fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMemories of the Space Age: Autopsy of a lost dreamMemories of the Space Age by J.G. Ballard

Memories of the Space Age (1988) is a limited edition hardcover published by small press Arkham House, with a gorgeous cover of Max Ernst’s ‘Europe After the Rain’ that captures the hallucinatory, decayed imagery of J.G. Ballard’s collection. It contains eight stories written between 1962 and 1985, thematically linked around rotting launch gantries at Cape Canaveral, the failure of the US space program, dead astronauts eternally orbiting in space, deserted hotels lining the Florida coast, and the lonely, disturbed individuals who linger at the fringes of this lost dream of the Space Age. The stories have so much overlap that some readers will find them very repetitive, and that is undeniable. Yet they do lure the reader into Ballard’s hypnotic world in a way few other writers do. These are the stories:

“The Cage of Sand” (1962), “A Question of Re-entry” (1962), “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974), “News from the Sun” (1981), “Memories of the Space Age” (1982), “Myths of the Near Future” (1982), and “The Man Who Walked on the Moon” (1985).

All of the stories have a similar feel, and perhaps the earliest one, “The Cage of Sand,” captures Ballard’s ideas the best. It’s the story of Bridgeman, an architect who was not chosen to design a new colony on Mars, a failed astronaut named Travis, and Louise, the wife of a dead astronaut. They occupy some abandoned hotels near Cape Canaveral among the abandoned launch gantries, with the latter two obsessively watching the revolving satellites that revolve around the Earth, carrying dead astronauts — including Louise’s husband. Bridgeman is there for a different reason, since the site has been covered with Martian sand brought back from Mars to compensate for the lost mass from earlier Earth expeditions. That may make no sense at all, but it’s an irresistible image for Ballard: Earthlings basking in Martian sands on a Florida beach. However, the sands also contain an undetectable virus that attacks Earth’s flora and fauna, wrecking civilization. So Florida is now deserted except for a few eccentrics, and the security forces who decide to erect a fence to contain the site after failing to convince them to leave (hence the title). The atmosphere is drenched in languid images that reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

At sunset, when the vermilion glow reflected from the dunes along the horizon fitfully illuminated the white faces of the abandoned hotels, Bridgman stepped onto his balcony and looked out over the long stretches of cooling sand as the tides of purple shadow seeped across them. Slowly, extending their slender fingers through the shallow saddles and depressions, the shadows massed together like gigantic combs, a few phosphorescing spurs of obsidian isolated for a moment between the tines, and then finally coalesced and flooded in a solid wave across the half-submerged hotels. Behind the silent facades, in the tilting sand-filled streets which had once glittered with cocktail bars and restaurants, it was already night. Halos of moonlight beaded the lamp standards with silver dew, and draped the shuttered windows and slipping cornices like a frost of frozen gas.

I think it’s very telling that “The Cage of Sand” was published in 1962, a year after the first manned space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose in Burbank, CA in 1962, and John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, TX in 1963. The conflict in Vietnam rapidly escalated in the early 1960s, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident happening in 1964, drawing the US into a drawn out conflict. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within 2 months of each other in 1968. Finally, in 1969 the Apollo 11 mission allowed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take those historic steps on the Moon. The US and Soviet space programs were engaged in the Cold War and Space Race for supremacy. All of these events were extremely influential on Ballard’s writing, and it’s interesting to observe how his writing may have evolved as events unfolded. Notably, the space shuttle Challenger disaster did not happen until 1986, but Ballard seems to have already predicted the decline and failure of US space ambitions well before that. It makes sense that a thematic collection like Memories of the Space Age would be published in 1988.

It’s fascinating how consistently Ballard returned to these ideas over three decades, and his obsession with mankind’s attempts to penetrate space and leave the planet. Unlike the vast majority of Golden Age SF by writers like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, Ballard takes a very negative view of ‘outer space’, and instead seeks to explore ‘inner space.’ His stories explore the psyche of spaceflight, and inevitably his characters encounter failure, insanity, and despair in their attempts to come to grips with it. It’s not clear exactly why Ballard found the idea of spaceflight so repellent, but if I may take a stab at it, I think he viewed it as humanity surrendering to its increasing adulation of technology and conquering of the natural environment. This can certainly be seen in extreme form in his tales of urban existential disaster: Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise.

It’s safe to say that Ballard has always taken a jaundiced view of modernity — our love of urban lifestyles, technology, and media imagery. I think his main intent in exploring these themes has been to expose the dangerous pathologies that have arisen as a result of our focus on surface comforts at the expense of our ‘inner space’ and emotional lives. And yet I don’t think he has ever explicitly shown us an example of the opposite, his idea of a utopian society. Returning to nature in his stories generally represents a return to barbarism, not the idyllic world of Eden. Yet between barbarism and an emotionally void modern life, what is there to uphold as a model for healthy living? Based on reading four of his novels and over 50 of his short stories, Ballard’s most hopeful stories feature characters that have escaped the grips of time, but this often takes the form of crystallization or plunging into the dreams of the distant past. Perhaps Ballard himself sought in vain to discover hope through his writing. And yet he wrote so eloquently of failed ambitions, a desire to escape the constraints of time and entropy, and our persistent modern myths, that his writing occupies a unique place that straddles literary ambitions and speculative fiction, both adopting and subverting the spaceflight and technology tropes of our beloved SF genre. It’s no surprise that J.G. Ballard is not always considered a welcome presence in the SF field, but for me his works represent a refreshing counterpoint to some enduring SF themes.