Like Jacob Levy I’m waiting on the release of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver: and the early signs are good. Dave Langford, who’s part way through reading it for Amazon UK pronounces it to be a “joy to read, with a genuinely fresh slant on 17th/18th century history (or ahistory).” And Jacob and I are not alone – I confidently predict that September 23 (the book’s release date) is going to see prolonged blog-silences from everyone from Glenn Reynolds to Atrios.
But I’m digressing … I wanted to post about another book that I’m nearly as excited about, which will be released at around the same time. JG Ballard’s new novel, Millennium People, is about to come out. Ballard isn’t as popular in the blogosphere as Stephenson – but he should be; he’s a writer of genius. Which isn’t to say that he’s without flaws. He’s notoriously obsessive; ever since he developed his own voice, he’s written the same novel over and over. His language is (deliberately) flat, and his imagery repetitive – abandoned swimming pools; empty wastes of sand; rusting launch platforms. But there’s something admirable about his singlemindedness; something important.
For my money, John Gray has the most concise take on why Ballard’s important (indeed, I think that this short review-article is likely the best thing that Gray has ever written). Gray’s essay highlights the main theme of Ballard’s work – “life as it is lived when the fictions that sustain society have broken down.” If the Revolution was immanent in every moment for Walter Benjamin, the Catastrophe is immanent in every moment for Ballard. Polite society is always wobbling on the verge of savagery. Gray also mentions how funny Ballard is – something that a lot of people miss (his humour, like Beckett’s is black and so understated as to be very nearly obscured in the shadows).
Two of Ballard’s recent novels are of particular interest to social scientists. If I ever teach my dream course on muddy thinking in social science, Cocaine Nights will be the first required reading in the section on social capital. It presents in satiric form the disturbing thesis that the vibrant civic activism prized by Putnam, Fukuyama, Etzioni and other neo-communitarians is best produced through systematic clandestine violence. For Ballard, it’s not only impossible to have Salem without the witchburning; it’s the witchburning that brings Salem together as a community. Super-Cannes is of more interest to sociologists, geographers, and urban planners. It’s all about the return of the repressed in a very thinly disguised version of Sophia-Antipolis. The orderly planned community of Super-Cannes doesn’t so much break down into chaos, as it perpetuates it – again, community and violence reproduce each other.
At the end of Science as a Vocation, Weber famously claims that the age of prophecy, when an inspiration might sweep ‘through the great communities like a firebrand’ is over; we live in an age of disenchantment. Ballard’s work is a direct riposte to Weber; it claims that the New Millennium is most likely to have its start amidst the bored and deracinated upper middle classes and suburbanites, the willing victims of Weber’s ‘rationalization.’ A rough beast is slouching towards Shepperton to be born …