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Seattle and Canada. Ballard & Pynchon.

So now I’m back home from Clarion and a road trip to the Canadian Rockies. One slogan I forgot to tell them at Clarion: “You’re not doing your job as an SF or fantasy writer unless your readers wonder if you’re crazy.” (The point of the slogan is that it’s interesting when a story goes too far, reveals too much, and dredges surreal images from the subconscious.)

On the trip, I read J. G. Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life—my old pal Marc Laidlaw gave it to me, he came in to the Clarion workskhop and gave a fine presentation on his metamorphosis from SF writer to videogame writer at Valve.

Ballard wrote his memoir in the last year or so of his life—he was dying of cancer at age 77. It reminded me of how my own brush with death last year galvanized me into writing a memoir, albeit at age 63. Comparing my memoir to Ballard’s (this mental exercise would be “How To Make Yourself Miserable, Lesson #701,435”), I worry that his life was more interesting than mine—all of Ballard’s stuff about Shanghai and the prison camp, and him seeing beggar at his boyhood front steps dying under an “eiderdown” blanket of snow. Oh well, I have to work with what I have.

[Pyramid Mountain near Jasper, Canada.]

I was particularly interested in Ballard’s remarks about science fiction. I hardly know his SF—I’ve read bits of The Atrocity Exhibition and of Crash, but that’s about it…well, I read his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, too. I’ll have to read more.

Ballard remarks that SF is “far closer to reality than the conventional realist novel of the day,” and that it’s “often as elliptical and ambiguous as Kafka.” He says he’s more interested in “what now?” than in “what if?”—meaning that he wanted to use SF as a lens to understand the present, “looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race.”

[African sculpture in the Seattle Art Museum.]

Ballard speaks of SF as having tremendous vitality, and being original, fresh, optimistic and positive. “It was a visionary engine … a hot rod … propelled by an exotic literary fuel as rich and dangerous as anything that drove the surrealists.” He wasn’t interested in space travel. “It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space,’ was where science fiction should be heading.”

This all set me to thinking about ways to try and write something fresh and outrageous, and I ended up sleeping badly one night, with a mixed-up Ballardian SF story cooking in my head. In my half-waking state, I was dithering between calling it “Good Ideas” or “Bad Ideas,” and then settled on the latter.

While I was still asleep, I saw the story as resembling what passes through my head while cruising the web, a series of (superficially) unrelated incidents, a cut-up based on a series of SF vignettes. But, once awake, I decided I’d rather write a conventionally formed story, rather than one with an experimental form. I’ll talk about my ideas for the story in a later post.

In connection with the choice between classic and experimental forms, I think of the choreographer Marc Morris irritably saying, “Why is that whenever people improvise, it always comes out the same?”

[Raven-like Mask of a Huxwhukw, by Mungo Martin, in Seattle Art Museum.]

As another way of reawakening myself as a writer, I’ve been reading Pynchon’s old novel, The Crying of Lot 49, and—as so often with Pynchon—it feels as if the Muse is talking to me through his work. It’s “fortunate” that I happened to bring this particular book along for the trip’s casual reading. Here’s three quotes.

[Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.]

[Our heroine Oedipa Maas was wondering if there might be] “…a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know…”

[Oedipa’s husband Mucho tells her,] “I can … listen to anything and take it apart again. Spectrum analysis, in my head. I can break down chords, and timbres, and words too into all the basic frequencies and harmonics, with all their different loudnesses, and listen to them, each pure tone, but all at once…It’s like I have a separate channel fo reach one…and if I need more I just expand. Add on what I need. I don’t know how it works, but lately I can do it with people talking too. Say ‘rich, chocolaty goodness.’”

[A bum sleeping in a lineman’s tent by phone wires hears] “…litanies of insult, filth, fantasy, love whose brute repetition must someday call into being the trigger for the unnamable act, the recognition, the Word.”

It all fits—somehow.

4 Responses to “Seattle and Canada. Ballard & Pynchon.”

  1. The Necromancer Says:

    I love Ballard…Michael Moorcock wrote a absolutely brilliant obit in the Times I remember reading on a banlieu train in Paris in April. Seemed the perfect setting for his ode to Ballard’s masterful dreamscapes of post-industrial nothingness.

    And The Crying of Lot 49 is one of my favorites. Pynchon here acts the part of visionary speculative fiction writer, anticipating the emergence of the Silicon Valley archetype long before it really takes shape.

  2. Rudy Says:

    Necromancer, thanks for the tip. I found a link for Moorcock’s obit of Ballard.

  3. Mac Tonnies Says:

    I’m a big fan of “The Unlimited Dream Company,” one of Ballard’s lesser-known novels. Wild imagery.

  4. MarcL Says:

    Glad you liked the Ballard memoir…it’s odd, I was leafing through Lot 49 yesterday, thinking about rereading it along with his new one, Inherent Vice. I started reading Ballard really young–before I discovered genre sf, he had already warped my mind. I was fascinated with subliminal advertising when i was a kid, thanks to having read “The Subliminal Man.” It turned up in a textbook in a “Multimedia” class I had in high school, but I had already encountered it years before:

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