Keeping an eye on the future

A rag-bag of reviews by a master fabulist yields up some startling predictions. By DJ Taylor; A User's Guide to the Millenium: Essays and Reviews by J G Ballard HarperCollin s pounds 18
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The Independent Culture
One had assumed a major casualty of the Nineties publishing recession to have been the ragbag of old book reviews and "pieces" by famous names. But no, clearly someone at HarperCollins has decided there is mileage in collecting three decades' worth of J.G. Ballard's occasional journalism between hard covers, giving it a portentous title (to include age-old reviews of books about Scott Fitzgerald in something called A User's Guide To The Millennium is a piece of cheek even by the standards of this unhappy genre) and shoving it out onto the torpid post-Christmas market.

This isn't for a moment to disparage Ballard's merits as a writer, or his acuteness as a cultural commentator (more of which later), simply to wonder whether we need his views on Franz Kafka in all their 100-word glory (reprinted from the Sunday Times, 1993) or the 250-word encomium of Joyce which graced the pages, or rather a very small section of one page, of the Guardian some time in 1990. Or, for that matter, his affliction by the usual maladies common to book reviewers. One of the hazards of writing lots of literary journalism is that you start to repeat yourself. Ballard does this with eye-catching regularity. Some remarks about Star Wars first minted for Time Out in 1977 turn up again in the Daily Telegraph in 1993. A description of his time in a Japanese intern's camp, first produced for the Daily Telegraph in 1991, resurfaces four years later in the Sunday Times.

One of the worst things you can say about a writer, of course, is that he or she is a good book reviewer, but Ballard is never less than readable on the very mixed bag of subjects that various literary editors have offered up for his delectation in the past thirty years. This is despite his sneaking fondness for the Henry Millers and the William Burroughes - all that old, discredited hippy gang who exert such an enduring fascination on this side of the Atlantic. Where he comes into his stride, though, and where the book narrowly begins to justify its title, is in the handful of pieces grouped under the heading, "Science".

In retrospect Ballard's prescience about scientific, or more accurately technological, development seems monstrously acute. Like H.G. Wells talking to an audience of the 1900s, he gives the impression not only of knowing what the future will be like ("Almost anything we care to say about the future will probably come true" he suggests at one point, "and sooner than we think") but of actually relishing its arrival.

This attitude is rarer than it sounds. Most intelligent people are not particularly interested in "the future", simply accepting its gadgetry as and when it arrives. Ballard, by contrast, falls into that comparatively small category of persons who are enraptured by the soulless cityscapes along the horizon, who conduct a kind of love affair with the concrete and skyscraper aspects of modern life, that enables him to remark, without obvious irony, of the ghastliness of the redeveloped Thames Valley: "For me, this inter-urban landscape of marinas, research labs, hypermarkets and industrial parks represents the most hopeful face of Britain at the end of the century." More important, perhaps, is that Ballard was saying these things a quarter of a century ago. The piece on cars, first aired in Drive magazine in 1971, reads as if it were a year or two old, while an essay on "The Future of the Future", which I'd assumed to be nearly contemporary, dates from as long ago as 1977.

The key word in any consideration of Ballard's prose, fictional or otherwise, is "denatured". It is difficult not to believe that his own personal period of denaturing - the two adolescent years spent in the intern's camp near Shanghai - isn't in some way responsible for this obsession with artificial environments, entropy and all the rest of the 21st-century SF package. The pieces of autobiography and the reviews of books with an indirect link to his own early life (for example a biography of Hirohito) are invariably the most interesting, not only in terms of their content but because of the clues they supply as to motivation. "The resolution of the wounded mind gives hope to us all," he writes at one point. Ballard's wartime experience imparts one singular twist of his habitual Left-liberal world view: he finds the idea that the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an immoral act, "wholly baffling".

"I think there should be more sex and violence on television, not less. Both are powerful catalysts of social change at a time when change is desperately needed..." "How to improve London? Launch a crash programme to fill the city with pirate TV stations, nightclubs, brothels and porn parlours." A User's Guide is full of spirited nonsense of this kind. The effect, though, is oddly exhilarating - like watching some shy and diffident old uncle suddenly letting his hair down at a party, but with a sober self-consciousness that somehow lends the gesture a redeeming charm. As well as the prescience and the clear autobiographer's eye, we should also value J.G. Ballard for his sense of humour.