Thursday, August 06, 2009

book review - Millennium People - J.G. Ballard

It is a shame that it took the death of J.J. Ballard to get me to sit down and read his last short story about the collapsing tower of Pisa in the Guardian. In just a few hundred words he managed to take the blinkers of my eyes and show me that science fiction need not be about space men and aliens. It is about taking a scene of apparent normality and bending it through a refractor of great imagination.

As a result he tells a story that has a mixture of the mundane and the fantastical sitting alongside each other. The mundane is the Chelsea Marina, the baggage area at Heathrow and the long-stay car park at the airport. The fantastic is the bombs, middle class terrorists and the slide from respectability to the brink of murder and insanity of a corporate psychologist.

Millennium People is not just addressing the anxiety of the turn of the millennium but also questioning the society that has been built up and so ingrained that even a shift from one century to another has no impact.

In the middle is Dr David Markham who watches with incredulity as he first wife is involved in a bombing at Heathrow airport. Given the freedom by his relaxed and selfish wife to pursue his ambition to track down the bombers Markham becomes embroiled in a different world.

On the face of it this world is visible behind the curtains twitching in suburbia but the depth of the determination to unsettle the state and shake the middle class out of their stupor takes a bit more digging to locate.

But Markham does locate it and manages to not only find the bombers of his first wife but find himself. He gets to ask himself all sorts of questions about the lines he is prepared to cross as he is put in the position of taking lives as part of the cause. He is even given the chance to take lives in the spirit of retribution.

But this psychologist with a belief that God is a grand scheme invented to placate the masses is attracted to a similar view held by those arguing that the middle classes are equally led blind folded into believing their lives are alright. In fact they are propping up a failing system with their taxes and determination to make the world a better place. That middle class charitable attitude is in fact their weakness.

As Ballard gets his characters to strip that back he exposes some major questions that in this era of the war against terror could not be more topical. If no one listens to you quite how do you get attention? He also makes you think about the character and personality of those that manipulate and coordinate terror as much as he gets you to consider those allowing themselves to be dragged along.

Clever but also accessible and with healthy levels of humour as reintroduction to Ballard after many years absence after reading Empire of the Sun at school this was a real eye opener. This might well be one of my favourite books of the year but I have a sneaking suspicion that the more Ballard I read the more times I will be close to making that judgement call.

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