Millennium People by J G Ballard

Ian Thomson admires a fierce literary saboteur who has lost none of his power to unsettle
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The Independent Culture

For 45 years, J G Ballard has lived in the tranquil riverside town of Shepperton off the M3. The London suburb was almost destroyed by Martians in The War of the Worlds, and in his fiction Ballard has often tried to complete the task that H G Wells began. His hard-edged fantasies of motorway mayhem and tower-block madness were set in the purlieus of Heathrow close to Shepperton and survey Thames Valley suburbia.

Ballard's 17th novel, Millennium People, is a Thames-side thriller which opens with a bomb that explodes at Heathrow. Three bystanders are killed and 26 injured. The attack on Terminal 2 turns out to be the work, not of Islamic terrorists, but of British professionals, among them a doctor and a hoodlum priest. Ballard has always believed that it is the periphery, not the metropolis, where the future will reveal itself. Heathrow, with its flyovers and underpasses, is inevitably a zone for 21st-century terrorists. Ballard's airport bombers, as well as causing havoc nationwide, are bent on shaking middle-class Britain out of its "social docility".

In an earlier novel, The Unlimited Dream Company, Ballard had transformed his own Shepperton into a psychedelic theme park with tropical foliage sprouting from the High Street. Here, in Millennium People, Chelsea Marina is transfigured into a surreal ghost city with abandoned swimming pools and deserted shopping malls. Goaded into action by the Heathrow bomb, the residents have decided to stop paying their taxes, Bupa subscriptions or even send their children to school. Now they are taking to the streets in protest and, perplexingly, have rejected everything they worked so hard to secure, setting fire to their Saabs and Elizabeth David cookbooks.

Underlying this mass discontent is the assumption, relentlessly argued by the author, that Britain's middle classes are the "new proletariat" made financially and spiritually impoverished by exorbitant school fees and an anxious need to achieve and compete. Professional qualifications are no longer worth anything, Ballard maintains. The bomb was the signal for London's bourgeoisie to throw off the chains of duty and civic responsibility. Recklessly, they take on the police by smoke-bombing their favourite department stores, barricading residential streets and trashing upmarket travel agencies. The violence does not win everyone's approval. One of the Heathrow bomb victims was married to a respected psychologist, David Markham, who is determined to track down her murderers.

Inevitably, this being Ballard, Markham is soon converted to the rebels' cause and agrees to take part in their lunatic acts of cultural sabotage. First the NFT, then Tate Modern are targeted and burned down. Other temples of middle-class propriety (Peter Jones, the V&A) are subsequently besieged. Gradually the protest spreads up the Thames Valley to engulf the soulless Barratt estates and Tudorbethan manors that ring the heartlands of the M25. Markham manages to track down the guilty bomber but at the same time is lured into committing his own extreme act of crime. More pointless violence follows as the rebels storm the London Eye and set fire to its tourist cabins.

Few writers find poetry in burning Heathrow air-freight offices and car-rental depots: Ballard can. He describes the airport's suburban sprawl and the deadening effects of middle-class conformity with a fascination that is doubtless informed by his own respectable associations. As in Ballard's futurist whoddunit Cocaine Nights, bored housewives make pornographic films and their lovers are dysfunctional bankers or ad-men. As fantasy, Millennium People is calculatedly wayward, but it challenges our most cherished assumptions. The Chelsea Marina revolt, in Ballard's distempered vision, is the blueprint for all coming violence, which will be increasingly meaningless. Ballard is a moralist apparently troubled by the shape of things to come and a literary saboteur of unswerving fierceness.

In recent years, Ballard has concentrated on writing pared-down detective thrillers, but I think I prefer his visionary fantasies of the 1960s, in which London was turned into a seething jungle swamp and the entire planet was a crystalline forest. However, the Magus of Shepperton has lost none of his gift to unsettle and Millennium People will compete with the best of contemporary British fiction.

Ian Thomson's award-winning biography of Primo Levi is published by Vintage