The abrupt change in J.D. Ballard’s life, from a youthful pampered existence to a struggle for survival in a Japanese internment camp, has been immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun. Later, Ballard went on to become a well-known English writer of dystopian novels, such as The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World, where barbarism lurks just beneath the surface of civilized life.
Many of us today share similar dystopian sentiments, agreeing with the English philosopher John Gray that we live in a culture “transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility”. This has become even more true since the 2007/8 financial crisis, as we have become only too aware of the inherent fragility of debt-laden economies. Debt never goes away so debt-fueled economies cannot even tolerate a slowdown without risking an implosion. Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote an entire book, (Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder), to tell us that fragile things usually break under stress.
Ballard was also a great fan of surrealism which he believed reflected the fact that “the fictional elements in the world around us are multiplying to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘false’”. Ballard’s surrealist vision of society appears particularly prophetic today when Toqueville’s “soft despotism” is called freedom, mass surveillance is called protection, mass murder is called liberation, banksters shake down taxpayers for trillions of dollars in the ‘public interest’ and torture is defended by leaders of the ‘free’ world.
However, it was another English science fiction writer, Olaf Stapledon, who crafted perhaps the most disturbing and at the same time the most majestic dystopian vision, in his novel, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future. Last and First Men does not privilege our problems by placing them at the center of history, rather it assumes, even more shockingly, that history has no direction and no center. Stapledon charts the course of human history from the 1930’s to the extinction of the human race in two billion years, detailing the evolution, both through genetic engineering and natural forces, of 18 human species that rise and fall because of disease, geological upheaval, climate change or war. Stapledon’s universe is completely indifferent to man’s struggles until finally the last men are wiped out by a disintegrating sun.
However, surprisingly, Stapledon remains convinced that mankind has no excuse for descending into nihilism. By accepting our insignificance he argues that the human crisis gains in stature and becomes more, not less urgent, making it all the more important that we stay engaged and play some part in the struggle:
“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.”