Sirius by Olaf Stapledon

1972 Penguin PB, art by David Pelham

First published in 1944, Sirius shares a lot, in its themes, with the previous decade’s Odd John — Stapledon even referred to it as “my ‘Odd Dog’ novel’” — but with the crucial difference that, whereas John is a human who far exceeds normal human levels of intelligence, Sirius is a dog raised to (high, but normal) human-level intelligence. So, he isn’t going to be creating any super-scientific technologies or casually getting rich through ultra-shrewd investments. And the limitations placed upon him by his body (his lack of hands), and the equally debilitating limits that come from living in a society where he, as an animal, has no rights, and where he’s even more likely than Odd John to be regarded as freakish and unnatural, are brought that much more to the fore.

(At a number of points, the tone of the book reminded me of William Horwood’s novel Skallagrigg, whose two main characters have cerebral palsy, and have to deal with both their own less-able bodies and being treated as inferior to other human beings. Stapledon’s novel could easily be read, metaphorically, as being about physical disability.)

1979 Penguin PB, art by Adrian Chesterman

Before he’s born, the puppy Sirius is injected with hormones to promote the growth of his brain. He’s not the only dog to be treated, but the others either only develop remarkable-for-dogs but less-than-human intelligence (they can’t talk, for instance), or die young. A crucial part of Sirius’s story, though, is that his creator, the physiologist Thomas Trelone, decides to raise this dog within his own family, as much like one more human child as possible. Trelone’s wife, Elizabeth, has just given birth to a daughter, Plaxy, so the two are raised as, in effect, siblings, and develop an almost twin-like intimacy, with little wordless calls they use as their own private language, and so on.

It’s not long, though, before Sirius becomes aware of his limitations. Having no hands, he’s stymied in what he can do — and, thus, is also limited in how he can use his intelligence to explore the world as his foster-sister does. His eyesight is poor, too (he’s also completely colourblind), though his far superior sense of smell gives him access to an entirely new perspective on the world than his human family possess.

1944 HB from Secker and Warburg

Trelone has plans for his canine prodigy. After as much of a human-level education as he can get (Sirius can’t go to school, and Plaxy soon tires of passing on the lessons she’s learned every time she gets home), he’ll be sent to a nearby farm to gain some experience as a sheepdog. After this, he’s to come to Cambridge and be more thoroughly tested in the lab, while working to devote himself to the field Trelone thinks will be most suited to him, animal psychology.

Sirius suffers the first two stages as much as he can — working on the farm, he has to pretend to be just one more smarter-than-average dog who can’t speak — but after a while at Cambridge he begins to develop his own ideas. One such impulse comes from moments in which he has felt a wider, and bleaker, sense of his place in a vast, indifferent universe:

“Sometimes when Sirius was out on the hills alone in the winter dawn, examining the condition of the snow and looking for sheep in distress, the desolation of the scene would strike him with a shivering dread of existence. The universal carpet of snow, the mist of drifting flakes, the miserable dark sheep, pawing for food, the frozen breath on his own jaws, combined to make him feel that after all this was what the world was really like; that the warm fireside and friendly talk at Garth were just a rare accident…”

Stapledon cites McCulloch’s book as a source for Sirius

This prompts him to want more than Trelone’s purely scientific education, and he starts to ask about religion. He’s sent to spend some time with a cousin of Trelone’s wife, a priest who works among the poor around London’s docks. Sirius soon realises he needs to find his own mix of these two approaches to life, the religious and the scientific, and settles on that very Stapledonian word “spirit”, which crops up in the future histories Last and First Men and Star Maker, meaning that sense of a thing that transcends the merely physical circumstances of life, yet, unlike religious ideas of a soul, comes with no guarantees or guidelines. Whatever it is, it’s still evolving, and needs work. Like those future races Stapledon wrote about in his first novel, Sirius finds “in fate’s very indifference… a certain exhilaration” — a challenge to create his own meaning, rather than the despair of meaninglessness. By the end of the novel, the dog has come to embody Stapledon’s ideal of how to live as an intelligent being in the modern world:

[Plaxy] saw that Sirius, in spite of his uniqueness, epitomized in his whole life and in his death something universal, something that is common to all awakening spirits on earth, and in the farthest galaxies. For the music’s darkness was lit up by a brilliance which Sirius had called ‘colour,’ the glory that he himself, he said, had never seen. But this, surely, was the glory that no spirits, canine or human, had ever clearly seen, the light that never was on land or sea, and yet is glimpsed by the quickened mind everywhere.”

As the novel enters its final quarter, it returns to a theme from Sirius’s early life, the close relationship with his human foster-sister Plaxy. The two have grown apart, tortured by the differences between them, yet always drawn back to the unity they call “Sirius-Plaxy”. It’s here the novel presents its most challenging aspect, as Stapledon takes their relationship into a physical intimacy which, although strongly implied in the published text, was apparently more forthright still in the draft he first submitted.

2011 Orion PB, art by Cliff Nielsen

I have to admit it’s this part that comes close to breaking the book’s spell, for me. Stapledon heads into this sexual territory as though it were the natural, even only, next stage in the couple’s relationship, when it should surely be possible that the two would feel absolutely no sexual pull towards one another, being of different species. And if that weren’t enough, there would surely be the incest taboo of their having been raised as siblings. It feels, though, that this is an area Stapledon is intent on exploring — not for its salacious aspects, which aren’t dwelled upon, but as it allows him to philosophise on love, and how it can thrive on difference:

[Plaxy:] “We are bound to hurt one another so much, again and again. We are so terribly different.”

[Sirius:] “Yes… But the more different, the more lovely the loving.”

For Stapledon, the key point is “the fundamental identity-in-diversity of all spirits”. And this is needed to combat Sirius’s alienation:

“There is no place for me in man’s world, and there is no other world for me. There is no place for me anywhere in the universe.”

To which Plaxy counters:

“I’m your home, your footing in the world.”

(There is, apparently, another thing that could have driven Stapledon to have this novel contain a forbidden love-relationship. In his biography of Stapledon, Robert Crossley says that parts of the book were inspired by an affair Stapledon had around this time.)

Cartoon of Stapledon from The Daily Herald

The book received a good amount of attention on its release. The Times Literary Supplement named it their “Novel of the Week”. The Western Mail’s H M Dowling brought in comparisons with Swift, Shelley (Percy Bysshe, though those with Mary are there, too), and Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert Lynd of The Daily News was less impressed:

“The book, repellant as the exhibitions of freak sideshows in old fair grounds, is written in the semi-scientific language of a work of popular psychology and in this, perhaps, Mr. Stapledon sins against more than the dignity of science.”

While L P Hartley, in The Sketch, was mixed. For him, “As an allegory of the spirit, tormented in the search for a fulfilment it cannot find, and of the individual persecuted by the mob, there is much to be said for this book.” Yet, “The physical aspects and embarrassments of Sirius’s peculiar make-up are ruthlessly insisted upon, with a complete—indeed, with a positive and challenging—lack of humour.” Ultimately, for him, Stapledon “fails because he cannot effect a unity between fantasy and realism.”

I think Sirius is the most accessible of Stalpedon’s novels yet. It contains the same themes — of the spirit in a constant struggle against an indifferent fate, and exalting in the challenge of life even though it knows it must fail — as his earlier novels, but couched in, oddly enough, far more humanly-relatable characters. Stapledon’s long-distance view and challenging moral stance is still here, to some extent, but so are thoughts about love, loyalty, family, and the business of making a living, which didn’t feature in the future histories. Its ultimate message — “the most valuable social relationships were those between minds as different from one another as possible yet capable of mutual sympathy” — might have been brought out by the war that was raging as the book was written, but it remains a valid idea to this day, just as Sirius remains a readable book.


Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Gollancz edition, art by Dominic Harman.

Following on from Rendezvous with Rama and Solaris, next up in my sporadic reading of SF that deals with the cosmic weird is the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (coincidentally — or not — another book adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky). First published in the Russian literary magazine Avrova in 1972, then in book form after a five-year delay (the brothers became somewhat frowned upon by the Communist authorities), it first came out in English in 1977, translated by A W Bouis. I read the 2012 translation by Olena Bormashenko (you can read an interview with her here).

The novel is divided into four chapters, dipping into the life of Redrick Schuhart, or “Red” as he’s known, between the ages of 23 and 31. Red is a Stalker, one of a small group of “desperate young men who, despite the grave risks, sneak into the Zone and smuggle out whatever they find”. What, then, is “the Zone”?

Six of these mysteriously transformed areas appeared, suddenly, after an incident known simply as “the Visit”, during which it’s assumed aliens briefly landed on Earth. (It was later calculated, from the path the scattered Zones describe across the surface of the Earth, that they originated from the star Deneb in Cygnus.)

Pocket Books 1978 edition, art by Alan Magee

The Zones’ weirdness is never fully catalogued or even remotely explained. Everything about them seems to defy human understanding of the physical universe. There are, for instance, pockets of sudden, intense gravity (known as “bug traps” to the Stalkers, “graviconcentrate” to the scientists), stepping into which will immediately crush you flat. There are similar areas of intense, blistering heat. A substance the Stalkers call “hell slime” (a “colloidal gas” to the scientists) turns anything that touches it into a similar slime. A voyage of just a few hundred steps into the Zone, then, is fraught with mortal danger, and a need to be constantly ready for something new, deadly, and unexplainable at any moment. The authorities, naturally, stop people from entering, so Stalkers go in at night.

Why go in at all? The Zone is littered with objects of immense value — alien artefacts that scientists are still struggling to understand, but which the black market has found uses (and prices) for. “Spacells”, for instance, are inexhaustible batteries. “Black sparks” are used in jewellery for their property of absorbing light then emitting it in modified form. There’s a bracelet that seems to promote health, and a substance called “blue panacea”. There are also highly dangerous items such as the “death lamp”, which emits a deadly ray (and whose current whereabouts are unknown, along with the Stalker who found it). Other objects are simply mysterious, though are studied at length by scientists. For instance, the numerous “empties”, which are pairs of saucer-sized copper-coloured disks that remain paired together, with a constant 18-inch gap between them, yet no physical connection. In an echo of Lem’s Solaris, numerous papers have been written about these things without anyone coming any closer to understanding how they work, or what they’re for.

The weirdness of the Zones (though we only see one, in the town of Harmont, in an unspecified country) isn’t, though, the focus of the tale. Rather, Roadside Picnic (whose name draws an analogy between the alien detritus of the Zones and what human visitors to a forest might leave behind after a picnic), centres on the lives of people trying to make a living from it. To the Stalkers, the Zone is both a “treasure trove” and “an evil temptation” — “The damned hag. My lifeblood,” as Red says — a place that draws them with the promise of much-needed gains, while ruining them both psychologically and physically. The constant mortal danger, for instance, instils an ingrained cynicism about their own and others’ lives. (Do you rescue a fellow Stalker when he loses his legs to hell slime, or leave him, perhaps even give him a quick death?) And if they do escape, they’re at constant risk of discovery by the authorities; all of them have spent time in jail. There are weirder effects, too. Red, for instance, has had several moments in the Zone when his perceptions become preternaturally, almost painfully, acute. These moments seem to be leaking into his outside-the-Zone life, too, like LSD flashbacks. And then there are the children. Although the Zone is not radioactive, Stalkers’ children tend to have mutations. Red’s daughter is known as the Monkey for her pelt of silky fur. Another Stalker’s daughter is exceptionally beautiful, yet resembles neither of her parents.

As the Stalkers’ dealings with the Zone are on a practical level — how to survive, what to retrieve, how to sell it on afterwards — none of them really pause to think about the deeper implications. That aspect — the more cosmically weird aspect — only gets brought up once, in a conversation with a scientist, Dr Valentine Pillman, to whom the most profound fact about the Zones is their mere existence. They tell us, he says, that we are not alone in the universe, and this single fact outweighs everything else about them. That said, he’s aware that what’s found in the Zones “could potentially allow us to skip a few rungs in the ladder of progress”, if only any of it could be even remotely understood. The current state of Zone-related studies, though, is just a series of “miraculously received answers to questions we don’t yet know how to pose”. (Pillman has the best line in the book, when he speaks of the possible world they might live in if all of the Zones’ mysteries were unleashed: a “time of cruel miracles”.)

So, if Roadside Picnic isn’t explicitly about the weirdness of the universe that’s implied by the Zones, what is it about? One obvious possibility, considering it was written and published in the USSR, is that it’s a criticism of capitalism, in the way the semi-miraculous weirdness of the Zone is immediately exploited in every possible way by these (evidently Western) humans — and, of course, the way this exploitation leads to a moral and spiritual decay in the exploiters. But equally, I wondered if the novel wasn’t a highly-veiled satire on living in a totalitarian state, in the way it presents ordinary human beings doing their best to make a living in the face of this incomprehensible but powerful thing, which operates under no stable set of rules and can issue instant death without a moment’s notice.

The best take I found on the novel, though, came from Theodore Sturgeon, who emphasised the positive moral qualities brought out in the book (the full article is here):

“Add the Strugatskys’ deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness, and you have a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly in what can only be called a blessing. You won’t forget it. ”

The ultimate prize to be found in the Zone is the Golden Sphere, a rumoured object said to be able to grant any wish. It sounds like pure fantasy, but none of the Stalkers question it, and in the final chapter Red sets out to find it. But if the Golden Sphere is the Holy Grail, and the Stalkers the flawed knights that seek it, Red is no pure-souled Galahad. Yet, however cynical and bitter he thinks he’s become, the mere proximity of this ultimate magical object brings out, from some long-dormant depth, a benevolence for all humankind that surprises even himself. And, in a way, this may be the best thing this Holy Grail has to offer him: if it can’t set the entire world magically to rights, the mere possibility of its existence might, nevertheless, restore his deeper humanity.

1979 Penguin edition, art by Adrian Chesterman

Areas of weirdness like the Zone have popped up in this blog before. Ballard’s ever-spreading area of “time dilation” in The Crystal World, for instance. William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land could be seen as a sort of inverted zone-of-weirdness, in that its weirdness covers all the world except the one, final island of human normality in the Great Redoubt. Ryhope Wood from the Mythago Wood books is a fantasy zone-of-weirdness, with its own version of “cruel miracles”. The earliest example I can think of is in Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” (the Strugatskys’ Zones have odd colour effects, too), while a more modern take is in Annihilation, based on Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (which I’ve not read).

Reading Roadside Picnic, I felt sure John Clute must have covered Zones, as a category, in the Encyclopedia of SF. And yes, they’re there — and, as a bonus, they’re not even given the wildly unexplanatory sort of nomenclature he so often uses (“Polder”, “Braid”, etc.). I guess Zones are just too strange, and primal, to be given any other name than “Zone”.

Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker was based on his pick of a number of scenarios the Strugatskys suggested, based on their book. It reduces the novel to its simplest element: a journey into the Zone, in search of the central room where wishes come true. The fact that the Stalker leads two men, known only as the Writer (a cynic, to whom the world is “hopelessly boring… ruled by cast iron laws” with no room for miracles or wonders) and the Professor (a physicist, who, it turns out, sees the wish-fulfilling room as a potential creator of would-be-tyrants and world-dictators), made me at first think it was going to be about bringing the “two cultures”, science and art, before a source of mystery and awe. But by the end it’s apparent the actual dichotomy is between these two — who are both intellectuals — and the Stalker himself, a much more innocent and instinctual man, who leads people to the wish-fulfilling room but feels no need to partake of its wonders himself. If this film is about art then the Stalker, not the Writer, is the artist, leading people to the vision, the wonder, and letting them decide how to see it, what to do with it. (He believes the dangers of the Zone aren’t there to ensure only the “good” or the “bad” reach the room, but those “who have lost all hope… the wretched.” The essential survival qualities, for him, are “pliancy” and “weakness”.)

It feels rather like a science fictional version of Waiting for Godot, with an ending almost opposite to the Strugatskys’ burst of hope. Here, the Stalker, who is driven by faith in humanity and a basic sense of wonder, feels worn down by the cynicism of those he takes into the Zone. Nevertheless, he’s drawn back to guiding people into the Zone, for, as his wife says: “It’s better to have a bitter happiness than a dull, grey life.”


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.