Johann Hari: Was J.G. Ballard a prophet of doom - or the future?

The late writer saw that man stripped of a stable eco-system soon turns primitive

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How thin is the skin of civilisation? How easily does it break and become an open, suppurating wound? These are the questions that sear through every page of the late J G Ballard's novels – and they will be the questions of the 21st century. Ballard believed that human beings are a violent primate species, prone to occasional spasms of civilisation that soon pass as our primitive instincts reassert themselves. In his work, humans are like chimps in bow-ties, conducting a tea-party for the cameras. We might look charming and functional for a moment, but we will soon toss the cups aside and start defecating on the table.

Ballard's vision hangs like black smoke over my instinctive liberalism and rationality, as a constant, nagging doubt. His novels present a world where people will not – cannot – be persuaded by facts and evidence and reason for long. Our frontal lobes are too weak; our adrenal glands are too big. We would rather hug our consumer goods and our guts today than preserve ourselves and our species for tomorrow. He said of his novels: "I see myself more as a kind of investigator, a scout who is sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not."

So is this century of runaway global warming – hidden for a while by the sedative-haze of consumerism – going to be Ballardian?

The roots of Ballard's vision obviously lay in his childhood. He grew up in the ornate mansions of the International Settlement in Shanghai in the 1930s, waited on by battalions of servants paid for by his father, who was a rich textile chemist. When the Japanese invaded, that world was stripped away overnight. His family was interred in a detention camp, and he scavenged and starved in suddenly abandoned mansions – a story told in the Spielberg film Empire of the Sun.

Ballard said about the experience years later: "It's like walking away from a plane crash; the world changes for you. One of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality is a stage set. It can be dismantled literally overnight ... Nothing is as secure as we like to think it is."

You can see how consistently – and prophetically – this shaped his fiction by looking at his first novel, The Drowned World written in 1962, and his last, Kingdom Come, written in 2006. In the first, a scientist is posted to a boiling, drowned London, which is rapidly regressing to swamp and jungle. The world has rapidly warmed, and the world's ice-caps have "poured themselves into the sea, millions of acres of permafrost liquefied into gigantic rivers". The scientist stares out at "a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past".

Ballard's novels were among the first to glimpse a basic truth: man stripped of a stable ecosystem rapidly regresses to his most primitive state. Take away our next certain meal and our cool sky and we stop using our frontal lobes. The scientist and those around him revert to being, in effect, cavemen, their thinking muscles atrophying away. In several of Ballard's later novels, human beings destroy their climate, and soon numbly lose the ability to even understand what they have done.

In Kingdom Come, he makes an even bleaker suggestion: that some suppressed part of us wants this to happen. It opens with the narrator saying: "The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world..."

Richard Pearson, a sacked advertising executive in his forties, drives out to the concrete-and-steel suburbs of the M25. His father has been shot in a massacre at the new Metro-Centre shopping mall, and he wants to know why. There, he discovers a "retail wasteland... [where] there were no cinemas, churches or civic centres, and the endless billboards advertising a glossy consumerism sustained the only cultural life... Parking was well on the way to becoming the British population's greatest spiritual need." The residents "lived in an eternal retail present, where the deepest moral decisions concerned the purchase of a refrigerator or washing machine".

He sees this glistening, hollow shopping centre as the end point for "the great dream of the Enlightenment, that reason and rational self-interest would one day triumph. [It] led directly to today's consumerism." And once we achieve this dream, what happens?

"Behind the frantic turnover, a gigantic boredom prevailed."

Ballard suspects that we always pined for a pacific land of plenty – but once we achieve it, we can't adjust our primate brains. We start wanting to smash it up and bring it down, restoring the old, violent world for which we are evolved. History will always stir beneath the packaging; Thomas Hobbes will always burst through Hobbs Womenswear. As one character puts it: "We're like bored children. We've been on holiday for too long, and we've been given too many presents... People are re-primitivising themselves. The future is going to be a struggle between vast systems of competing psychopathies, part of a desperate attempt to escape from a rational world and the boredom of consumerism."

Of course, both novels are semi-satirical and semi-hysterical. They are not literal predictions, and it would be absurd to read them that way. But Ballard's extraordinary fictions are one way of trying to understand why, as a species, we are becoming ever-more disembedded from ecological or emotional reality – and why we seem so oblivious to the dangers. "They knew they were being lied to, but... they preferred lies and mood music," Ballard wrote. Do we?

I don't – I cant – believe Ballard is right. Reason does not lead ineluctably to an eternal, endless shopping mall with no exit signs and an air conditioning system turned to extra-hot. Yes, it is fragile. Yes, other parts of our brain – the darker, more primitive parts – will try to over-ride it. But we can still use reason – the only reliable compass we have – to understand the harm we are doing, and correct ourselves. We are not condemned to the drowned world.

I think. I hope. In his last novel, he warned: "The human race sleepwalked to oblivion, thinking only about the corporate logos on its shroud." This should be his epitaph – but if J G Ballard was right, it will be ours.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

To read Johann's latest article for Slate, click here

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