Keywords: Ballard, dystopian fiction

Title: Millennium People

Author: JG Ballard

Publisher: Flamingo

Media: Book

Reviewer: James Marriott

Ballard has been writing the same novel for years. Middle-aged man with handicapped/crippled girlfriend/wife suffers from anomie but in the course of amateur detective work meets messianic character who articulates some unacceptable message from which our protagonist draws strength. Ultimately the protagonist - never more than a cipher - is reintegrated into mainstream society while the messianic character takes his message to its logical extreme and goes out in a blaze of glory.

The curious thing about Ballard's novels is that this kind of structural repetition doesn't matter. Here the detective story, such as it is, will have readers guessing the solution long before our bumbling narrator, whose assumptions throughout are painfully inept; hasn't he read a Ballard novel before? Even the temporal structure of the novel and each of its chapters revisits familiar looping territory; and the clunkiness of much of the prose should come as no surprise to anyone who has read any of the author's recent novels. But then nobody reads Ballard for structural innovation, or for stylish prose. They read him for the ideas.

And the ideas here are the most interesting I've come across in a novel for a long time. Millennium People tells the story of a middle-class revolt - or rather two kinds of middle-class revolt, both sparked by disgraced paediatrician Dr Richard Gould. The first takes place in Chelsea Marina, whose residents - middle-market professionals being slowly priced out of the London housing market - are sick of having to pay exorbitant maintenance charges and excessive parking fees; they are sick, moreover, of being relied upon to be tolerant and liberal, of being obliged to enjoy the right kinds of activities, eat the right foods and wear the right clothes.

Some, fired up by local action, join protest groups covering a wide range of ills, although the only demo Ballard takes us to is a protest against a cat show at Earl's Court. Many have their first brushes with the law, ending up on the wrong end of a police truncheon, but the violence invariably reinvigorates them through their wilful rejection of the social conditioning that teaches them to respect the law at all costs.

The second revolt initially targets the institutions that are the bastions of middle-class respectability - in London, at least. The NFT, the Royal Albert Hall, the V&A - all suffer from bomb attacks of various sizes, as do a number of smaller targets, the video shops and travel agencies of Twickenham, Wimbledon and Purley. But to Dr Gould and his hard core of supporters, such targets are too obvious, the aspirations of such attacks too mundane. Their target is far more lofty - to challenge the meaninglessness of the universe itself &hellip

With characteristic sharpness, Ballard has identified the stress points of modern British society - from parking charges and property development to random acts of violence such as the Hungerford killings and the murder of Jill Dando - and recombined them in startling ways.

Most people find apparently meaningless acts - particularly meaningless acts of violence - difficult to accept, and an industry has sprung up around explaining the motivations of spree killers and lone gunmen. Perhaps, Ballard hints, such explanations serve only to reassure us, to save us from facing the void of a meaningless universe - and perhaps, ultimately, no motivation is as strong as boredom. That, and a desire to rattle God's cage, to storm heaven - Dr Gould's motivation bears more than a passing resemblance to those of the protagonists of Camus' L'Etranger and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, both works the author professes to admire.

Millennium People deals with terrorism, but for Ballard terrorist aims are often merely justifications for unleashing the liberating power of violence. Unsurprisingly, the spectre of 9/11 hangs over this book, but Ballard characteristically indulges in none of the hand-wringing we've come to associate with it from other sources, instead treating it as a re-shuffling of the realms of possibility. These acts of violence serve as protests against a future Ballard has long warned us about - one in which nothing happens - and a defence against an all-embracing mediocrity.

The book is also about the protest movement, and is likely to raise some hackles among its members, much as Ballard's treatment of the environmentalist movement did in the less successful Rushing to Paradise: protests here are driven less by ideology than by desires to rebel against authority of any kind, to disobey for its own sake. But as with Ballard's other predictions and surgically dispassionate analyses of motivation, his point is substantially valid. Perhaps the narrator's wilful naivete about how he is being used is little more than a cover for his deep-seated need to indulge violent urges.

Ballard has charted the future with such unerring accuracy that almost any contemporary feature of our landscape, whether psychic or physical, can be described as Ballardian. Weirdly enough, his work has never fed back successfully into more modern media than print - film versions of his fiction have seemed wooden and contrived, with only Cronenberg's earlier films (Shivers, Rabid) catching anything of the feel of Ballard's dystopian optimism. But as soothsayers go, Ballard is still among the most powerful - while he has long since eschewed explicit SF, in terms of William Gibson's dictum that the future is already here but unevenly distributed, this oracular novel has more than its fair share.


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