J.G. Ballard and "The Vanished Age of Space"
I am referring, of course, to the late, great J. G. Ballard.
Yes, I know, you undoubtedly think of Ballard as one of those "New Wave" writers who abhorred science and focused all their energies on literary craftsmanship and avant-garde experimentation—and there are works in the Ballard oeuvre that would match that stereotypical perception. But it is important to recall that Ballard spent years at medical school studying to become a psychiatrist, which means that he received a better and more thorough scientific education than the vast majority of science fiction writers. As a result of that experience, he sometimes employed the vocabulary and clinical writing style of a scientist—so much so that David G. Hartwell has labeled Ballard a hard science fiction writer—on the grounds that his works project the "affect" of hard science fiction. Without fully embracing Hartwell's position, I would argue the following: hard science fiction represented a game that Ballard was clearly qualified to play, and whenever he chose to address one particular subject, he played it very well.
Ballard distinguished himself as a genuine science fiction prophet in the early 1960s, an era when the universal opinion of science fiction remained that the early Russian and American orbital space flights were only the beginning of humanity's coming conquest of space. These baby steps into the unknown, writers agreed, would swiftly be followed by flights to the Moon, the establishment of human settlements there and in Earth's orbit, and expeditions to Mars, the inner planets, and the asteroid belt. Within a few decades, the human race would be well on its way to inhabiting the entire Solar System, with the stars beckoning as the next great leap forward. And, if science fiction writers ever suggested that these visions might be flawed, they were intimating that their predictions along these lines were probably too timid, and that people would probably advance faster and further into outer space than their stories were indicating.
Unlike any other science fiction writer at that time, J. G. Ballard contemplated these scenarios of future space travel and concluded that they were all stuff and nonsense. Humans might venture into space for a while, he claimed, but they were eventually destined to abandon space flight and retreat to their home planet. As early as 1962, when America's Cape Canaveral was the bustling center of activity aimed at a lunar landing, Ballard's "The Cage of Sand" singularly predicted that the site would someday be abandoned, inhabited only by a few drifters still obsessed with humanity's brief ventures into space who would spend their days wandering through its ruins: "the old launching gantries and landing ramps reared up into the sky like derelict pieces of giant sculpture." In seven later stories about space travel, conveniently collected with "The Cage of Sand" in Memories of the Space Age (1988), Ballard said nothing about enterprising pioneers exploring space and colonizing other planets; instead, he only offered additional visions of former astronauts and space program officials of the future, now permanently Earthbound, nostalgically pondering rusting spacecraft, orbiting relics of past missions, and their memories of what he described in "News from the Sun" (1981) as "the vanished age of space." And time has decisively demonstrated that in these predictions, Ballard was right, and all of the other science fiction writers were wrong.
True, people may correctly protest that humans have not entirely given up space travel, since Russian and American astronauts, sometimes joined by colleagues and tourists from other nations, have regularly traveled into Earth orbit and have even lived for months at a time in tiny orbiting space stations. But for the past thirty-seven years, since the flight of Apollo 17, no human being has ventured more than a few hundred miles away from Earth; instead, humanity has huddled close to its home planet, making no effort to fulfill the ubiquitous dreams of lunar colonies and explorations of distant worlds which were and remain a staple of science fiction. When NASA began to describe some space endeavors as its "Mission to Planet Earth," the agency effectively acknowledged that its focus had shifted away from deep space and toward timid initiatives aimed solely at studying and benefiting its home planet, and while they are now constructing a new spacecraft designed to eventually revisit the Moon, sometime around the year 2020, there is already talk of cutbacks and delays. In sum, perhaps neither science fiction's soaring visions of humanity's rapid conquest of the Solar System nor Ballard's sobering prediction of a complete end to space travel have proven to be entirely accurate, but unquestionably, Ballard was more accurate in his prognostications than any of his contemporaries.
And the question that should be haunting science fiction is: why did Ballard get it right, while all of the other science fiction writers were getting it wrong? Why did their apparently logical and well-grounded predictions about ongoing advances further and further into space prove to be so flawed? The standard answer of unrepentant space enthusiasts, as I described it in my Locus Online commentary "Tunnel Vision and the Unfarmed Sky," is that we "have all been betrayed by a short-sighted public, gutless politicians, inept bureaucrats, and—pace Jerry Pournelle—effete academics" whose obdurate myopia and selfishness prevented humans from easily conquering the universe in the manner envisioned by science fiction; but can anybody really continue to believe that it is all a matter of incompetence and villainy after forty years of a stagnant space program? My answer in that essay, and in an earlier 2003 essay about the Columbia disaster which provoked a bit of controversy, is that humanity to date does not have the technology or the resources to master the unexpectedly difficult and expensive task of conquering space, leading to unwise initiatives like the space shuttle program implicitly inspired by the overly optimistic visions of science fiction. Another answer, which I hope to develop in a forthcoming book about space films, is that the observed realities of space travel—astronauts lumbering about in spacesuits through the unprecedentedly lethal vacuum of outer space or upon equally forbidding planetary surfaces—are simply not appealing to most people, diminishing their inclination to support actual space programs and heightening their interest in the far more conventional, and far more attractive, fantasies of unproblematic space travel without any need for spacesuits, as epitomized by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. But here, I wish to explore J. G. Ballard's own, quite different, answers to this question.
The least remarkable answer for the imagined collapse of the space program found in Memories of the Space Age would fall into the category of suspect motives, as first discussed in "A Question of Re-Entry" (1963), which involves a NASA official named Connolly, searching for a downed astronaut in the Amazon jungle, who seeks the assistance of an embittered Westerner living there named Ryker. At one point, Ryker abruptly asks him, "Why did they really send a man to the moon?" When he is met with Connolly's cautious reply, "Well, I suppose you could say it was the natural spirit of exploration," "Ryker snorted derisively" and exclaims, "Do you seriously believe that, Lieutenant? The spirit of exploration? My God! What a fantastic idea." Later, contemplating Ryker's remarks, Connolly muses, "The implication was that the entire space programme was a symptom of some inner unconscious malaise afflicting mankind, and in particular the Western technocracies, and that the spacecraft and satellites had been launched because their flights satisfied certain buried compulsions and desires." Ballard says nothing else about this issue, and readers of the time probably imagined he was referring to the obvious fact that the Americans and Russians were venturing into space more as a matter of national pride than because of any genuine interest in exploring unknown realms; thus, once America "won" the space race by landing on the Moon, satisfying this urge to glorify itself, the nation had no further incentive to pursue ambitious space initiatives. However, when he returned in later stories to the questions of why humans had ventured into space, Ballard's additional explanations of the "unconscious malaise" and "buried compulsions and desires" that had driven people away from Earth, as will be discussed, would prove to be more original, and more provocative.
In addition, while other science fiction writers would only rarely tell stories about deaths in outer space, Ballard more fully recognized that space travel would be extremely dangerous, and often fatal, creating another disincentive for continuing space exploration. In "The Cage of Sand," the protagonists constantly look up at seven orbiting spacecraft, each containing an astronaut who died after failing to reach "the launching pads in fixed orbit," while in "The Dead Astronaut" (1968), "relic hunters" carefully watch the sky, waiting for the eventual crash landings of the "twelve dead astronauts orbiting the night sky," their deaths caused by "a freak meteorite collision" and other "orbital accidents." In "A Question of Re-Entry," Connolly is searching for the astronaut who made a "successful landing on the moon, after some half-dozen fatal attempts," but then is presumed to have died when he attempted to return to Earth. Along with the perils of space travel, there was also the possibility that some dreadful disease might be brought from space to Earth; in "The Cage of Sand," mounds of Martian dust transported to Earth turned out to contain undetected "fossilized spores of the giant lichens and mosses which had been the last living organisms on the planet," and "embedded" in them were "the crystal lattices of the viruses which had once preyed on the plants." Revived in the environment of Earth, these viruses soon led to "outbreaks of blight and mosaic disease" which eventually transformed Florida into "a desert."
As a would-be psychiatrist, Ballard also recognized that space travel might be psychologically damaging as well as physically damaging, another reason for humans to stop venturing into space. "My Dream of Flying to Wake Island" (1974) involves a man obsessed with the titular ambition who "had become the first astronaut to suffer a mental breakdown in space." "News from the Sun" describes former astronauts as universally suffering from a "relapse into alcoholism, silence, and pseudomysticism," as well as "mental breakdowns." "Memories of the Space Age" (1982), after asserting that "the space programme had begun to attract people who were slightly unbalanced" in the first place, describes the astronaut Hinton, who committed the first murder in space, as the man "who had exposed for the first time so many of the latent conundrums at the heart of the space programme, those psychological dimensions that had been ignored from its start and subsequently revealed, too late, in the crack-ups of the early astronauts, their slides into mysticism and melancholia." "Myths of the Near Future" (1982) similarly speaks of "the withdrawal symptoms shown by the original astronauts in the decades after the Apollo programme, the retreat into mysticism and silence." What is worse, space travel seems to inspire mental problems even in those who never went into space: "Myths of the Near Future" describes a new disease, "space sickness," apparently caused by "the depletion of the ozone layer that had continued apace during the 1980s and 1990s," which led to victims being "convinced that they had once been astronauts...certain that they had once travelled through space to Mars and Venus, walked beside Armstrong on the moon." And the ways that Ballard's characters consistently linger in the ruins of Cape Canaveral, fanatically fixated on former astronauts, would seem to represent another common mental illness caused by space travel, although Ballard never labels it as such.
Ballard's strangest explanation for the predicted end of space travel is explored in three related stories—"News from the Sun," "Memories of the Space Age," and "Myths of the Near Future"—which read like three different attempts to tell the same difficult story. All three involve characters haunted by memories of the space program—a physician caring for an aging astronaut near Las Vegas ("News") and men wandering through the abandoned structures of Cape Canaveral ("Memories," "Myths") who believe that they are achieving profound insights while readers are invited to instead assume that they are going mad. The protagonists come to believe that our entire sense of time is simply a construct of the human imagination; as explained in "News from the Sun,"
[i]t's possible to imagine that everything is happening at once, all the events "past" and "future" which constitute our universe are taking place together. Perhaps our sense of time is a primitive mental structure that we inherited from our less intelligent forebears. For prehistoric man the invention of time (a brilliant conceptual leap) was a way of classifying and storing the huge flood of events which his dawning mind had opened for him. Like a dog burying a large bone, the invention of time allowed him to postpone the recognition of an event-system too large for him to grasp at one bite.The secret motive behind the space program was a desire to break free from this implanted perception of time: as one character says in "Memories," "We had to get out of time—that's what the space programme was all about..." Yet fulfilling this hidden impulse through space travel could also be viewed as "an evolutionary crime" ("News," "Memories") or "a forced evolutionary step with unforeseen consequences" ("Myths") which led to damaging disruptions to people's experiences of time: "The fracture of the fragile continuum erected by the human psyche through millions of years had soon shown itself, in the confused sense of time displayed by the astronauts and NASA personnel, and then by the inhabitants of the towns near the space centre" ("Memories"). The specific symptoms of this faltering "sense of time" vary: characters in "News" are afflicted with "fugues" which effectively paralyze them; the victims in "Memories" have periodic "attacks" in which their perception of time slows dramatically; and while the "space sickness" of "Myths" manifests itself primarily in a strong aversion to sunlight and society, sufferers also feel time is moving sluggishly—one woman reports, "Everything moves very slowly now, it seems to take all day for a bird to cross the sky." Quite naturally, citizens are horrified by these afflictions and demand an end to space travel in hopes of ending these diseases or limiting their spread; but Ballard's characters come to see their conditions as the harbinger of a hoped-for "escape from time" ("News") which they increasingly embrace and aspire to, though readers will see this ambition only as a growing tendency towards suicide.
Reading about the stories in Memories of the Space Age, many may feel that Ballard does not really sound like much of a prophet. After all, while there have been four space missions, and one test on the ground, that led to fatalities as well as the spectacular near-disaster of Apollo 13, there have been no series of deadly failures as Ballard envisioned, and the vast majority of space flights have been uneventfully successful. Further, none of the tragedies in space led to calls for an end to space travel except from a few, fiercely criticized iconoclasts. One also recalls only a few cases of astronauts who experienced mental health issues: the strange beliefs of Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell and Buzz Aldrin's nervous breakdown after the flight of Apollo 11 might be cited as instances of Ballard's "slides into mysticism and melancholia," while the celebrated antics of astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, who drove 900 miles wearing a diaper in order to confront a rival for her lover's affections, also suggested psychological problems. Still, no other astronauts have apparently become deranged in any way as a result of their space flights, providing no rationale for restricting humans to Earth. And there quite definitely have occurred no widespread disruptions in human perceptions of time, no "fugues" or "space sickness" to inspire concerns about ongoing space travel.
Still, Ballard's explanations for his predicted end to space travel cannot be entirely discounted as explanations for our ongoing disinclination to venture deeper into space. A recognition of the panoply of perils awaiting space travelers, emphasized each time an astronaut dons a bulky spacesuit, is surely an unstated factor in our reluctance to travel thousands or millions of miles away from Earth where a crisis could not be dealt with by rushing back to the safety of home. And one concern about a proposed flight to Mars which has been explicitly raised by experts is that the long, lonely voyage there and back may well drive astronauts insane. Furthermore, there is unquestionably a metaphorical truth, if not a literal truth, in Ballard's argument that ventures into space would upset humanity's sense of time. Consider the impact of those first photographs of Earth from lunar orbit taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, showing our world as an island of blue in a vast imposing blackness, and the data and photographs obtained from the Hubble Space Telescope and other unmanned space probes. The message from our contact with space is clear: we are beings who live only for several decades, on a world that is only a few thousand miles in diameter, but we live in a cosmos that is over thirteen billion years old and vast enough to contain billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars and planets. Properly understood, that information would certainly function as a shock to the human perception of time, as an incentive to ponder static eternity as an alternative to our brief, frenetic experience of time, and perhaps even as an inducement to a complete, stunned paralysis.
But Ballard did make one error: he assumed that humans would abandon space travel because they were shattered by the revelations brought by ventures into space; instead, humans have largely abandoned space travel because they are in a state of denial about those revelations. That is, I would regard the following phenomena as direct results of the Apollo lunar missions: a huge resurgence of belief in the absurd pseudoscience of astrology, which maintains that the positions of stars and planets are primarily important as reflections of, and influences on, human behavior; a growing refusal to accept the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution by people who would rather trust in the wisdom of an ancient religious text which explicitly argues that human beings live at the bottom of a crystal hemisphere surrounded on all sides by water; and the widespread popularity of colorful space adventures featuring ordinary people engaged in ordinary behavior, which bear utterly no resemblance to the actual televised activities of the Apollo astronauts. More extensive and increasingly distant ventures into outer space would only make it more and more difficult to embrace such fantasies, and to ignore the truths which space is teaching us; it is no wonder, then, that there is little public appetite for such initiatives—just as Ballard predicted.
But Ballard has one more idea to offer as to why humanity abandoned space travel which might provide some solace for those who are unhappy about our failure to fulfill the expansive prophecies of science fiction; and like Ballard himself, I have saved it for last.
It will be recalled that one effect of the "space sickness" in "Myths of the Near Future" was to delude people into wrongly believing that they had once been astronauts, and this might make it difficult to distinguish between people who had actually traveled into space and those who had not. Ballard decisively blurs the line between the two groups in "The Man Who Walked on the Moon" (1985), the final story in Memories of the Space Age. Ostensibly, the story is not science fiction at all: a washed-up journalist in Brazil encounters a man named Scranton who falsely claims that he was once an Apollo astronaut in order to impress tourists, and after the man dies, the journalist starts pretending to be a former astronaut in his stead. Yet the story contains two striking statements that, as it happens, found their way into a book entitled Science Fiction Quotations. When the journalist asks him "As a matter of interest, what was being on the moon literally like?" Scranton responds, "Being on the moon? ... It was just like being here." Then, even after confirming that his stories about space travel are lies, the journalist asserts, "Nonetheless, Scranton had traveled in space. He had known the loneliness of separation from all other human beings, he had gazed at the empty perspectives that I myself had seen." And this provides the justification for the journalist to then say that his eyes "had seen the void" and that he "too, had walked on the moon."
How can one possibly assert that being in outer space is exactly the same as being on Earth? How can someone who has never left the surface of the Earth say that he has "walked on the moon"? Ballard's stunning answer, embedded in "The Man Who Walked on the Moon," is this: there is no real difference between being on Earth and being in outer space. This is the true meaning of the phrase "spaceship Earth," the ultimate implication of those photographs of Earth from deep space, and the wisdom conveyed by Ballard's most famous statement, "The only truly alien planet is Earth." So, why have humans stopped venturing into space? It is because their early space flights revealed to everyone that humans were already in outer space. We do not need to travel into outer space or to alien worlds; we are already in outer space, we are already on an alien world.
Thus, to turn everything that has been said here on its head—Ballard is the sort of writer who inspires such reversals—humanity actually did not abandon space travel; rather, humanity has always been traveling in space, and will always be traveling in space. We do not have to get into tiny compartments and venture into the interplanetary vacuum to recognize that we are inhabitants of space, and that our loneliness, our angst, our despair about our cosmic insignificance, are all best understood as a consequence of our lives in outer space. Fully capable of mentally conquering the universe—if we have the courage and the insight to listen to, and rise to the challenge of, what the universe is telling us instead, of ignoring it—we do not need to physically conquer the universe. And that is why humans today are not bothering to build cities on Mars or land on Ganymede.
A science fiction writer who can lead us to such insights, I finally submit, is really a good prophet—one of the best. So, J. G. Ballard, rest in as much peace as your always-unsettling acumen will allow.
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