Book Review: Billenium, J. G. Ballard (1962)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1962 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Very Good)

Billenium (1962), J. G. Ballard’s first collection of short stories, contains three masterpieces of the 50s/60s: “Billenium” (1961), “Build-Up” (variant title: The Concentration City) (1957), and “Chronopolis” (1960).  The first is a deadpan satire on overpopulation, the second a fantastic Borgesian depiction of an endless city that stretches (literally) in all directions, and the third a vision of a city that had enough and revolted against time.  I preferred these three ruminations, that unfolded in evocative and decaying urban spaces, to the three decadent and baroque stories—“Studio 5, The Stars” (1961), “Mobile” (variant title: “Venus Smiles”) (1957), and “Prima Belladonna” (1956)—from his famous Vermillion Sands sequence.  The remaining four are all readable.

As with J. G. Ballard’s first novel masterpiece, The Drowned World (1962), the sense of decay and malaise that permeate majority of the stories in Billenium is gorgeously oppressive.  Like a humid evening that clings to your skin, the images evoked in Billenium are hard to shake off.

Highly recommended for all fans of SF.  If you are interested I recommend the recently published The Complete Short Stories of J. G Ballard (2010).  I own both the omnibus + a few of the original paperbacks (mainly for the Richard Powers’ cover art).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Billenium” (variant title: of “Billennium”) (1961) 5/5 (Masterpiece): A hellish future where overpopulation has resulted in drastic reductions in the allotments of living space—the maximum by law is four square meters!  The citizens of this future spend their time “scanning the classifieds in the newspapers” desperate to find a slightly larger room (7).  And then Ward discovers an illegal, abandoned, and hidden room in their new residence filled with old (space consuming) furniture.  A  reminder of  freedom, a window into a previous era, of open space, symbolizing deliverance from oppressive, crowding bodies…  But, the Malthusian nightmare cannot be stopped.  Ballard’s wonderful satire is on show.  Brilliant.

“The Insane Ones” (1962) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  “Anyway, [treatment is] against the [Mental Freedom laws].  Do you know what would happen if they caught me giving psychiatric treatment?” (23).  Another almost brilliant satire of the treatment (or lack there of) of mental illness…  This futuristic Earth has outlawed psychiatric treatment altogether, claiming it violates an individual’s individual liberty: “the mentally ill were on their own, spared pity and consideration, made to pay for their failings.  The sacred cow of the community was the psychotic, free to wander where he wanted […]” (24).  Gregory, a one time psychiatrist, compulsively travels—an escape from his past, where he treated (illegally) the president’s daughter.  But then he’s propositioned for help by a young woman who seeks, clandestinely, treatment for her close friend.

“Studio 5, The Stars” (1961) 4/5 (Good): Vermilion Sands is a resort filled with the independently wealthy, artistically inclined—every story in Ballard’s famous resort reeks of decadence and malaise.  Filled with cadillacs, strange art, mansions, bizarre technology, seductive woman…. In “Studio 5, The Stars” the narrator’s porch is continuously inundated with verse from the residence of a mysterious Aurora Day.  All poets use poetry machines, set parameters, churn out “masterpieces” for the local journals.  But Aurora Day shocks all with her non-machine generated prose!  And she has a plan to force everyone to abandon the machines.

“The Gentle Assassin” (1961) 3/5 (Average):  The weakest story in the collection is Ballard’s half-hearted attempt to tackle a time travel paradox.  Dr. Jamieson travels back in time and visits himself.  There is bomb attack, a plot twist, a tender meeting between his younger self and a woman he still pines for.  Although the story is told relatively well, it has few of the trademarks of Ballard’s best.

“Build-Up” (variant title: The Concentration City) (1957) 5/5 (Masterpiece):  In a dystopic future a vast city stretches forth in all directions, vertical, and horizontal (evoking Borges’ 1941 masterpiece, “Library of Babel”)…  The oppressive structure prevents inhabitants from leaving their regions (a high speed train does exist) and everyone lives in fear of cataclysmic fires.  Franz (an hommage to Kafka) is obsessed with the notion of “flight” and the specimens of wildlife that indicate animals that flew, perhaps before the city’s mythic “foundation.”  He tests a model airplane successfully, a sets off on the train to find “free space” for manned flight.

“Now: Zero” (1959) 3/5 (Average):  A metafictional ending makes this story vaguely readable.  The narrator tells the tale of his encounter with an outrageous power.  A power that allows him to dictate the fate of his enemies by pen…  And he’s a mournful fellow bereft of opportunities in the business empire where he works. But there’s a catch of course.  And we are the victims!

“Mobile” (1957)  (variant title: “Venus Smiles”) 4/5 (Good): The best story in the Vermilion Sands sequence I have read so far.  A sculpture named Lubitsch (yes, evoking the German-American director) recovering from a “traumatic encounter with Neo-Futurism” (105) decides revenge is the best strategy.  He designs a bizarre statue of some pseudo-metal material that threatens to take over the city with its destructive roots.  Art generates destruction.  Art that actually carries out a radical ideology.

“Chronopolis” (1960) 5/5 (Masterpiece):  The best in the collection.  At some point in the future, society revolts against increasing regimentation/control: people were literally “driven by the master clock” (127).  The clock became the sign of oppression—and the Time Police were established to destroy everyone’s allegiance to the watch!  The city centers were slowly abandoned, the buildings sank into decay, and the old factories no longer operate.  People move in the direction of the past (i.e. away from the ultra urban).  Despite the illegality of keeping time, Newman (who is rather “traditional” in his sensibilities) is obsessed with building clocks.  And his world is changed when he discovers a watch and his “English” teacher takes him to see the remains of city.  Gorgeous, ironic, with a brilliant ending…

“Prima Belladonna” (1956) 3.5/5 (Good) is another Vermilion Sands story, and one of Ballard’s earliest published works.  Right away the reader is plunged into Ballard’s trademark decadent malaise,”I first met Jane Ciraclylides during the Recess, the world slump of boredom,  lethargy […]” (140).  The narrator grows mysterious music plants that are tuned by using an Arachnid Orchid.  He meets Jane, a seductive and fiery woman, whose voices has great effect on the Arachnid Orchid.

“The Garden of Time” (1962) 4/5 (Good):  A Time Garden (what exactly this means is not dwelled on at length) is but a mote before an advancing horde.  Its two occupants pick the last flowers and perform the seemingly timeless rituals  (playing/listening to harpsichord) as the deluge approaches.  An effective mood piece…

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36 thoughts on “Book Review: Billenium, J. G. Ballard (1962)

  1. I’ve not read this particular collection yet (a pleasure I am saving for later!) but I will say this: Ballard was THE greatest SF short story writer of the 20th century, if not the best SF novelist, too. I can safely say that he was a unique, totally original genius, in almost everything he did. A great, astute review, Joachim…

  2. I’ve seen the two films based on his books but have really only dipped my toe into the waters on his writings. I’ll probably start with his short fiction. Thanks for the review!

  3. Chronopolis is a story I last read when I was too young to appreciate it, really, but it’s stuck with me ever since because it’s just that compelling an image. I really ought to get the collection and read it again since I’m fairly confident I’d know what to make of all these words now.

    • As I’ve pointed out to the other commenters, the best bang for the buck is the recent omnibus collection, The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (2010)—might as well have all 98 of his short fiction in a single volume!

  4. It sounds marvellous. I’m a Ballard fan, but haven’t read many of his short pieces. The Build-Up reminds me of a story of his about a space station I read recently, that in classically Ballardian fashion starts out fairly mundanely but goes to very strange places.

    I actually have a fondness for individual volumes over collected editions. Worse value for money I admit, but more manageable. I tend to find myself daunted by collected works.

    • Well, one could read select stories from the omnibus which were published in a particular collection. It’s what I did initially, I had read three or so of the Billenium stories but once I found an original edition I went ahead and read the rest.

  5. Great article. I have read some of these stories in a different paperback collection (“The Best Short Stories of JG Ballard”) but for some reason never got around to “Chronopolis”, will have to read it soon. Did recently re-read “Concentration City” and totally agree with the 5 of 5 rating. Unfortunately, the cover art of my book can’t compare, in fact it features a unicorn of all things!! Rick

  6. Ballard was one of the greatest British writers of the twentieth century.His decadent resort of Vermilion Sands was an excellent motif to bind unrelated short stories that gave them reason and meaning they would otherwise have lacked,but dropped it at the end of the 1960s,and they lost much of their resonance I think.Not all of them took place though in this small universe,and still managed to make some searing pieces.

    He was one of the greatest authors of speculative literature though along with Philip K.Dick,who despite being able to produce brilliant novels at blinding speed,didn’t,with exceptions such as “Faith of Our Fathers”,have the ability to bring his shorter work to life.Ballard was much more comfortable in this form than him.

    • I prefer his non Vermilion Sands stories, but yes he’s wonderful…

      I disagree completely about PKD’s short stories — I adore them. “The Preserving Machine” is melancholic and beautiful.

    • Yes. Ballard was a much better short story writer than a novelist. Many of his novels are nihilistic in tone. The bleakness does not overwhelm you in the short stories. Plus his characters are interchangeable and bland.Especially in the novels.

  7. Sorry for what I said about PKD’s short stories……I’m such a fan of his stuff that I call him “the wizard”,so I really hated having to say it.As I said,I really like “Faith of Our Fathers”,written for “Dangerous Visions” which also included a Ballard story,and was probably the best of his shorter pieces.”Precious Artifact” was also a very nice,moving story,and others such as “If There Was No Benny Cemoli” combined a tense feeling of cold war paranoia with his theme of apparent pseudo life for an exciting and light-hearted parable.Others include “The Days of Perky Pat”,a piece influenced by minor American consumer culture and became the seed for “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,while from “The Mold of Yancy”,came “The Penultimate Truth”!”The Short,Happy Life of the Brown Oxford”,is also very good and funny.

    The trouble with what I’m trying to say is,he did write too many short stories,and as it is said as his far lesser output of novels, there’s an inconsistant quality and prehaps a sameness at times.He wrote his first novel as a writer in 1953,”The Cosmic Puppets”,two years after beginning a trade as an author,and a year before beginning his first published novel,but took an hiatus between 1956 to 1957 to write mainstream books,then returning the next year to write two short stories that showed his new maturity.That same year he wrote the marvelous “Time Out of Joint”,which with the earlier “Eye in the Sky”,I think are the best of his early novels.

    I have read all of the big volumes of both authors stories.

    • No problem! I’ve read substantially more of PKD’s novels than his short stories (in proportion to his total output of each). Around 20-25 (30 something odd total novels, right?) of his novels but only 35 or so of his 100+ short stories (and most of his shorts I’ve read are from early in his career).

      But yes, as with Malzberg, extremely prolific authors often have a “sameness.” But that’s ok because the gems, well, they are certainly worth discovering.

    • Have only read volumes 4 and 5 of Dick’s complete short stories. Agree with most of your picks but forgot “The Electric Ant” which was one of his best. Maybe “The Little Black Box” which had Mercerism and some of the stuff of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” would be in the list not sure. Certainly “I Hope I shall arrive Soon”. “War Veteran” is a real good story Perserving Machine Collection. “Oh to be a Blobel” is sort of silly but good. There is maybe one other story written the mid 50s about a machine to frames someone for murder with fake evidence. Maybe “Autofac” too. But the quality is uneven.

      • Dick wrote more short stories than he was capable of in order to maintain his creative brilliance.He wrote,especially in the very part of his career,under pressure.This wasn’t always the case though,and some of the best ones that seemed not produced during a fast run,were “Upon the Dull Earth”,one of his earlier pieces,that was published outside of the strictly science fiction magazines,but is excellent speculative fiction,”Precious Artifact”,an entertaining “homily”,and “If there were no Benny Cemoli”.

  8. I see,you’ve only read the selected collections then,which hopefully contain all the best stories.

    Haven’t read anything by Malzberg.

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