Science Fiction Studies

#73 = Volume 24, Part 3 =November, 1997




Nicholas Ruddick

Falling Between Two Walls

Roger Luckhurst. "The Angle Between Two Walls": The Fiction of J.G. Ballard. New York: St. Martin's Press (800-221-7945), 1997. 228pp. $39.95.

The opening section of this book may be summarized thus. Ballard is a writer who avoids the literary center. He dwells happily in the banal suburbs and he writes, or rather is to be found operating, "however uncertainly, in the genre of science fiction" (xii). This produces unease and embarrassment and resistance and even "visible discomfort" in his readers (xiii). Or perhaps it is what his work is about that makes us squirm in our seats. Regardless, the aim of this study is to "describe and sustain" this unease (xiii). My unease was duly sustained.

Early on, Luckhurst introduces the Derridean idea of la brisure or hinge, [Brisure is not properly an object (a hinge) but a sign (a point of cleavage, with the secondary meaning, shared with English, of a mark of difference in heraldry). Thus understood, the idea would accord better with Ballard's "angle between two walls] suggesting that this concept helps us understand the generic position of Ballard's work--it at once joins and separates two planes, primarily sf and the mainstream, but also by extension high and low art, avant-garde and popular literature. Thus Ballard's work can be used to examine generic assumptions-- or, as Luckhurst puts it, it "can hold strategic importance in interrogating unexamined categories of literary value" (xiii). But this isn't quite the same thing, in that it seems to imply that either no one has thought of Ballard as difficult to categorize generically (untrue), or that no one has thought of giving high literary value to Ballard's or any other fiction that positions itself within a genre with low prestige (also untrue).

Still, Luckhurst certainly feels that sf criticism has not come to grips with Ballard. What he will do is, first, "where necessary...contextualize Ballard's fiction within the science fiction genre" (xiii). Second, he will travel "over many terrains more or less foreign to science fiction: existentialism, Surrealism, Pop Art, psychoanalysis, ethnologies of contemporary supermodernity, and the theory of autobiography, to name but a few" (xiv). All of these "terrains" do indeed overlap with Ballard's fiction. If we grant Luckhurst metaphorical latitude, some "passings over" (xix) of these terrains adjacent to Ballard's fiction might very well make the whole territory "resonate more widely" (xiv). However, it is already unclear how hinges might facilitate the aerial project, and whether mapping or bombing is on the agenda.

What we then get are five chapters that between them deal with the highlights of the Ballardian oeuvre from The Drowned World (1962) to The Kindness of Women (1991) in roughly chronological order, though suppressing developmental metaphors and value judgments. The culminating section of the final chapter, on Vermilion Sands (1971), offers a single bizarre exception to the method just described. Otherwise, we will not learn the relationship of these works to each other or to the author, nor how they rank as artistic achievements, but we will instead learn what bodies of theory the works bring to Luckhurst's mind as he overpasses them.

Chapter One, "J. G. Ballard and the Catastrophe of Genre," begins with the assumption that the criticism of sf "remains 'contaminated' by the image of the uncritical, adulatory fan" (2). Luckhurst perhaps means by this that he feels, or is made to feel, that sf criticism is always somehow illegitimate. He acknowledges that sf courses "proliferate (especially in America) and the genre has recently become central to theorists of postmodernism" (2-3), but the question of legitimacy is not thereby resolved for him. Perhaps he finds references to sf by fashionable contemporary theorists unsatisfactory. If so, I would concur. Mainstream critics are often ignorant of the discourse of sf, but feel that they can go slumming in it when it suits them, and are surprised when the uncouth natives don't feel honored by their condescension. Ballard is a writer who can only be properly understood through sf--specifically through British sf, at a tangent not only to the mainstream but also to the popular-cultural institution of American sf. The problem of genre chez Ballard is something of a mirage that dissolves when he is placed in the appropriate context.

But this is not Luckhurst's trajectory at all. Instead he emphasizes the issue of legitimacy by referring to cultural theories of 1950s B-movies. Ballard is almost forgotten under the hard rain of names: Brantlinger, Luciano, Sontag, Sobchack, Jameson, Huyssen, McHale. The aim of the exercise is to show that, basically, from the perspective of high culture, sf is crap, except (perhaps) for Ballard. Then Luckhurst deals with "internal legitimations," by which he means the expressions of insecurity evident in the attempt of sf critics to legitimize sf as a genre. The chief problem here is that most of the arguments he rehearses are old hat (based on hoary definitions by Amis, Heinlein, and a Suvin article of 1972), and fail to take properly into account the British context of Ballard. At one point Gernsback is revealed triumphantly as the skeleton in sf's closet, but as it then dawns that the linkage between Hugo G. and Jim B. is a mite tenuous, he is as suddenly dropped again.

Finally, in a section called "J. G. Ballard and the Generic Law," Luckhurst manages to impose his own generic ideas on Ballard's fiction to the extent that the fiction becomes about generic issues, as if Ballard had no higher aim than to question which shelf his books were sold from. This argument leads to some very unlikely conclusions. So, Ballard's early heroes such as Kerans in The Drowned World and Ransom in The Crystal World (1966) seek "the ecstatic release, the abandonment of generic boundaries.... these stories do no less than expose the death-drive of science fiction" (33). I suspect that this italicized revelation, elaborated in Luckhurst's essay "The Many Deaths of Science Fiction" in the March 1994 SFS, may be slightly tainted by anthropomorphism and wishful thinking.

Luckhurst remarks at the start of Chapter Two, "J.G. Ballard and the Genre of Catastrophe," that Ballard's Disaster Quartet has "invoked [generated?] an intense critical industry" (39), but then reveals that he has not read most of what this industry has had to say. In a discussion of catastrophe fiction and the end of empire he does drop the names of some works of British catastrophe fiction, but the progress made by one-sentence plot summaries and a few token statistics about decolonization is undone by a switching back and forth in history--Doyle, Wyndham, Bennett, Wells, Shiel, Golding, Connington, Hoyle--and a carelessness with details. History is the key to the imperial theme in British disaster fiction, a history that Ballard himself lived through in a remarkable way. But Luckhurst has little interest in history, and appears to have read neither Warren Wagar's Terminal Visions (1982) nor Brian Stableford's Scientific Romance in Britain (1985). So much for contextualization.

Chapter Three, "The Atrocity Exhibition and the Problematic of the Avant-Garde," promises the most, in that discussion of Ballard's most difficult work is now eased by the existence of the annotated edition issued by Re/Search (1990). Though there is enough in this chapter to make one want to re-read The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), far too much has a minimal relation to the text under discussion. There is a long digression on the relation of the theories of the avant-garde by Adorno, Lukács, and Bürger; there is a brief section on the reception of the work; there is an interesting reading of certain sections of the work marred by the reference to the central figure, Traven, etc., as the "T-cell," (86) a witticism that reveals an utter insensitivity to the historicity of the text. Ballard has left many clues that there are strong narratives buried in the non-linear paragraphs, and he has also suggested that the whole of the 1960s, avant-garde and all, could be reconstructed from The Atrocity Exhibition. But Luckhurst either isn't aware of these threads or isn't interested in pursuing them. He does raise, only to fudge, the interesting problem of violence against women in Ballard. As it is "intractable and troubling" it must be rewritten "in figural terms" (113) until its undecidability becomes a mark of virtue. For Luckhurst is interested in the "problematic" of the idea of an avant-garde in the late twentieth-century, not in the problem of Ballard's fiction. Presumably we must refigure the subtitle of his book into something more indeterminate.

The fourth chapter, "Mediation, Simulation, Recalcitrance: Crash to Hello America, with Detours," offers a "traversal" (150) of certain ideas as they appear in Ballard and then reappear in Baudrillard and other theorists. It's very easy to see the affinities between Ballard and Baudrillard, rather harder to understand the significant differences that explain Ballard's very qualified admiration of Baudrillard, and Baudrillard's interesting misreading of Crash (1975). The issue of Ballard and Freud--on the one hand, the uncanny; on the other, the death instinct--is also easy to raise, difficult to handle lucidly or concisely. Suffice it to say that in the section on Hello America (1981) this and other material is all marshaled to prove the point that "the scenario of simulation supplied by Crash" should not be "taken out of context of the series in which it is written and work to supply a single thesis for the oeuvre" (150) in accord with current fashionable theories. Strangely, by this "series" Luckhurst seems not to mean the Urban Disaster Trilogy, in that High-Rise (1975) is barely mentioned, but the series of texts, beginning with the early story "The Subliminal Man" (1963) that he has constituted by his own "traversal" in this chapter.

The final chapter, "The Signature of J.G. Ballard," deals with the specificity of Ballard--the question of what makes his texts Ballardian. In an attempt to answer this question without easy recourse to the obviously Ballardian motifs, stylistic tics, obsessive subjects and themes, Luckhurst moves from those suspiciously transparent autobiographical texts, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women, back to Vermilion Sands, which supposedly offers the Ballardian signature at its purest. The aim of this chapter will be to get at the quintessential Ballard, and for Luckhurst that is the unreadable Ballard.

In an interview with Paul di Filippo in Science Fiction Eye 8 (Winter 1991), Ballard, asked about the post-modernist novel, notes that "post-modernism represents a dead-end, a desperate admission that the author has nothing to say and can only think of evermore devious ways of disguising the fact" (71). Ballard dismisses William Gaddis as "Unreadable. Postmodernism trapped inside an Escher staircase" (71). Umberto Eco is also "Unreadable. A marketing triumph" (72). On the question of unreadability, Luckhurst might have done well to ponder these and many other of Ballard's similar statements about his own aesthetic preferences that he has made with some consistency over the years. Ballard is not always trustworthy, but I think we can assume that unreadability is not a quality he strives for in his fiction.

In the place of a conclusion, Luckhurst offers a meditation on Vermilion Sands, which, he concludes, is an unreadable text. He is not far from wrong-- Vermilion Sands is often clumsily written and tediously repetitive--and he offers some convincing examples of Ballard's "abuse of tropes" (174) in such passages as "the piercing cry of the sand-rays over the open mouths of the reefs like hieratic birds" (qtd 175). "Is it simply bad writing?" Luckhurst asks, having correctly shown that it is (175). But he has read enough deconstruction to have learned that Yes means No. After a detour through de Man, Culler, and Derrida, we are asked to believe that unreadability is, in the end, the quintessence of Ballard, that "an obsessively repetitive text enchains [entails?] an obsessively repetitive reading.... to read Ballard is to be held by a lure that is generated by an irreducible core of unreadability" (180). This may reveal something about the repetition compulsion in the critic, but I find that the elevation of unreadability into a mark--the mark--of Ballard's distinction is frankly silly. For however it is intended, this argument comes across not as a plea for metaphoric unreadability, meaning something like a text's subtle evasion of totalizing interpretation, but as a gratuitous inversion of aesthetic values, in which we are asked to believe that one of Ballard's weakest books is his best because of its weaknesses.

Perhaps Luckhurst realizes that he's gone too far off track here, for why else would he conclude by confessing that "my principal anxiety is to what extent I have managed to evade collapsing into an obsessive reading myself, one which loses all critical distance and merely reiterates textual perversities that have failed to be mastered"? (180). This is supposed to be disarming, the critic confessing a knowledge of his own limitations, but it comes across as unprofessional. This is not because he says, "I might have got certain things wrong," but because he pleads, "If I have, don't judge me too harshly."

There are some textbook examples here of the damage to one's credibility that can be caused by a) not doing one's homework, b) copying someone else's homework, or c) doing the wrong homework. Luckhurst is discussing the origin of the term "inner space." He tells us (49) that the Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction ascribes the coinage to Ballard in 1962, but that actually the term can be traced to J.B. Priestley in 1953. Both of these statements are true, but it is an entry in the superseded first edition of the Encyclopedia (1979) to which Luckhurst is referring. He seems unaware that there appeared in 1993 a revised and greatly expanded second edition of the standard reference work in the sf field (which corrects the ascription). More seriously, he at the same time fails to credit Colin Greenland's The Entropy Exhibition (1983; 52-53) for the Priestley reference, making it sound as if he, Luckhurst, had discovered it. This is perilously close to plagiarism, and it is not the only example. I will ascribe Luckhurst's hapless sortie over British catastrophe fiction in chapter two to ignorance of my Ultimate Island (1993). He seems to think that Aldiss's Billion Year Spree (1973; no mention of Trillion) was the last word on this subject. I confess that it felt more than just uncanny to watch him struggling to clarify the relationship between Ballard and Baudrillard in his section on Crash, apparently in blissful ignorance of an essay entitled "Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard" in the November, 1992 SFS.

Here are some of the technical problems that mar this study. There is an excessive use of ironic quotation marks around such phrases as "postmodernist," "thetic," and "science fiction." If you don't really mean the word you're using, use a better word--buy a thesaurus. There is a tendency to the tautologous: "useless, futile junk" (139); "coercive Fascism" (140); "repetitive recurrence" (168). Words are made up inadvertently: "allusionistic" (for allusive, 74); "volatizing" (for volatilizing, but meaning blurring, 142); "surveyal" (for survey, 143); "fantasmatic" (for phantasmal or phantasmic, 143). Metaphors are mixed: intolerable oscillation is inserted into borders that patrol (75); a terrain announces (140); entrapment is shattered (148). The critical jargon becomes at times unreadable: "the landscape of [Hello America] is at once a knowing and disadjusted reiteration of colonial projections, satirizing neo-colonial repetition via disjunctive post-colonial temporal effects, but the extent of that satire remains undeterminable--the space between identical and differential repetition of colonial images uncertain" (149-50). This is probably not pure nonsense, but it is a very good imitation of it.

We are told early on that this book is not a survey of Ballard's oeuvre because David Pringle and Peter Brigg have already done surveys of "Ballard's vast output over forty years of writing" (xiii). Well, this isn't quite true. Pringle's 64-page booklet Earth Is the Alien Planet (1979) gets as far as the stories of Low-Flying Aircraft (1976). Brigg's J.G. Ballard (1985), a short monograph in the Starmont series, gets to Empire of the Sun. Ballard studies cry out for an extensive examination of the oeuvre to date, building on the large body of critical work that has already been done, chiefly by sf critics. Sweeping statements about Ballard's major status have been made (I have been guilty of them myself), but no critic has yet proved energetic enough to test them with an overview of Ballard's achievement. Gregory Stephenson's Out of the Night and Into the Dream (1991) claimed that Ballard is a transcendentalist, a position that in my view is incorrect and requires a full response. Stephenson's book at least has a clear thesis and does try to offer a consistent reading of Ballard's oeuvre.

Luckhurst, disagreeing with Stephenson, fails to build a thesis of his own, and indeed offers very little that is new or interesting about Ballard--on occasion he triumphantly reinvents the wheel only to use it as a treadmill. He begins with a mystification of an obvious and frequently-rehearsed idea: Ballard's fiction doesn't quite fit most people's idea of sf. Then he abandons it to make a few global sweeps of theoretical territory using certain texts by Ballard as his launch pad. Then he attempts to come back to earth to justify the aimlessness of his divagations, burning up on reentry. His book is useful only as a set of hints about how some of Ballard's fiction anticipates or echoes the ideas of certain contemporary theorists.

Luckhurst, a British academic, wants to write on sf but be taken seriously by his mainstream colleagues. Perhaps that is currently difficult in Britain, but if so, he has the exciting prospect of being a pioneer in a perfectly justified struggle for recognition. But this book will not win him many allies in either camp, in that it adds almost nothing to our understanding of Ballard's literary achievement or of sf as a genre. It often seems an unashamed and rather humorless attempt to reveal how much high-powered contemporary literary, cultural, sociological, and psychoanalytical theory Luckhurst has absorbed. If enough names are dropped, enough jargon used, enough theory trotted out in Ballard's name, then perhaps the critic won't be scoffed at by his colleagues as that sci-fi fellow.

If we can read through his clashing metaphors and ponderous gallicisms, we can tell that Luckhurst likes Ballard, has read the Ballard works he deals with (though not necessarily the Ballard criticism), and has processed a huge body of theory. The "terrains" he "traverses" all do have a bearing on Ballard. But he has helped perpetuate the very problem of legitimacy he is supposedly struggling with. From the perspective of sf studies, this book has very little credibility, as it ignores a large body of existing work on the author. Given what he says about "internal legitimations" in this book, we can only assume that this is because Luckhurst feels that sf criticism is always already illegitimate as serious scholarship. To mainstream literary studies, whether he intends it or not, his book sends this message: "Do you wonder why you find sf unreadable? Well, unreadability is a crucial part of the aesthetics of good sf. And to prove my point, much of my argument will be unreadable."

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