people are falling into a series of ever-lengthening “fugues”, mental absences during which they simply stop mid-action, coming back to consciousness minutes or hours later. Once started, these fugues increase daily to the point of total retreat from waking life. The protagonist, Robert Franklin, is a former NASA physician now caring for space-sickness patients in the environs of a derelict Cape Kennedy, while staving off his own increasing fugues. One of his patients is Trippett, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, whose daughter visits every day, urging Franklin to drive her father around at dangerous speeds (and anything over 10mph is dangerous, given that Franklin could fugue at any moment), in the belief it will counter the sickness. Trippet, on the verge of a fugue, seems to see the desert landscape around the space station full of lush vegetation.

The one man who’s managed to stave off the sickness is Slade, a former air-pilot. Frustrated in his desire to walk on the moon by having been declared (by Franklin) unfit for space travel, Slade engages in a whirlwind of semi-artistic activity including the assembly of “shrines” of seemingly unrelated objects, the building of an airport made of wood, and flying a man-powered aircraft rather too low over Franklin, while wearing nothing but a pair of aviator’s goggles. All this, Slade claims, is part of his own “space programme” (in the same way the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists were all trying to enact their own version of World War III, or some other disaster).

Interzone #2

In Memories of the Space Age (first published in Interzone #2 in Summer 1982), the space-sickness is a subjective slowing of time, leaving people paused in (as they perceive it) a single moment, only to emerge hours later back into the consensus timeline. The protagonist is, again, an ex-NASA physician, Edward Mallory, who has returned with his wife to live in an empty hotel near the now-abandoned Cape Kennedy. This time, there are two characters flying their self-powered aircraft dangerously low over the protagonist’s head. The first is Gale Shepley, who calls herself Nightingale — “a punk madonna of the airways”, as Ballard puts it — the daughter of the first astronaut to be murdered in space. The other is Hinton, her father’s murderer, whose pet impossible/conceptual project is to achieve wingless flight, which he’s attempting to do by piloting a series of ever more primitive flying machines.

F&SF Oct 1982

In Myths of the Near Future (published in F&SF in October 1982), the space-sickness is less well defined, starting with a vague reluctance to go out of doors and an increasing sensitivity to sunlight, followed by a “taste for wayward and compulsive hobbies”, until finally — almost comically, in all but Ballard’s hands — “the victims became convinced they had once been astronauts”. (This detail underlines how so many aspects of these three stories are interchangeable, including the titles. With its false-astronaut memories, Myths could so easily have been called Memories of the Space Age; equally, with a line like “he felt that the entire human race was beginning its embarkation, preparing to repatriate itself to the sun”, it could just as appropriately have been called News from the Sun — and vice versa with the other two stories.)

The protagonist this time is Roger Sheppard, an “outwardly cool architect who concealed what was in fact a powerful empathy for other people’s psychological ills”. He has come to an overgrown and abandoned Cape Kennedy to find out if his ex-wife, a sufferer of the space-sickness, is dead. This time, though, it’s Sheppard who does the buzzing with a low-flying aircraft, and his victim is a young neurosurgeon, Philip Martinsen, who was/is caring for Sheppard’s ex-wife.

Paladin PB, art by Chris Moore

Summing up the similarities between these three stories — even worse, listing all the resonances they set up with Ballard’s previous fiction — would be the work of a not insubstantial thesis. For me, the standouts, as already mentioned, are The Atrocity Exhibition and The Crystal World, whose crystal-forming time-dilation effect these three stories seem to be moving towards, particularly the third, Myths, where Cape Kennedy, rather than being a desert as in the first two stories, is overgrown with lush forest, and Ballard’s descriptions of various light effects approach the hallucinogenic vibrancy of that earlier novel’s prose. (And produce similar images. For instance, in Myths we have: “a large alligator basked contentedly in a glow of self-generated light, smiling to itself as its golden jaws nuzzled its past and future selves.” While in The Crystal World, there’s: “Invested by the glittering light that poured from its body, the crocodile resembled a fabulous armorial beast. Its blind eyes had been transformed into immense crystalline rubies…”)

(As another aside, I did find myself wondering, having since finally read Ballard’s keystone work Empire of the Sun, how much his more visionary and hallucinogenic passages evoke young Jim’s hunger- and fever-driven fugues as he wanders war-torn Shanghai, rather than LSD, as everyone assumed when The Crystal World came out. Certainly, these three stories are full of the sort of Ballardian imagery that would come together in Empire — drained swimming pools, abandoned motels, low-flying aircraft, not to mention the frequently emaciated and hallucinating protagonists. A particularly resonant quote, from Memories: “Cape Kennedy was even more sinister than he had expected, like some ancient death camp.”)

1984 Paladin PB, art by James Marsh

The most significant Ballardian trope in these three stories, for me, is the presence in each of what I might call a Vaughan-like character (to use the name of the instigator of Crash’s car-crash re-enactments). Here, he’s an ex-aviator or ex-astronaut, driven to create his own conceptual version of the space-programme, often trying to enlist the protagonist in some way as a means of saving him from the space-sickness while, all too frequently, also attempting to kill him. (Again, echoes of Empire of the Sun, in young Jim’s uneasy relationship with the American Basie, who takes the boy under his wing, but is just as ready to hand him over to the occupying forces or leave him to die, at a moment’s notice. Ballard is an authentic creator of rogues in the literary tradition of Long John Silver.) This Vaughan-like character always has some unspecified link to the protagonist’s wife, or she’s in some way drawn to him. It might be a former affair, or it might be pure fascination. Either way, the wife abandons the protagonist for this rival: the muse belongs to the artist, however crack-brained he is.

Reading these three so similar tales together, I got the feeling Ballard was fine-tuning his imaginative engine, delicately adjusting the weighting of each of his stock characters, images, and situations, finding the balance point that would allow the whole thing, as it were, to fly.

Arkham House HB

And something does seem to have clicked. News from the Sun and Memories of the Space Age both spend more time establishing the space-sickness as a real-feeling (even if magical-realist) phenomenon, and end with their protagonist sinking into a final fugue, with the stated hope that this would lead, in some way, to a new sense of inner fulfilment. (Though, to me, it always sounded far more like a euphemism for death.) But in the third story, Myths of the Near Future, it feels we’re dealing with a more developed form of this mutating narrative. For a start, Ballard seems impatient to get the establishment of the space-sickness over with, and is less interested in making it seem like a real thing (however weird), than just having it there, in place, ready for the next stage of this particular myth to play out. Significantly, he shifts the balance between his protagonist and the Vaughan-like rival. Now it’s the protagonist, Sheppard, who’s doing the menacing low-flying, while the rival figure is no longer an elder or peer, but a young neurosurgeon. It’s like we’re now seeing the same story from another perspective — a madder, but also perhaps more vital and artistic one. Whereas the first two stories move towards the protagonist’s loss of his wife both to the space-sickness and to the Vaughan-like character, Myths starts with the protagonist already having lost his wife — both to divorce and the space sickness — and setting out to recover her.

Myths ends with a far more genuine sense of fulfilment, however otherworldly it must be when combined with the ongoing symptoms of the space-sickness. By the end, the four main Ballardian archetypes that populate this loose trilogy fall into a sort of unity, as though about to adopt a peculiar four-way marriage: the now Vaughan-like protagonist, the young neurosurgeon, the protagonist’s no-longer-dead wife, and the young woman psychologist Anne Godwin (whose role was played by the astronauts’ daughters Ursula in News and the “Nightingale” from Memories). What’s more, Myths’ landscape isn’t the arid desert of the earlier two tales, but a place of lush, often glowing forest — “a world nourished by time”, as Ballard has it.

Of course, the fulfilment is of a distinctly Ballardian type, filled with strange light and a new relationship with time, but at least it doesn’t, this third time, feel so much like a hand-waving euphemism for death.

1982 Jonathan Cape PB, art by Bill Botten

What’s going on here? What space-sickness is Ballard himself afflicted by? It’s tempting to take his own advice from Myths of the Near Future: “It was always best to take the mad on their own terms.” In the same tale, regarding his suitcase containing a Terminal Documents-like collection of oddly-assorted objects (“film strips, chronograms and pornographic photos, the Magritte reproduction”), Sheppard says: “I’m trying to construct a metaphor to bring my wife back to life.” Which has a raw biographical resonance in the confrontation with Ballard’s own wife’s death that lay behind so much of The Atrocity Exhibition. Though, it can be hard to tell, with Ballard. Grief and loss aren’t emotions that ever seem to be foregrounded in his fiction — perhaps, however, that’s because they’re so much part of his world at an almost molecular level, they can’t be felt as something separable. Myths, or either of the other two stories, could be read as a post-grief phantasmagoria from start to finish.

Art by Tom Breuer

Another thing these stories address is Ballard’s feelings about the Space Programme. The space-sickness is at first presented as a punishment for daring to fly so high: “By leaving his planet and setting off into outer space man had committed an evolutionary crime.” — which, to me, recalls C S Lewis’s idea in his Space Trilogy that man shouldn’t leave Earth because his Creator said so, something I can’t imagine the futurophilic (and atheistic) Ballard would chime with. Another take on the cause for the space sickness, from Memories, is that “by travelling into space… [mankind] was tampering with the elements of his own consciousness.” So, is Ballard saying we just don’t have the psychological resources to deal with the vast void of the heavens, and the disappointing barrenness of its heavenly bodies?

In Myths, though, there’s a slightly more positive idea: it isn’t that we’re not meant to go into space, rather that it needs to be appreciated for the immense leap it is, analogous to the moment our fish-like ancestors crawled out of the sea onto the land, and not simply a moment of media spectacle:

“Could it be that travelling into outer space, even thinking about and watching it on television, was a forced evolutionary step with unforeseen consequences, the eating of a very special kind of forbidden fruit?”

(To which I just have to add this far more eloquent image of our psychological and technological poverty when it comes to facing up to the challenge of entering the void, in News from the Sun: “the rusting dish of a radio-telescope on a nearby peak, a poor man’s begging bowl held up to the banquet of the universe.”)

In a 1979 interview (in fact, a chat with his friend, the psychologist and computer scientist Dr Chris Evans), Ballard had this to say:

“…we’re at the climactic end of one huge age of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which lasted for about two hundred years. We’re also at the beginning of a second, possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to artificial muscles… Now it’s my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps, recognise… that the space programme and the conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to the past instead of the future. Don’t misunderstand me — it was a magnificent achievement to put man on the moon, but it was essentially nuts-and-bolts technology…”

I can’t help feeling that these three longish stories somehow resolved — or began to — the fragmented trauma captured in The Atrocity Exhibition over a decade before, and by doing so, perhaps, opened the way for Ballard to more clearly address the true root of it all, his formative childhood experiences in wartime Shanghai that in so many ways provide the skeleton key for understanding where the many obsessive images in his fiction come from. Despite being utterly magical-realist and surreal in imagery, these three stories are some of the purest pre-echoes of the world presented in Ballard’s most-read novel; and they could be seen as a summing up, and tying together, of so many Ballardian obsessions before he moved on to addressing a deeper, perhaps purer, version of the same thing in Empire of the Sun.

Comments (10)

  1. Stephen says:

    This reminds me of an episode in Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The leader of the Overlords who have colonized Earth explains to a group of reporters why humankind has been forbidden space travel. Basically, it would be too much for us as a species, too overwhelming. An astonishing idea to consider from somebody like Clarke, who was so gung-ho for space exploration. I’ve always thought this was a rather underexplored concept in SF, especially since we now know how deleterious a weightless environment is on the human organism. Understandable I suppose, like starting with the assumption that we are alone in the universe, it limits your narrative choices considerably.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting strain in Clarke’s writing. It’s not really anti-space, or anti-science, but a sort of moment of humility, perhaps.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Your review had echoes of a Ballard short story I read last year, but the details weren’t quite right. Then I discovered Cape Canaveral – the setting for Cage of Sand – was called Cape Kennedy from 1963 to 1973 (Cage of Sand was written in ’62). I read it shortly after delving into a massive omnibus of Aldiss stories and being somewhat underwhelmed by them, to the extent that I wondered if I’d over-rated him. Cage of Sand restored my faith though, and is well worth checking out, even it basically explores very similar themes to those you describe in the trilogy above.

    1. Murray Ewing says:

      I saw Centipede had A Voyage to Arcturus on their future releases list (2024? 2025?), but didn’t know about the illustrator. Thanks for those links, E.S. The illos look great. Nice 1950s/early 60s feel to them, and quite dynamic. A much needed addition, as I feel Lindsay is an under-illustrated writer.

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Apologies – re the omnibus: I obviously meant Ballard and not Aldiss!

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    I did realise you meant Ballard, Aonghus! I’ve recently finished working my way through the whole 2-volume Complete Stories (which is incomplete!). I know that I’ve read the Cage of Sand, but even a quick glimpse through it didn’t remind me of the plot. That’s one of the troubles with reading Ballard stories, some of the less “big idea” stories blend together a bit. (I wonder if reading Ballard’s Complete Stories isn’t a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. Once you’ve finished it, it’s time to start at the beginning again!)

    1. Aonghus Fallon says:

      Plus – like you say – some of the stories are basically itirations or later versions of other stories.

      Be interesting to have an anthology in which each story represents the best example of some particular Ballard trope – e.g. just one story set on a space station, just one story in which the world metamorphoses etc, etc.

  6. David Pringle says:

    Not a bad piece, but I’m afraid you’ve got the order in which those three stories were written wrong. “Myths of the Near Future” was actually the first-written. It was announced as “The Neuro-Surgeon’s Tale” and due to be published in Emma Tennant’s series of ring-bound booklets, Next Editions, in 1980 or 1981. However, that never appeared, as the series was cancelled by its publishers after just a couple of the booklets (by Angela Carter and Claud Cockburn) had appeared. Ballard then sold the story, retitled “Myths of the Near Future,” to F&SF in America, where it eventually appeared in the autumn of 1982.

  7. Murray Ewing says:

    Ah, thanks for that, David. I suppose that underlines the perils of trying to fit imaginative fiction into some sort of neatly ordered scheme!

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