Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #37 of 107: “The Voices of Time” by J. G. Ballard

Whenever I read stories by J. G. Ballard I feel like I’m reading science fiction for grownups. This is my second reading of “The Voices of Time” and it has very adult vibes. Sure, the story ideas are the same old science-fictional bullshit, but they feel literary and serious. Maybe because the theme is death and decay. That’s very heavy. There’s a mature acceptance of death in this story. Youthful science fiction is always about rejecting and defying mortality. However, J. G. Ballard was only around thirty when he wrote “The Voices of Time.” Could Ballard’s upbringing under the conditions described in the autobiographical Empire of The Sun explain his wiser-than-his-years outlook?

Is it me, or do Ballard’s stories from the 1960s focus on decay and decline? Was that just a schtick he developed or personal philosophy? Or should we tag that as his entropic period? When I was young I didn’t dig Ballard that much. I admired him, especially the Vermillion Sands stories, but his end-of-the-world novels didn’t have the violence and excitement as American end-of-the-world novels. They felt decadent. I also associated them with how I imagined the British felt about the decline of their empire. Now that I’m older, Ballard’s stories resonate with my current moods. One of those moods is the belief that the American empire is in decline.

The story begins with a doctor named Powers contemplating the suicide of a colleague who had spent his last days carving a giant symbol at the bottom of an empty pool. Powers knows he’s about to die too and has his own compulsions to leave a message. Powers knows he’s been infected with a plague that makes people comatose. He is sleeping more each day and plots his remaining hours of consciousness to wrap up his affairs. This lets us readers observe a world undergoing bizarre changes. Earth is experiencing a rise in radiation from space, and animals are starting to mutate and adapt, including some plants and animals absorbing lead to produce protective shielding.

Initially, however, Powers was too preoccupied with completing his work at the Clinic and planning his own final withdrawal. After the first frantic weeks of panic he had managed to accept an uneasy compromise that allowed him to view his predicament with the detached fatalism he had previously reserved for his patients. Fortunately he was moving down the physical and mental gradients simultaneously—lethargy and inertia blunted his anxieties, a slackening metabolism made it necessary to concentrate to produce a connected thought-train. In fact, the lengthening intervals of dreamless sleep were almost restful. He found himself beginning to look forward to them, and made no effort to wake earlier than was essential.

“The Voices of Time” is a 4-star story for me that I look forward to reading, again and again, it might even become a 5-star story if I can ever decipher what Ballard is doing. I can’t yet tell if Ballard has accidentally included enough elements to make this story into a philosophical mystery, or if it was intentional. It’s the kind of story that college students analyze and write papers about.

There is a beautiful epic passage towards the end that explains the title.

Like an endless river, so broad that its banks were below the horizons, it flowed steadily towards him, a vast course of time that spread outwards to fill the sky and the universe, enveloping everything within them. Moving slowly, the forward direction of its majestic current almost imperceptible, Powers knew that its source was the source of the cosmos itself. As it passed him, he felt its massive magnetic pull, let himself be drawn into it, borne gently on its powerful back. Quietly it carried him away, and he rotated slowly, facing the direction of the tide. Around him the outlines of the hills and the lake had faded, but the image of the mandala, like a cosmic clock, remained fixed before his eyes, illuminating the broad surface of the stream. Watching it constantly, he felt his body gradually dissolving, its physical dimensions melting into the vast continuum of the current, which bore him out into the centre of the great channel, sweeping him onward, beyond hope but at last at rest, down the broadening reaches of the river of eternity.

Why did Ballard imagine this immense view of time? Was he smoking dope or meditating and this vision appeared to him? Or did some classic poem or writer inspire it? For whatever reason, he worked it into a lovely science fiction story. It justifies creating a dying character, even a dying Earth.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/31/21

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