Simon Sellars: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe
There are not many authors who have published over twenty books of which I own and have read all of them. J G Ballard is one. I have discovered quite a few Ballard-obsessives in my readings and Simon Sellars is clearly one.
It has been suggested that this book is an example of Theory-Fiction. It clearly meets the definition I coined in the previous link for Theory-Fiction. So a book on Ballard and a new type of fiction, how could I resist?
Whatever else this book may be, it is clearly a (semi-)autobiographical novel. We follow the early activities of a man who clearly resembles or, indeed, is Simon Sellars. He starts off with his account of growing up with the Internet, mocking those who did not really understand it. He then attacks the gaggle of Californian cyberhippies [who] had come to dominate cyberculture. He claims to be a cyberwarrior and starts taking weird pills. This is all straightforward stuff, with many others feeling the same way.
We go on to follow his life. Indeed, this may be theory-fiction; it is also a Bildungsroman. He follows the career path of other young people: casual jobs, drugs and a loss of direction. He reads a magazine in the warehouse where he works, which includes an interview with Ballard. It open his eyes to the world around him. The future is going to be boring,’ he announced. ‘The suburbanisation of the planet will continue, and the suburbanisation of the soul will follow soon after.
Much of the rest of the book follows both his life and career, which is full of ups and downs, but, more particularly, how the Ballardian view of the universe coincides both with his own life and how it explains the world around him. We see this almost immediately.
It is my view, though not necessarily a view shared by many lit-crits, that Ballard’s Crash is the greatest post-war English novel. Sellars/the narrator of this novel clearly support this view. However, what is interesting is how Sellars weaves it into the story.
The narrator, like Sellars, lives in Melbourne, a town notorious for its violent driving. The Melbourne Transport Accident Commission had an extensive campaign to reduce accidents. Their announcements were fairly horrific and were almost certainly influenced by the Mad Max films. However, to Melburnians, Mad Max is not fiction but a documentary. More importantly, for the narrator and doubtless may others, the announcements not only did not put them off, encouraging them to drive slower, it had the opposite effect. It made it all seemed exciting. This is, of course, at least part of the basis of Crash. ‘Is it good or bad?’ Baudrillard asks of Crash. ‘We cannot say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash.’
This novel is filled with similar examples where Ballard’s take on the modern world, a view which almost certainly is not shared by the majority of people, opens up our narrator’s eyes to what is really happening around us.
It is at this point in the narrator’s career that he is offered a scholarship to do a Ph. D. However, it was at this point that another key issue happened in his intellectual development: the death of cyberpunk. Like Sellars/the narrator, I was also a keen reader of cyberpunk, as it certainly opened up the possibility of what the future might look like. Unlike him, I did not go into mourning when it sold its soul. Sellars/the narrator blames Billy Idol’s album Cyberpunk. However, if instead of reading Baudrillard and Virilio, he had read Debord and Vaneigem, he would have known that Idol was merely an innocent tool of capitalism.
At this point, he starts his travels and is off to England to make a presentation at a conference. As with other presentations he and others make, it goes very wrong. He blames hardcore science fiction fans: ‘a collection of very unintelligent people, almost illiterate’, with ‘no interest whatever in the serious and interesting possibilities of science fiction’. Locked into an ultra-conservative view of the genre, especially the juvenile fixation on outer space, they would always hobble its potential to shine a light on the present.. He has now realised that Ballard is not science fiction but something very different.
Back home, he is experimenting. He writes some fiction but it is not very good. He edits an anthology of alien sex. It failed to find an audience. He sees a UFO. He is dumped by his girlfriend. In short, things are not going well so he is off to Japan. He sees an ad from Rough Planet for travel writers, submits some writing on Japan and is accepted. (Sellars wrote for Lonely Planet but not, as far as I know, Rough Guides).
Though he does take up travel writing, he is aware that Ballard condemned mass tourism, particularly in his novel Millennium People and he too soon grows cynical. Mass travel has shrunk the world and dirt-cheap air fares have wrapped the planet in a tentacled grid of route maps, itineraries and carbon trails. The romantic notion of ‘untouched areas’ has become extinct, with package tourists following guidebook trails mapped out in advance.
At this point, he becomes interested in Ballard’s concept of non-places: car parks but also airport terminals, hospital waiting rooms, hotel lobbies, freeway underpasses. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island famously tells the story of a man who has crashed and falls into one of those small islands in between busy road junctions, where no-one ever goes (or even can go) and where there is a lot of vegetation concealing whatever might be there. In the novel, the man is badly injured, thrown down into this area, concealed by the vegetation and unable to escape because of his injuries.
Sellars/the narrator thinks that Ballard might have been influenced in his view of non-places by his stay in the Lunghua camp near Shanghai, during the war, which he recounts in his novel Empire of the Sun. Sellars/the narrator moves on from there, when visiting various Pacific islands for another travel guide to the idea of micronations. He then goes on to write a guide on micronations. These are Ballardian and consist of very small areas that have generally not been recognised by any other states. Sealand may be the most famous but is certainly not the only one. (The narrator tries to visit Sealand and, as with many of his endeavours, spectacularly fails.)
I have only touched on the huge amount of issues that Sellars manages to pack into this novel that affect him or that he becomes of aware of and that are linked in some way to Ballard and his writings. Hikikomori, edgelands, ghosts, UFOs, apophenia, Chris Marker and his films, Second Life, failing standards in Melbourne, disaster porn, the Mandela Effect and false memories and even Big Brother are just a few of the other topics. Even though it is fairly long novel, Sellars manages to cover a lot of ground.
This site is called The Modern Novel so I am reviewing this book (more or less) as a novel, rather than a theoretical study of J. G. Ballard, though obviously, as a Ballard fan, I have certainly not ignored the Ballard commentaries, not least because they are integral to the plot.
I found it a really excellent idea to integrate a study of a writer, especially a writer who had a lot to say about the modern world (and the immediate future) into a Bildungsroman. While it clearly helps to have a knowledge of Ballard and his work to fully appreciate it, it is by no means essential, as Sellars makes clear where the Ballardianisms apply and what they are. Indeed, if you have not read Ballard, you may well end up being tempted to explore his work whether you agree or not with his view of the world.
Sellars never lets us get bored. There are a large number of events that take place during the course of this novel that I have not touched on, which Sellars throws at us and that are relevant to the Ballard view of the world. Indeed, he can barely step out of his door without bumping into a Ballardianism. Indeed, he does not even have to leave his house as it can, of course, happen in his head. I really enjoyed this novel and shall look out for other theory-fiction as it seems an interesting path to take, as the novel and, indeed, humans try to find a way in our complex world. I shall leave you with a commentary Sellars/the narrator makes.
What I do know is that my narrative about Ballard will be just as fake as those he told the world about himself, since the meaning of Ballard, of his work, is as vaporous as the contrails of a wraith, and as soon as one attempts to fix a referent to it, even a biographical reality, it forks off into a million sub-paths, a million overlapping passageways..
First published 2018 by Urbanomic