Monday 26 June 2017

A Comparative Analysis of the Works of J.G. Ballard and Philip.K. Dick from an Anglo-American Perspective

Differences Between Their Work             

      There are major differences between the work of J.G. Ballard and Philip.K. Dick however, despite their explorations of, and obsessions with, similar themes.  In the fifties Ballard was working at a time when the British Empire had virtually collapsed, while Dick was working in an America which was the dominant superpower that was paranoid about the encroachment of communism.  And in science fiction terms, both countries had seen the development of the atom bomb, concentration camps, and the effects of a mechanical war upon fragile humanity.

Indeed, Dick and Ballard’s work do seem to reflect these cultural influences.  Ballard’s early novels were, like the very successful SF novels of his fellow Englishman John Wyndham (for example, The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes) catastrophe novels.  Brian Aldiss says, “It was the British writers - less preoccupied with aliens than their American counterparts - who specialised in Wyndham-esque catastrophes.” (Aldiss, 1973, p294).  It is likely that the English’s predilection for SF disaster novels came from an anxiety about the future - where once England had been the centre of an Empire, within decades it had lost its Empire, had many of its cities bombed to rubble, and even in the fifties was subject to rationing and the realisation that its place in the world had at last been taken over by the USA. 

Indeed, as well as Wyndham there was Christopher Priest (eg Fugue for a Darkening Island), Robert Bateman (eg When the Whites Left), and John Christopher who, like Wyndham and Ballard, wrote many “disaster” novels, such as The Death of Grass, The Year of the Comet and The World in Winter.    

       Dick’s work also reflects aspects of his culture at the time, even though, as science fiction, it is different to Ballard’s catastrophe novels.  Here, there isn’t an awareness that the established order has gone, rather there is a feeling that there is an established order, but it is under threat, resulting in an overwhelming sense of paranoia.

Where “reds were under the bed”, and anyone could be a communist subversive (these were the days of McCarthyism after all, and Dick himself had experience of having his mail intercepted, and of being asked by the FBI to spy on possible communists at his second-wife’s university) (Sutin, 1991), the American SF writers concerned themselves with insidious invasions, the most obvious example being The Body Snatchers .  But there were numerous examples of murderous aliens masquerading as “decent” folk - Alan Nourse’s Counterfeit and Nightmare Brother among them. 

Dick however, perhaps further spurred on by his own mental problems, plundered the theme obsessively.  In “Imposter”, he tells the story of a man who is wrongly arrested because the army has heard that he was to be replaced by an exploding alien robot with false memories.  The man (Spence Olham) spends the rest of the story evading his pursuers and thinking of how he can prove he is human, of why the robot didn’t reach him.  Eventually he finds the alien ship and points to the figure of the damaged robot next to it.  He relaxes.........until one of the soldiers realises that the damaged robot is actually a human being.  It is then that Olham realises that he must be the robot, and with this realisation a circuit is completed and he explodes.

Dick once said that “the ultimate in paranoia is not “my boss is plotting against me” but “my boss’ phone is plotting against me” (Sutin, 1991, pp74-75), and the nearest he came to this premise was another 50s short story called “Colony”.  In this story a group of explorers land on a new planet, but are stunned to find themselves being attacked by their towels, their belts, and other everyday items.  Eventually, they realise that they are at the mercy of an alien race that can change its shape into anything, so they can therefore trust nothing.  Thus, they decide to await the arrival of the rescue ship stark naked.  When it arrives, they happily march up its gang-plank to get inside and away from the aliens.  Hours later, however, the real rescue-ship lands and wonders where all the explorers are.........

However, while using a theme that was very much a result of America’s Cold War anxiety (in “Imposter” Olham says that the war with the aliens was like “the sword of Damocles.  Always hanging over us” (Dick, 1987, p379)), Dick shows his unconventional nature by defying the genre rule that the human had to be good, and the alien had to be bad.  In “Human Is” a woman is horrified to find that her malicious husband has been taken over by an alien.  However, she soon finds out that the alien is sensitive and considerate, and falls in love with her “husband” all over again and decides to give their “marriage” a second chance.

Even though there is a consistent set of themes in Dick’s work (the examination of the questions “what is real?” and “what is human?”) there isn’t the consistent use of symbolism that one finds in Ballard’s work.  David Pringle has said that there are four elements which constitute what is known as the “Ballardian landscape” - Water, Sand, Concrete and Crystal (Pringle, in V/Search, 1984, pp127-137).  Water is generally symbolic of the past, both for individuals (the womb), and life in general (the primeval seas which birthed the biological soup from which all living things rose).  In his fiction landscape is generally representative of a state of mind, so that, his “water” stories (The Drowned World, “Now Wakes the Sea”, and “Prisoners of the Coral Deep” amongst others) are “explorations of that unspoken desire to return to the past which persists in the human mind, the wish to revert to a state of preconsciousness) (V/Search, 1984, p.129).  The element of sand (used in The Drought, Vermilion Sands, “The Cage of Sand”, and “The Day of Forever”, amongst others) is used to symbolise the future (specifically the psychological future of Mankind), where humans have removed themselves further and further from their psychological roots, and become increasingly “intellectualised”, sterile and isolated.  The third symbol that used to represent the present is that of concrete.  Thus stories and novels predominantly using this symbol (Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise, The Atrocity Exhibition, “Chronopolis” etc), are dominated by motorways, tower-blocks and television, objects that Man has created which he now finds himself claustrophobically trapped within.  And, as he created these things, they are psychoanalysable and representative of Man’s unconscious; he thus finds himself ultimately trapped within himself.  This enclosed, fragmented present leads to a kind of narcissism, where people are only aware of themselves and their own perverse pleasures.   There is a fourth symbolic “element” that is present in much of Ballard’s work, however, and this is the crystal, which symbolises the unchanging quality of eternity.  So when Ballard’s characters in The Crystal World choose to join the process of crystallisation that is slowly enveloping the world, they are choosing not to die, but be “embalmed in eternity......(and become) one with the universe (V/Search, 1984, p135).  Thus this eternity is presented as an almost spiritual alternative to the unconscious past, the arid future, and the claustrophobic present.

Dick’s lack of consistent symbolic language could be an Anglo-American difference. Ballard’s interest in the Surrealists (a predominantly European movement) has already been discussed, and the fact that much of his early work was published in New Worlds, an Arts Council-funded magazine that was trying to publish more experimental speculative fiction.  It is unlikely that the markets which Dick wrote his fiction for would have been happy with overly symbolic novels and stories. 

Thus, as the landscapes of Ballard’s novels tend to be symbolic of the mental states of the protagonists, one can generally generalise about the sort of characters in each type of book.  In his “concrete” novels, for example, the characters are generally self-obsessed, with strange obsessions or sexual perversions.  The other types of characters one finds in Ballard’s books are those typified by the characters in the Vermilion Sands collection.  They are distinctly European characters; Euro-trash movie-queens, poets and musicians - people one is likely to meet in the suburbs, but are eccentric, enigmatic and decadent.  There is also a third kind of character often present in Ballard’s work - a group where the characters are freer of the works’ symbolism, these people generally featuring in Ballard’s most SF of work (such as “Manhole 69”, “The Overloaded Man”, and “The Venus Hunters”), and so are more like the kinds of characters Dick wrote about during the 50s and early 60s.

However, where Ballard’s characters are usually middle-class and professional, Dick’s are almost always on the bottom of the heap, his “little-man against the Universe-type” almost becoming as recognisably Dickian as distorted realities and alternate worlds.  Brian Aldiss says:
“Most Dickian protagonists are captives, oppressed rather than oppressors, victims of a society too large and complex for them.........He is one of the masters of present-day discontents, in the grand tradition of despairers which runs through Swift and Huxley”  (Aldiss, 1973, p313).     

This “little man” character is present from Dick’s first published novel, Solar Lottery (where he wins the world lottery, the prize being to become President) to Dick’s later novels such as Valis, where Horselover Fat is a burned-out drug-case, yet he is still in some way tied to the Second Coming.  However, as the above examples show, this character changed over time.  During the fifties to the mid-sixties, these characters were generally small-businessmen who had fairly menial jobs.  However, in the later novels this character-type changed into the ultimate “little man” - hippies and drug-users, characters so unimportant that they don’t even have jobs, let alone menial ones.  Yet to Dick, they were important because it was these characters, not those in power, who were privy to some kind of universal truth.

While there is no consistent symbol-system present in Dick’s fiction, there are certain features of a “Dickian landscape” - everything is generally plastic, and manufactured, with a mass-marketed “fake” quality that automatically leads one to ask “who made this?” and “If they made it, why did they make it so badly?”  The detritus of everyday, modern living surrounds everything, even reproducing like living creatures, until an empty apartment, for example, would soon be full of paperclips, empty Coke cans, and McDonalds containers.  He called this trashy substance, “kipple”.   This seems to be very much part of Dick’s upbringing in America.  To the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Dick once wrote: -
            “There is no culture here in California, only trash.  And we who grew up here and live
            here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work.  How can  one write novels based on this reality which do not contain trash?  [...]  Hence the elements in such books of mine as Ubik.  If God manifested Himself to us, He would do so in the form of a spray can advertised on T.V.")      (Dick in Sutin, 1991, p200).

Dick saw the rural California he grew up in bulldozed and turned into petrol stations, cheap housing apartments and huge highway networks, and he saw American culture grow ever-more TV-obsessed and consumer-oriented as he grew up.  He regarded the society he was living in as “trashy” and all surface gloss with little depth, so it is unsurprising that one finds these elements in his work.  Where Ballard’s characters are often academics or artists, Dick’s are representative of the trashy pop-culture in which he lived.  Dick rarely used the same characters in different stories, but one of the characters who appears again and again in Dick’s work is, tellingly, the video-jockey clown, Jim Briskin.

There are also differences in their portrayals of women.  Ursula LeGuin criticised Dick’s women as being, “symbols - whether goddess, bitch, hag, witch - but (in the decade preceding Valis) there weren’t any women left, and there used to be women in his books” (Sutin, 1991, p276).  Dick was aware of this criticism, once saying that the great strength of SF was its flexibility (something that Ballard would agree with), but that its great weakness was its depiction of women and of real relationships with them, and after writing his only three-dimensional female character, Angel Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, he wrote to LeGuin, saying: “This is the happiest moment of my life, Ursula, to meet face-to-face this bright, scrappy, witty, educated, tender woman, (.....) and had it not been for your analysis of my writing I probably never would have discovered her” (Sutin, 1991, p277). 

That Dick’s portrayal of women should be regarded as unsatisfactory is due to a number of reasons, some to do with the genre of SF, some biographical.  Firstly, in 50s SF the status of the character’s relationships was simply not considered important.  Secondly, SF was still trying to shake off its 30s and 40s portrayal of women as nothing more than the love-interest for the square-jawed hero (who would inevitably end up being carried off by aliens).  Thus, Dick is only writing within genre conventions when he writes something like:
              “Well, I won’t tell anybody.  I’m as good as changed.”
               “You have already told someone,” the Old Man said coldly,
               “Me?”  Ed blinked.  “Who?”
                “Your wife.  Your wife knows.”  The Old Man’s face twisted angrily.  “A woman.  Of all the things to tell.” (Dick, Second Variety, 1987, p362).

Fay Weldon notes:
 "Many of his women characters are typical fifties women after men's money and sanity, and generally getting away with both.  But this was just a literary tradition of the time.  From a contemporary feminist viewpoint it isn't too admirable, but in human terms it's very interesting" (Weldon, 1996).

However even without these genre restrictions, Dick had personal problems relating to women, which also affected his writing.  Throughout his life he was trying to escape from his mother’s influence (their intense love-hate relationship is described in depth in Sutin’s biography of Dick, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick).  In addition, Dick was obsessed with his dead twin sister for all of his life, often mentioning her in conversation or in his The Exegesis of Philip K Dick.  Twins play an important part in much of his work (the entity George Walt in The Crack in Space (twins who share individual hemispheres of a single brain); Felix and Alys Buckman in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said; and Edie and her twin brother who continues to live inside her in Dr Bloodmoney).  Similarly, Dick’s work obsessively examined dualities - android/human, real/fake, SF/Mainstream, and so on.

Thus, when his third wife had an abortion, he was traumatised by thoughts of his sister, the abortion resulting not only in a divorce but in a string of thoughtless, 'evil-female' characters that typified his sixties novels.  One of the characters based on his third wife is Emily Hnatt in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, who, instead of evolving like her husband, because of the now-dubiously named 'E-therapy', regresses into a slow-witted husk.

So if the 50s women were pretty housewives, and the 60s women were evil harridans, what of his 70s women.  Unfortunately, these women too are usually dysfunctional.  Based on the teenagers he met in the late sixties they are generally unstable, drug-addicted thieves and liars who either end up committing suicide (eg Valis ) or double-crossing the hero (A Scanner Darkly). 

Brian Aldiss claims that Ballard’s upbringing as a British SF writer probably freed him from certain genre preconceptions, as he didn’t read any American SF magazines until he went to Canada as an adult.  Ballard has said of his childhood reading, “I spent a great deal of time reading as a child.  I certainly read H.G. Wells.” (Ballard in V/Search, 1984, p112).  Aldiss says, “That was one great advantage of Wells over Astounding: he knew sex existed, which all the Simon-pure Asimovs and Heinleins demonstrably didn’t.” (Aldiss, 1973, p63).

Thus, Ballard was less influenced by the reading of American SF, and was also less restricted by the markets he wrote for (New Worlds etc).  Similarly his private life seems to have been more stable than Dick’s.  Where Dick was married five times and had numerous affairs, Ballard married once, a marriage which was happy and lasted over ten years until his wife’s death in 1963.  Ballard’s women tend to be ethereal otherworldly creatures or professional middle-class types, and it is possible that the latter are based on his own wife and the wives of friends, whereas the former tend to fulfil a more symbolic role in his stories.  For example, in his story “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D”, Ballard describes the female protagonist in distant, almost unearthly terms:
             “A white-haired woman with jewelled eyes gazed through the dark glass of the        limousine like the enigmatic Madonna of some marine grotto.  (.....)  Leonora Chanel stepped from the limousine....... Sand-rays lifted around her, disturbed by this sauntering phantasm of the burnt afternoon.”  (Ballard, Vermilion Sands, pp16 and 18).

Next week: Ballard's Representation of America Compared to Dick's.

Reference List

Aldiss, B.W. (1970) The Shape of Further Things, Faber and Faber, London.

Aldiss, B.W. (1973) Billion Year Spree: History of Science Fiction, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London.

Aldiss, B.W. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Aldiss, B.W., Weldon, F. (1994) Arena, BBC (originally broadcast in 1994).

Allen, R. (1991) "Empire, Imperialism and Literature" in Allen, R., Calder, A., Haveley, C.P., Martin, G. and Rossington, M. (eds) (1991) End Of Empire, The Open University, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1967) "The Last World of Mr Goddard" in The Day of Forever, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1967) "The Gentle Assassin" in The Day of Forever, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1979) "Now Wakes The Sea” in The Disaster Area, Panther Books, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1980) "Time of Passage" in The Venus Hunters HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Ballard, J.G. (1981) Hello America, Vintage, London.

Carter, P.A. (1977) The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, New York.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Meddler" in Beyond Lies The Wub: Volume One Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Breakfast At Twilight" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Small Town" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Prominent Author" in Second Variety: Volume Two Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Sales Pitch" in The Father-Thing: Volume Three Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1987) "Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday" in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: Volume Five Of The Collected Stories, HarperCollinsPublishers, London.

Dick, P.K. (1991) Ubik, Vintage Books, New York.

Dick, P.K. (1994) Horizon, BBC (originally broadcast in 1994).

Dick, P.K. (1996) Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, HarperCollins Publishers, London.

Galen, R. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Priest, C, (1978) “New Wave” in Holdstock, R. (ed) Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Cathay Books, London.

Sutin, L. (1991) Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, HarperCollins, London.

V/Search, (1984) J.G. Ballard, Vale and Juno, San Francisco.

Weldon, F. (1996) Interview with James Burr.

Wilson, C. (1976) Strength To Dream, Sphere Books, London.