Tuesday 20 June 2017

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

Similarities Between Their Works 

 Both writers shared themes.  That this is so, however, is unsurprising, as Dick for much of his career had to write within the constraints of American SF, while Ballard has admitted that, his first short stories, including his first, ”Passport to Eternity" were:
“influenced by a story by Jack Vance, called "Meet Miss Universe".  It was the best sort of that American science fiction.  "Passport to Eternity" was a summary of all the American SF I'd been reading over the past year in Canada.  (......)  I wanted to write for the American magazines.  It didn't occur to me to write for British ones.....” (V/Search, 1984, p.118).

 Thus the use of the stock themes of the genre such as time travel, the influence of the media on the lives of individuals, future dystopias and holocausts and so on by these writers is understandable, and it is difficult to ascertain any strong Anglo-American differences between them as Ballard has himself admitted that he was influenced by American SF.  Even the theme of altered/fake realities which Dick made his own was another stock theme of the genre.  Aldiss told me:
“At the start of the Cold War, fake realities were in vogue in science fiction.  Everyone wrote about them, but Dick took the theme over, partly because he was living in a series of them.  He had an amazing inventiveness, but was also a great synthesiser of  pre-existing SF things.  At the back of it all, of course, was his drug habit” (Interview with James Burr, 1996).

Thus the fact that both writers wrote time travel or fake reality stories doesn’t say very much - virtually every SF writer wrote stories using the same themes.  However, there are a number of stories where the basic plot of certain stories are the same.  Does the way Ballard and Dick handle the discourse of these plots tell us anything?

In 1954 Dick wrote a story called “Small Town” which appeared in Amazing in 1954.  In it he tells the story of a man who is hated by his wife who is having an affair with his friend.  He has a terrible job and few friends his only real passion being the perfect model of his town that he has been building in his basement.  After losing his job, the man starts to alter the town, removing enemies’ houses, making himself the Mayor of the new city hall, and so on.  On completing his changes he disappears, his wife and her lover assuming that he has finally gone into his own world.  It is only when they drive to the police station to report his disappearance that they notice that the factory is gone replaced by a new city hall, and as they realise what has happened they are pulled over by some cops from a new police station.

Dick wrote that:
“Here the frustrations of a defeated small person - small in terms of power, - gradually become transformed into something sinister: the force of death......  Be careful as to how you misuse (the put-upon person); he may not secretly wish to rule, he may wish to destroy.” (Dick, 1987, Second Variety, p493).

This is interestingly against many of the conventions of 50s SF, as it was generally very much in favour of preserving the status quo.  Heroes were generally in the military and/or scientists, and they were the people in power, the thinking being that who would want to read about a bum meeting a Martian?  Aldiss noted this difference between Dick and his contemporaries:
“Dick didn't go in for the traditional American optimism of writers such as Robert.A. Heinlein, and he seemed to possess a superior creativity.  There are often little human touches in an inhuman world, which is something that sets him apart from much of the American science-fiction of the time.  He also saw no glorious future for technology.  For Dick technology was little mechanical things scurrying around in the gutter” (Aldiss in Arena, 1996).

There are any number of reasons for this.  Partly, as poverty-stricken SF writer, he was denied not only the status and economic power that comes with wealth, but also the prestige of the “serious” writer.  Secondly, his agoraphobia and other mental problems led to his life being centred very much around his own home.  The impact he thus had on the world around him was limited.  And thirdly, someone who is virtually house-bound, has certain interests in the nature of and perception of reality, and was living in Berkeley in the 1960s, only had a limited choice of passing the time - taking drugs was almost an inevitability.  Thus as part of the counterculture he was almost certain to be opposed to the application of power by the select few.  Thus by writing a story about an utterly impotent man who finally gains power over those who scoff at him, Dick could have been writing a wish-fulfilment; where he had in many ways been failed by the American Dream, he was writing a story where this established order was brought down by the power of one man’s imagination - an idea that would have been irresistible to Dick as he typed away late at night.  (Indeed, Dick’s paranoia and pessimism in a field which at the time was generally optimistic, can be seen in his attitude to psi powers and superhuman mutants.  The prevailing attitude in SF in the 50s was that mutants were superior, and so normal people should view them as our leaders. However, Dick’s view was that:
“Maybe from their superevolved lofty level we wouldn’t seem worth leading.  Anyhow, even if they agreed to lead us, I felt uneasy as to where we might end up going.  It might have something to do with buildings marked SHOWERS but which really weren’t” (Dick, The Father-Thing, 1987, p474).

However, Ballard’s “small town” story is in some ways different.  In “The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1967) Ballard describes the life of an elderly man who lives alone and works as a clerk in a department store.  Every night he examines his model of the town in which he lives - a town where tiny people go about their daily business under his benevolent gaze.  However, Goddard has no desire to rule these people; he simply uses his observations to create small-talk with his colleagues, to see which people look in need of advice.  However, one day his cat tips the town over and the little people try to escape only to be eaten by the cat.  Again, as in Dick’s story, events in the model town are repeated in the real one, Mr Goddard finally leaving his house and finding himself alone on the deserted streets. 

The reason for the very different ending to such a similar story, is directly related to Ballard’s nationality.  As an English writer who was interested in the Surrealists’ work and the nature of the unconscious, Ballard could write a story such as this, where he could project Goddard’s voyeuristic sociopathology (after all, most of his “interaction” with his neighbours was by watching them in the model) onto the outside world, without the restrictions of American SF.  Indeed, Ballard has said that, for him, SF was a genre that enabled him to write the kind of non-naturalistic fiction he wanted to write - but then again he made his name as part of the New Wave. Dick, on the other hand, was restricted by the genre’s rules (i.e. events must be scientifically possible, the story must be “idea-led” as opposed to character-led etc).

Further proof for this reading can be found in two other stories that share similar plot devices.  Both Ballard’s “Time of Passage” (1967) and Dick’s “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” (1966) describe the lives of the characters as time flows backwards.  However, Ballard uses the premise as a way of exploring human reactions to events (and how events are, or can be, related to human action), and has great fun with such concepts as the main character receiving a gold watch at the “start” of his career as a token of amiable good will.  He also uses this simple idea to in a pathetic way - for months he feels depressed, and doesn’t go to work, his feelings increasing until it is time for him to go to the cemetery to collect his wife.  Dick’s story on the other hand is a mish-mash of implausibility and half-baked ideas.  Whereas Ballard offers no explanations as to why time is going backwards, Dick is forced to create a pseudo-scientific machine that makes time do this.  Similarly, he has semantic problems as to which tense to use when writing a cause-and-effect plot-driven tale (characters say “Goodbye” when they meet, for example, but then have a perfectly ordinary conversation before they part, and say “hello”, for example.)

Other examples of two stories with a similar premise are Ballard’s “Now Wakes the Sea” (1967) and Dick’s “Breakfast at Twilight” (1954), both of which deal with “time-slips”.  In the former a man sees a giant primeval sea washing over his suburban town.  One night, he walks into the sea, sees a spectre-like woman, and accidentally falls down a shaft.  Two days later an investigating policeman visits some archaeologists who are working in the shaft, and have found two skeletons.  The archaeologist informs the policeman that the skeletons can’t be the missing man as they were laid down during the Triassic era, and so are 200 million years old.  The man had obviously somehow slipped back to the Triassic era, when his town was covered with water, and died there.
     In Dick’s story, it is 1970, and a normal suburban family wake to have breakfast, when their front door is kicked in by a group of soldiers.  The soldiers are amazed to find a house in the area as the entire neighbourhood has been bombed flat.  The soldiers tell them that it is 1980 and that the country is at War with the Soviets and is a disease-ridden wasteland.  The family are thus presented with a choice; either try to make a new life in the hellish future, or wait for the next bomb raid to perhaps push them back in time as the bomb raid the previous night had brought them forwards.  Seeing the misery of the future, they crowd in the cellar, and their destroyed house returns to 1970.  But they now know that it is only a matter of years until the War happens, but by then there will be no slipping back.

Here again, as in the previous two stories, the differences between the handling of two stories with the same “time-slip” premise are ultimately Anglo-American.  Dick’s story, originally published in Amazing, was written within the rigid confines of 50s American SF, and intended for sale in one of the pulp magazines.  Thus there is a strong adventure-element - bombs, guns, soldiers describing the atomic wasteland etc, and there is also a pseudo-scientific explanation for why the events of the story happen.  In this case, “the concentrated energy (of the bombing raid), ......the destruction of matter, sucked the house into the future” (Dick, Second Variety, 1987, p276).

Ballard on the other hand was not writing for the pulp magazines, but already had a contract for a number of short story collections with Berkeley Books.  Also, unlike Dick who was trying to support himself solely by his writing and thus wrote over thirty short stories a year during the mid-fifties, Ballard had a full-time job, thus could craft his stories in such a way that he was pleased with them as literature, rather than just so they could be quickly sold.  Also, Ballard was more interested in exploring the unconscious of the protagonist through a surrealist symbolism where his unconscious mind is somehow projected onto external reality.  Here, as in “Time of Passage”, the “idea” of time flowing backwards or of slipping in time (which was supposed to be the core of SF stories), was not as important as the symbolism of returning to the womb.  Indeed, in “Now Wakes the Sea”, the protagonist finds himself waist-deep in the sea, sinking “in the shoals of luminous algae”, this primeval sea representing the biological soup from which all life, not just an individual life as in the case of the womb, springs.  When Ballard writes these “water stories” he is exploring the protagonist’s desire to return to the past, to a time of preconsciousness.  It is important that the protagonist is recovering from a nervous breakdown and describes the sea as, “.....a sort of memory......” (Ballard, The Disaster Area, 1979, p86).

As has been already mentioned, both writers were interested in representations of reality.  Ballard once tried to question the nature of reality by planning a performance art “happening” where someone would try to rob a bank by holding up a card with the word “Pistol” written on it, the inspiration coming from the fact that a robbery using a toy gun is still considered as armed robbery in the eyes of the law.  This questioning of representations of reality is very similar to the surrealist painter Magritte’s painting La Trahisons des Images, where the viewer is reminded that the painting of the pipe is not a pipe.  Dick actually wrote a novel based on this premise.  In Time Out Of Joint , the characters believe it is 1959, until the hero "goes sane", and realises that it is really 1996.  This 'finding of sanity' is ingeniously described, in one 'episode' the hero is standing at a soft-drink stand, when it disappears to be replaced by a piece of paper with the words “SOFT-DRINK STAND” written on it.       

 Next week: The Differences between their works.

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.

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