Terrorism, dysfunction, malaise, dyspepsia and rioting on the streets of London. If that sounds familiar—well, welcome to Ballard’s (Cocaine Nights, 1998, etc.) prophetic view of our time.
Ballard, who died in 2009, revolutionized science fiction by, in part, making it less fictiony and more plausible—and, usually, more frightening in the bargain. Moreover, he was a keen observer of the real world. Both qualities inform this book, in which a police psychologist/spy infiltrates a band of suburban, well-heeled terrorists who have been bombing various English locales and otherwise spreading mayhem. Led by—naturally—a psychotic pediatrician, the group’s stomping ground is a once-tony suburb haunted by “likeable and over-educated revolutionaries” who had fled in the night, leaving it now a “deserted estate, an apocalyptic vision deprived of its soundtrack.” David Markham is still engaged enough to seek justice, battered enough to be deeply cynical in the face of all the noise and rhetoric on the part of the vegan self-actualizers, neo-hippies and weekend white Rastafarians who face him, to say nothing of the bureaucrats at his back. When his ex-wife is killed in a bomb attack, he stirs into more action among the “lumpen-intelligentsia,” falling in with a particularly alluring cougar of an academic bent—so much so that, to teach film theory, she put her class to making pornos. (“They loved it,” she says, “but the dean of studies wasn’t impressed.”) Is she the one behind the reign of terror, the bombs in every Vauxhall? Or is it Chelsea Marina’s resident cleric, “one of those priests who feels obliged to doubt his God”? Or is it an agent provocateur, determined to seize the opportunity to strengthen the government’s hand? Ballard takes his fine time to straighten the story out, and the resolution is not at all what we might expect. Several characters die along the way, but the main victim of all the mischief, Ballard seems to say, is the middle class, the backbone of a self-doubting England: “I had overturned cars and helped to fill Perrier bottles with lighter fuel, but a tolerant and liberal society had smiled at me and walked away.”
Vintage Ballard, smartly observed and tartly written. Let’s hope there’s more in the vault.