(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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