“Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard is story #4 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading. Stories are discussed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. “Chronopolis” was first published in the June 1960 issue of New Worlds.
“Chronopolis” is set in the future where society has outlawed keeping time. Ballard imagined a future where our high-tech global civilization collapsed from the complexity of overpopulation. In this new world, the population is much smaller having giving up the rat race.
The story begins in a holding cell. Conrad Newman is awaiting trial for as of yet unspecified crimes. Newman is obsessed with making his south-facing jail cell window into a sundial so he can accurately keep the time while everyone else is unconcerned about when things will happen. Gradually we learn that this society operates without a schedule, and clocks are illegal. They allow timers, which people use to cook eggs, time a math class, or how long they should sleep, but not clocks that force schedules onto life’s activities.
Ballard has come up with a nifty idea. You don’t know if this new world he described is better or worse for not knowing the time, but Conrad Newman is a renegade who secretly embraces keeping time, allowing him to outcompete other people. Newman’s world is the opposite of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Conrad Newman is the polar opposite of Everett C. Marm. It’s funny, but we root for each character in their separate stories.
I got to say, I really liked this story a lot even though when you think about it, there’s not much to it. On the one hand, it’s the old fashion kind of science fiction that’s based on a neat idea. On the other hand, it feels different from the other science fiction of 1960 or before. J. G. Ballard is considered one of the pathfinders of the New Wave movement in science fiction in the mid-1960s. “Chronopolis” isn’t really New Wave yet. Probably why it feels different is it’s British science fiction, and British science fiction always felt more grown-up to me.
I’ve only read a couple novels by Ballard, and maybe a dozen short stories, but they’ve all impressed me as being “heavy” in the old hippie sense of the word. I assume that was another way of saying weighty. I recently read “The Terminal Beach” by Ballard and was equally impressed, and it felt equally heavy. Years ago, I bought The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard on audiobook. It’s 55 hours long. I also have it on the Kindle. Whenever one of his stories comes up on the discussion group I like listening to them. They feel mature and atmospheric. I also like reading them because I’m impressed with Ballard’s prose. Each time I read one of his stories, I tell myself I need to listen to the entire 55-hour audiobook and I really want to get into Ballard’s work.
The other day at the Friends of the Library used bookstore I found Applied Ballardianism by Simon Sellars. I couldn’t tell if it was a novel, memoir, monograph, or what, but I bought it. This is how it’s described at Amazon:
An existential odyssey weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm. The mediascapes of late capitalism reconfigure erotic responses and trigger primal aggression; under constant surveillance, we occupy simulations of ourselves, private estates on a hyperconnected globe; fictions reprogram reality, memories are rewritten by the future… Fleeing the excesses of 1990s cyberculture, a young researcher sets out to systematically analyse the obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit. The story of his failure is as disturbingly psychotropic as those of his magus—J.G. Ballard, prophet of the post-postmodern, voluptuary of the car crash, surgeon of the pathological virtualities pulsing beneath the surface of reality. Plagued by obsessive fears, defeated by the tedium of academia, yet still certain that everything connects to Ballard, his academic thesis collapses into a series of delirious travelogues, deranged speculations and tormented meditations on time, memory, and loss. Abandoning literary interpretation and renouncing all scholarly distance, he finally accepts the deep assignment that has run throughout his entire life, and embarks on a rogue fieldwork project: Applied Ballardianism, a new discipline and a new ideal for living. Only the darkest impulses, the most morbid obsessions, and the most apocalyptic paranoia can uncover the technological mutations of inner space. An existential odyssey inextricably weaving together lived experience and theoretical insight, this startling autobiographical hyperfiction surveys and dissects a world where everything connects and global technological delirium is the norm—a world become unmistakably Ballardian.
Some of that description faintly feels like “Chronopolis” but it’s an early story for Ballard, that hints at things to come. Also, by serendipity, I came across this YouTube video by the Outlaw Bookseller on the New Wave. Ballard figures heavily in it. Warning though, this video is one hour and twelve minutes long.
“Chronopolis” is another story that’s pushing me into the world of J. G. Ballard. One of these days, and hopefully soon, I’ll start gorging on Ballard’s books.
James Wallace Harris, 5/12/23
3 thoughts on ““Chronopolis” by J. G. Ballard”
Many thanks for your latest post, as always, Jim! It prompted me to start reading this story (I have several of Ballard’s collections on my shelf). One collection I don’t have, but wish I did, is his fascinating Memories of the Space Age, published by Arkham House.
You might want to take a look at EXTREME METAPHORS, a relatively complete collection of the interviews that Ballard gave between 1967 to 2008.
In fact, I recommend it. It is, of course, Ballardian — over the years, Ballard repeated a lot of the same riffs and harped on the same themes, and UK newspapers and magazines could rely on him to give them provocative, quotable copy for their culture and arts section pretty much without fail.
Indeed, Ballard almost seems to be parodying himself sometimes. “The obsessively reiterated themes of a writer who prophesied the disorienting future we now inhabit” is on the money.
At the same, the second part of that sentence is right, too. It’s striking how intelligent and right Ballard consistently was about almost all the very big things, usually ahead of everybody else and often alone. It’s impressive and depressing to consider, for instance, that he probably had the best predictive record of any SF writer — being correct about the end of the Space Age, the rise of Ronald Reagan, and a number of other things.
Having finished this story, I like it a lot. It has touches which I find evocative, even poetic–the old man surrounded by his clocks, the elderly citizens who remember the passage of the hours responding with nostalgia to the chimes. I also like Ballard’s vision of the future society, or rather two future societies, equally authoritarian in different ways–one in which time is overly regimented, and another in which time is virtually abolished.