Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe
(Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2018)
Our autocatalytic world renders the tropes of classical science-fiction obsolete. Romantic fabulation, deployed prior to the space race and the globalization of telecommunications, breaks down when confronted by a technoscientific paradigm no longer operating at the limit of an extrinsic unknown. The explosion of information technology has accelerated our obsessive desire to collocate, index, order, and tag every coordinate across every scale of the planet and cosmos, blurring of the traditional distinction between reality and imagination: “when there is no more virgin ground left to the imagination, when the map covers all the territory, something like the reality principle disappears.”
In the wake of this unmooring, British writer J.G. Ballard steered science-fiction away from the fanciful explorations of his predecessors and toward an area much more potent and transgressive. Instead of moving outwardly toward the stars, Ballard’s fictions crashed back onto Earth, disintegrating into claustrophobic expeditions through “inner space,” a zone where the sanctity of sober perception is defiled by the bleeding-in of apocalyptic hallucination and perverted sexual fantasy. These works occupied what Ballard claimed was “the more serious fringe of science fiction,” in which “dream and reality become fused together, each retaining its own distinctive quality and yet in some way assuming the role of its opposite, and where by an undeniable logic black simultaneously becomes white.” In inner space, so-called reality exists as only one of many in an amalgamation of competing fictions, a multiverse in which to question one’s sanity is to miss the point entirely.
A lifelong obsession with Ballard’s peculiar explorations of terrestrial existence lead to Simon Sellars’s imagined interdimensional connection with the author, a sacred bond that would never be formally christened save for one graceless photograph taken at a London Q&A. The first in UK publisher Urbanomic’s new series “K-Pulp: Adventures in Theory-Fiction,” the Australian Sellars’s new genre-curious book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe is a series of descents “into the mirror world,” a travelogue in which all roads lead to Ballard. Imprisoned within the mad Ballardian universe of his own making, the banality of mass media appears more alien than the most egregious of speculative fantasy. Half pulp-inflected autofiction, half maniacal lit crit, the book chronicles Sellars’s lifelong, brainsick obsession with an author and his prophetic visions of mass spiritual atrophy.
What began in 1996 as Sellars’s PhD dissertation on Ballard ends more than twenty years later as a psychopathological fever dream through the spatiotemporal chaos of late capitalism. The story begins with Sellars’s ham-fisted forays in academia, where he synthesizes a naive Ballardian hagiography with an attempt to exceed cyberpunk cliché. Firmly scholarship-agnostic from the start, Sellars’s fringe paranormal interests consistently lead him into clashes with the more orthodox members of his field. After inadvertently starting a riot at a sci-fi conference in Liverpool (he declares the death of the genre to a crowd of sheepish devotees), Sellars flees the academy, a triumphant exit fueled by humiliation and crippling self-doubt. The spiral downwards leads Sellars through Spanish paramilitary hacktivists, back-alley steampunk derelicts, and a UFO sighting in the You Yangs Mountain range.
Back in civilian life, dissatisfied with his slowly putrefying relationship, Sellars quits his menial administrative job and rushes to northern Japan after a series of tsunamis strike the region. Once there, after encountering the mythical oddities of disaster-stricken Tohoku, Sellars can’t help but imagine himself as one of Ballard’s hurtling anti-heroes, franticly chasing carnage like Travers in The Atrocity Exhibition or Vaughan in Crash. Even in northernmost Honshu, far from the dusty labyrinths of doctoral research, Sellars is unable to shake his incorrigible demigod: “For some reason, I thought of Ballard. Despite everything, he refused to leave me and on this occasion even appeared to issue a warning.”
Sellars next leverages a written account of his tsunami-chase to land a job as a travel writer. This “quintessential Ballardian profession” allows him to visit various scenes in a parallel Ballardosphere, from close encounters in Den Haag to thermonuclear testing sites in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Punctuated by broadcasts from Andrei Tarkovsky’s bizarre diaries, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythology, and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology, a peculiarly Ballardian paranoia penetrates Sellars’s psyche throughout every adventure. In the author’s world, the most ordinary of events are infused with the most coded of meanings—strange ciphers that that only he can disentangle. As the distance between dreams and out-of-body experiences compresses, Sellars’s dire peregrinations through inner space drive him to a lifestyle he calls “Applied Ballardianism.”
In a recent online discussion with the publisher that occurred simultaneously across several social media platforms, Sellars recalled that many of the book’s sentences on Ballard’s early works survive untouched from early drafts of his thesis. Serving as supplementary guides, these literary excavations thread his intimate narrative together with Ballard’s semiurgy of suburban sprawls, barren forecourts, boiling interstates, time anomalies, meaningful coincidences.
Years spent sleeplessly trawling the Internet has allowed Sellars to accumulate a familiarity with some of the more bewildering impulses of human nature. Of particular interest to him is the real-world phenomenon of “micronations,” where an individual or community declares their bedroom or isolated plot of land a separate country. Sellars finds Ballard’s last quartet of novels illuminative of micronationalist psychology. For example, in Ballard’s final novel Kingdom Come, a London suburb’s beloved Metro Centre shopping mall is overtaken by a phrenetic band of guerilla patrons. The mall becomes their republic, as Ballard demonstrates that the ambient dread accompanying consumer-cultural logic leads to a stylized brand of neo-fascism.
Kingdom Come embodies the obverse of a consistent, complementary Ballardian theme, wherein a character retreats into the safe haven of his own mind to escape an unpredictable world. In Ballard’s short story “The Enormous Space,” the protagonist, Ballantyne, allows his delusions to consume him after seceding into his home. He seeks refuge in his private psychosis, the only shelter from an infinitely more chaotic outside. Sellars sympathizes with both kinds of psycho-spatial sovereigns in his book, embodying both roles. He plunges headlong into reckless micronationalist violence during shameful streetside brawls. He becomes the dignified psychotic while locating another dimension through Ballard’s similes. And yet, despite his better judgement, both positions inevitably bring him into a more intimate relationship with his ill-chosen mentor. Applied Ballardianism is a book about our private islands, inexplicably shored by the texts that never leave us.
MICHAEL EBY is a writer and researcher on contemporary art and digital culture. He currently lives in London.