Authors: J G Ballard
Tags: #Fiction.Sci-Fi, #Short Stories & Novellas, #Collection.Single Author, #Fiction.Literature.Modern, #Fiction.Magical Realism
For the first time in one volume, the complete collected short stories by the author of
Empire of the Sun
- regarded by many as Britain's No 1 living fiction writer.
With sixteen novels over four decades from
The Drowned World
in 1962 to the controversial
in 1973, the award winning, semi-autobiographical
Empire of the Sun
in 1984 and his recent Sunday Times bestseller
- J.G. Ballard is firmly established as one of Britain's most highly regarded and most influential novelists.
Throughout his remarkable career, he has won equal praise for his ground-breaking short stories, which he first started writing during his days as a medical student at Cambridge. In fact, it was winning a short story competition that gave him the impetus to become a full-time writer.
His first published works, 'Prima Belladonna' and 'Escapement', appeared in Science Fantasy and New Worlds in 1956. Ever since, he has been a prolific producer of stories, which have been published in numerous magazines and several separate collections, including
The Voices of Time
The Terminal Beach
The Disaster Area
The Day of Forever
The Venus Hunters
Myths of the Near Future
Now, for the first time, all of J. G. Ballard's published stories - including four that have not previously appeared in a collection - have been gathered together and arranged in the order of original publication, providing an unprecedented opportunity to review the career of one of Britain's greatest writers.
J.G. Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai, China, where his father was a businessman. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his family were placed in a civilian prison camp. They returned to England in 1946.
After reading Medicine at Cambridge for two years, he worked as a copywriter and Covent Garden porter before going to Canada with the RAF. His first short stories appeared in 1956, and after working on scientific journals he published his first major novel,
The Drowned World
, in 1962. His acclaimed 1984 novel
Empire of the Sun
won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was later filmed by Steven Spielberg. His 1973 novel
was also made into a film, directed by David Cronenberg.
J. G. Ballard's most recent novels are
Short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination.
Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject. They're also a useful way of trying out the ideas later developed at novel length. Almost all my novels were first hinted at in short stories, and readers of The Crystal World, Crash and Empire of the Sun will find their seeds germinating somewhere in this collection.
When I started writing, fifty years ago, short stories were immensely popular with readers, and some newspapers printed a new short story every day. Sadly, I think that people at present have lost the knack of reading short stories, a response perhaps to the baggy and long-winded narratives of television serials.
Young writers, myself included, have always seen their first novels as a kind of virility test, but so many novels published today would have been better if they had been recast as short stories. Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.
The short story still survives, especially in science fiction, which makes the most of its closeness to the folk tale and the parable. Many of the stories in this collection were first published in science fiction magazines, though readers at the time loudly complained that they weren't science fiction at all.
But I was interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred. The future, needless to say, is a dangerous area to enter, heavily mined and with a tendency to turn and bite your ankles as you stride forward. A correspondent recently pointed out to me that the poetry-writing computers in Vermilion Sands are powered by valves. And why don't all those sleek people living in the future have PCs and pagers?
I could only reply that Vermilion Sands isn't set in the future at all, but in a kind of visionary present - a description that fits the stories in this book and almost everything else I have written. But oh for a steam-powered computer and a wind-driven television set. Now, there's an idea for a short story
--J.G. Ballard, 2001
I first met Jane Ciracylides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years, and I suppose that may have had a lot to do with what went on between us. Certainly I can't believe I could make myself as ridiculous now, but then again, it might have been just Jane herself.
Whatever else they said about her, everyone had to agree she was a beautiful girl, even if her genetic background was a little mixed. The gossips at Vermilion Sands soon decided there was a good deal of mutant in her, because she had a rich patina-golden skin and what looked like insects for eyes, but that didn't bother either myself or any of my friends, one or two of whom, like Tony Miles and Harry Devine, have never since been quite the same to their wives.
We spent most of our time in those days on the balcony of my apartment off Beach Drive, drinking beer - we always kept a useful supply stacked in the refrigerator of my music shop on the street level - yarning in a desultory way and playing i-Go, a sort of decelerated chess which was popular then. None of the others ever did any work; Harry was an architect and Tony Miles sometimes sold a few ceramics to the tourists, but I usually put a couple of hours in at the shop each morning, getting off the foreign orders and turning the beer.
One particularly hot lazy day I'd just finished wrapping up a delicate soprano mimosa wanted by the Hamburg Oratorio Society when Harry phoned down from the balcony. 'Parker's Choro-Flora?' he said. 'You're guilty of overproduction. Come up here. Tony and I have something beautiful to show you.'
When I went up I found them grinning happily like two dogs who had just discovered an interesting tree.
'Well?' I asked. 'Where is it?'
Tony tilted his head slightly. 'Over there.'
I looked up and down the street, and across the face of the apartment house opposite.
'Careful,' he warned me. 'Don't gape at her.'
I slid into one of the wicker chairs and craned my head round cautiously.
'Fourth floor,' Harry elaborated slowly, out of the side of his mouth. 'One left from the balcony opposite. Happy now?'
'Dreaming,' I told him, taking a long slow focus on her. 'I wonder what else she can do?'
Harry and Tony sighed thankfully. 'Well?' Tony asked.
'She's out of my league,' I said. 'But you two shouldn't have any trouble. Go over and tell her how much she needs you.'
Harry groaned. 'Don't you realize, this one is poetic, emergent, some thing straight out of the primal apocalyptic sea. She's probably divine.' The woman was strolling around the lounge, rearranging the furniture, wearing almost nothing except a large metallic hat. Even in shadow the sinuous lines of her thighs and shoulders gleamed gold and burning. She was a walking galaxy of light. Vermilion Sands had never seen anything like her.
'The approach has got to be equivocal,' Harry continued, gazing into his beer. 'Shy, almost mystical. Nothing urgent or grabbing.' The woman stooped down to unpack a suitcase and the metal vanes of her hat fluttered over her face. She saw us staring at her, looked around for a moment and lowered the blinds.
We sat back and looked thoughtfully at each other, like three triumvirs deciding how to divide an empire, not saying too much, and one eye watching for any chance of a double-deal.
Five minutes later the singing started.
At first I thought it was one of the azalea trios in trouble with an alkaline pH, but the frequencies were too high. They were almost out of the audible range, a thin tremolo quaver which came out of nowhere and rose up the back of the skull.
Harry and Tony frowned at me.
'Your livestock's unhappy about something,' Tony told me. 'Can you quieten it down?'
'It's not the plants,' I told him. 'Can't be.'
The sound mounted in intensity, scraping the edges off my occipital bones. I was about to go down to the shop when Harry and Tony leapt out of their chairs and dived back against the wall.
'Steve, look out!' Tony yelled at me. He pointed wildly at the table I was leaning on, picked up a chair and smashed it down on the glass top. I stood up and brushed the fragments out of my hair.
'What the hell's the matter?'
Tony was looking down at the tangle of wickerwork tied round the metal struts of the table. Harry came forward and took my arm gingerly. 'That was close. You all right?'
'It's gone,' Tony said flatly. He looked carefully over the balcony floor and down over the rail into the street.
'What was it?' I asked.
Harry peered at me closely. 'Didn't you see it? It was about three inches from you. Emperor scorpion, big as a lobster.' He sat down weakly on a beer crate. 'Must have been a sonic one. The noise has gone now.'
After they'd left I cleared up the mess and had a quiet beer to myself. I could have sworn nothing had got on to the table.
On the balcony opposite, wearing a gown of ionized fibre, the golden woman was watching me.
I found out who she was the next morning. Tony and Harry were down at the beach with their wives, probably enlarging on the scorpion, and I was in the shop tuning up a Khan-Arachnid orchid with the UV lamp. It was a difficult bloom, with a normal full range of twenty-four octaves, but unless it got a lot of exercise it tended to relapse into neurotic minor-key transpositions which were the devil to break. And as the senior bloom in the shop it naturally affected all the others. Invariably when I opened the shop in the mornings, it sounded like a madhouse, but as soon as I'd fed the Arachnid and straightened out one or two pH gradients the rest promptly took their cues from it and dimmed down quietly in their control tanks, two-time, three-four, the multi-tones, all in perfect harmony.
There were only about a dozen true Arachnids in captivity; most of the others were either mutes or grafts from dicot stems, and I was lucky to have mine at all. I'd bought the place five years earlier from an old half-deaf man called Sayers, and the day before he left he moved a lot of rogue stock out to the garbage disposal scoop behind the apartment block.
Reclaiming some of the tanks, I'd come across the Arachnid, thriving on a diet of algae and perished rubber tubing.
Why Sayers had wanted to throw it away I had never discovered. Before he came to Vermilion Sands he'd been a curator at the Kew Conservatoire where the first choro-flora had been bred, and had worked under the Director, Dr Mandel. As a young botanist of twenty-five Mandel had discovered the prime Arachnid in the Guiana forest. The orchid took its name from the Khan-Arachnid spider which pollinated the flower, simultaneously laying its own eggs in the fleshy ovule, guided, or as Mandel always insisted, actually mesmerized to it by the vibrations which the orchid's calyx emitted at pollination time.
The first Arachnid orchids beamed out only a few random frequencies, but by cross-breeding and maintaining them artificially at the pollination stage Mandel had produced a strain that spanned a maximum of twenty-four octaves. Not that he had ever been able to hear them. At the climax of his life's work Mandel, like Beethoven, was stone deaf, but apparently by merely looking at a blossom he could listen to its music.
Strangely though, after he went deaf he never looked at an Arachnid. That morning I could almost understand why. The orchid was in a vicious mood. First it refused to feed, and I had to coax it along in a fluoraldehyde flush, and then it started going ultra-sonic, which meant complaints from all the dog owners in the area. Finally it tried to fracture the tank by resonating.
The whole place was in uproar, and I was almost resigned to shutting them down and waking them all by hand individually - a backbreaking job with eighty tanks in the shop - when everything suddenly died away to a murmur.
I looked round and saw the golden-skinned woman walk in.
'Good morning,' I said. 'They must like you.'
She laughed pleasantly. 'Hello. Weren't they behaving?'
Under the black beach robe her skin was a softer, more mellow gold, and it was her eyes that held me. I could just see them under the wide-brimmed hat. Insect legs wavered delicately round two points of purple light.
She walked over to a bank of mixed ferns and stood looking at them. The ferns reached out towards her and trebled eagerly in their liquid fluted voices.
'Aren't they sweet?' she said, stroking the fronds gently. 'They need so much affection.'
Her voice was low in the register, a breath of cool sand pouring, with a lilt that gave it music.
'I've just come to Vermilion Sands,' she said, 'and my apartment seems awfully quiet. Perhaps if I had a flower, one would be enough, I shouldn't feel so lonely.'
I couldn't take my eyes off her.
'Yes,' I agreed, brisk and businesslike. 'What about something colourful? This Sumatra Samphire, say? It's a pedigree mezzo-soprano from the same follicle as the Bayreuth Festival Prima Belladonna.'
'No,' she said. 'It looks rather cruel.'
'Or this Louisiana Lute Lily? If you thin out its SO2 it'll play some beautiful madrigals. I'll show you how to do it.'
She wasn't listening to me. Slowly, her hands raised in front of her breasts so that she almost seemed to be praying, she moved towards the display counter on which the Arachnid stood.
'How beautiful it is,' she said, gazing at the rich yellow and purple leaves hanging from the scarlet-ribbed vibrocalyx.
I followed her across the floor and switched on the Arachnid's audio so that she could hear it. Immediately the plant came to life. The leaves stiffened and filled with colour and the calyx inflated, its ribs sprung tautly. A few sharp disconnected notes spat out.
'Beautiful, but evil,' I said.
'Evil?' she repeated. 'No, proud.' She stepped closer to the orchid and looked down into its malevolent head. The Arachnid quivered and the spines on its stem arched and flexed menacingly.
'Careful,' I warned her. 'It's sensitive to the faintest respiratory sounds.'
'Quiet,' she said, waving me back. 'I think it wants to sing.'
'Those are only key fragments,' I told her. 'It doesn't perform. I use it as a frequency - '
'Listen!' She held my arm and squeezed it tightly.
A low, rhythmic fusion of melody had been coming from the plants around the shop, and mounting above them I heard a single stronger voice calling out, at first a thin high-pitched reed of sound that began to pulse and deepen and finally swelled into full baritone, raising the other plants in chorus about itself.
I had never heard the Arachnid sing before. I was listening to it open-eared when I felt a glow of heat burn against my arm. I turned and saw the woman staring intently at the plant, her skin aflame, the insects in her eyes writhing insanely. The Arachnid stretched out towards her, calyx erect, leaves like blood-red sabres.
I stepped round her quickly and switched off the argon feed. The Arachnid sank to a whimper, and around us there was a nightmarish babel of broken notes and voices toppling from high C's and L's into discord. A faint whispering of leaves moved over the silence.
The woman gripped the edge of the tank and gathered herself. Her skin dimmed and the insects in her eyes slowed to a delicate wavering. 'Why did you turn it off?' she asked heavily.
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'But I've got ten thousand dollars' worth of stock here and that sort of twelve-tone emotional storm can blow a lot of valves.
Most of these plants aren't equipped for grand opera.'
She watched the Arachnid as the gas drained out of its calyx. One by one its leaves buckled and lost their colour.
'How much is it?' she asked me, opening her bag.
'It's not for sale,' I said. 'Frankly I've no idea how it picked up those bars - '
'Will a thousand dollars be enough?' she asked, her eyes fixed on me steadily.
'I can't,' I told her. 'I'd never be able to tune the others without it. Anyway,' I added, trying to smile, 'that Arachnid would be dead in ten minutes if you took it out of its vivarium. All these cylinders and leads would look a little odd inside your lounge.'
'Yes, of course,' she agreed, suddenly smiling back at me. 'I was stupid.'
She gave the orchid a last backward glance and strolled away across the floor to the long Tchaikovsky section popular with the tourists. 'Pathetique,' she read off a label at random. 'I'll take this.'
I wrapped up the scabia and slipped the instructional booklet into the crate, keeping my eye on her all the time.
'Don't look so alarmed,' she said with amusement. 'I've never heard anything like that before.'
I wasn't alarmed. It was that thirty years at Vermilion Sands had narrowed my horizons.
'How long are you staying at Vermilion Sands?' I asked her. 'I open at the Casino tonight,' she said. She told me her name was Jane Ciracylides and that she was a speciality singer.
'Why don't you look in?' she asked, her eyes fluttering mischievously. 'I come on at eleven. You may find it interesting.'
I did. The next morning Vermilion Sands hummed. Jane created a sensation. After her performance three hundred people swore they'd seen everything from a choir of angels taking the vocal in the music of the spheres to Alexander's Ragtime Band. As for myself, perhaps I'd listened to too many flowers, but at least I knew where the scorpion on the balcony had come from.