A Little Something About Dead Astronauts
Back to the Future. There is no doubt that the February 1, 2003 disaster of the Columbia space shuttle had a distinctly Ballardian flavor. Communication networks offered a disturbing collage of technological details, ballistics, Texas landscape, and anatomical parts, like something out of The Atrocity Exhibition. Concern for the victims and their families was displaced by a geometry of technologized death that called to mind the overproduction of hypotheses and the orgy of visual and technical details following another highly Ballardian event (already foreshadowed in Crash), the 1997 accident that killed Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. At the same time, the Columbia disaster was much less startlingly vivid, and public interest in its aftermath considerably shorter-lived, than the 1986 Challenger explosion, due in part to the post-9/11 mood, to larger events looming around the world (the oncoming sequel to the Gulf War first and foremost), and to the sad fact that, in the contemporary mediascape, repetita non juvant.1 Probably the reaction of a vast majority of viewers was one of “been there, seen that.”
I dare say that J.G. Ballard had foreseen all that. As he declared in 1977, “[e]ven before the Space Age had begun I had a hunch it would be short-lived—basically because NASA and the Russians had left the imagination out of space, one mistake the S-f writers never made” (“Foreword”). What Ballard stated then is now manifest: there are still space-bound endeavors, of course (such as the International Space Station or the Galileo positioning system), but they are prosaic big-industry-funded scientific research and routine comsat maintenance programs, quite different from the transcendent dreams of Golden Age sf. Space exploration has indeed lost its ability to expand the horizons of our imagination: it is bound by the humdrum circular motion of geostationary orbits, recalling the bleak destiny of the doomed starship in Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970). This lack of imagination has been noted by Melanie Rosen Brown, who claims that “NASA’s astronauts are curiously unremarkable, the image NASA insists its astronauts maintain doing little to inspire the imaginations of the very public NASA strives to please.” Predictability replaces the sense of wonder that had characterized the fictional projection of space travel in sf written before the US space program, leading to a vanishing of romance that Rob Latham has summed up thus: “the accomplishments of American space technology have transformed their representative, the astronaut, into a faceless cipher drawling jargon and punching buttons. The momentous has become mundane” (200).
In the wake of the Columbia disaster, it is perhaps time to return to Ballard’s fiction and its astronauts. Indeed, the names of Anderson, Brown, Chalwa, Clark, Husband, McCool, and Ramon2 may remind us of other resonant monikers, such as Connolly, Hamilton, Merril, Maiakovski, Prokrovna, and Tkachev—the dead astronauts Ballard envisioned in his short fiction of the 1960s and after. In this essay, I will closely examine five Ballard stories—“The Cage of Sand” (1962), “A Question of Re-entry” (1963), “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1970), and “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)—in order to lay bare the sources of the author’s fascination with the figure of the dead astronaut and his indictment of the failure of imagination of the US space program.3 My analysis will highlight the stories’ religious rhetoric and references, which range from predictable allusions to Christianity to more esoteric citations of ancient Mediterranean paganism and African or South American animism. The quest for transcendence is a fundamental theme in Ballard’s work, as many commentators have shown (see Stephenson, Wagar); I argue here that the transcendental impulse animating these particular stories derives from an abiding tension—a short circuit—between high-tech modernity and pre-modern spirituality. In Ballard’s fiction, outer and inner space are superimposed, and spiritual drives may bespeak material concerns.
No Trespassing. Ballard’s discussion of his hunch that the Space Age would be short-lived appeared in the foreword to a reprinting of “The Cage of Sand” in 1977, after NASA’s major efforts had petered out due to funding shortages and a widespread lack of interest. Yet the story itself—written and published in the early 1960s, the moment of greatest glory for the space program—already had a gloomy and funereal atmosphere. The action takes place in an abandoned space center, understood to be Cape Canaveral, drowned by Martian sand; it is a typically Ballardian setting: a zone of dead technology, forgotten and forsaken. Technical evolution has rendered the original rockets and capsules obsolete, and the launching site with them. Travis, a failed astronaut, tells another character that “[t]hey’re quietly sealing off the past, Louise and I and you with it” (365). This is not just a metaphor, since the authorities are in fact building a fence around the abandoned center because of a Martian virus brought back with the sand—hence the title.4
The Space Age, a living present or imminent future in 1962, is depicted by Ballard as already past—a time-shift he has used often in his fiction, with the dune-covered space center reminding us of the sand-choked, abandoned New York City in Hello America (1981). Envisioning the present as a pathetic relic in a more or less far future is a displacement used by many sf writers—Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) comes to mind—but Ballard handles this motif with a dexterity few other practitioners have equaled. In “The Cage of Sand,” hints scattered here and there help to recreate an entire lost age, nostalgically mourned by the three main characters—Travis, the former astronaut; Bridgman, the architect (or space-architect, since he should have designed the first Martian settlement ); and Louise Woodward, wife to a dead spaceman still orbiting Earth in his derelict capsule. The heroic conquest of Mars is a bygone epic of danger and sacrifice, now summarily ended thanks to technological improvements that have rendered space travel a mundane enterprise: “There hasn’t been a fatal casualty now ... for nearly twenty years, and passenger rockets are supposed to be as safe as commuters’ trains” (365). There are no more heroes, no more martyrs like the dead Russian and American astronauts left in decaying orbits, their names repeated obsessively throughout the story.5
The enclosed space where the action takes place is typically Ballardian, an abandoned zone of lost time.6 It is essentially an alien region on Earth: the sand brought back from Mars, purportedly to avoid the decrease of Earth’s gravitational mass due to the frequent rocket-shots, has turned the central coast of Florida into “a corner of Earth that is forever Mars” (365), according to Travis (ironically misquoting a celebrated World War I sonnet by Rupert Brooke). This deserted, desertified, alien place is the quintessential Ballardian locale, complete with abandoned hotels, cocktail bars, and restaurants (355)—a blighted version of his classic imaginary geography, Vermilion Sands, the surreal, futuristic resort community where many of his earliest stories are set.7 Yet the three castaways—or prisoners—in this sand cage are more interested in what happens in the skies above them than in the surrounding landscape. Peculiar sorts of star-gazers, this trio of astronomers—or astrologers, given the frequent references to the zodiac—anxiously scan the starry canopy for the bright dots of the dead astronauts’ capsules. For his part, Bridgman “hated the bi-monthly conjunctions, when all seven of the derelict satellite capsules still orbiting the Earth crossed the sky together” like a ghost armada (356). The flying coffins are viewed as celestial bodies, identifiable through the technical language of science (e.g., “visible, between 12.55 and 12.35, at an elevation of 62 degrees in the south-west, passing through Cetus and Eridani” ); yet, like the constellations of pre-Copernican cosmology, they seem to belong to a different order of reality, an ultramundane realm whose existence is as much psychic as physical. And the nature of the characters’ deep emotional investment in these orbiting sepulchres needs to be analyzed if we are to grasp why the image of the dead astronaut has been so important for Ballard.
Travis, who had once been “a test pilot for one of the civilian agencies setting up orbital relay stations,” suffered a failure of nerve “a few seconds before the last ‘hold’ of his count-down, a moment of pure unexpected funk that cost the company some five million dollars” (359). He should have physically reached the ultramundane realm of space but failed to do so; space became inaccessible, transformed into a haunting psychological loss. Hence his obsession with those men and woman who are now permanent dwellers beyond the atmosphere, the orbiting dead astronauts. Bridgman’s story is also marked by failure: he has “resigned his job as chief architect of a big space development company” because “despite his great imaginative gifts he was unequal to the … tasks of designing the settlement” on Mars (360). Bridgman’s failure derives from his awareness that “on the drawing-board, as elsewhere, he would always remain earth-bound” (360)—just like Travis. Bridgman too will never reach space and is thus haunted by the “ghostly convoy endlessly circling the dark sea of the midnight sky, the long dead astronauts converging for the ten-thousandth time upon their brief rendezvous” (369).
Louise Woodward’s obsession, however, is quite different. “Can you imagine what it’s like looking up at a sunset when your husband’s spinning through it in his coffin?” (369), she asks Bridgman, letting us understand that she is, in a fairly conventional way, still tied to her dead spouse. One could argue that Ballard’s imagination shows gender-based limitations when it comes to his handling of female characters and their motivations, a problem that has been noted by Duncan Fallowell and David Pringle.8 Louise seems to be more interested in the space-buried body of the man she loved/loves than in space exploration per se, which is presumably a more masculine concern.9 Yet, like her male companions, she is also sensitive to the gulf separating Earth and space: “the death she visualized for him [Woodward] was of a different order from the mortal kind” (363). Astronauts, in short, suffer a special kind of death, achieving a superhuman destiny beyond our mortal world. Louise’s delusion that Woodward is still a young man hints at a condition of timelessness, of eternity: this is the resurrection of an Aristotelian notion of the supra-lunar realm as composed of ontologically distinct, imperishable entities—planets and stars with their spheres revolving inside the Empyrean, as depicted in Dante’s Divina Commedia (1308-1321).
The authorities’ desperate efforts to seal off the abandoned space center suggest a collective denial of these astral disasters, seen as celestial deaths that defy our earthly categories. Ballard obviously knows that, from an “objective,” empirical point of view, the capsules are merely artifacts that will not last forever: “It was this slow disintegration of the aluminium shells that made them visible—it had often been pointed out that the observer on the ground was looking, not at the actual capsule, but at a local field of vaporized aluminium and ionised hydrogen peroxide gas from the ruptured attitude jets now distributed within half a mile of each of the capsules” (368-69). The visibility of the capsules is caused by their very dematerialization: solid aluminum turns to gas and then to light. Moreover, as the capsules eventually fall from the sky, they are directed towards the enclosed sand-covered area—as we see at the end of the story, when Merril’s huge aluminum coffin crashes on the beach. This may be a way to remove these unsettling celestial bodies from popular awareness, but it is also a move that reasserts their “transcendent” status, since by carefully isolating the capsules—and the bodies they harbor—the authorities involuntarily acknowledge their paradoxical sacredness.
The orbital tombs are as sacred as stars were to many “primitive” cultures, forming a weird constellation charged with more or less overt meanings, like zodiac signs. The orbiting capsules look like a “lost zodiacal emblem, the constellation detached from the celestial sphere and for ever frantically searching to return to its place” (368). The astronauts are now astral entities:
The seven satellites drew nearer, and Bridgman glanced up at them narrowly. They were disposed in a distinctive but unusual pattern resembling the Greek letter x, a limp cross, a straight lateral member containing four capsules more or less in line ahead—Connolly, Tkachev, Merril and Maiakovski—bisected by three others forming with Tkachev an elongated Z—Pokrovski, Woodward and Brodisnek. (368)
And like other signs in the sky, the mobile constellation of orbital coffins has been interpreted as a political or religious symbol (368), like Charles Mason’s starry Pentateuch in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason and Dixon: “know that our Bible is Nature, wherein the Pentateuch is the Sky. I have found there, written ev’ry Night, in Astral Gematria, Messages of Great Urgency to our Time” (772).
The story ends with the spectacular descent of Merril’s capsule (mistakenly identified as Woodward’s by Louise): “With a deep metallic sigh, the burning catafalque of the dead astronaut soared overhead, a cascade of vaporising metal pouring from its hull, filling the sky with incandescent light” (370). As we have seen, the capsules are at the same time stars and comets (their visibility being caused by the vaporization of the aluminum hull), and now Merril’s flying coffin turns into a meteor. Even more interestingly, a real celestial body looms on the scene: “High in the western night, between Pegasus and Cygnus, shone the distant disc of the planet Mars, which for both himself and the dead astronauts had served for so long as a symbol of unattained ambition” (372). The three characters achieve the satisfaction of their frustrated drives by touching what is left of the dead astronaut and his fallen capsule. As Bridgman realizes, this is “why he had come to the beach and been unable to leave it” (372). “We made it!” he shouts while the wardens drag him away—not only he, Louise, and Travis, but Merril too, since, by falling on the alien sand, “in a sense [he] had reached Mars after all” (372). While the “actual” Mars—and space itself—may have become, due to the characters’ various failures, an absolutely unreachable site physically, it can still be grasped symbolically (we might also say mythically or archetypally): touching the burning relics of Merril’s capsule is a way to “bond … to the spirit of the dead astronaut” (372), and thus to reach, via inner space, the soaring vistas otherwise forever closed to the characters.
The Curse of the Astronaut. What falls from the sacred celestial realm is, by means of a metonymical logic, itself sacred. This is the symbolic foundation of a later story by Ballard, “The Dead Astronaut,” which presents us with many elements already found in “The Cage of Sand.” Again we are in Florida, in the abandoned space center now named Cape Kennedy, a forsaken place where “the launching towers rose into the sky like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra” (760). A married couple, Judith and Philip (the latter also the narrator), both former NASA employees, lives in the deserted center waiting for the re-entry of Robert Hamilton, an astronaut who died in an accident twenty years before: “Three hours after lift-off, a freak meteorite collision ruptured his oxygen support system. He had lived on in his suit for another three hours. Although calm at first, his last radio transmissions were incoherent babble Judith and I had never been allowed to hear” (762). Judith and Philip had met Hamilton just before his death, when the astronaut was being trained in a New Mexico NASA complex, and a platonic infatuation had developed between the young astronaut and the narrator’s wife. This perhaps explains Judith’s obsession with the remains of Hamilton’s body—or, rather, with the prospective burial of those remains, a task she has organized with the help of her husband and the so-called “relic hunters.” As in “The Cage of Sand,” the falling capsule is returning to its point of origin at the space center, which has become a satellite burial ground (762).
The relic hunters are not deranged people like Travis and Bridgman, but criminals who live by stealing whatever parts of the capsules and the dead astronauts survive impact with the ground. They “scour[ed] the burning saw grass for instrument panels and flying suits and—most valuable of all—the mummified corpses.… These blackened fragments of collarbone and shin, kneecap and rib, were the unique relics of the space age, as treasured as the saintly bones of medieval shrines” (762). The use of the term “relic” is in part ironic, yet in Ballard’s symbolic system, the sky does change what has been up there, giving it an aura of sorts that can be perceived by the so-called “savages” watching from the ground. Philip explains why all the capsules are brought down in the enclosed and guarded area of Cape Kennedy:
After the first fatal accident in space, public outcry demanded that these orbiting biers be brought down to earth. Unfortunately, when a returning moon rocket crashed into the Kalahari Desert, aboriginal tribesmen broke into the vehicle. Believing the crew to be dead gods, they cut off the eight hands and vanished into the bush.... From then on, the capsules were left in orbit to burn on re-entry. (762)
And the purportedly “civilized” society is not immune to the fascination of space relics. Ballard hints at the existence of a morbid, fetishistic cult that the relic hunters cater to in his description of the plundering of a Russian astronaut’s capsule:
The relic hunters worked on the fragments of Valentina Prokrovna’s capsule: the blistered heat shield, the chassis of the radiotelemetry unit and several cans of film that recorded her collision and act of death (these, if still intact, would fetch the highest prices, films of horrific and dreamlike violence played in the underground cinemas of Los Angeles, London and Moscow). (765)
This fictional underground cult—which conflates fetishism, voyeurism, the spectacularization of catastrophe, pop art, and archetypal symbolism—is quintessentially Ballardian and makes Prokrovna an avatar of Liz Taylor in Crash. Roger Luckhurst’s reading of the story, which draws on Walter Benjamin’s meditation on discarded objects and the aura of the past (139), is obviously relevant, but one should not forget the religious under- and overtones that abound in these tales, as we can see in the description of Prokrovna’s majestic re-entry: “At three o’clock that morning, ... Valentina Prokrovna came down from the sky. Enthroned on a bier of burning aluminium three hundred yards wide, she soared past on her final orbit” (764). This celestial apparition echoes Biblical chariots of fire and scenes of the descent of gods or godlike creatures from many historical cosmogonies and sacred writs.
The Christian tradition, however, may be excluded here, because what comes down from the sky upon Hamilton’s re-entry more closely resembles the Greco-Roman idea of sacredness, the Latin word sacer meaning “what is reserved for the gods,” not necessarily something holy. What was sacred in ancient cultures was something that might have both positive and negative powers, and above all something separate, possibly untouchable. Think of the Egyptian superstition that makes violating the tomb of the Pharaoh a risky business—and are not the bodies of the astronauts “mummified”? In fact, once Judith has received those parts of Hamilton’s body that have been snatched by the relic hunters, she and her husband discover that they are not so attractive:
The shoe-box was open. In the centre of the table lay a pile of charred sticks, as if she had tried to light a small fire. Then I realised what was there. As she stirred the ash with her fingers, grey flakes fell from the joints, revealing the bony points of a clutch of ribs, a right hand and shoulder blade.” (767)
This is the apparent ending of the story, marked by an emotional anti-climax. Judith asks her husband to leave Cape Kennedy and get rid of Hamilton’s remains, thus seeming to accomplish the narrator’s wish that when his wife held the remains of the dead astronaut’s body, “she would come to terms with her obsession” (761). But the two are subsequently struck by a mysterious disease that makes them vomit and lose their hair, and they soon discover that it is due to radioactive contamination: “there was a bomb on board! Robert Hamilton was carrying an atomic weapon!” (768; emphasis in original).
The “rational” reading of the tale tells us that Judith and Philip are belated victims of the Cold War, as well as of the emotional “fallout” of the adulterous relationship between Judith and the astronaut, disclosed at the end of the story (768). But the lethality of the relics also reminds us of Tutankhamen’s curse and similar tales of violent comeuppances that befall violators of holy shrines. Reckless handling of sacred objects may bring profaners to disgrace: this is a pre-modern idea or superstition that has been endlessly recycled in modern horror movies. The story converts the psychological and symbolic framework of “The Cage of Sand,” wherein the relics of dead astronauts possessed auratic power, into an actual deadly force, radioactivity—thus conflating mystical and scientific registers.
Into the Mediascape. Dead astronauts can be found again in “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,” a chapter or story of The Atrocity Exhibition. A flow of vignettes drawn from several media and translated into a hybrid language that mixes science and fiction, psychiatry and architecture, journalism and poetic prose, the book is notoriously difficult to explain or summarize.10 It is probably useless to outline the plot of “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,” since the story (or chapter) is a pop assemblage, similar to Robert Rauschenberg’s contemporaneous paintings, narrated by a clinical, dispassionate voice and moving through a maze of scenes with no linear connection.11 The figure of the dead astronaut is one of the book’s recurrent and most haunting images—more specifically, it is the death of three astronauts at Cape Kennedy, though it is difficult to say if these were “real” deaths or imagined ones: “the false death of the three astronauts in the Apollo capsule” (53); “the incinerated musculatures of the three astronauts whose after-deaths were now being transmitted from Cape Kennedy” (54); “the deaths of the three astronauts in the Apollo capsule were a failure of the code that contained the operating formulae for their passage through consciousness” (55); and so on. Significantly, this text was first published in New Worlds in July 1967, six months after the death of three American astronauts (Roger Chaffee, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Edward White) in the fire of the Apollo 1 capsule—not in the sky but on the launching pad. So this story/chapter is quite different from the ones discussed thus far, being overtly tied to a historical event.
The text is built out of mass-media imagery, but also features the media themselves. Most of the references to the dead Apollo astronauts enter the “vignettes” through TV screens: it all starts with Catherine Austin watching TV in the Institute (an experimental asylum), where “the newsreels from Cape Kennedy” are being shown (53); then the announcer’s voice turns into “a commentary … on the false death of the three astronauts in the Apollo capsule” (53); the after-deaths of the astronauts “were now being transmitted from Cape Kennedy” (54). Other media are involved: in the basement of the Institute a “secret Apollo film” (56) is screened; “the blistered epitelium of the astronauts” (57) is seen by Trabert in the “spinal landscape” of Max Ernst’s surrealist painting The Stolen Mirror; “the tragedies of Cape Kennedy” are “serialized on billboards” (59). The final paragraph of the chapter/story ends with the medium of print:
The Serial Angels. Undisturbed now, the vaporizing figures of the dead astronauts diffused across the launching grounds, recreated in the leg stances of a hundred starlets, in a thousand bent auto-fenders, in the million installment deaths of the serial magazines. (62; boldface in original)
Here Ballard’s astonishing lyricism depicts the circulation of media images (pop icons, or modern myths) in the collective unconscious as nodes in a network.
The astronauts are doubled by a mysterious “Watching Trinity” who appear in other stories/chapters and whose textual status is uncertain: Kline, Coma, and Xero. “Real” characters or hallucinations, they are labelled “personae of the unconscious” (56); but we are also given to understand that they might be the three dead astronauts: “Kline, Coma, Xero—there was a fourth pilot on board of the capsule” (54). Such an interpretation is highly questionable because Coma is soon afterwards described as a “beautiful but mute young woman” (56), which is not the typical profile of an astronaut in the 1960s; and Trabert, the character who imparts this information, is not a reliable person. The protagonists of the different chapters/stories in The Atrocity Exhibition, though endowed with different names (Trabert, but also Talbert, Travers, Traven, etc.), actually are a single man with many aliases and a dissociated, fragmented identity (Luckhurst calls him a “T-cell” ). We might thus also think of Coma, Xero, and Kline as ever-changing figures whose unchanging names do not indicate a permanent, stable identity. Indeed, the three personae of the unconscious might well be the complementary opposites of the T-cell, an embodiment of his deep-rooted obsessions.12
One thing that is clear is the provenance of a quotation that Ballard puts into the mouth of Kline: “Kline: ‘Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time?—Matta.’” (56). “Matta” is a reference to Roberto Antonio Sebastian Matta Echaurren, a Chilean surrealist painter whose concept of “inscape” (the psychoanalytic view of the mind as a three-dimensional space) has striking similarities to Ballard’s own ideas about inner space (and, of course, Ballard was deeply inspired by Surrealism). By quoting Matta, Kline suggests the social relevance of space disasters (and dead astronauts): it is an image through which we can understand our times. The mass-mediatization of our culture has led to the replacement of ancient myths and symbols (the sacredness of the sky the previous stories focus upon) with the glamorous images of TV and the cinema, replacing depth with surfaces, archetypes with glittering simulacra.
But Deliver Us From Time. “Memories of the Space Age” is the longest and stylistically most ambitious story analyzed in this article. Several Ballardian motifs can be found in it: the forsaken space center, whose name is Cape Canaveral once again; the dead astronaut; the obsessed couple; the fascination of flight; the quest for transcendence. We also have a quartet of typically Ballardian characters: Mallory, a former NASA MD; his wife Anne; the airplane pilot Hinton; and Gale, the daughter of Shepley, a dead astronaut orbiting Earth in a Shuttle—not a capsule—and killed by Hinton, who was a NASA astronaut too (1055).13 But we also have another narrative element, deriving from Ballard’s novel The Crystal World (1966), featuring a mysterious syndrome that affects anyone who enters Florida, now an enclosed area (like Cape Canaveral in both “The Cage of Sand” and “The Dead Astronaut”), and that manifests as a progressive slowing of subjective time, gradually leading to its fixation in a single, endless instant. Once again, the contact with sacred celestial entities (or spaces) is dangerous or deadly.14
But the syndrome also brings us back to the timelessness that preserves the dead astronauts in their orbital tombs, as we can see in this passage from “Memories of the Space Age”:
A child conceived and born here at Cape Canaveral would be born into a world without time, an indefinite and unending present, that primeval paradise that the old brain remembered so vividly, seen both by those living for the first time and by those dying for the first time. It was curious that images of heaven or paradise always presented a static world.... It was a strange paradox that given eternity, an infinity of time, they chose to eliminate the very element offered in such abundance. (1039)
Timelessness, which may well imply the elimination of death, is reconnected with its religious roots, and the choice of the terms “heaven or paradise” puts the meditations of Mallory within a Christian framework.15 The quest for transcendence, ever present in Ballard’s fiction, coincides here with a heavenly condition of timelessness granted to Shepley, the dead astronaut in his celestial tomb, whose special condition is stressed in the text: “Alan Shepley—the only one who didn’t come back. And the only one they didn’t wait for” (1047). But that condition also applies to the characters at Cape Canaveral, Hinton and Anne first, then Mallory, thanks to the time-stopping syndrome’s effects.
Flight, another typically Ballardian obsession, is connected to the theme of timelessness in the closing scene, where Anne and Hinton, standing on a stairway landing of the Shuttle assembly deck, step into the air, committing a highly symbolic suicide in the very moment that the syndrome has totally halted their sense of subjective time. They achieve timelessness (heaven’s eternity, in Mallory’s interpretation) while they are flying (1058-59). The fact that their downward flight is quite short does not matter, since they will only experience an ecstatic, everlasting condition of levitation thirty meters above the abandoned space center. It is a paradoxical form of immortality, but no more paradoxical than the transcendence sought—and often found—by other Ballard characters, such as Kerans in The Drowned World (1962) or Sanders in The Crystal World. It is an immortality Ballard always connects with an alteration of the flow of time, be it stopped or inverted.
This is why Mallory excuses Hinton’s attempt to kill him by steering him to the edge of the assembly deck, urging him to fly: “In a strange way he was helping me, guiding me into that new world without time. When he turned Shepley loose from the Shuttle he didn’t think he was killing him, but setting him free” (1055) from the finitude of the human condition, bound to time and space: “If time is a primitive mental structure we’re right to reject it. There’s a sense in which not only the shaman’s but all mystical and religious beliefs are an attempt to devise a world without time” (1055). The astronaut does not come down from the sky in “Memories of the Space Age,” as in the previous stories, because the condition of timelessness/eternity that characterizes outer space can be reached through other means—the time-stopping syndrome. This renders the space travel as imagined by Mallory useless: “Had Hinton refuelled the Shuttle’s engines and prepared the craft for lift-off? He would take Anne with him, and cast them both loose into space as he had done with Shepley, joining the dead astronaut in his orbital bier” (1058). But there is no need to reach Shepley in the sky if salvation (timelessness, immortality) is in interiore homini, and is already slowly emerging.
A Question of Sacredness, or The Good Savage. The four stories I have discussed thus far must be read in light of a fifth tale, “A Question of Re-Entry,” published in March 1963. The plot resembles Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein a displaced Westerner, Kurtz, exploits his scientific knowledge to subjugate a nameless Congo tribe, persuading them that he is a god and that they must worship him through offerings of precious ivory. Cultural difference is ruthlessly exploited by Kurtz to achieve an economic purpose.16 Ballard’s story is strikingly similar: in a rainforest on the other side of the Atlantic (the Amazon basin), another Westerner, Ryker, has subjugated an Indian tribe, the Nambas, by means of a set of tables and a clock that allow him to predict the passages in the night sky of Echo III, a communication satellite (454):
The Indians would naturally be awed and bewildered by this phantom charioteer of the midnight sky, steadily pursuing its cosmic round, like a beacon traversing the profoundest deeps of their own minds. Any powers Ryker cared to invest in the satellite would seem confirmed by his ability to control the time and place of its arrival. (455)
This cynical use of scientific knowledge allows Ryker to exploit the Nambas—gives him “the whip hand over them all” (448). His task is not very difficult because the Nambas have adopted a cargo cult (subsequently encouraged by Ryker) based on the expectation of “a magic galleon or giant bird to arrive carrying an everlasting cornucopia of worldly goods, so they just sit about waiting for the great day” (452-53). Ryker’s apparent control of celestial bodies persuades the Nambas that he is an authentic spokesman for the god in the skies (helping him to replace the medicine man of the tribe).
But then something really comes down from the sky—the space capsule Goliath 7, returning from the first successful mission to the moon with the space hero Colonel Francis Spender. Spender’s flight was preceded by several unlucky attempts, which have left more flying coffins in the skies: “at least three of the luckless pilots were still orbiting the Moon in their dead ships” .) Five years have passed since the re-entry, and the capsule, which plummeted into the South American land mass, has never been found. Or rather, although not found by the UN crews who desperately hunted for it, it was found—as the main character, the UN official Connolly, will discover—by the Namba tribe, which, on the basis of its cargo cult (plus Ryker’s hoax), identify the object and its occupant with the “phantom charioteer of the midnight sky” whose apparitions seem to be predicted and/or controlled by Ryker.
What takes place when the Nambas find Colonel Spender might be considered a cultural short circuit. The Nambas, we are told, are not cannibals in a technical sense, in that they “won’t stalk and hunt human game in preference for any other” (451). Yet they don’t bury their dead: “they eat them, as a means of conserving the loss and to perpetuate the corporeal identity of the departed.” Their ritual anthropophagy also leads them to “eat their gods” (458)—another highly symbolic act, where a normally forbidden behavior is allowed. Although “they would never eat a white man, to avoid defiling the tribe” (452), they might eat a white man if they identified him as a god—and that is what has happened to Colonel Spender (because he came down from the sky, thus becoming part of the tribe’s cargo cult). The same fate almost befalls Connolly when he finds the place where the Goliath 7 has been buried, because he is in a sacred area and is connected with the “god” the Nambas ate five years before (450-51).
The story, which is not typically Ballardian, is rather a classic sf riddle that must be solved through an investigation of sorts: it pivots on the interaction of our “modern” mentality (based on science and technology, plus post-Lévi-Straussian anthropological awareness) with the “pre-modern” mentality of the Nambas (based on a belief in magic powered by analogical thinking).17 Science has been used to strengthen faith in the cargo cult, and it leads to a mystical outcome, the killing of the technological hero (the astronaut) as a god descended from the sky. Ryker uses science to manipulate the Nambas, the Nambas “use” Ryker’s hoax (the satellite as a bogus godhead) to “recognize” Spender, to subsume him under the category of sacred, celestial being; then he is no more a white man, but a god who can be eaten with no risk of defilement. In other words, our secularized, rational, all-too-mundane world seems to have expelled sacredness (when even religion is a carefully managed and media-regulated business), but the repressed sacer returns with a vengeance when and where it is least expected, in the middle of the ultimate technological enterprise, the conquest of the Moon.
This is indeed the logic in all the stories we have analyzed. But while in “A Question of Re-entry” the “savage” Nambas react with their pre-modern categories to the unpredicted technological event, “solving” the problem from their cultural perspective (the fallen god is eaten and equilibrium restored), in the other stories modern Westerners, white men (and women), react in a quasi-religious way to technoscientific events and objects (the dead astronauts, the orbital tombs, etc.). “The Cage of Sand,” “The Dead Astronaut,” and “Memories of the Space Age” are far more unsettling and disturbing works than “A Question of Re-entry,” because in those three later stories, we, the Westerners, are the savages. Or, if we want to put it in more cautious terms, pre-modern elements resurface in our late- or postmodern culture.
Three Interpretations and a Key to the Reading. Is this paradoxical inversion of “primitive” and modern cultures simply another example of Ballard’s notorious irony? What are the consequences of these portentous events in the sky for earth-bound readers? We know that the sky has always helped humans to measure the earth: astrology and land surveying were both developed in Mesopotamia in the first millennium before Christ. Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon is based on this idea, and resurrects the ancient doctrine that “as above, so below” (the conceptual basis of astrology) by means of a brilliant deconstruction of the deep relationship between astronomy and geography. Tycho Brahe’s motto suspiciendo despicio, “by looking up I see downward” (i.e., by looking at the stars one can understand what is happening or is going to happen on Earth), is not unknown to Ballard. He staged a witty postmodernist resurrection of astrology in his 1978 short story “Zodiac 2000” (1978), based on a mass-mediated version of Jungian archetypes. Here Ballard proposes a radical updating of “all those farmyard animals so important to the Chaldeans” (982) by choosing twelve new signs, such as the Polaroid and the IUD; the culminating icon is “The Sign of the Astronaut” (987), certainly not dead, yet ready “to take the left-handed staircase to the roof above his mind, and fly away across the free skies of his inner space” (988). We should now exercise our astrological skills and divine what Ballard’s new star signs might mean.
The dead astronauts in Ballard’s stories could be seen, according to Rob Latham’s interpretation, as “at once Daedalus, wielder of technological marvels, and Icarus, victim of the technology he has wrought” (201). They are symbols of Ballard’s “ambivalent vision of America, a nation of inspirational yet fatal ambition,” whose mass-media mythology can be at the same time an instrument of cultural domination and an unpredictable “source of potential freedom,” because “luminous, transfiguring individual death overcomes the calibrated collective deaths of Hiroshima and Vietnam” (200). The dire fate of Ballard’s dead astronauts might then be read as a sort of tragic transcendence, redeeming the alienation of an individual reduced “to a faceless cipher.” Such a reading—which is undoubtedly legitimate—should not make us forget, however, that in the stories we have read here, the individual death of the astronaut has already taken place and is not put in the foreground and textually elaborated, as are the other spectacularized deaths in Ballard’s oeuvre (e.g., those of President Kennedy or James Dean, or the virtual death of Elizabeth Taylor).18 Melanie Rosen Brown observes that “those who suffer most are in actuality those left behind to deal with the remains of what falls back to Earth”—like the deranged loners in “The Cage of Sand,” “The Dead Astronaut,” and “Memories of the Space Age.” Yet she does not proceed to analyze the overwhelming funereal tone of those stories and its symbolic implications.19
In fact, in Ballard’s stories it is the vast majority of humankind that has been “left behind.” It might then be argued that the Space Age (and the astronaut, who embodies it) is dead because we are fundamentally still savages incapable of the psychological transformations required to inhabit the sky; those celestial deaths are signs of the failure of our effort to transcend our terrestrial condition. This is a second possible reading that might connect Ballard to the powerful Darwinian stream in British sf, since the inability to overcome our “animal” limitations and access outer space may well be envisioned as a failure to make that great evolutionary leap from Homo sapiens to Homo astralis. Ballard explicitly mentions this leap in another story, “Myths of the Near Future” (which, as we have seen, is intimately connected to “Memories of the Space Age”), when he says that “travelling into outer space, even thinking and watching it on television, was a forced evolutionary step with unforeseen consequences, the eating of a very special forbidden fruit” (1066; emphasis added).
Yet in that story, as in “Memories of the Space Age,” the failure to access outer space throws open the doors of inner space, through the almost mystical abolition of time: “perhaps, for the central nervous system, space was not a linear structure at all, but a model for an advanced condition of time, a metaphor for eternity” (1066). Could we not, then, read the dead astronauts in a different way, a more transcendent one? Perhaps we are so eager to recover our lost sense of the sacred (that sense with which pre-modern cultures, represented by the Nambas, are fully endowed) that we fetishize—or culturally recycle—the literal remains of dead astronauts, in a desperate (but failed) effort to achieve inner illumination.
Yet Ballard is neither a closet Darwinian who aims at mapping the next evolutionary leap humankind should (or cannot) take, nor a New Age prophet offering spiritualist solutions to the evils of late modernity. Rather, Ballard is confronting specific literary and historical traditions—the depiction of astronauts within sf and the mainstream media. Thomas M. Disch has argued that “the image of the rocket—preferably a ’50s model with Pontiac fins—remains the sci-fi image of preference” (57). And he mentions Ballard in the same chapter of his essay on sf, where he points out “the rocket ship [as] the genre’s primary icon,” identifying his British colleague as a satirist whose favorite image “is that of Cape Canaveral’s launching towers and NASA’s other immense machineries lying in ruins, drowned cathedrals of the Age of Space” (76). The ruined, decaying remains of the Space Age stand for the fall of the optimistic, heroic expectations of classical sf à la John W. Campbell, the Golden-Age belief in unlimited expansion that can be found in the works of Heinlein, Asimov, Del Rey, and others.20 Those are more or less the same expectations that purportedly motivated the US space program, which Ballard began deconstructing a few years before Thomas Pynchon.
A comparison between these two postmodernist writers may help us to appreciate what Ballard has done in all his stories featuring dead astronauts. Pynchon tackles the space-bound effort from the inside, having been an employee of Boeing who was involved in the unfortunate Bomarc project in the early 1960s (one of several military spin-off projects of the space program). He wrote a quasi-historical novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), narrating the dismal genealogy of the Saturn rockets that have carried the Apollo capsules, revealed as descendants of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen, the A-4/V-2 ballistic missiles that were launched on London in late 1944. Captain Blicero, the arch-villain of the novel, can be considered as an expressionist portrait of Werner Von Braun, the man who designed both the A-4/V-2 and the Saturn rockets.21 The quest for Rocket 00000 mirrors, in a twisted way, the historical hunt for the German scientists and technicians at the end of WWII. Pynchon thus deconstructs the triumphal rhetorics of the US space program by tracing the disquieting genealogy of a technology—the rocket—born as a mass-destruction weapon and subsequently disguised as an instrument of progress.22 Such a genealogy structures a partly factual, partly counterfactual historical novel, which aims at making the reader aware of the military past of the rocket and the essentially military aims of the Gemini and Apollo missions, which helped to boost the development of technologies (especially the ICBMs) that would ensure the supremacy of the US in the field of weapons systems. Pynchon tells us, in short, that behind the phallic Rocket lies Death (the meaning of the nickname Blicero); and the Rocket is not only an American achievement, but also the climax of the centuries-old scientific quest of the West.
Ballard takes a different approach, placing readers in a typical sf future where the space program is already finished, dead like its inhuman heroes, the astronauts, whose corpses keep orbiting the planet. The future promised and prefigured by the space program—i.e., the exploration and subsequent colonization of outer space—is presented as something deceased, irredeemably past. To put it in the words of Paolo Prezzavento, “With a colossal operation of metaphorical reversal, the English writer in fact manages to reverse the relationship between the future and the present. The glorious future of space conquest has become our past” (33; translation mine). Dead astronauts in a decaying landscape, symbolizing the death and destruction inscribed in the rocket, born as a deadly weapon, bound to be the carrier of the nuclear apocalypse, notwithstanding NASA propaganda—probably this is what the bomb carried by astronaut Hamilton in “The Dead Astronaut” hints at. But Ballard’s insistence on the lugubrious figure of the dead astronaut is not only a way to warn his readers of the sinister implications of the space program; it is also a way to highlight those destructive drives that underlie the program and its powerful phallic vehicle, the thanatoid will to power embodied in the Saturn and Titan rockets. The latter, as Ballard knew quite well, was used to launch not only the Gemini capsules, but also ICBM missiles with nuclear warheads.
Ballard’s ironic take on the optimistic, expansionist dreams of classical sf is also detectable in his specific citation, in “The Cage of Sand,” of Theodore Sturgeon’s 1959 short story “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” which narrates a failed mission to Mars. This sophisticated story, told in a complex, second-person stream of consciousness, culminates in the moment when the dying protagonist realizes that “the satellite fading here is Phobos, that those footprints are your own, that there is no sea here, that you have crashed and are killed and will in a moment be dead” (166). This gloomy ending is, however, redeemed by the feelings of joy that overwhelm the fading consciousness of the dying astronaut when “he takes his triumph at the other side of death” (166), because after all the enterprise managed to carry humankind to another planet; it was a success from a scientific and technological point of view. Hence the final cry of the protagonist, “God, we made it!”—which we may compare to the ending of Ballard’s story, where Bridgman cries “‘Damn it! … We made it!’” (372). The invocation of God is replaced by an oath, though the cry of triumph is the same—only it is uttered by an insane failed astronaut on Earth, who is being carried away to be locked up in an asylum. Outer space has been replaced by inner space, there is no doubt about that; but this textual move amounts to a fierce satire and demolition of the myths of classical, space-bound sf. As we can see, Ballard’s dead astronaut stories have been since the beginning a corrosive critique of the “final frontier.”
Hallowed Grounds. I will conclude by pointing out that the celestial tombs of the dead astronauts are “astrologically” connected to a specific place—the setting of “The Cage of Sand,” “The Dead Astronaut,” and “Memories of the Space Age,” Cape Kennedy/Canaveral. In the third-named story, we find this telling description of the abandoned space center, a remarkable example of Ballard’s postmodern sublime:
A threatening aura emanated from these ancient towers, as old in their way as the great temple columns of Karnak, bearers of a different cosmic order, symbols of a view of the universe that had been abandoned along with the state of Florida that had given them birth.... Time was different here, as it had been at Alamogordo and Eniwetok; a psychic fissure had riven both time and space, then run deep into the minds of the people who worked here. (1042)
The comparisons here outline a meaningful cultural geography. Cape Canaveral is connected with a sanctuary of ancient Egypt, Karnak, the product of a civilization that was deeply interested in astronomy, also for purely practical reasons, and that connected religion and celestial bodies. We might mention as an example Sirius, the Dog Star, which was linked to the myth of the death, dismemberment, and rebirth of Osiris. But the space center is also connected with more disquieting places—Alamogordo, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and Eniwetok, the testing ground of the hydrogen bomb. The dead past of Karnak links up with the new scientifically planned and technologically-produced mass death of the nuclear Armageddon via the gantries of Cape Kennedy/Canaveral.
Here, I think, is the core of all the dead astronaut stories: paraphrasing once again Brahe’s motto, by looking at the stars we can understand what is happening or is going to happen on Earth. But the stars we have been looking at are artificial comets, like Merril’s “burning catafalque” with its “cascade of vaporising metal ... filling the sky with incandescent light” in “The Cage of Sand” (370); comets are, it should be remembered, stars of ill omen. The celestial bodies over our heads are actually corpses, the remains of death, the result of an act of hubris: they violate the heavens that still are a place of powerful sacred meaning for our not yet fully evolved unconscious. Moreover, violating the heavens with a technology inseparably entwined with violence and death, with our deepest destructive drives, makes the space program a multi-layered, contradictory, and ultimately dangerous assemblage whose overall emblem is the dead astronaut (and the mass-media cargo cult attached to him/her).
That “savage” cargo cult, the deranged religiosity Ballard repeatedly depicts in the stories we have read (be it organized, as in “The Dead Astronaut,” or anarchically individualistic, as in “Memories of the Space Age”) is part of our complex and contradictory attitude to the simulacra of the mediascape (the televised, spectacularized deaths that are crucial in The Atrocity Exhibition, among which Ballard rightly includes—as we have seen—the factual and counterfactual versions of astronauts’ deaths). Such a complex relationship between us and the celestial corpses is astrologically projected onto the surface of the planet, onto the stage Ballard has used for all his dead astronaut stories—that is, Cape Canaveral/Kennedy. In the overall context of Ballard’s oeuvre, that site is one among several recurring places that have a special aura, often connected with death and destruction (especially mass death and mass destruction), so that we might say that our (post)modern Karnak (or Delphi, or Cumae) are Hiroshima and Eniwetok, not to mention another archetypal Ballardian place, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, because sometimes individual deaths may be so powerful that they grant an aura to a place. The same might be said for the underpass in Paris where Diana Spencer died.
But maybe the real twin of Cape Canaveral, considered as the birthplace of the ominous and death-tainted US space program, is the testing ground of the technoscientific achievement of another famous US scientific program, the Manhattan Project—Alamogordo, the real birthplace of the Bomb. It is explicitly mentioned by Ballard while portraying the space center, and depicted by an avowedly Ballard-inspired essayist such as Jean Baudrillard, who felt he had to include that sand-covered testing ground in his list of highly meaningful places in the American desert: “ALAMOGORDO: the first atomic-bomb test against the backdrop of White Sands, the pale blue backcloth of the mountains and hundreds of miles of white sand—the blinding artificial light of the bomb against the blinding light of the ground” (4). Baudrillard’s prose is here definitely Ballardian in its visionary blending of “real,” outer landscape and inner, fantasized mindscape.23 And the sandy cradle of the bomb can be easily superimposed on the sand-choked Cape Canaveral staged by Ballard in “The Cage of Sand” as a key to decipher the morbid, disquieting fascination of the dead astronaut.
A shorter version of this article, entitled “Bare volanti. L’immagine degli astronauti morti in alcuni racconti di James G. Ballard,” was published in La città e la violenza, edited by Paolo Prezzavento (Ascoli Piceno: Otium Edizioni, 2007).
1. The Gulf War did impinge modestly on the disaster, however, thanks to the presence in the Columbia crew of Ilan Ramon, an Israeli air force colonel, who was tangentially connected, in media coverage, to the oncoming conflict due to his role in the bombing of Iraq’s unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981.
2. Aside from Colonel Ramon, the crew of the Columbia consisted of US Air Force lieutenant colonel Michael Anderson, US Navy captain David Brown, aerospace engineer Kalpana Chawla, US Navy captain Laurel Clark, US Navy commander William McCool, and US Air Force colonel Rick Husband, the mission commander.
3. Originally published as a stand-alone story under the title “The Death Module” (in the July 1967 issue of New Worlds), “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown” was renamed when it was incorporated as Chapter Five of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970; I refer to the latter version here. Ballard’s other short fiction about astronauts has been collected in Memories of the Space Age (1988).
4. It seems that whenever a British sf writer mentions Mars, he or she is always, consciously or not, under H.G. Wells’s gigantic shadow: Ballard’s virus from Mars is an inversion of the Terran bacteria that defeat the Martian invaders in Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898).
5. The surnames of Ballard’s characters are often borrowed from historical personages, a fact that can help to orient the reader’s interpretation of the text. Maiakovsky, for example, may well refer to the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose revolutionary optimism and faith in technosocial progress ironically contrasts with the gloomy and decadent atmosphere of the tale. Merril, by contrast, evokes Judith Merril, the American sf author and anthologist, who believed, like Ballard, that the traditional outer-space story was obsolete, and who became an avid apostle of the British New Wave in the later 1960s.
6. For a discussion of the concept of “time zones” in Ballard, see my “Images from the Disaster Area” (82-83).
7. It might be argued that all these abandoned urban landscapes are anamorphic images of Ballard’s own birthplace, the war-torn Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s, which the author has hauntingly recreated in his autobiographical novels and memoirs, from Empire of the Sun (1984) to Miracles of Life (2008).
8. Ballard’s female characters are discussed at length in Pringle’s ground-breaking and still compelling essay, Earth is the Alien Planet (cf. especially 40-44; 49-51).
9. And yet, as Yaszek has reminded us, NASA did implement, in the wake of the Sputnik crisis, a Women in Space Early (WISE) program, “recruiting thirteen of the nation’s top female aviators for astronaut training” (13). The program was terminated in 1962 (ironically, the year “Cage of Sand” was published), but today, of course, women are routinely included in space-bound missions.
10. Critics are still taking the measure of Ballard’s most innovative long text. Is it a novel or short-story collection? Ballard himself has not always called it a novel. Caronia, the Italian translator of Atrocity and a Ballard expert, is inclined towards reading the book as a destructured collection of interrelated stories (625). On the other hand, Scholes and Rabkin define The Atrocity Exhibition as a set of “ghastly collages” (96), using a noncommittal term, while one of the best book-length critical analyses of Ballard’s oeuvre, Gasiorek’s J.G. Ballard, describes Atrocity as “a collage of ‘condensed novels’” (16), stressing the autonomy of the single parts of the book. Luckhurst’s penetrating study of The Atrocity Exhibition focuses more on such dichotomies as surrealism vs. pop art, or modernism vs. postmodernism, than on a overall analysis of the architecture of this quasi-novel. Delville, by contrast, argues that the book “contains fifteen ‘chapters’ or ‘condensed novels’ ranging from four to fifteen pages. Each of them contains a series of interrelated vignettes gravitating around the psychopathological states of a central figure” (22). The term vignette is particularly felicitous, inasmuch as it refers to small units, but also to different arts (or different media): in fact, a vignette can be a short descriptive literary sketch, but also a brief scene in a play or a movie; it is a kind of photograph, but also the pictorial part of a stamp, or a kind of drawing or engraving. The book is divided into stories/chapters that are in turn divided into short titled paragraphs or sections, and this fragmentariness is associated with a multiplicity of media, which is indeed one of the most important features of The Atrocity Exhibition.
11. For a discussion focusing especially on the ethical implications of this delirious collage text, see my essay “‘Is the War Inside your Mind?’”
12. For a discussion of some of the conundrums surrounding these characters, see Pringle’s “You and Me and the Continuum.”
13. Mallory is another surname à clef, hinting at George Mallory, the British mountaineer who died during the attempt to make the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1924. Mallory inspired the character of Ransom (another surname Ballard has used in his fiction), the protagonist of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Ascent of F6 (1936). Ballard might have also known about George Mallory because the disappeared mountaineer has a court named after him at Magdalene College, Cambridge, with an inscribed stone commemorating his death that might have been seen by the writer during his Cambridge years (1949-1951).
14. The story closely resembles two others written at the same time, “Myths of the Near Future” (1982) and “News from the Sun” (1981), both of which feature a time-altering syndrome triggered by space missions. Stephenson argues that they are “interrelated stories treating the theme of transcendence” (113).
15. There is another possible interpretation of timelessness, proposed by Dominika Oramus, which sees this element as derived from Freud’s concept of “unconscious mental processes [that] are in themselves timeless” (53). The unconscious is not arranged chronologically, as “deep inside our cells, time does not exist” (53). So the drive to escape time may have a materialistic explanation.
16. Ballard has repeatedly declared that he had read no Conrad before writing his first important novel, The Drowned World (1963), so the dates might make Conrad’s influence unlikely. In his autobiography Miracles of Life, Ballard says that Victor Gollancz, the publisher of his novel, told him during a dinner that he had “stolen” it all from Conrad (191); the young writer was terribly embarrassed by Gollancz’s remark, as he had not read anything by Conrad yet, “but [he] soon made up for this” (192). Ballard gives no date for the dinner in his autobiography, but it may well have taken place some time before the publication of the novel, and this might mean that Ballard had already been reading Conrad to make up for his ignorance when he started writing “A Question of Re-entry.”
17. The Nambikwara, the Amazon Indian tribe closely studied by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, are mentioned by Ballard (437).
18. As Oramus has pointed out, “What Ballard and the Surrealists surely have in common is the belief that an apocalypse had already taken place, both in the intellectual sphere and in daily life” (17).
19. A more significant fault of Brown’s essay is its lack of acknowledgment of the importance of an sf tradition of astronauts and space travel, against which one must necessarily read Ballard’s texts; moreover, she does not seem to realize that interpreting the public image of “real” astronauts is one thing, while reading characters in literary texts is something completely different. Finally, it is unclear what the purpose of her essay is: to denounce a (mystifying) posthuman rhetoric used by NASA or to uphold a posthuman vision that may counter the barely disguised Übermenschen ideology of NASA.
20. For a critique of the myth of unlimited growth underlying the sf of the 1940s, see my “On a Background, Catastrophic, the Story, Ironic” (which focuses on Disch’s novel On Wings of Song ). Latham’s essay discusses how New Wave writers attacked the unlimited-growth optimism of classical sf.
21. I use “expressionist” here in the sense of Gabriele Frasca’s concept of “expressionist historiography,” used to analyze Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novels (27-31). Frasca’s concept might be useful in reading other postmodernist works and their complex relationship to history.
22. An analysis of the political background of the rocket societies, with a discussion of the connections between Kennedy’s New Frontier and the space program, and their relations to Ballard’s short fiction, can be found in Collignon.
23. Baudrillardian readings of Ballard abound; see, for example, Ruddick.
Ballard, J.G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1970. London: Triad Panther, 1979.
_______.“The Cage of Sand.” 1962. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001. 355-72.
_______.“The Dead Astronaut.” 1968. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001. 760-68.
_______. Foreword to “The Cage of Sand.” The Best Science Fiction of J.G. Ballard. London: Futura, 1977. 310.
_______.“Memories of the Space Age.” 1982. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001. 1037-60.
_______.Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography. London: HarperPerennial, 2008.
_______.“A Question of Re-Entry.” 1963. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001. 435-58.
_______.“Zodiac 2000.” 1978. The Complete Short Stories. London: Flamingo, 2001. 982-88.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. 1986. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988.
Brown, Melanie Rosen. “Astronauts, Cyborgs, and the Cape Canaveral Fiction of J.G. Ballard: A Posthuman Analysis.” Reconstruction 4.3 (Summer 2004). Dec. 4, 2008 <http:// reconstruction.eserver.org/043/brown.htm>.
Caronia, Antonio. “L’inopportuna realtà di coscienza.” Tutti i racconti 1969-1992 by J.G. Ballard. Trans. Luca Briasco. Rome: Fanucci, 2005. 625-33.
Collignon, Fabienne. “Of Launching Grounds and Lunacies.” Paper presented at the J.G. Ballard conference, “From Shanghai to Shepperton,” Norwich, England, May 2007.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1998.
Disch, Thomas M. The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World. New York: Free Press, 1998.
Fallowell, Duncan. “Ballard in Bondage.”Books and Bookmen (Mar. 1977): 59-60.
Frasca, Gabriele. L’oscuro scrutare di Philip K. Dick. Rome: Meltemi, 2007.
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005.
Latham, Rob. “The Men Who Walked on the Moon: Images of America in New Wave Science Fiction of the 1960s and 1970s.” Functions of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the 13th International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. Joe Sanders. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995. 195-203.
Luckhurst, Roger. “The Angle Between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1997.
Oramus, Dominika. Grave New World: The Decline of the West in the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Warsaw: U of Warsaw P, 2007.
Prezzavento, Paolo. “L’architetto e il turista, l’astronauta e il terrorista.” La città e la violenza: I mondi urbani e post-urbani di James G. Ballard. Ed.Paolo Prezzavento.Ascoli Piceno: Otium Edizioni, 2007. 15-36.
Pringle, David. Earth is the Alien Planet: J.G. Ballard’s Four Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernardino, CA: Milford, 1979.
_______.“You and Me and the Continuum.” JGB News 21 (Dec.1993): 1-6.
Pynchon, Thomas. Mason and Dixon. London: Jonathan Cape, 1997.
Rossi, Umberto. “Images from the Disaster Area: An Apocalyptic Reading of Urban Landscapes in Ballard’s The Drowned World and Hello America.” SFS 21.1 (Mar. 1994): 81-97.
_______.“Is The War Inside Your Mind? War and the Mass Media in J.G. Ballard’s ‘Theatre of War’ and ‘War Fever’.” Interpretations: European Research Project for Poetics & Hermeneutics, Volume #1: Violence and Art. Ed. Kata Kulavkova. Skopje: Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2007. 157-77.
_______.. “On a Background, Catastrophic, the Story, Ironic: Ecological Awareness and Capitalist Shortsightedness in Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song.” Foundation 85 (Summer 2002): 89-105.
Ruddick, Nicholas. “Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard.” SFS 19.3 (Nov. 1992): 42-50.
Scholes, Robert, and Eric S. Rabkin. Science-Fiction: History, Science, Vision. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1991.
Sturgeon, Theodore. “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” 1959. The Man Who Lost the Sea, Volume X: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2005.155-66.
Wagar, W. Warren. “J.G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia.” SFS 18.1 (Mar. 1991): 53-70.
Yaszek, Lisa. Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008.