Book Review by Bill Ectric
D. Harlan Wilson has made a literary mark in the field of cultural theory, focusing on the loss of humanity in the inescapable rush of accelerating technology, with books like Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction and Cultographies: They Live. While his fiction tends to be disorienting (a trait his fans enjoy), his non-fiction has the clarity and delivery of a seasoned educator, as in his most recent study of the life and work of J.G. Ballard.
Ballard was a vital force in the British New Wave of science fiction whose novels and stories inspired the cyberpunk subgenre, but he is most famous for writing Empire of the Sun (1984) and Crash (1973), both of which became movies, directed by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg respectively. D. Harlan Wilson makes a convincing case that even Empire of Sun contains elements of science fiction.
Wilson writes brisk, lucid text that flows like quicksilver. Clearly respectful of Ballard as an author and a man, his new book analyzes Ballard’s singular style, dystopian themes, and sometimes disturbing plots in a relatively simple, but smart, well organized, and skillfully researched masterwork.
Wilson describes how Ballard was less interested in flying saucers, aliens, and outer space than he was in the inner space of our minds, as we become the future, with relentless input from the internet, television, radio, billboards, working and playing inside mega-malls, gated communities, and high-rise apartments. We are the cyborgs, perceiving reality as dictated to us by the very media we covet. Ballard explores how these conditions affect the evolution of life, society, sex, and death. His influences included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transgressive experimental “Beat” writer William S. Burroughs, and media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the Internet 30 years before it existed. Wilson demonstrates, with fascinating examples, how the landscapes and cities in Ballard’s novels are often extensions or reflections of his character’s mindscapes.
Critics have complained about the violence in some of Ballard’s books. Wilson says, “Ballard didn’t want to see it happen in the real world” and quotes Ballard’s explanation that “notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressure of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes.”
In 1924, Andre Breton described Surrealism as thought or art created in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. This launched an array of weird, dreamlike paintings and theater. But on a darker note, Breton also said that the ultimate surrealist act would be “to go out into the street and fire a revolver at random into the crowd.” Chillingly, we recall Donald Trump’s words on the campaign trail in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible.” As Ballard said way back in 1971, “Everything is becoming science fiction.”
If you are new to Ballard, this book is a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the man’s work, you will appreciate what Jonathan Lethem calls “a new comprehensive standard.”