Science Fiction Studies

# 9 = Volume 3, Part 2 = July 1976

Charles Nicol

J.G. Ballard and the Limits of Mainstream SF

J.G. Ballard, like many younger SF authors, is often on the basis of his style described as a writer of mainstream SF. But the distinction between mainstream fiction and SF is a matter not of style but of differing conventions, so that an author wishing to straddle their conjunction must limit himself in a number of ways. Even after restricting himself to conventions shared by both mainstream and SF, an author will find his work perceived in different ways by mainstream and SF readers, since any reader who is not an omnibibliophile has his own limitations. I propose to demonstrate this by analyzing two stories by Ballard, "The Drowned Giant" (1965) and "The Voices of Time" (1960). The first is mainstream SF, the second "merely" SF; they are both stories of superlative quality.

"The Drowned Giant" first appeared in Playboy rather than an SF magazine, and would not be out of place in a mainstream anthology. Its premise, unique but within the threshold of familiarity, is established by the first sentence: "On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned giant was washed ashore on the beach five miles to the northwest of the city."1 The story that follows is developed with straightforward economy, and the style remains precise and impersonal throughout.

Although giants belong to folklore rather than technology, the story is SF rather than fantasy. If we accept Todorov’s definition of the Fantastic, then we notice that there is no ambiguity as to whether the dead giant is natural or supernatural, no suggestion that the narrator’s inner reality is at odds with ordinary, external reality—the ambiguities in this story lie elsewhere. The corpse is a fact, an enormous fact, and hence this story is not Fantastic. But even if we reject Todorov’s definition, we have other criteria for judging its genre to be SF: the style is factual and unemotional; the story follows logically from its initial premise with no new marvelous occurrences; and no one in the story assumes that any supernatural agency is involved. Of course, part of the story’s effectiveness lies in the way it plays against certain expectations created by its first sentence; further, by the end of the story almost everyone but the narrator has forgotten that the giant existed, so that the giant’s reality is about to become ambiguous: the story stops before it becomes fantastic.

Once the initial premise is stated, the remainder of the story develops three actions or processes simultaneously. Two of these are the initial excitement and steady decline of interest among the townspeople; and the decay and eventual dismemberment of the giant corpse. Both of these plot-lines are observed by an unnamed narrator, who remains passive throughout; a librarian, he is the only resident of the city sensitive to the possible significance of this monstrous visitation, the only observer capable of limning this event for history (a task eventually assigned him by his fellow librarians). The librarian comes to perceive the dead giant as an event in his own life, assigning personal meaning to this otherwise random event—this constitutes the third plot line. Since the significance of the giant is personal to the librarian, it tends to shift; and as it shifts, it builds up a series of possible meanings. That interpretations are proposed suggests that this is a meaningful event; and that the interpretations are rejected suggests that the meaning has not yet been found. The drowned giant’s dissolution is a significant event, the meaning of which is unclear but undoubted. The story has resonance and power, conforming to that specific type of modern literature, the open-ended parable.

That "The Drowned Giant" is both literature and mainstream fiction I hope to demonstrate by listing three literary analogues—analogues because the story is an original work and not an imitation. The first is Kafka’s "Metamorphosis," another open-ended parable—indeed, while this story could have been written without the existence of Kafka,2 it very possibly would not appear as contiguous with mainstream fiction had Kafka not expanded the limits of that fiction. "Metamorphosis" similarly opens with an "impossible" event: the protagonist has turned overnight into a giant cockroach (or, as Nabokov would have it, a dung-beetle).3 The rest of Kafka’s story is realistic, even naturalistic: the protagonist’s family is at first not just surprised, but horrified; soon the family forces this miraculous event into the narrow channels of their own banal perceptions so that the protagonist is seen as only a giant insect and not their relative; eventually he is all but forgotten, and dies of neglect and starvation. The same process of turning the miraculous into the banal and eventually forgotten occurs as one of the plot lines in "The Drowned Giant," where the initially amazed townspeople soon make a playground of the giant’s ears and nostrils, and build a campfire on his chest; later see the body as merely a source of rotting flesh to be turned into fertilizer; and eventually forget him so thoroughly that his "immense pizzle," preserved in a traveling freak show, is labeled as belonging to a whale, and "even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast." As in Kafka, the initial marvellous event seems to have an immense, hovering significance, and to be symbolic of some agony inherent in the human condition.

The frequent confusion of the giant with a whale inevitably recalls Moby Dick in its development of an enormous, ambiguous symbol. We must assume that Ballard is deliberately pointing to Melville when his narrator observes that "this drowned leviathan had the mass and dimensions of the largest sperm whale." The narrator himself could easily be the sub-sub-sub librarian who provided the "Extracts" at the beginning of Melville’s narrative, while the giant’s flesh about to be processed for fertilizer or cattle food is referred to as "blubber." Only Melville’s whale comes to mind when searching for an analogue to the majestic enigma of the giant.

The third literary analogue is inescapable, for it also belongs to that grey area where literature is also mainstream SF: Gulliver’s Travels. Here the analogue is so obvious that Ballard must steer clear of direct comparisons. "The Drowned Giant" is intermediate between Gulliver’s two voyages concerned with huge size differentials. Obviously the giant washed up on the beach reminds us of Gulliver himself, washed up from the sea on the beach of Lilliput. Our memories of Lilliput add a comic dimension to Ballard’s story, making the inhabitants of his city seem equally trivial men working at trivial occupations in a toylike never-never-land; we are amused when the narrator inspects the giant’s finger-nails, "each cut symmetrically to within six inches of the quick," and decides that they demonstrate "refinement of temperament." But Swift’s purpose in Lilliput was political satire; the most satirical passage in "The Drowned Giant" concerns the city’s men of science (themselves the subject of Swift’s satire in Gulliver’s visit to the Academy of Lagado):

That afternoon the police returned and cleared a way through the crowd for a party of scientific experts—authorities on gross anatomy and marine biology—from the university.... The experts strode around the giant, heads nodding in vigorous consultation, preceded by the policemen who pushed back the press of spectators. When they reached the outstretched hand the senior officer offered to assist them up onto the palm, but the experts hastily demurred.

But since the narrator is one of the "little" people, we are equally reminded of Gulliver’s voyage to Brobdingnag, the land of the giants. This comparison is reinforced by the narrator’s references to such identifiable geographical and cultural signs as the Nile and the Odyssey—the little people belong to our world; we are they. In that voyage of Gulliver, Swift pointed out how gross the flesh seems when magnified, and certainly Ballard’s giant is predominantly a thing of the flesh.

But the giant’s flesh is of interest to Ballard only because it is subject to such gross decay; indeed, one might describe Ballard’s concern throughout his career as an investigation into the possibilities of decay—or to put it more nicely, the potentialities of entropy. Since the giant is actually symbolic of something else, his size is really a matter of perception, expressing the viewpoint of the observer. Just as Alice’s sudden size changes in Wonderland reflected the child’s differing perceptions of herself (almost a baby, nearly an adult), the narrator of "The Drowned Giant" finds that the giant seems larger or smaller during different visits to the corpse. This apparent alteration of size is one of Ballard’s techniques for giving surprising life to the inanimate corpse.

What is most fascinating and original about "The Drowned Giant" is that the dead body is one of the principal actors in the story. The giant’s decay has a life of its own, and creates a personality for the giant that had been absent at his initial appearance. At first the body seems as graceful as a statue of an idealized youth: "the shallow forehead, straight high-bridged nose, and curling lips" remind the narrator of "a Roman copy of Praxiteles," while "the elegantly formed cartouches of the nostrils" emphasize "the resemblance to sculpture." At this time, the narrator has the impression that the giant is "merely asleep," ready to "suddenly stir and clap his heels together." Visiting the corpse again three days later, the narrator realizes how much he identifies with the dead giant: "to all intents the giant was still alive for me, indeed more alive than many of the people watching him." By now, the giant had aged:

The combined effects of sea water and the tumefaction of the tissues had given the face a sleeker and less youthful look. Although the vast proportions of the features made it impossible to assess the age and character of the giant, on my previous visit his classically modeled mouth and nose suggested that he had been a young man of discreet and modest temper. Now, however, he appeared to be at least in early middle age. The puffy cheeks, thicker nose and temples, and narrowing eyes gave him a look of well-fed maturity that even now hinted a growing corruption to come.

By the following day, the giant has become more crude, decadent, unkempt, "but despite this, and the continuous thickening of his features, the giant still retained his magnificent Homeric stature." Indeed, he seems ashamed of his condition: "The slope of the firmer sand tilted the body toward the sea, the bruised swollen face averted in an almost conscious gesture." The narrator continues to identify with the giant, noting that "this ceaseless metamorphosis, a macabre life-in-death, alone permitted me to set foot on the corpse." Now he finds the emotions of death the dominant feature of the giant’s face, "a mask of exhaustion and helplessness": "For the first time I became aware of the extremity of this last physical agony of the giant, no less painful for his unawareness of the collapsing musculature and tissues." Two days later, the giant’s features have entered a phase of final humiliation, like the visage of a battered and punch-drunk fighter: "The giant’s swollen cheeks had now almost closed his eyes, drawing the lips back in a monumental gape. The once straight Grecian nose had been twisted and flattened, stamped into the ballooning face by countless heels." By the next day, the head has been removed, leaving nothing to observe save the purely mechanical rendering of the massive flesh into fertilizer. The reader has been led by Ballard into identifying with the dead giant’s humiliation.

Aside from this narrative excellence, the story also has a symbolic level, a level investigated by the narrator as he seeks to explain why the giant fascinates him. This can most easily be demonstrated with two quotations, the first coming when the narrator initially recognizes that the giant is "still alive" for him:

What I found so fascinating was partly his immense scale, the huge volume of space occupied by his arms and legs, which seemed to confirm the identity of my own miniature limbs, but above all, the mere categorical fact of his existence. Whatever else in our lives might be open to doubt, the giant, dead or alive, existed in an absolute sense, providing a glimpse into a world of similar absolutes of which we spectators on the beach were such imperfect and puny copies.

For the narrator, the giant’s reality is metaphysical: he belongs to a "World of... absolutes." God seems the most likely metaphysical "absolute": the giant is proof that God exists, with men "puny copies" in his image; the existence of God confirms the identity of the narrator. Other readers may prefer to see this as a more general reference to an unspecified metaphysical construct. Yet eventually the narrator recognizes that the giant, whether God or not, is indeed dead. He becomes "reluctant to visit the shore, aware that [he has] probably witnessed the approaching end of a magnificent illusion." It is "almost with relief" that the narrator watches the corpse being removed, since its dissolution has paralleled his own disillusion.4

Only when the corpse has been completely dismembered and its less destructible fragments distributed all over the city can the narrator again entertain his illusion. Discovering the giant’s thighbones framing the doorway of a wholesale meat merchant, the narrator has "a sudden vision of the giant climbing to his knees upon those bare bones and striding away through the streets of the city, picking up the scattered fragments of himself on his return journey to the sea." But the other inhabitants of the city have forgotten the giant altogether, or confused him with other oceanic creatures. Yet his ribs, pelvis, and backbone still remain on the beach, witness to what the narrator has learned of the decay of men and ideas.

SF fans might not have enjoyed "The Drowned Giant" as much as mainstream readers, since Ballard slights his science, providing no explanations for the giant’s appearance. And the more conventional SF story would have investigated where the giant came from, rather than what he meant. Further, the society described in "The Drowned Giant" soon lapses into its uneventful existence, a situation not generally appreciated by SF readers, who seem to desire apocalyptic climaxes rather than anticlimactic dissolves. The image of the face of a dead giant, moving from a dreaming tranquility to excesses of agony and shame, is poetic but not necessarily within the poetry of science fiction.

In contrast, the poetry of "The Voices of Time" should appeal directly to the SF reader, while appearing to the mainstream reader as a mass of jumbled images. Here the narrative is rich in explanations and partial explanations, while the method of composition is one of complexity rather than simplicity. The reader is bombarded with SF images, all striking and all pointing in the same direction: the universe is running down, the sun is running down, earth is running down, man is running down, and the protagonist of the story is running down most rapidly of all. The focus is on entropy. But the power of the story lies in the many ways in which its characters try to escape entropy, and in the sterility of their attempts. The hope of escaping time is held out like a brass ring, but each attempt to reach the ring leads to madness and death. Eventually the reader comes to see death as itself an escape from entropy, and the story ends in tranquility: the tranquility of exhaustion.

Although the style is usually subordinate to the subject matter, in a few places Ballard employs a bravura technique to underline certain unique situations. Generally, the chief purpose of his narrative method is to present large quantities of information without using straight exposition; Ballard includes numerous tapes, diaries, and computer read-outs as both information sources and actual "voices of time." Consequently, much of the story’s background is presented elliptically, and must be reconstructed by the reader. Many writers have included such "documentation," but here the most revealing literary analogue probably would not occur to most readers: in method and content, "The Voices of Time" resembles Eliot’s Wasteland, with a great number of images piled one on the other to form an inescapable network of arid futility.

The time of the story is the late twentieth century. The chief features of the landscape are mountains, a salt lake of moderate size, and vegetation belonging to the cactus family—all reinforcing the picture of bleak sterility. The manmade features are equally arid and impotent: a dry swimming pool littered with dead leaves; a number of enormous, flat, circular concrete targets once used for artillery practice; and a seven-story house built in a bewildering maze that turns out to be a geometric model of the square root of minus one. The site seems to be an imagined Southwest, possibly Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The basic "scientific" idea of the story is that high levels of radiation stimulate "two inactive genes which occur in a small percentage of all living organisms, and appear to have no intelligible role in their structure or development." Here the mainstream reader is at a disadvantage; unfamiliar with fiction that has science at its core, he will assume these silent genes to be Ballard’s fantasy (unless he happens to know better). The SF reader, on the other hand, while probably knowing little more than the general reader, is attuned to the subtle distinctions between fantasy and fact in SF stories; even without previous knowledge, he will assume that Ballard got those silent genes from some other storehouse than his imagination—and, at least where fruit flies are concerned, he will be correct. Thus the mainstream reader, failing to realize the extent to which Ballard is extrapolating from the actual world, is at an immediate disadvantage in assessing the story’s power.

Because "some people have speculated that organisms possessing the silent pair of genes are the forerunners of a massive move up the evolutionary slope, that the silent genes are a sort of code, a divine message that we inferior organisms are carrying for our more highly developed descendants," in Ballard’s story a scientist named Whitby has spent ten years perfecting a technique for irradiating them. But if there is any "divine message" in the silent genes, it is that God is an insane nihilist:

Without exception the organisms we’ve irradiated have entered a final phase of totally disorganized growth, producing dozens of specialized sensory organs whose function we can’t even guess. The results are catastrophic—the anemone will literally explode, the Drosophila cannibalize themselves, and so on. Whether the future implicit in these plants and animals is ever intended to take place, or whether we’re merely extrapolating—I don’t know. Sometimes I think, though, that the new sensory organs developed are parodies of their real intentions.

Thus the hope of transcendence leads instead to madness and destruction. Because of the pessimistic implications of this experiment, Whitby has committed suicide.

Radiation activates the silent genes because those genes "alter the form of the organism and adapt it to living in a hotter radiological climate. Soft-skinned organisms develop hard shells, these contain heavy metals as radiation screens." At the same time that these adaptations are proving futile in the laboratory, they are occurring in nature; the outside world has begun to reflect the miniature world of the laboratory. For instance, Robert Powers (the protagonist) discovers a frog that has grown an articulated, external lead shell to protect itself from excessive radiation. The local cacti are "assimilating gold in extractable quantities." Clearly, the cause for these drastic changes in the fauna and flora is a higher level of radiation. (The story suggests that Ballard has extrapolated these particular mutations from what was observed at Eniwetok.)

Several reasons are elliptically offered for this increased radiation count. From one casual conversation the reader may infer that World War III has already occurred. Other references in the story present an even more ominous explanation: the sun is cooling and emitting heavier radiation.

The images of entropy in "The Voices of Time" are extremely insistent, ranging from the largest to the smallest things in the universe. Everything is coming to an end; the universe itself is running down. Signals from the stars have been decoded by computers and turn out to be merely a series of countdowns. The most stunning of these series is sent from the Canes Venatici group at intervals of 97 weeks and includes over 500 million digits. The end of that countdown will coincide with the end of the universe. From the universe down through the sun, from agricultural yields to human fertility, everything has begun to run down. Most people now sleep ten and a half hours a night. At the lower end of the scale, even the genes that transmit life are "wearing out."

Still, the accelerated decline on Earth is a special case, caused by higher radiation levels. Humans who carry the silent genes have become subject to narcoma, which causes them to sleep for increasingly large portions of the day; eventually they lapse into permanent sleep. Powers, the protagonist, has developed narcoma symptoms, and in his diary his tabulation of hours of consciousness is still another countdown: "June 14: 9½ hours.... June 19: 8¾ hours.... June 25: 7½ hours.... July 3: 5¾ hours." Thus Powers is not only the protagonist but the objective correlative of the story, embodying in himself all the forces of entropy and all the apparently sterile hopes for a new future that the silent genes represent.

But throughout Powers’ decline, Ballard has also provided him with certain images of potentiality and change. His name is the most obvious example. The most complex of these images is the enormous "ideogram" that Powers builds with cement during trance states; Powers himself is never consciously aware of constructing this enormous cement pattern. Since Ballard explicitly describes this pattern as a "crude Jungian mandala," the reason for its construction is clearly to be found in the works of Jung: a person will create or imagine mandalas when, having reached a critical stage, he is about to resolve his difficulties or at least remove them to a different plane.5 That Powers creates a mandala suggests his imminent potential for change; that Whitby had also created the same mandala just before committing suicide suggests that this potential may itself be arrested or sterile. But Powers is consciously determined to test his potential, and plans to use Whitby’s irradiation technique to activate his own silent genes—the first human to do so.

Because Powers’ decision is such a desperate and heroic gamble, Ballard uses a virtuoso technique to dramatize the time that Powers spends under the Maxitron (Whitby’s irradiation machine): the reader perceives this event through the sense organs of a mutant anemone. Since the anemone is highly sensitive to radiation, it translates the Maxitron’s power-flow into first visual and then auditory terms, in a dazzling display of synesthesia:

Gradually an image formed, revealing an enormous black fountain that poured an endless stream of brilliant light over the circle of benches and tanks. Beside it a figure moved, adjusting the flow through its mouth. As it stepped across the floor its feet threw off vivid bursts of color, its hands racing along the benches conjured up a dazzling chiaroscuro, balls of blue and violet light that exploded fleetingly in the darkness like miniature star-shells.

Photons murmured.... The silent outlines of the laboratory began to echo softly, waves of muted sound fell from the arc lights and echoed off the benches and furniture below. Etched in sound, their angular forms resonated with sharp persistent overtones.

One doubts that a mainstream reader can make this sudden transition, but the SF reader should find it stimulating. This bravura passage prepares the reader for a second such passage, when Powers registers his awareness of the voices of time in sensual terms, apparently having developed new sense organs of his own. Further, this radical shift in narrators emphasizes the potential of the experiment, and the anemone’s narration ends on a note of elation: "Streaming through a narrow skylight, its voice clear and strong, interwoven by numberless overtones, the sun sang...." [Ballard’s ellipsis]

However, Powers’ attempt to free himself from entropy ends in death. After his silent genes have been activated, he is able to perceive time so intensely that he can drive his car with his eyes closed, steering between the mountains and the salt take by "feeling" the interface of "the two time fronts." As his perception becomes more acute, he apparently can "feel the separate identity of each sand grain and salt crystal calling to him from the surrounding ring of hills." Finding the center of his huge concrete mandala, he listens to the voices of the stars, "the timesong of a thousand galaxies overlaying each other in his mind." Overwhelmed by the eternal countdown radiating from the Canes Venatici star group, he feels "his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into the vast continuum of the current." "Beyond hope now but at last at rest," he is swept into "the river of eternity." At this moment, Powers has died. Although described attractively, his death is a transcendence of entropy only in the sense that he has left life behind; there seems to be no future in eternity. This pessimistic view is emphasized by the final paragraphs of the story, as Kaldren visits the laboratory and finds all the experimental plants and animals dead. Yet the wider view of the story is to emphasize entropy itself, a force to which everything in the universe is subject.

Kaldren’s meditations end the story; although Kaldren never sleeps, he is "half-asleep" in the final paragraph. Since he has earlier given Powers the message that contains the story’s title, we must assume that Kaldren is, in part, a stand-in for the author; very possibly it is Ballard himself who is building a collection of "end-prints, statements, the products of total fragmentation. When I’ve got enough together I’ll build a new world for myself out of them."6 It is typical of Ballard’s precision in construction that when Powers does hear the voices of time to which Kaldren refers in the following passage, he explicitly hears both the galaxies and the grains of sand:

You’re not alone, Powers, don’t think you are. These are the voices of time, and they’re all saying good-bye to you. Think of yourself in a wider context. Every particle of your body, every grain of sand, every galaxy carries the same signature. As you’ve just said, you know what the time is now, so what does the rest matter? There’s no need to go on looking at the clock.

All of the images of "The Voices of Time" coalesce in Kaldren’s philosophy: like Powers, throw away your wristwatch. Think of the wider context and do not fear death.

In "The Voices of Time," Ballard has used science fiction to fulfill the traditional role of the poet: to meditate on time and death. Entropy. As an SF reader, I can interpret and appreciate this story as literature because its subject matter is not alien to me. But I doubt that a mainstream reader can appreciate the subtlety and beauty of such SF works, because his own set of literary values is limited by a tradition that excludes them. It is not the writer, but the reader, that builds the distinction between science fiction and mainstream fiction into a wall. One can find the gates in that wall, as Ballard did in "The Drowned Giant," but "The Voices of Time" kept to a different path. I believe this story is literature; I’m also convinced that it is unavailable to a reader experienced only in mainstream fiction.


1. "The Drowned Giant" appeared in Playboy under the title "Souvenir." Quotations from both "The Drowned Giant" and "The Voices of Time" follow the text of Chronopolis and Other Stories (US 1971).

2. Ballard is obviously familiar with Kafka, and one may infer an influence. Kafka is the only fiction writer mentioned in "The Voices of Time."

3. Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (US 1973), p 156.

4. A more recent open-ended parable involving a giant, symbolic corpse is Donald Barthelme’s new novel, The Dead Father.

5. A further complication is that Powers, a neuro-surgeon who is about to become permanently asleep, has operated on another principal character, Kaldren, removing his sleepcenter so that Kaldren does not sleep at all; in addition, Kaldren follows Powers around obsessively, like a shadow. In a sense, then, Powers has created his opposite and shadow in Kaldren—a pattern of significance in Jungian psychology. Kaldren’s girlfriend, Coma, also seems part of this pattern.

6. Compare T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin." The Wasteland is presumably part of Kaldren’s collection.



The distinction between mainstream fiction and SF is a matter not of style but of differing conventions, and an author such as Ballard, who may be read in terms either of SF or of the mainstream, must limit himself in a number of ways. Even after restricting himself to shared conventions, such an author will find his work perceived in different ways by mainstream and SF readers, since any reader who is not an omnibibliophile has his or her own limitations. I propose to analyze two stories by Ballard: "The Drowned Giant," (1965) and "The Voices of Time" (1960). The first is mainstream SF, the second "merely" science fiction: both are superlative stories.

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