JG Ballard once said that the greatest novel of the 20th century was the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy. Always healthily sceptical of the creative capacity of fiction, he was enchanted by the fictive potential in factual writing, textbooks, advertising copy, engineering reports, black box transcripts, political interviews, the Warren Commission Report and a medical volume called Crash Injuries. He saw that mass media and information technology were weaving fiction into the fabric of everyday life, and that … well, we’ll get to that very shortly. But I want to preface my selections with that thought by way of justification. You see, I’ve bent the rules slightly. By which I mean, I have driven a coach and horses through them. Here are my short fictions (non-fiction edition).
Twenty or thirty years ago [Ballard said this in 1974, to CBC interviewer Carol Orr] the elements of fiction … occupied a much smaller space. … But now I don’t think this is the case. I think we have seen the invasion of almost every aspect of our lives by fictions of one kind or another. We see this is people’s homes – the way they furnish their houses and apartments. Even the sorts of friends they have seem to be dictated by fictions, fantasies, by standards invented by other people to serve various ends, not necessarily commercial. But we’re living more and more in a hot mix of fictions of every kind.
In this interview, Ballard casually limns the next fifty years of human development, dismissing the contemporary obsession with nuclear war and instead pointing to the way that computers would transform human experience and that information technology would seep into our identities. “We are moving into a realm,” he says, “in which inner space is no longer just inside our skulls but is in the terrain we see around us in everyday life.” Fiction was taking over, and to cope we could not turn our backs on technology, but had to learn to cope with it. As prediction, it is extraordinary – and as a benchmark for the powers of a writer’s imagination, it is without equal.
In Extreme Metaphors, 4th Estate, 2012, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara.
When I first attempted this list it was all weird tales and ghost stories. Those are generally (almost exclusively) the short stories I enjoy. It was weird, but also weirdly pedestrian, a lot of Lovecraft and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. So I thought, with a chuckle, “I should put ‘Junkspace’ on here.” In ‘Junkspace’, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas warns about the ubiquitous, homogenous, air-conditioned global environment of airports, shopping malls, convention centres and hotels, an edgeless “fuzzy empire” of “canned euphoria”. But his maddened, feverish tone is straight from Edgar Allan Poe or Colonel Kurtz. It has precisely the structure and prose style of a weird tale, in which a rational man glimpses something unspeakable and returns, his grasp on sanity loosened, to report to us. I’ve recommended it to other writers in the past, and they’ve come back from it wide-eyed. Yeah, I thought, ‘Junkspace’ definitely belongs on the list. And then I thought, what if the whole list was ‘Junkspace’?
In Junkspace with Running Room, Notting Hill Editions, 2013, by Rem Koolhaas and Hal Foster, available here
Mechanization Takes Command is definitely one of those “upriver” books about design. How interesting could 750 densely packed pages on the evolution of things like locks, chairs and slaughterhouses possibly be? But you emerge from reading it, some time later, white-haired and changed forever. That’s Giedion’s task, anyway – he looks at how we have shaped mechanisms to suit us, and how they have in turn shaped us and our society. “Mechanization and Death: Meat”, the chapter on abattoirs and the long grisly history of building machines to dismantle mammals, is famous. More cheerful, though, is “The Mechanization of Adornment”, in which Giedion – an early modernist of the bracing, puritanical kind – looks at what happened in the 19th Century when machines began to make decorations, ushering in the ghastly excess of the Victorian home.
The tone is a Lovecraftian “doom-dragged wail”:
The machines began to pour forth statuary, pictures, flower bowls and carpets in mass. Simultaneously, furniture became bloated and its forms dulled. There followed a further packing of the room with all sorts of objects … at no other time in history did man allow the instinct for the goodly ordering of his surrounding to suffer such decay. … What led them to this abandon?
In Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, first published 1948 by Oxford University Press
What Giedion called “anonymous history” – the pathology of everyday technology – is a glimpse behind the curtain, a Burroughsian “naked lunch”, the moment you see exactly what’s on the end of your fork. A given is shown to be a complicated fiction, a plotted assemblage of dreams, nightmares and designs. There are few clearer examples than “Whose Street?”. Today, streets are for cars and pavements are for pedestrians and we are so accustomed to this arrangement that it is regarded as the natural order. When the car first appeared, streets were shared, and motor and foot traffic mingled. It was carnage, and a debate played out. Cars won, pedestrians lost. It could easily have gone the other way, and Norton shows why it didn’t.
In Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, MIT Press, 2008
Car culture did have its possibilities and opportunities, though, but we didn’t exploit them to their fullest. The View from the Road is a remarkable prose poem, and also a study of the nature of storytelling, the way that narrative unfolds and develops and unifies. However, it is primarily – there’s no denying it – a thesis on highway design.
Appleyard, Lynch and Myer look at the way that the road is experienced by the motorist in terms of what makes it enjoyable and satisfying, as opposed to monotonous or jarring. They examine it as a drama, or a piece of music, with a view to teaching highway engineers how to consciously “write” that pleasure and satisfaction into their creations. Essentially they create a new narrative language for something we all experience – and, most remarkably of all, they propose a notation system for that language, as if a highway could be expressed like a piece of music.
(MIT Press, 1965)
Staying in the car for a moment: the freeway experience, specifically the American freeway experience, and ultra-specifically the Los Angeles freeway experience, is often associated with three (non-American) Bs: Ballard, Baudrillard and Banham. Didion’s short take is one of the best, though, considering not only the “total surrender” and “narcosis” of Los Angeles freeway driving, but the difficulties in monitoring and regulating such a system. From inside the hushed, windowless Caltrans control room, she watches officials grappling with what should be a simple bureaucratic matter of infrastructure management, but are unable to comprehend its emotional dimension. The technology of the 20th century runs into the problem of the 21st.
Collected in The White Album, Simon & Schuster, 1979
‘Bureaucrats’ was written in 1976 – ‘Crisis’ looks at 1977, and covers similar ground, as postwar certainties gave way to Ballardian postmodernity. Nye tells the story of the USA’s power grid by looking at its failures, chiefly the New York blackouts of 1965 and 1977. The former was a curiously festive affair – the latter, described in ‘Crisis’, was something like a test-run for the apocalypse. The same city, similar only 12 years apart. What had changed?
In When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America, MIT Press, 2010
I have read The Great Crash, 1929 at least six times – my copy of it is falling to pieces from the strain. It tells of how the 1929 Wall Street Crash unfolded, ushering in the Great Depression. But in order to tell that story, it has to explain how a great many very learned, important and rich men came to believe fairytales and fantasies that collapse was impossible. As such, it’s an absolutely riveting tale of human folly, with endless parallels and lessons. Chapter 3, “Something Should Be Done?” presents an unnerving moral conundrum. Even as doubts began to form in the minds of those with the power to do something to alter the course of the market, they did nothing, and we find out the various reasons why. Galbraith writes:
The real choice was between an immediate and deliberately engineered collapse and a more serious disaster later on. Someone would certainly be blamed for the ultimate collapse when it came. There was no question whatever as to who would be blamed should the boom be deliberately deflated.
Who would volunteer for that duty? No one wanted to cause the crash, so everyone let it happen.
In The Great Crash, 1929
In the park’s sterile political zone, its own civilization may begin again from the beginning…
Easterling’s parks are not places of rest and recreation: they are the nodes and hubs of the modern economy, the container ports, distribution centres, warehouse complexes and economic special zones that form the infrastructure of the 21st century. Automated, exclusionary, politically and cultural invisible, the park is the world – the rest of us live in the hinterland. This is visionary stuff, not least when it invites us to view the park not as a flow of goods but of data: the network economy made flesh.
In Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades, MIT Press, 2005
In the Orr interview, Ballard said that the future would be “sex times technology”. Mark Dery is one of the most consistently fascinating writers ploughing (excuse me) that Ballardian furrow today, and it’s a great shame he is not more widely celebrated. A number of his essays looking at the libidinal aspects of modern technology and culture could have been included here, not least ‘Slashing the Borg’, which looks at the people who find Star Trek’s hiveminded cyborgs sexy. But ‘Straight, Gay, or Binary?’ stands out as a queer history of computing embedded in the answer of an outwardly trivial question: is HAL 9000 gay?
In I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, Minneapolis University Press, 2012
Koolhaas again. No regrets. Delirious New York is a book that almost all architects have on their shelves but few outside architecture have heard of, let alone read. That’s a shame. It’s an exercise in backplotting the “accidental genius” of the greatest American city. If you wanted to end up with New York, what rules would you apply, what conditions would you create? But its section vary widely, and in Lives of a Block, Koolhaas unpacks the meaning of hotels. “A Hotel,” he writes, “is a plot” – not a plot in the sense of a site, or a block, but a narrative, a human drama, “a cybernetic universe with its own laws generating random but fortuitous collisions between human beings who would never have met elsewhere.”
In Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, 1994, Monacelli
Notes on the Underground is one of those books you find yourself referencing and recommending everywhere – in the span of a month last year, I found myself quoting from it in two separate essays on wildly different topics. ‘Underground Aesthetics’ shows how the subterranean went from being a place of ugliness and terror to being an place of “magical beauty” and an object of romantic delight, by way of a fascinating discussion of sublimity and the gothic. It is an astonishing piece of imaginative prose, completely enchanting, in a book that deserves to be read by everyone.
In Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination, MIT Press, 2008