Book Review: The Voices of Time and Other Stories, J. G. Ballard (1962)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1962 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

J. G. Ballard’s second short story collection, Voices of Time and Other Stories (1962), is only ever so slightly less brilliant than his first, Billenium (1962).   The stories are often linked thematically: exploring post-apocalyptical landscapes,  rituals in the face of death, urban alienation, mental fragmentation.   Scientists test whether humans can live without sleep, strange megaliths populate the volcanic landscapes of an alien planet, residual sounds are gathered in city dumps, and new ultra modern housing complexes facilitate detachment from the real world…

Highly recommended for all fans of literary, thought-provoking, and moody SF.   Ballard is one of the most routinely brilliant short story authors from the late 50s I have encountered.  The recently released volume of complete short works should be on everyone’s wishlist [here].

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The Voices of Time” (1960) 5/5 (Masterpiece):  A story inundated with layers of cryptic patterns and populated by strange new life…  “Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool” (7).  The workings of the world only slowly come together—the few that remain awake are plagued by a “detached fatalism” (7) preparing (with often esoteric ritual and processes) the coming narcoma syndrome where everyone will fall asleep…  Powers, preparing for his withdraw from the world, continues his experiments on animals.  As his ability to stay awake diminishes he starts to build a series of concrete walls.

Even Khaldren, on whom Powers had earlier performed experimental brain surgery on to prevent him from sleeping,  in his moments of sanity gathers transcripts of the last signals sent from lost spacecraft believing them to be complex code.   Everyone has their rituals and obsessions.

A beautiful story exuding melancholy.  The characters move to rhythms generated by approaching doom.  Easily the best of Ballard’s stories on this theme before novel masterpiece that tackles similar virtual as the inevitable end approaches—The Drowned World (1962).

“The Sound-Sweep” (1960) 4.75/5 (Very Good) is my third favorite story in the collection.  New music, new sounds, new properties of sound—in this case, the highly attuned can detect the residues of sound that gather across the urban landscape.  “Regarded as little more than garbage collectors, the sound-sweeps were an outcast group of illiterates” (42) who collect the city’s residual sounds for at a certain point “they’ll literally start shaking the buildings apart” (48).  Mangon is one of these sound-sweeps and he works for the reclusive Madame Gioconda—an ex-opera singer down on her luck, consumed by drugs, and convinced that the sounds of deriding laughter still occupy the sound stage where she lives surrounded by the props of her operatic days.  Mangon attends to her every need, sweeping these sound phantoms that do not exist.  And soon Madame Gioconda uses Mangon to plot a return to the stage, a stage that has not heard the human voice for years…

“The Overloaded Man” (1961)  5/5 (Near Masterpiece):  Easily one of the best descent into metaphysical dimensions short story I have read in a while…  Faulkner (a reference to the author of the 1929 masterpiece The Sound and the Fury) is slowly going insane.  He quits his job as a lecturer at the Business School  and spends his time staring from his windows at the the new ultra modern urban development that stretches before him.  The development was designed to be the “corporate living units” of the employees of a massive psychiatric foundation (74)—little did the designers know that the mass of geometric shapes facilitates Faulkner’s new ability to go blank, to enter a zone where “outlines merge and fade,” where the world is transformed into “disembodied forms” (74).

Faulkner slowly detaches himself from the world, his daily routine, he tells his wife to “not pay any attention” to what the actors of television are saying because it “makes more sense” (79).  Ballard’s depiction of malaise in this scene is chilling: “he watched the characters mouthing silently like demented fish” (79).   But soon the rope that Faulkner ties to an alarm clock, that anchors him to the real world, will snap…

“Zone of Terror” (1960) 3.25/5 (Average):  One of the lesser stories in the collection the fragmentation of the mind.  As with many of Ballard’s other stories, industrial forces and the stress they cause seem to be the root of such psychiatric breakdowns.  Larsen is treated at a facility in the desert, at company expense, for a series of hallucinations.  In very literary touch, Ballard describes Larsen’s job as a programmer of a vast artificial intelligence.  Those who known more about the workings of the mind are unable to be spared by their own.  While programing this mechanical thinking machine Larsen’s own mind starts to play tricks…  Bayliss, the psychologist, seems to know the cause and cure for Larsen’s problems.  But soon both are afflicted with the same symptoms.

“Manhole 69” (1957) 4/5 (Good):  It is easy to see what inspired Ballard later stories—in this case, The Voices of Time.”  “Manhole 69,” Ballard’s fifth published story, concerns the mental state of a series of patients whose brains are surgically altered to never sleep.  The scientists proclaim the breakthrough as the next great step in the evolution of man!  The metaphors are crystalline.  The mood oppressive.  And as the worries and speculations about the role of dreaming and sleep grown among the scientists it might be too late for their patients…

“The Waiting Grounds” (1959) 3.25/5 (Average):  Like “The Overloaded Man,” “The Waiting Grounds” descends into metaphysical territory.  However, the descent and telling feels rather more like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier than a tale drenched in existential poignancy.  Although the weakest story in the collection, it is still highly readable due to Ballard’s prose and remarkable ability to generate moody landscapes.

Quaine takes up his post at Murak Radio Observatory—on a “volcanic jungle” planet where the temperatures reach dangerous levels.  The previous occupant, Henry Tallis, spent 15 uninterrupted years virtually alone on the planet—and he won’t divulged to his successor the reason.  With the assistance of the small mining community eking out a living amongst the volcanic craters, Quaine discovers the reason for the disappearance of  two earlier travelers who brought large creates of religious tomes.  Soon Quaine discovers a series of megaliths that cause “a strange vision” to sweep through his mind (142).

“Deep End” (1961) 4/5 (Good) is very similar in tone and world as Ballard’s later novel, and near masterpiece, The Drought (variant title: The Burning World) (1964).   Earth is populated by the elderly—at least those who do not die of pollution.  Holliday is one of the few under the age of 50.   As the emigration officer makes his last circuit of Earth’s few remaining occupied places, Holliday ponders whether he should leave the planet.  The oceans have long retreated, consumed by mining processes that generated oxygen to terraform distant planets.  As the launching platforms in orbit crash back to Earth, Holliday sets off towards the southern tip of Lake Atlantic.  And here, “Holliday discovered the fish” (151).

Although “Deep End” might be dismissed as slight, I found it mournful and ruminative in its allegorical simplicity.  Ballard himself seems to have found the ideas and world interesting enough to expand on them in The Drought.

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44 thoughts on “Book Review: The Voices of Time and Other Stories, J. G. Ballard (1962)

  1. While I’m a fan of Ballard’s novels see if you can get hold of a short story collection called Low Flying Aircraft. It has one of the worst short stories (it isn’t even a short story!) you’re ever likely to read. It is all tell and no showing! How on earth it got into print I don’t know. Its title is The Life and Death of God! Very instructive for aspiring writers.

    • Well, I have a volume of his complete short fiction so I’ll give it a shot.

      Perhaps he’s satirizing or taking a metaficional jab at something… I think Ballard plans his fiction very carefully, so, there’s probably a reason for its composition.

  2. I’ve read the two volume collection of Ballard’s short stories,but I can’t remember most of these,and the ones I do,I don’t recall having any fondness for,especially “The Sound Sweep”.I hate saying this,for I thought most of them were marvelous,especially those written before the 1950s and 60s,not to mention his novels.

    Ballard was perhaps the greatest English writer of the second half of the century,a literary descendant of the astounding Olaf Stapleton,who had also risen from the auguries of Wells,and like them,was continuing a tradition to write their own particular literary fiction.He managed to escape the blight imposed on others in genre sf,and was lifted from it eventually,into general literature.

    Sorry to keep mentioning Stapledon,but he is really that good and important.

    • What was wrong with “The Sound-Sweep”? The imagery, premise, and mood were all delectable.

      Yes, Stapleton is definitely a key figure in SF. And I will get to him eventually…

      • Sorry,maybe I’m wrong,I’ll go back and see some time,but I’m sure there’s others I preferred more…..I quite liked “The Drowned Giant”,and “Primer Belladonna”,a very good debut piece,and most of the Vermilion Sands sequence I think,among others.

        • Yes, I reviewed “Prima Belladonna” in his collection Billenium (1962). It was enjoyable although I preferred the non-Vermilion Sands stories in that collection.

          Have not read “The Drowned Giant” yet. I have his collection Vermillion Sands with the rest in the sequence I haven’t read yet on the shelf…

          • There’s another one,”The Terminal Beach”,which became the title of another collection of his,and is a very strange piece about somebody’s state of mind affected by a technological station on an island.

  3. Thanks. Ballard was an extraordinary writer , one of the few with a true vision that he could express powerfully. Thanks for reminding me to read him again. Pleased to have found your blog. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

    • You’re welcome!

      Do you have any favorite Ballard short works? Novels? I adored The Drowned World (1962) and The Burning World. Unfortunately, I was unable to write a review for either… Couldn’t gather the courage perhaps!

      • Hi Joachim,

        I haven’t read his short stories, but I love the haunting quality of ‘The Drowned World’ and I also was very impressed with ‘Empire of the Sun’.

      • Considering the number of short stories in the collection it’s definitely something I read slowly over time… In the order of the original collection publication (although I do own the two collections of his I’ve read/reviewed so far).

      • Yes “The Drowned World” is truly excellent,and came at a critical junction in the early 1960s,that included “The Man in the High Castle”,”Cats Cradle”,and “Journey Beyond Tomorrow”,that changed the face of sf and continued throughout the decade.That’s not many I know,and they are old favorites,but they do represent the quality of new,exciting sf at the time.

        Ballard’s next novel two years later,”The Drought”,is commendable,as is the one that followed it,”The Crystal World”,but I can’t help feeling that one relied upon the startling imagery of an altered ecological reality to tell the story,rather than the concepts.As David Pringle says of it for his entry in “Science Fiction The 100 Best Novels”,”the plot isn’t important,it’s the visual imagery of the set pieces at which he excels”,which is excellent,but I’m not sure.

        In the 70s,there’s “Crash” of course,which was supposed to be influenced by Bill Burroughs,who was a major,guiding light to Ballard,but it’s not an easy book to read,and takes some intellectual stamina to get through it,but I suppose is rewarding in the end.The one I preferred,written soon after “Crash”,”Concrete Island”,is a much simpler told novel,of a devastated urban landscape,hidden and forgotten in the jungle of modern society……mesmerizing,strange but realistic.

  4. All I will say is that Crash is one of the most incredible, mind-blowing and unique novels I have ever read – it is a true masterpiece of 20th century fiction, and is definitely in my top ten novels of all time (of the books I have read so far). Ballard for once deserves the epithet of genius – he can do no wrong in my eyes and even his later, lesser novels of the Noughties, have more interesting ideas than most authors display in a lifetimes of books…

    • Brian Aldiss in his history of sf,”Trillion Year Spree”,said of “Crash”,that,”it wasn’t to everyone’s taste,but it’s overall precision and Sibylline imagery,renders it unassailable among contemporary authors”.I suppose you can’t put it more eloquently than that.

      “Cocaine Nights” is also one of the more excellent of his later novels,and proof that he was still able to produce new and invigorating stuff.

  5. Must try this collection. Only read one or two of these short stories. Ballard is usually better at short story length. I find most of his novels with the exception of the excellent Drowned World,to meander and be weak in character. Many no doubt will disagree.

  6. Thanks for this review. I’ve just stumbled across it after reviewing his ‘Voices of Time’ which I can’t praise enough. Remembers me, that I have to reread his works, because I nearly forgot everything.
    Crash first, then Drowned World, then VS, then some of his short stories.

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