J. G. Ballard—Manhole 69 & The Concentration City

fig. 1. The cover of my increasingly thumbed 2002 paperback Collected Short Stories–now with added spine.

I have been reading J. G. Ballard, The Complete Short Stories (2002). My intention is to use Ballard to facilitate my ongoing research into the Science Fiction Spectacle. Along the way I plan on the occasional review with thoughts and ruminations on the side. Here are its first, sickly fruits.

fig. 2. The cover of New Worlds no. 55 in which Ballard’s “Build-Up” first appeared. Even though the cover illustration was not for his story, it nonetheless seems eminently Ballardian in retrospect: the wreck of a craft, a barren landscape and the lone survivor of this collective unconsciousness. Illustration by Terry Maloney.

The Concentration City (1957)

“The Concentration City”—originally “Build-Up” (1957)—is an early story that plays with what would become, in time, distinctly Ballardian themes. Here, it is the city become metaphor of a labyrinthine and neurotic psyche rendered in concrete and steel.

Possessing a suitably Kafkaesque name, the protagonist Franz M. wants to fly, to escape the bonds of Earth.[1] But his dream seems impossible. All is city, horizontally and vertically, as far as the eye can see. The city’s “Foundation” is a myth, pure speculation, and the idea of a free-space that is not the city remains just that—an idea whose improbability is underlined by the brutal fact that a cubic foot of space operates as the universal commodity, perforce with a dollar figure attached.

Ballard’s dystopian city become world/world become city is implicitly critical, a hellish vision of the anxieties surrounding the urban reconstruction and mushrooming suburbanisation of the 1950s. In the story the city is rendered suitably extreme and fantastical. Unlike the sense of real limits in the most horrific of dystopias (for instance, the spatial limits of We or 1984, or the temporal limits of Well’s The Time Machine), Ballard’s city fills all possible time and space—an urban moebius strip become manifest. And yet it is precisely in this nightmare vision that Ballard reveals a singular truth of the emergent ideology of “urbanism” in the post-war world: the future will be boring, ‘a vast, conforming suburb of the soul’.[2]

fig. 3. Presumably Franz M. “Build-Up” illustration by Gerald Quinn, New Worlds, no. 55.

Manhole 69 (1957)

In “Manhole 69” we follow the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of three men who are the subjects of a truly unsettling experiment. They have had their ability to sleep surgically removed or switched off. Over the course of the story, we come to see not only the hubris of the Promethean experimenters, set upon altering the deep fabric of not just human nature but its profound animal heritage, but more pointedly the deeply distressing psychological effects that are ultimately—and unintentionally—induced in the test subjects. By stories end, the subjects—Avery, Gorrell and Lang—have been reduced to a catatonic state and the experiment is a bust.

“Manhole 69”, alongside “The Concentration City”, can be conceived as constituting a manifesto of sorts for Ballard’s fictional obsessions—two halves of what would come to constitute the Ballardian. Indeed, “Manhole 69” inverts the movement of “The Concentration City”. Whereas the latter story manifested the neurotic topology of the inner self in the city, in the former the narrative drags the reader down into the suffocating confines of the individual test subjects themselves. Unable to escape, however briefly, the travails of being constantly conscious, the narcotomized Avery, Gorrell and Lang’s ability to distinguish the difference between themselves and their world quite literally collapses. Their attempt to escape ‘the group unconscious, the dark oceanic dream’ of their animal nature fails as assuredly as Franz M’s futile flight from the all-encompassing city.

The genius of Ballard’s science fictional conceit is to evoke something we all have experience of. Namely, the alienation of individuality: that claustrophobic sense of being absolutely cut-off and cast adrift in one’s self.

Why “Manhole 69”? The title appears to divide its fans—e.g., ‘despite its unfortunate name’, ‘best short story title ever’, etc. I fall into the latter camp, finding the name peculiarly evocative, precisely because it is simultaneously puzzling and erotically charged—classic Ballard! In the story the “Manhole” refers to the collapsing sense of reality experienced by the test subjects, when the gym in which they are ensconced seems to dwindle in size to more terrifyingly human dimensions: ‘This, then, was the manhole: a narrow, vertical cubicle, a few feet wide, six deep’ (62). “69” is the number of the door always locked to the test subjects, and through which their own contact with the sleeping world remains—namely, the scientists Neill and Morley. Put together they effectively name the syndrome the story is about: Manhole 69.[3]

fig. 4. The cover of New Worlds no. 65 in which “Manhole 69” first appeared. Perhaps by way of a Freudian slip it would later be referred to as “Manhole 65” in New Worlds no. 69, no less! Illustration by Brian Lewis.

Ballard and the Situationists

Boredom is counterrevolutionary. In every way.”—Situationist International, 1962[4]

As noted above, “The Concentration City” originally appeared as “Build-Up” in its initial publication, and subsequent reprints. However, it was renamed “The Concentration City” for its 1967 republication in Ballard’s collection, The Disaster Area. The re-titling appears to draw a connection between the Nazi concentration camp and the endless, claustrophobic city of Ballard’s story. Taken as parable of the new urbanism of the 1950s and 60s, replete with housing developments and the reconstruction and construction of towns on the basis of automobile traffic flows, the rebranded “Build-Up” begins to sound like a work in parallel with the more explicitly critical and revolutionary critique of urbanism carried out by the Situationist International.

In 1961, the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, described the then new housing developments being constructed amidst post-war reconstruction as akin to Nazi concentration camp.[5] The following year, Vaneigem and the other situationists drew a link, in frankly psychoanalytic terms, between this new concentrated urban sprawl and the suffocating nuclear shelters that President Kennedy was then promoting as the family friendly solution to nuclear catastrophe:

The new habitat that is now taking shape with the large housing developments is not really distinct from the architecture of the shelters; it merely represents a less advanced level of that architecture. […] The concentration-camp organization of the surface of the earth is the normal state of the present society in formation; its condensed subterranean version merely represents that society’s pathological excess. This subterranean sickness reveals the real nature of the “health” at the surface.[6]

Was Ballard influenced by the Situationists? It’s hard to say definitively. No doubt he knew of them, considering his interest in and contacts with British Pop Artists and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Additionally, his obsessive interest in Surrealism, and his pathological interest in the car and the encroaching conformism of modern capitalist life would seem to indicate that he was open to their influence. He even had stories appear in at least two magazines that also contained articles on and/or translations of Situationist writing: Circuit no. 6, London, June 1968, and The International Times, no. 26, London, 16-29 February 1968. Though whether he had come across their writing in 1967 or before is something I presently cannot answer.

fig. 5. Detail of the cover of Circuit no. 6, June 1968.

Of more interest to me is the resonance between Ballard and the Situationists. The Situationists infamously argued that their critique of the society of the spectacle was ‘merely the concentrated expression of a historical subversion which is everywhere’—more pithily: ‘Situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[7] Certainly, the idea that a spectacle of everyday life mediated in large part by the new mass communication technologies was emerging more generally in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Ballard himself attempted to distinguish his fiction in terms not dissimilar to this. For instance, in a 1967 interview he spoke—in terms not unlike those Guy Debord used in the same year—of ‘the fictional elements in experience [that] are now multiplying to such a point that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the real and the false’.[8] In the same interview, Ballard reckoned that his turn toward writing a non-linear, fragmented, collage-style fiction—most obviously on display in the stories collected as The Atrocity Exhibition—was deliberately an attempt to conjure the modern relations between inner and outer life in a world saturated by the new medias:

we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth. We don’t live our lives in linear terms in the sense that the Victorians did.[9]

There are real problems with Ballard’s attempt to theorise the modern world of the 1960s. In contrast to the Situationists, Ballard’s reasoning is more positivist and circular. For him the fictionalisation of everyday life seems to be caught up with its increasing non-linearity. Which one might argue is related to its technological decomposition: ‘we switch on television sets, switch them off half an hour later, speak on the telephone read magazines, dream and so forth’. However, this seems to imply that previously life was not fictional—i.e., it was linear. In effect, Ballard is arguing that life has become fictional because it has become fictional. What is missing is any account of why it has become more fictional—apart from a type of technological determinism—or, more importantly, whether or not it was ever not fictional (only consider, for instance, the predominance of religious ideology in earlier societies, one of which—the Victorian—Ballard’s calls ‘linear’).

Hopefully I will return to a more detailed criticism of Ballard in the (non-existent) future.

Final thoughts

The choice of “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” was not merely driven by the fact that they constitute early exemplars of what would come to be known as the Ballardian turn in SF and the New Wave of the 1960s. As a callow youth in the early 1980s I was given a copy of the collection The Disaster Area and the novel The Crystal World by an older brother. To say that this constituted a perverse initiation of sorts is perhaps an understatement. The deeply disturbing worlds I found in these books was markedly at odds with the largely optimistic and anodyne ones I had so far found in the likes of Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov. Perhaps Herbert’s Dune was the closest I had then come to something approximating Ballard’s pessimism—though ‘close’ hardly does justice to either Herbert or Ballard, nor the shattering effect that the latter’s work had on my teenage psyche. Of the stories that made up The Disaster Area, “The Concentration City” and “Manhole 69” were the ones I kept returning to and reading obsessively. I recall desperately wanting to solve the impossible dilemmas they presented, the vertiginous puzzles that seemed to promise a future only of madness and inescapable despair, simply because they seemed so real and inevitable in comparison to all the other SF I had then so far read. Certainly, Ballard’s SF, more technological horror than utopian dream, would prove to be a better map of the coming dystopia of the capitalist millennium and beyond. 

*

I am not sure whether dystopian fiction is the best SF because it foregrounds dystopia as the truth of contemporary society, and so presages its destruction (and so, too, SF’s end); or whether it is the worst SF because it gives up on the possibility of there being any truly human civilisation beyond the perils and pains of the present. Perhaps a little bit of both. Where Ballard’s pessimism shines, so to speak, is in its unremitting exposure of the pathologies of spectacular capitalism and the fact that these are the products of human activity. Where it fails is in its wholesale collapse into the pathological symptoms that he identifies, such that one begins to suspect that Ballard truly desires to simply dwell in the ruins.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Flight would remain a powerful image of escape and freedom throughout Ballard’s work: ‘I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown’. J. G. Ballard, ‘What I Believe,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. V. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 177.

[2] J. G. Ballard, ‘Interview with JGB,’ in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard, ed. Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 8.

[3] So far, the only indication I have found of Ballard acknowledging the more libidinal nature of the title—albeit very tangentially—in some comments on the editorial work of Ted Carnell of New Worlds: ‘Ted Carnell […] never really wanted any re-writing. The only things he sometimes changed were the titles, but not too often. There was a little story called “Track 12”—that was his title, not mine. We had an argument over that, because he’d just taken “Manhole 69” without querying what that meant…’, ibid., p. 119 (italics in the original).

[4] Situationist International, ‘The Bad Days Will End [1962],’ in Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition, ed. Ken Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006.

[5] Raoul Vaneigem, ‘Comments Against Urbanism [1961]’ https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/comments.html.

[6] Situationist International, ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation [1962].’ Online here.

[7] Situationist International, The Real Split in the International: Theses on the Situationist International and its time, trans. John McHale, London: Pluto Press, [1972] 2003, p. 7 (thesis 2); Internationale Situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.,’ Internationale Situationniste no. 7 (Avril 1962), p. 17.

[8] J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction: A conversation  between J. G. Ballard and George MacBeth [orig. BBC Third Programme, 1967],’ in The New SF: An original anthology of modern speculative fiction, London: Arrow Books, [1969] 1971, p. 54. For the resonance with Debord, consider this from The Society of the Spectacle (1967, Ken Knabb’s translation, 2014): ‘the spectacle […] is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality’ (thesis 6, chapter 1).

[9] Ballard and MacBeth, ‘The New Science Fiction’, p. 57.

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