Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Important New Wave Stories by Thomas Disch, J. G. Ballard and Langdon Jones

When people talk about the New Wave, one of the things they often mention is Judith Merrill's anthology England Swings SF, first published in 1968.  Now, I don't actually own a copy of England Swings SF, but I do own anthologies by two of the most famous and prolific New Wave writers, Thomas M. Disch and J. G. Ballard, which include some of their stories from England Swings SF. Additionally, Joachim Boaz, indefatigable SF blogger and promoter of SF which has faded from memory and perhaps deserves to be more widely read, has generously provided me access to the story by Langdon Jones which was printed in England Swings SF. So, let's check them out and try to gain some kind of insight into the New Wave phenomenon!

"The Squirrel Cage" by Thomas Disch (1967)

I've already praised Tom Disch on this blog numerous times, but Disch has done work I'm not crazy about (when I read them in the aughts, I thought Genocides overwrought and mediocre and Echo Round His Bones and Mankind Under the Leash left me cold) so there's no guarantee I'm going to love this one. "The Squirrel Cage" first appeared in the issue of New Worlds with Charles Platt's The Garbage World.  I read Disch's tale in my 1980 Bantam edition of Fundamental Disch.

Don't tell my wife, but I have had a
crush on this garbage girl for quite a while
"The Squirrel Cage" is one of those stories in which a guy is trapped in a mysterious high tech prison and has no idea how he got there or who put him there.  For some psychological reason I am afraid to carefully dig into, I love stories in which a guy is in a prison and his cell constitutes his entire universe (Araminta Station by Jack Vance and Cage A Man by F. M. Busby come to mind at once as particularly effective SF examples), so "The Squirrel Cage" was right up my alley.  Disch uses the story as an allegory of life (of course), how we all are truly alone and can't know why we are here and have no real understanding of the universe because we cannot trust our senses.  It is also, more specifically, about the psychological reality of being a writer--the prisoner has access to a typewriter, and the text we are reading is things he has typed on his machine.  However, the narrator's typewriter neither admits nor produces paper--the narrator has no reason to believe anybody is even reading what he is writing! (He hopefully fantasizes that his words are being reproduced electronically somewhere and read by someone, maybe lots of people.)  On the last page of the story, when we learn the name of the narrator ("Disch"), he admits that even more terrifying than this lonely meaningless life in the antiseptic prison is the thought of being forced to leave it; a comment on our fear of death or perhaps Disch's own horror at the thought of having to make a living doing work more onerous than writing?

I think "The Squirrel Cage" also serves as a sort of satire of people who learn everything about the world via the New York Times--every day a new copy of the Times appears in the cell and the previous day's copy vanishes.  The newspaper is the only contact the prisoner has, apparently, ever had with any other living entity, and it is his only source of information.  One passage (in which the narrator wishes he could keep the papers and pile them up into walls and corridors) reminded me of the famous Collyer brothers, and perhaps the whole story is a sort of subtle reference or homage to them.

Both bleak and amusing, "The Squirrel Cage" is well-written (Disch has a smooth and engaging style) and compelling.  I liked the "New Yorkiness" of it, and there's also the sad frisson I get whenever I read references to suicide in a Disch story.  Worth a look!                

"The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" by J. G. Ballard (1966)

As with Disch, I have really liked some Ballard, but also been disappointed by him (I know Joachim loves it, but I found Drowned World tedious and silly.)

In this sexiest of blog posts there is even something for the ladies: it's every woman's dreamPTboat, JFK!
"The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" first appeared in the magazine Ambit, and in New Worlds the next year.  This is a two-page gimmick story, an imitation or pastiche of a similarly brief gimmick story by Alfred Jarry ("The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race"), larded with dumb jokes and lame puns.  I guess the story is supposed to say something about our society's obsession with celebrity and political violence, and also to suggest LBJ and/or the citizens of Dallas or the American people as a whole are somehow complicit in or responsible for the JFK murder. There are lots of people who like this sort of flashy cleverness and irreverence, but to me this kind of thing is hollow and a waste of my time--as I suppose I have said before online, I'm sick of absurdist humor in which any random shit can happen and of humor based on references to other works of fiction or to celebrities or historical events.

You gotta read this thing because it is "important," but I think it is a facile scam.

"Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" by J. G. Ballard (1966)

Woah, maybe this post needs a
NSFW tag or a trigger warning!
Here we have a story in the same vein, a gimmicky JFK murder-related story about how people are sexually aroused by violence and by automobiles.  This one is in the form of a dry scientific report about therapy involving catering to the desires of mental patients to assassinate celebrities. Jokes include a clinical reference to a man inserting his penis into a car's exhaust. Presumably this was shocking in 1966, but we are now living in a permissive society in which some of us, me included, are almost entirely shocked out.

Like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" first appeared in Ambit.  I read both of these stories in my copy of the 2001 edition of The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard.

While the Disch story deals with timeless issues, these Ballard stories are very time sensitive, very topical, very much focused on celebrities and events current in 1966.  I sometimes think including references to some "iconic" contemporary celebrity or event is an act of laziness on the part of the writer--instead of doing the work of inspiring the reader to feel by creating a character or a mood, the writer takes the shortcut of just invoking our ready-made feelings about, in this case, the bogus "Camelot" of the early '60s.  This maybe works on people who were old enough to pay attention to the news in 1963, but I was born in 1971, so the murder of JFK has no more emotional resonance with me than the murder of Julius Caesar or Cicero.

(If I am comparing them, Disch's story also has good writing, while these Ballard stories seem like loud jokes meant to dazzle you with their irreverence.)

"The Hall of Machines" by Langdon Jones (1968)

"The Hall of Machines" first appeared in New Worlds along with its two companion pieces, "The Coming of the Sun" and "The Eye of the Lens;" together, there three pieces form a triptych known as "The Eye of the Lens."  Joachim has shared with me all three of the components of "The Eye of the Lens," and I will discuss them all here, even though only the first appeared in England Swings SF.

(Check out Joachim's review of this triptych, and Langdon's entire collection of the same name; we actually cover different ground and have somewhat contesting and complementary views of the work.)

I guess Jones is one of the "etceteras."
"The Hall of Machines" consists of the notes of a scholar from some alternate universe (though see below) about an indescribably vast building which houses massive automatic machines of numerous types.  Most of the text is detailed description of various of the machines; one that consists of shiny blades making elaborate cuts (a "Death Machine"), one which extrudes tiny machines from a tube ("The Mother"), a colossal "Clock" made up of a huge spring and innumerable precise gears whose face is turned away from any possible viewer, and more.

I'm going to have to guess that the mysterious Hall of Machines represents the universe, and that the story is about how the laws that govern our lives seem mechanistic, predictable, and open to close inspection, but are so complex as to be practically indecipherable, and are bereft of any values or spiritual meaning.  Jones provides a clue, however, that this story does take place in our universe, and that he is making, or the reader is expected to make, some kind of ethical judgement: the word "Auschwitz" is inscribed on one of the three Death Machines.

"The Hall of Machines" reminded me of Herman Melville's 1855 "The Tartarus of Maids," which also includes detailed descriptions of allegorical machines.  It also reminded me of Thomas Ligotti's 1996 "The Red Tower," which, as I remember it, is just a description by an investigator of an old sinister factory, presumably in some alternate universe.

Jones presents vivid and exciting images, sets a powerful mood and gets the reader thinking.  Quite good.

"The Coming of the Sun" by Langdon Jones (1968)

"The Coming of the Sun" is a series of connected vignettes, spread over 22 pages, dealing with recurring themes that include insanity, fire, sex, religion, and the sun. The first of these 16 vignettes, a compelling character study of a pyromaniac imbecile, is very good, but after this very entertaining beginning the vignettes become increasingly tedious.  One, involving a grocer kicking a pair of mating dogs, is a shocking and memorable piece of "body horror," but some of the other little tableaus, like a one-and-a-half-page-long description of an elaborate clock burning, and a dream sequence about a guy on a motorcycle driving in circles around and then inside a cathedral, were so repetitive and boring I had trouble keeping my eyes open while I read them.  The last five pages of  "The Coming of the Sun" include poetry that is alternately mind-numbing ("Give me the red and the green of your love--my man, my woman, my child, my God") and groan-inducing ("...an old man masturbates his death-tool and spits white glory at the sun....")  Ugh.  The last page has a drawing of the sun, its flares like tentacles or petals, the words of the last poem jumbled all around it..

When tarbandu talks about the self-indulgence of the New Wave I guess this is the sort of thing he means.  I couldn't sincerely recommend "The Coming of the Sun" to anybody, though it is of academic interest and some might find it "so bad it's good" with its poetry about bloody semen and the cleansing venom of the "sun sun sun."

"The Eye of the Lens" by Langdon Jones (1966)

This one is a description of a film.  (I seem to recall Barry Malzberg resorting to this gag a few times; right now only The Men Inside is coming to mind.)  Jones starts by relating the type of film stock and filters used, and then describes the movie's two actors; all you feminists out there will be thrilled to learn Jones describes the female lead in precise detail over 27 lines, lingering on her breasts and body hair, while dispensing with the labor of describing the male lead in an efficient three lines, even though the man plays two parts.

Banned in Britain?
Then we get what amounts to a script, a description of the shots ("She passes out of the frame, kicking the statuettes idly as she walks") and of the soundtrack.  All you masochists out there will be thrilled to learn that the soundtrack includes just the kind of poetry about love that had us scrambling for cover like an 8.8 cm Flak had zeroed in on us back when we read "The Coming of the Sun"--"love me red with bloody arrows...love me brown, brown as leather..." etc.

The girl walks through a desert, encounters a statue that is crying, then men with flamethrowers who immolate any plants that appear on the desert surface.  (When I was in Denmark, the environmentalist capitol of the world, I saw how they killed weeds with a sort of scaled down flamethrower.  In Iowa I found that they spray Roundup on everything.) She visits a cathedral where a "psychedelic freak out" is taking place, and then comes upon Jesus on the cross. She gets into an argument with Christ, accusing him of being rude, stupid and shallow. In the final scene of the film the girl sits in a field of flowers.

I can't tell if this story is a sincere criticism of Christianity and our society or a parody of an art movie full of banal allegories. Either way it is a bore.


Do these stories tell us anything about the New Wave?  (Let's pretend these stories are our first exposure to this New Wave we've been hearing people argue about.)  Well, they certainly lack many of the very things people tend to look for in conventional science fiction: there is no adventure plot (hell, there is no plot at all), there isn't really much science, and there isn't much speculation on what future societies or stuff in outer space might be like.  It is easy to see why casual SF readers looking for entertainment might be uninterested in the New Wave, and why committed members of the SF community who are into science and interested in what the future will bring might be exasperated by such work.

On the other hand, you can see how these stories would appeal to people who are interested in "serious mainstream literature" and think of themselves as free-thinking individuals or educated radicals.  The stories have the trappings of sophistication: they employ experimental literary techniques and/or abandon traditional literary elements like plot and character; they are pessimistic; they are irreverent or rebellious, implicitly or explicitly criticizing our society and traditional attitudes and beliefs; they include frank sexual content.  The Disch story and parts of the Jones stories are also well-written, and all the stories hope to say something about life or society.  The stories are also connected to long literary, artistic or philosophical traditions.  (And there's the fact that parts of the Jones pieces are difficult to read, and, as we see in academia, sometimes obscurity and tedium can pass for profundity.)

Disch, Ballard and Jones are all obviously thoughtful, well-educated, and capable of good writing--if anything good can come of the New Wave, these are guys who can make that happen--and in this selection I think we can see the golden opportunities presented by the New Wave to able writers, as well as the pitfalls for readers in the New Wave's excesses.  In the same way a quest story or a detective story or an alien invasion story, the kind of thing that has been done a billion times, can be emotionally and intellectually thrilling when it comes from the pen of a talented and dedicated writer, but predictable, shoddy and boring in the hands of the lazy or incompetent, we have to expect that there will be some fine New Wave stories, and some New Wave stories which are a waste of our time.  I think we have seen both kinds here today.


  1. In a minor way this listing shows how arbitrary it is to edit an anthology by country of publication, since several of these stories were written for US markets.
    “The Assassination of JFK” was originally written for Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” but Ellison claimed that Ballard’s agent lacked the guts to send it on so he never got the chance to include it.
    “The Squirrel Cage” was written while Disch was in the US and it made the rounds of all the US sf mags and was rejected, so it was only when Disch arrived in the UK that he found “New Worlds” was a congenial market.

    - matthew davis

    1. Plastering "England" and Parliament and the Union Jack all over the books probably made business sense--British culture has a cachet among Americans who think themselves sophisticated, and I think 1966 is during, or soon after, "the British Invasion."