Somebody Had a Bad Day

“The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration—apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide. Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.”

J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway and Texas Instruments Boulevard, Dallas, Texas

The Marriage of Reason and Nightmare

“The marriage of reason and nightmare that dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia…In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.”
― J.G. Ballard

Tony Collins Art, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Make a sudden, destructive unpredictable action; incorporate

Is it a bomb?
Or simply a disposable fuel tank.

Does it matter? Now, anyway, it’s just a sculptural form.
A piece of shaped steel, sexy somehow. It pulls the eye to it.
You wonder about its story. Where did it come from?
Why is it hanging there?

Does it matter?


Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Detail of Mural by Cathey Miller/Cathedonia

Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas Cathey MIller, Cathedonia (click to enlarge)

Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas
Cathey MIller, Cathedonia
(click to enlarge)

“The marriage of reason and nightmare that dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia…In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.”
— J.G. Ballard


Exposition Park, Dallas, Texas

Exposition Park, Dallas, Texas

Exposition Park, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)

“The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now: the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Vietnam…”
— J.G. Ballard


I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums up everything: the elements of speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and consumer goods with the technological landscape. The sense of violence and desire, power and energy; the shared experience of moving together through an elaborately signalled landscape.
We spend a substantial part of our lives in the motor car, and the experience of driving condenses many of the experiences of being a human being…, the marriage of the physical aspects of ourselves with the imaginative and technological aspects of our lives. I think the 20th century reaches its highest expression on the highway. Everything is there: the speed and violence of our age; the strange love affair with the machine, with its own death.
—-J.G. Ballard, Narration for Crash! (1971), a short film by Harley Cokeliss

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

“In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and agression concealed within a set of polite conventions.”
― J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Majestic Parking

“‘He thinks you need a lobotomy. He told me you’re obsessed by car parks.’”
—-J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes


“An immense peace seemed to preside over the shabby concrete and untended grass. The glass curtain-walling of the terminal buildings and the multi-storey car-parks behind them belonged to an enchanted domain.”
—-J.G. Ballard, Crash

“At the time he had found himself wishing that Catherine were with him — she would have liked the ziggurat hotels and apartment houses, and the vast, empty parking lots laid down by the planners years before any tourist would arrive to park their cars, like a city abandoned In advance of itself.”
—-J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island

“Wilder pressed on. “I know Charlotte has reservations about life here — the trouble with these places is that they’re not designed for children. The only open space turns out to be someone else’s car-park.”
—-J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

“The town centre consisted of little more than a supermarket and shopping mall, a multi-storey car-park and filling station. Shepperton, known to me only for its film studios, seemed to be the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere.”
—-J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company

“The street lamps shone down on the empty car parks, yet there were no cars or people about, no one was playing the countless slot-machines in the stores and arcades.”
—-J.G. Ballard, Hello America

“Two vehicles occupied opposite corners of the car-park, breaking that companionable rule by which drivers arriving at an empty car-park place themselves alongside each other.”
—-J.G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women

“Acres of car parks stretched around me, areas for airline crews, security personnel, business travellers, an almost planetary expanse of waiting vehicles. They sat patiently in the caged pens as their drivers circled the world. Days lost for ever would expire until they dismounted from the courtesy buses and reclaimed their cars.”
—-J.G. Ballard, Millennium People

“I had left the Jensen in the multi-storey car park that dominated the town, a massive concrete edifice of ten canted floors more mysterious in its way than the Minotaur’s labyrinth at Knossos — where, a little perversely, my wife suggested we should spend our honeymoon.”
—-J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come

“Thousands of inverted buildings hung from street level — car parks, underground cinemas, sub-basements and sub-sub-basements — which now provided tolerable shelter, sealed off from the ravaging wind by the collapsing structures above.”
—-J.G. Ballard, The Wind from Nowhere

“Already, without touching her, he knew intimately the repertory of her body, its anthology of junctions. His eyes turned to the multi-storey car park beside the apartment blocks above the beach. Its inclined floors contained an operating formula for their passage through consciousness.”
—-J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

Mass Transit

J.G. Ballard wrote a short story named “The Concentration City” (you can read the PDF HERE) about a city that has grown to encompass the entire universe… theoretically and practically – whether it is actually is another question.

The protagonist tries to find the edge of the city, to find “free space” – to find an area where he can build and use a flying machine, by hopping a supersonic express sleeper train and riding it west for weeks.

Unfortunately, he discovers that no matter where you go, there you are.

Here in Dallas – which is shaped sort of like a bulls-eye, with concentric rings of highways and radial connectors – all the trains run out of the center and stop. There is no endless loop. They make you get off the train at the end, before it switches track and heads back in.

Otherwise it would be tempting to get on and never exit. Ride the endless electric rails – watch the city go by, circuit after infinite circuit, the commuters come and go. Everything would slide past forever.

Maybe it’s best that you can’t do that.



(click to enlarge)

“The surgeon hesitated before opening the door. “Look,” he began to explain sympathetically, “you can’t get out of time, can you? Subjectively it’s a plastic dimension, but whatever you do to yourself you’ll never be able to stop that clock”- he pointed to the one on the desk-“or make it run backward. In exactly the same way you can’t get out of the City.”
“The analogy doesn’t hold,” M. said. He gestured at the walls around them and the lights in the streets outside. “All this was built by us. The question nobody can answer is: what was here before we built it?”
“It’s always been here,” the surgeon said. “Not these particular bricks and girders, but others before them. You accept that time has no beginning and no end. The City is as old as time and continuous with it.”
“The first bricks were laid by someone,” M. insisted. “There was the Foundation.”
“A myth. Only the scientists believe in that, and even they don’t try to make too much of it. Most of them privately admit that the Foundation Stone is nothing more than a superstition. We pay it lip service out of convenience, and because it gives us a sense of tradition. Obviously there can’t have been a first brick. If there was, how can you explain who laid it, and even more difficult, where they came from?”
“There must be free space somewhere,” M. said doggedly. “The City must have bounds.”
“Why?” the surgeon asked. “It can’t be floating in the middle of nowhere. Or is that what you’re trying to believe?”
M. sank back limply. “No”
The surgeon watched M silently for a few minutes and paced back to the desk. “This peculiar fixation of yours puzzles me. You’re caught between what the psychiatrists call paradoxical faces. I suppose you haven’t misinterpreted something you’ve heard about the Wall?”
M. looked up. “Which wall?”
The surgeon nodded to himself. “Some advanced opinion maintains that there’s a wall around the City, through which it’s impossible to penetrate. I don’t pretend to understand the theory myself. It’s far too abstract and sophisticated. Anyway I suspect they’ve confused this Wall with the bricked-up black areas you passed through on the Sleeper. I prefer the accepted view that the City stretches out in all direction without limits.””
—-The Concentration City (1957). James Graham Ballard. The Complete Short Stories

Finally Finished

Well, one thing about writing this thing is that I can get dates. Let’s see here it is, September 17, 2011 is when I started reading the Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard. I finished it this week… so it took me about ten months to get through the whole thing.

By no means is that the only thing I’ve read in the last year. I’d read a few stories and then jump to something else… only to return when that was done. The last week or so, though, I made a concentrated push to get through to the end.

It is a massive tome. Ninety Eight short stories, novellas, and novelettes, ending up one short of one thousand two hundred pages. The paper version weighs about four pounds and would be a real pain to carry around. Inside my Kindle, though, the weight of all those bytes is barely noticeable.

I had read a lot of these stories before. In high school, in the 1970’s I discovered his short fiction and gobbled up what I could get my paws on. What was cool about reading this now is that the stories were arranged in chronological order – so I revisited what I remembered and then continued to cruise right on past, on into the future (which now is the relatively recent past). I would look at the dates on the later stories and think of myself sitting there in 1973, and realizing what I was reading wouldn’t be written for another decade.

Since this is his complete body of work, in order, you can’t help but notice the continuing themes. The lonely, wealthy woman living alone in a crumbling estate, exerting an inexorable influence on the protagonist and the people living around him. The abandoned decadent tourist destination. The desiccated sea with dry sand waves and coral canyons. Empty swimming pools. Nature, time, and technology intersecting and reacting in unexpected, beautiful, and horrific ways…. And many more.

Near the end there are three longer works: News from the Sun, Memories of the Space Age, and Myths of the Near Future. These three, read consecutively, are fascinating companions to each other. They are essentially the same story, told with tiny shifts in attitude and points of view. They deal with the theory that man’s ventures into outer space have set loose a change in the very nature of time itself and the entire human race, in a series of events centered on the now long-abandoned Florida NASA launch sites is becoming unstuck in time. It is never clear whether this is a disaster – a punishment for shaking off our bonds, or a further leap in evolution where the human race is able to exist within and without time itself. The strong impression is that it is both.

Fascinating. Especially powerful in that, within these vast movements of irresistible forces the central theme of the stories remains the human relationships of the protagonists and how they struggle to maintain their place, their loves, their very lives.

Ballard writes:

I just tend to write whatever comes mentally to hand, and what I find interesting at a particular time. These decisions as to what one’s going to write tend to be made somewhere at the back of one’s mind, so one can’t consciously say: ‘that’s what I’m going to write’. It doesn’t work out like that! (interview in ‘J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years’, 1976).

I’m barely aware of what is going on. Recurrent ideas assemble themselves, obsessions solidify themselves … (interview in ‘The Paris Review’, 1984).

I feel that the writer of fantasy has a marked tendency to select images and ideas which directly reflect the internal landscapes of his mind, and the reader of fantasy must interpret them on this level, distinguishing between the manifest content, which may seen obscure, meaningless or nightmarish, and the latent content, the private vocabulary of symbols drawn by the narrative from the writer’s mind (‘Time, Memory and Inner Space’, 1963).

Some of the stories, especially some of the later ones are more experimental pieces… a skilled author showing off what he can do – pushing the boundaries of fiction. Some of these work better than others.

Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands

Still, I think my favorite are the Vermilion Sands stores – especially The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D. Something about that decadent vacation spot really gets to me.

Now, the tough question. What to read next?

  • 1 • Prima Belladonna • [Vermilion Sands] • (1956) • shortstory
  • 12 • Escapement • (1956) • shortstory
  • 23 • The Concentration City • (1957) • shortstory (aka Build-Up)
  • 39 • Venus Smiles • [Vermilion Sands] • (1957) • shortstory
  • 50 • Manhole 69 • (1957) • shortstory
  • 68 • Track 12 • (1958) • shortstory
  • 72 • The Waiting Grounds • (1959) • novelette
  • 96 • Now: Zero • (1959) • shortstory
  • 106 • The Sound-Sweep • (1959) • novelette
  • 137 • Zone of Terror • (1960) • shortstory
  • 150 • Chronopolis • (1960) • novelette
  • 169 • The Voices of Time • (1960) • novelette
  • 196 • The Last World of Mr. Goddard • (1960) • shortstory
  • 208 • Studio 5, The Stars • [Vermilion Sands] • (1961) • novelette
  • 235 • Deep End • (1961) • shortstory
  • 244 • The Overloaded Man • (1961) • shortstory
  • 255 • Mr F. is Mr F. • (1961) • shortstory
  • 267 • Billennium • (1961) • shortstory
  • 279 • The Gentle Assassin • (1961) • shortstory
  • 289 • The Insane Ones • (1962) • shortstory
  • 298 • The Garden of Time • (1962) • shortstory
  • 305 • The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista • [Vermilion Sands] • (1962) • shortstory
  • 321 • Thirteen to Centaurus • (1962) • novelette
  • 339 • Passport to Eternity • (1962) • shortstory
  • 355 • The Cage of Sand • (1962) • novelette
  • 373 • The Watch-Towers • (1962) • novelette
  • 395 • The Singing Statues • [Vermilion Sands] • (1962) • shortstory
  • 405 • The Man on the 99th Floor • (1962) • shortstory
  • 412 • The Subliminal Man • (1963) • shortstory
  • 426 • The Reptile Enclosure • (1963) • shortstory
  • 435 • A Question of Re-Entry • (1963) • novelette
  • 459 • The Time-Tombs • (1963) • novelette
  • 472 • Now Wakes the Sea • (1963) • shortstory
  • 480 • The Venus Hunters • (1963) • novelette
  • 504 • End-Game • (1963) • novelette
  • 521 • Minus One • (1963) • shortstory
  • 530 • The Sudden Afternoon • (1963) • shortstory
  • 541 • The Screen Game • [Vermilion Sands] • (1963) • novelette
  • 559 • Time of Passage • (1964) • shortstory
  • 569 • Prisoner of the Coral Deep • (1964) • shortstory
  • 574 • The Lost Leonardo • (1964) • shortstory
  • 589 • The Terminal Beach • (1964) • novelette
  • 605 • The Illuminated Man • (1964) • novelette
  • 628 • The Delta at Sunset • (1964) • shortstory
  • 641 • The Drowned Giant • (1964) • shortstory
  • 650 • The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon • (1964) • shortstory
  • 658 • The Volcano Dances • (1964) • shortstory
  • 663 • The Beach Murders • (1969) • shortstory
  • 669 • The Day of Forever • (1966) • shortstory
  • 683 • The Impossible Man • (1966) • shortstory
  • 697 • Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer • (1966) • shortstory
  • 711 • Tomorrow is a Million Years • (1966) • shortstory
  • 720 • The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race • (1966) • shortstory
  • 722 • Cry Hope, Cry Fury! • [Vermilion Sands] • (1967) • shortstory
  • 735 • The Recognition • (1967) • shortstory
  • 755 • The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D • [Vermilion Sands] • (1967) • shortstory
  • 757 • Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan • (1968) • shortstory
  • 760 • The Dead Astronaut • (1968) • shortstory
  • 769 • The Comsat Angels • (1968) • shortstory
  • 781 • The Killing Ground • (1969) • shortstory
  • 788 • A Place and a Time to Die • (1969) • shortstory
  • 795 • Say Goodbye to the Wind • [Vermilion Sands] • (1970) • shortstory
  • 806 • The Greatest Television Show on Earth • (1972) • shortstory
  • 811 • My Dream of Flying to Wake Island • (1974) • shortstory
  • 820 • The Air Disaster • (1975) • shortstory
  • 828 • Low-Flying Aircraft • (1975) • shortstory
  • 841 • The Life and Death of God • (1976) • shortstory
  • 849 • Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (1976 version) • (1976) • shortstory
  • 856 • The 60 Minute Zoom • (1976) • shortstory
  • 864 • The Smile • (1976) • shortstory
  • 873 • The Ultimate City • (1976) • novella
  • 925 • The Dead Time • (1977) • novelette
  • 940 • The Index • (1977) • shortstory
  • 946 • The Intensive Care Unit • (1977) • shortstory
  • 953 • Theatre of War • (1977) • novelette
  • 968 • Having a Wonderful Time • (1978) • shortstory
  • 972 • One Afternoon at Utah Beach • (1978) • shortstory
  • 982 • Zodiac 2000 • (1978) • shortstory
  • 989 • Motel Architecture • (1978) • shortstory
  • 1000 • A Host of Furious Fancies • (1980) • shortstory
  • 1010 • News from the Sun • (1981) • novelette
  • 1037 • Memories of the Space Age • (1982) • novelette
  • 1061 • Myths of the Near Future • (1982) • novelette
  • 1085 • Report on an Unidentified Space Station • (1982) • shortstory
  • 1090 • The Object of the Attack • (1984) • shortstory
  • 1101 • Answers to a Questionnaire • (1985) • shortstory
  • 1105 • The Man Who Walked on the Moon • (1985) • shortstory
  • 1116 • The Secret History of World War 3 • (1988) • shortstory
  • 1124 • Love in a Colder Climate • (1989) • shortstory
  • 1130 • The Enormous Space • (1989) • shortstory
  • 1139 • The Largest Theme Park in the World • (1989) • shortstory
  • 1145 • War Fever • (1989) • novelette
  • 1161 • Dream Cargoes • (1990) • shortstory
  • 1173 • A Guide to Virtual Death • (1992) • shortfiction
  • 1175 • The Message from Mars • (1992) • shortstory
  • 1184 • Report from an Obscure Planet • (1992) • shortstory
  • 1189 • The Secret Autobiography of J.G.B. • (1981) • shortstory (aka The Secret Autobiography of J. G. B******)
  • 1192 • The Dying Fall • (1996) • shortstory

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

I’ve written about J. G. Ballard before. I mentioned his collection of short stories, Vermilion Sands, as an influential part of my youth. Also, not too long ago, I read his novel, High Rise, and gave it praise.

Now, a collection of Ballards complete short story oeuvre has fallen into my grimy paws and thought I know better, I keep reading away at it. We are talking about ninety eight stories here and a single page short of twelve hundred in total. That is a lot of words. This is no small feat. This is a long-term reading task. I have better things to do.

But I can’t help myself. I do so love his writing. His strange, aloof characters. His horrific, yet familiar, dystopian societal landscapes. The way he never really quite explains exactly what’s going on (this is especially true of his short stories – his novels are much more straightforward). He also has a way with titles – all the way from “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D” to “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.”

There is also the fact that I read a lot of these when I was a kid. The stories are in the book in chronological order and I can feel years of my life falling away as I remember when I first came across these.

Some made a big impression on my. I remember “Manhole 69” as being a claustrophobic tale of three men that had been surgically altered so that they did not need to sleep. Slowly their world began to pull in around them until they were trapped in a tiny space… the manhole. It creeeped the bejeebers out of me when I read it in high school. So now I reread it and… well, my memory was pretty much spot on.

There was the novella “The Voices of Time.” It too left me with a strange uneasy feeling that has persisted for forty-odd years. I remember a strange mandala cut into the bottom of an abandoned swimming pool and animals mutating in very odd ways (frogs growing lead shells, a sea anemone developing a nervous system) but little else. This time I’m reading more carefully, taking a few notes, reading with decades of literary experience…. I think it was better the first time – complete with the veil of mystery. Well, it didn’t make that much difference… there is still plenty of mystery.

So, I don’t think I’ll keep going to the end unstopped. But the stories will always be there and if I have an hour or so I’ll crank through another. Maybe in a year or so I’ll have read them all.

That’s an interesting idea – an entire prolific life’s worth of short stories, read in order. You feel like you get to know a man that way.


“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

—- Opening Line, High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard

It’s getting tough to decide on the next book to read. While I was considering the options I came across a few interesting articles comparing and contrasting the fiction of the late J. G. Ballard and the recent London riots.

I have been a fan of Ballard’s work for decades. It didn’t take me long to decide to dive in, especially when I discovered a copy of one of his classic works, one that I had never read, High-Rise.

About forty years ago, Ballard wrote three hyper-real novels about the relationships between society, technology, urban life, disaster, sex, and the monsters of the id. I have already read the excellent, interesting, and underrated Concrete Island and the infamous Crash. So I decided to complete the hat trick.

There are three minor characters and also the hero of High-Rise. The point of view circulates among Dr. Robert Laing, a medical school instructor that seems to be fleeing from the responsibilities of being a real doctor – Richard Wilder, a maker of documentaries that becomes overly attached to his video camera, and Anthony Royal, an architect that lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment.

These three live in a single forty-story condominium tower. It’s a brand-new building, part of a series of skyscrapers going up in a half-built complex on the outskirts of London. The three characters are representatives of the three classes in the building… that map out to their height above the ground. Wilder is from the second floor, where the lower classes live – although in this case they aren’t actually poor – they are made up of airline pilots, stewardesses, and television workers – wealthy enough all in any other setting. The middle part of the building, the largest section, from the shopping mall on the 10th floor up to about the swimming pool on the 35th and are represented by Laing- all professionals and respected members of the city at large.

Only the super-wealthy business tycoons occupy the top floors. At the very apex is Royal, who is credited with designing the building, though in reality, he only did the children’s playground on the roof and a few elevator lobbies.

The hero, the true protagonist is the building itself. It has a life and evil all its own… you can almost hear it speaking.

Pretty quickly, it becomes obvious that all is not right in this brave new world. There are obvious frictions between the three classes which spill out when the children of the lower floors try to use the swimming pool on the upper levels. The real trouble begins with parties. The innocent hedonism quickly becomes out of control, with plenty of illicit sex and bottles being thrown from balconies.

The three classes start out going to war with each other, complete with raiding parties and running battles over which group controls the important resources, such as the elevators and the garbage chutes. This is no Marxian polemic, however, and the three groups quickly lose their cohesion until it’s floor against floor, then small groups of apartments, then… well… let’s just say, things don’t end well.

Which, of course, is how I like it. I really enjoyed the book.

Ballard writes about such horrific descents into evil and madness with an almost geometric precision and symmetry. The building is designed just so, the cars are parked in a careful order, the balconies are arranged so everyone can see into everybody else’s’ business… once you think about it, the horrific events are not only understandable, they are inevitable.

It’s the sort of thing someone that had spent his childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp might have written.

A film is being made of the book, done by the director that made Cube – an interesting horror film with the best idea for efficient use of a simple filming set ever made.

He seems to be doing the film with the tower set in the middle of an ocean. I’m not sure if that is a good choice – one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how, as things became worse and worse in the high rise, the residents became more and more insular, until they became, by choice, completely cut-off from the outside world. Also, in the book, there are more high-rises going up. Laing watches the one in front of his apartment being finished and then occupied. Near the end, he sees power going off in several floors over there – it is implied that the same horror that has infected his tower is spreading to the next. Set the building out in the ocean and you lose these details.

But… little concern. I’ll still go see the thing. I doubt if they can come up with a way to give it a happy ending. At least I hope not.