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Millennium People
J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages

Millennium People
J.G. Ballard
James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, and spent the first 15 years of his life in China. Interned in a Japanese camp during World War II, he was repatriated to England at the age of 16. After studying medicine at Cambridge, he sold his first story to New Worlds in 1956. He is the author of numerous novels and short story collections, including The Atrocity Exhibition and the notorious Crash. In 1987 Steven Spielberg made a movie of his bestselling Empire of the Sun. J.G. Ballard lives in Shepperton, England.

J.G. Ballard Website
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SF Site Review: The Drowned World
SF Site Review: A User's Guide to the Millennium

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Millennium People, first published in 2003 (despite my copy of the Norton edition curiously having a 2011 copyright date), was J.G. Ballard's penultimate novel. By this time, he had long since given up on writing science fiction novels, preferring a satirical take on contemporary society. Despite which, there is still an air of something fantastic about the book, the satiric exaggeration edging it well beyond simple realism.

Coming back to the book now, less than a decade after its first appearance, it seems, if anything, even more science fictional, because a story about middle class revolt appears not just prescient, it is eerily predictive. Everywhere we look around us, from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, from clashes over tuition fees to the sight of doctors and teachers and top civil servants on strike, we see the middle classes in revolt. Surely that is exactly what Ballard was writing about in this novel?

Well, yes and no. Yes, on a simplistic level, Ballard was writing about the middle classes reaching a point beyond which rebellion was the only option. But on a more serious level, there is a significant difference. For Ballard the driver of that revolt was ennui, a psychological continuation of the entropy he had spent his whole career exploring. The world had been leached of its savor, its value, reduced to a washed-out flatness into which only the eruption of violence could restore any measure of interest or worth. For Ballard, making the middle classes revolt was a way of attacking the pointlessness of middle class existence as he saw it. Today's rebels, from the Tea Party at one political extreme to the Occupy activists at the other, are driven more by external than internal factors: financial need, moral outrage, loss of control. True, Ballard mentions such factors in passing, but it always is in passing, for his main spokespeople or representatives of revolt, the pediatrician Richard Gould and the vicar Stephen Dexter, the loss of some elan vital is always uppermost.

And Ballard's revolt is, in the end, on a much smaller scale and much less political than we are seeing these days, but also much more violent. It begins with an explosion on a baggage carousel at Heathrow Airport (this book was published less than two years after the attacks of 9/11, which are mentioned briefly just once; other than that, Ballard is curiously blind to the sensitivities of linking terrorism and aircraft; he seems far more engaged by the television personality Jill Dando, whose murder in 1999 is incorporated into the story). The one person killed in that explosion turns out to have been the first wife of our narrator, David Markham. It is not just the name that identifies Markham as a typical Ballard hero: he is successful, comfortable, happily married, and therefore, almost by definition, dissatisfied, restless, bored. The death of his first wife, therefore, is rather fortuitous, a jolt to the system that allows him, in effect, to become someone else for a while.

A high-flying psychologist, he has an opportunity to work with the police in investigating the bombing, but turns that down in order to go his own way. He starts joining demonstrations (Ballard's contempt for the demonstrators can be seen in the fact that the only demo we actually see is against a cat show), hoping this might lead him to the group who planted the Heathrow bomb. Instead, it leads him to Chelsea Marina, an enclave of nice homes and expensive apartments whose inhabitants are beginning to feel the pinch of higher costs and diminishing resources. They are engaged in a genteel revolt of protests and refusing maintenance payments that is slowly escalating. The driving force behind this revolt seems to be Kay, a lecturer in film studies much given to dramatic gestures, who takes Markham in as her lodger and starts initiating him into rebellion. He finds himself planting fire bombs in a video rental shop and later taking part in an attack upon the National Film Theatre, in both of which he was clearly being set up to take the fall, but manages to get away more by luck than good judgment. I think it is significant that a lecturer in film studies is involved in attacks upon a video rental shop and the National Film Theatre, a sense, perhaps, that we are dealing with artifice and surface, or another attack upon the middle classes for being passive consumers. Throughout the book there is this dual sense that we are meant to applaud the whole notion of a middle class revolt while at the same time we are witnessing an at times savage satirical assault upon those same middle classes.

Such ambivalence is present in every one of the main characters. Markham's second wife, Sally, was injured in an accident years before; she still walks with the aid of sticks and drives a car configured for disabled drivers, even though she now has absolutely no need of these aids. Behind the enthusiasm of Kay's rebellion are two slightly more shadowy figures. Stephen Dexter is the vicar at Chelsea Marina who has, rather conventionally, lost his faith following some never quite specified horror in the Far East, but who finds violence paradoxically helps to restore that faith. Meanwhile the ideologue of the revolution is Richard Gould, a struck-off children's doctor who is consistently described by others as being charismatic, and yet who comes across, when we meet him, as being slightly seedy and uninspiring. Gould appears as an almost mystical figure, engineering meetings with Markham in increasingly unlikely circumstances, turning up at points where, rationally, we recognize that no-one could have anticipated Markham being in that place at that time; yet for all this near magical anticipation, he seems increasingly dismayed by and out of touch with the very revolt he has fomented and is supposedly leading. Gould preaches a revolutionary message dependent on meaninglessness, attacks should be unmotivated, against target that have no possible connection with the action; and yet his own actions, those ideas he happens to share with Markham, are far from random.

Of course, we expect Markham the psychologist to guide us through these conflicted characters, these mixed motivations. Yet Markham is the most ambivalent character of all. We never know whether he sets out after the Heathrow bombers out of curiosity, or for revenge; we never know whether he is a willing participant in Kay's rebellion or not; we never know whether he trusts Gould or not. More importantly, it is never clear whether Markham, or even Ballard, knows. There is a sense in which this very lack of decision is the whole point of the book. These are people who, whichever side they find themselves on, terrorist or victim, agent of rebellion or agent of the establishment, are all in the middle, adrift without a compass. When the residents of Chelsea Marina all desert the enclave, and then later, in a curiously co-ordinated action, return to their homes, is it a form of surrender or a form of victory? Ballard at least seems to want it both ways; but then, no-one in this whole middle class uprising, either author or characters, seems to have considered what might possibly constitute victory or defeat. It is, like the films that keep being referenced throughout the novel, all show, all display.

This is a novel by J.G. Ballard, so it really goes without saying that it is superbly written, vivid, well-paced, totally engaging. It just doesn't convince. And I'm not altogether sure that it was meant to.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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