Unlimited Dream Country — a review of Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe by Simon Sellars — Brendan Gillott

The first chapter-title gets us where we’re going, a place where we’ve already been for some time: ‘PSYCHIC COMBAT’. Net-induced dreams, violent urges, weird politics. A fast-decaying line between ‘I’ and ‘it’. It’s quite the welcome. And we all know who to blame, who it was that predicted the arrival: ‘Crash changed my life by torching everything that came before’. J.G. Ballard is perhaps the most-read prophet of the twenty-first century; his work has predictive capacities that put Nostradamus, Marx and The Matrix to shame. He’s up there with Guy Debord, in my view, as an indispensable ‘Guide to the Millennium’ that we’re still painfully entering. Whole swathes of the contemporary media landscape are unimaginable without his shaping hand. The word ‘Ballardian’ might (should) soon replace ‘Orwellian’ as the go-to handle for the situation in which modernity finds itself. His mark on fiction is immense. He saved sci-fi from Star Wars.

For all this, there’s still a surprising lack of critical work on Ballard. It’s not entirely clear that Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism answers to this lack, or even that it intends to. Sellars is the co-editor of 2012’s Extreme Metaphors, a collection of interviews with Ballard which represents one of the most significant and useful resources for Ballard scholars and enthusiasts. In that book, a small representation of the novelist’s many recorded conversations with scholars, fans and journalists, Ballard’s socio-psychological theories and reflections on the state of the day’s fiction are laid out as a guide for the perplexed (or the merely curious). Extreme Metaphors is a ‘resource’ in exactly this sense – go in, dig around, extract what seems useful. In this, it stands in some contrast to the book at hand, which takes a rather more immersed and live-action approach to Ballard’s views.

Sellars has also published academic and journalistic work on Ballard and allied issues – architecture, trash culture, digital catastrophe – and he’s a co-author of Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations (of which more later). Applied Ballardianism doesn’t sit quite comfortably with any of these bodies of work. Somewhere between a cultural-studies exposition and a semi-autobiographical novel, the book combines a delusive map of literary academia with fugue-ish travelogues and cynical reflections on the author’s native Australia. These various territories are contained within the virtual circumference of the Ballardosphere, an unsteady edifice of speculation, insight and paranoiac fantasy into which Sellars entered in the course of studying for a PhD on Ballard’s work. This isn’t exactly a scholarly book, then, a fact that its subtitle Memoir from a Parallel Universe might already suggest – though it occasionally does attempt to be one.

Applied Ballardianism begins, and fitfully continues, as a book about writing a PhD thesis, from first enthusiasms to ultimate failures: ‘I can trace my decline. That is one of the bittersweet benefits of survival’. A dropout and waster, fighting ‘an internal war’, Sellars (or ‘Sellars’) bounces between uninspiring jobs and pours his free time into the pallid fervour of the early Nineties internet, as the Web went WorldWide and its denizens took on the name ‘cyberpunk’. The point of entry here was William Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer, in which fraying and disturbed cyborg-doll-people jack into the mainframe of a barely-human legacy capitalism, high on a cocktail of stims, sushi and violence, in an attempt to steal, or destroy, or at least meet something powerful and intelligent called Wintermute. They move through a kaleidoscopic favela of cyberspace, prosthetics and failed states, reversed Satans rocketing into a war against Babylon. Sellars’ attempt to graft this aesthetic onto his own life was, by his admission, unsuccessful. Plagued with ‘Information Fatigue Syndrome’, caught in a semi-bogus ennui, he turns to Ballard, and more specifically to Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash: ‘Desperate to break free of my inexplicable stupor, I succumbed to Crash’s spell.’

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Crash hardly needs introduction. Its semi-pornographic account of a group of sexually perverse misfits, who stage ever-crazier and more explicit car-crashes on the highways around London, has made it one of the iconic works of late-century British fiction. But for Sellars the book’s pull is different, particular. He connects it, in a characteristic gesture, to his own situation in the suburbs of Melbourne, where the scare-tactic road-safety ads produced by the Transport Accident Commission ghost the cinematography of Mad Max. Sellars sees a suture between Ballard’s world and his, a bleeding-together of fact and fiction. In this view, Mad Max is Australia’s national epic, a proleptic ballad of ecological collapse and moral desperation rung out in dented chrome, with Max himself as a berserk Odysseus who never had a home to return to. Crash not only remembers but in some degree explains the automobile obsessions of Sellars’ countrymen, elucidating the murderous highway carmageddon he recalls from his childhood. Modernity has made a high-speed wasteland of itself, and it’s crying out for analysis.

The basic mode of Applied Ballardianism is set from this point on. The ‘inner space’ of Ballard’s fictive psychopaths is to be mapped onto the actual space of the world; the tiny novelistic tweaks he makes to the near-future are to be read as acts of almost vatic cultural diagnosis. Indeed, Sellars implies, Ballard’s reach is so broad that it could almost be synonymous with (post?-)modernity itself. Towards the end of the book he dreams of creating

a new discipline, ‘Applied Ballardianism’, that would analyse Ballardian currents in contemporary culture. The twenty-first century had become so ‘Ballardian’ that the adjective was even defined in the Collins English Dictionary: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak manmade landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments’. However, I knew that the Ballardian worldview was more than a simple descriptor of cultural norms, more than mere philosophy. It was an idea for living.

As is often the case for our protagonist, his plans never come to fruition. Insofar as the Ballardian Weltanschauung proves liveable at all, it tends towards dissolution and disappointment, and it is in this state, rather than the more severe but also more exciting conditions of dystopia and/or insanity, that Sellars eventually winds up. He finds living out his ideas dull and untenable, and is consistently frustrated in his attempts to reconcile them (and himself) to the rigours and niggles of academia. The PhD itself is a nexus of dead ends.

In a particularly telling instance, reading an interview with Ballard in the journal Science Fiction Studies, Sellars is subjected to ‘a burst of friendly fire’ as his chosen author rejects and reviles the theoretical frames Sellars has selected for his work, the ‘postmodernisms’ of Virilio and Baudrillard. Though Ballard is appreciative of Baudrillard’s work in and of itself, Sellars is shaken to learn that his author has nothing but contempt for those sluggish scholars who look to explain his fiction with it.

Ballard is deleting Baudrillard, even as his writing is defining, detailing and approving the ‘Baudrillardian’ ethic. It’s a coincidence, of course, that the Englishman’s name lettristically surrounds and abbreviates the Frenchman’s – but the coincidence is itself the most Ballardian of occurrences. The truth is always stranger than the theory.

Abandoning (or abandoned by) the ‘dismal jargon’ of the poststructuralist academy, Sellars instead pitches himself into a hallucinogenic realm of hunch and conspiracy, one where the themes of Ballard’s novels find uncanny and often unhinged confirmation at the intersection of his crumbling life and his jumbled mind. The defining critical motive of Applied Ballardianism is located in its (well-founded) claim that Ballard’s writing proposes a conspiracist epistemology, where no chain of happenstance can avoid being reinterpreted as a sinister pattern. The algorithmic governance of society fuses with chemtrails and global-warming hoaxers: ‘Crash is concerned with the logic of the accident, using the mechanism of ambivalence to record a vision of humanity simultaneously enthralled and destroyed by its technological environment’. Enthrallment seems apposite here – one of the things the present book narrates is its author’s miserable servitude to Ballard, or at least to his fantasised version of Ballard. Throughout his travels Sellars is tortured by an obsessive desire to see the Ballard in everything, and that desire tails him in the guise of a cavalcade of oddballs, hacks, criminals and questionable ‘experts’. There are hauntings by UFOs, encounters with Japanese psychics, explorations of Lovecraftian ruins. The ‘real’ reality in which Sellars labours to complete (or escape) his studies insists on melting away into a cacophony of hyperlinked suspicions and contrary advice. This generalised weirdness is itself straight out of Ballard, as Sellars notes: ‘It is not Crash that is science fiction but the world.’

The science-fictionality of Applied Ballardianism shares much with that of its textual master. In Ballard, the fictional world is the same as the real world except for everywhere it isn’t, and these tiny clinamina, usually found in upgrades to social rather than material technologies – self-sustaining high-rises, secessionist shopping-centres – are hard to square with the lasers-and-lightspeed account of sci-fi that’s most familiar to a cinema-going audience. Ballard himself had a complex relationship with science fiction, and in certain senses his work seems outside of the genre’s ambit. Of course, the lack of warpgates and extraterrestrials isn’t much to the point. In his 1984 sci-fi study Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delaney proposes that one can best think of genre not as a function of ‘content’ but rather of what he terms ‘reading protocols’. (This is a concept he seems to have taken from Jacques Derrida’s Positions: ‘reading is transformational […] But this transformation cannot be executed however one wishes. It requires protocols of reading.’) Such protocols are instructions for ‘how to read’ a given text; they translate an as-yet-undetermined and highly flexible text into a particular useable sense. Delaney’s example of such a protocol is the sentence ‘Her world exploded’, which has a rather different meaning under the rule of a sci-fi protocol than it does under that of a romance. This is to say that in Ballard, it is something like radical literalness that makes the work science-fiction: the apartment-block in High Rise is not a figure for the Tower of Babel, the trans-Saharan river unleashed in The Day of Creation is not some parallel of Eden. These fictions are real, and they turn our world into something rich, and strange, and increasingly recognisable. For Sellars, the protocol is Ballard himself, an arterial voice infiltrating everything around him and bearing it away. So here we are: ‘Earth – the one true alien planet.’

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It’s easy enough to hate the suburbs; especially so, perhaps, if you live in them. But that easy hatred is only the other side of their utopian ambition, a liberal-capitalist response to the collective farms and lebensraum of other twentieth-century world-builders. Sellars’ general aesthetic is more squat than semi-detached, but he shares with Ballard an interest in what Marc Augé has called ‘non-places’, the identikit intersections of the modern world that could be anywhere and nowhere – airports, business parks, suburbs.

For Ballard the utopian value of the suburbs, their cosy aspirational character, is inverted as an indication of the disjunction and aimless debauchery to come. He famously described his home suburb, Shepperton, as ‘the everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere’: universal and absent. As Sellars points out, there’s some dissimulation to this: Ballard moved to Shepperton in part because he wanted to be near the film studios, where he hoped at one point to find employment, and where, in a very Ballardian coincidence, the cinematic version of his autobiographical Empire of the Sun was produced – so that Ballard could watch his own life being mocked up in a studio from across his garden wall.

But it’s the endless potential for anonymity and repetition that he found most compelling, and most telling with regard to the direction of travel: ‘The future is going to be boring. […] The suburbanisation of the planet will continue, and the suburbanisation of the soul will follow soon thereafter.’ In the 1980 novel The Unlimited Dream Country, Ballard reworks Shepperton as an impregnable and inescapable field of force wrought around the mysterious person of the suicidal pilot Blake, who crashes a light aircraft into the nearby Thames only to emerge gifted with the power of flight and an ability to transform himself into animals at will. Unable to leave the suburbs, Blake builds a cult around himself, messiah of his tiny realm. The dormitory town becomes a kingdom of dreams, separated from the international hustle of the nearby city.

Sellars sees in Ballard a dual motion, the desire both to separate oneself from the interlocking non-places of the modern world and to escape into them, to live as a reckless castaway in a world of one’s own making. For Sellars himself, this manifests as a restless tracking across the globe: Dutch techno clubs, Pacific island dependencies with their ‘volatile nationalisms’, faded English seaside towns. He scores a job as a travel writer for a guidebook company, only to find that ‘the job involves gathering facts and figures and updating perishable information’, and not much else. In his search for an outside to the whirling spectacle of the Ballardosphere, Sellars only confirms Ballard’s charge that tourism is the ‘the great soporific’: the deepest layer of a global hallucination.

The other option is retreat, the occupation of a particularism so delirious that it reaches a kind of psychic escape-velocity. Here, Sellars’ interest in micronations comes into play. He obsesses over these ‘heterotopias’, zones of exception in which the usual rules are thought (or imagined) not to apply. He hopes to find something like that which is presented in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a quasi-spiritual journey to the sanctum of inner space. But what he finds instead is asinine violence and suspicious indifference, a set of reactionary fantasies acted out by farmers declaring themselves princes, and pirate-radio DJs self-crowned as monarchs of abandoned military installations. The isolation that Ballard depicts in Concrete Island is a function not of freedom but of abandonment; its upshot is confusion and despair. Sellars’ central text for this insight is Ballard’s short story ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’ (a personal favourite of mine as well), in which an ex-astronaut called Melville attempts to escape the trauma and humiliation of a mental breakdown which occurred aboard his space station and was broadcast live to a sickly-fascinated global audience. Banished to the coastal home of his psychotherapist for intensive treatment, Melville fills his time on the beach, exhuming the fuselage of a World War II fighter plane. Beset with flashbacks as he sits in the ruined cockpit, thumbing fetishised photos of Wake Island, he plots to repair the plane and escape to the lonely Pacific atoll. As his psychosis deepens, this imagined island utopia takes over; the actual details of his life shimmer and fluctuate: ‘At times he was certain that his entire memory of having trained as an astronaut was a fantasy, part of some complex delusional system, an extreme metaphor of his real ambition.’ For Sellars too, the initiation of the PhD project turns into something delusive and obscurely motivated; not a desire to explain or understand Ballard’s writing, but rather to reveal and rework himself though it, to strand himself on its distant shores.

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In reading Applied Ballardianism, the question of genre is always at the forefront. The publisher Urbanomic lists it as the first in a prospective series of books entitled ‘K-Punk: New Adventures in Theory-Fiction’. Designating it in that hybrid category, ‘theory-fiction’, points to much of its unusual nature, particularly the way that it ‘studies’ Ballard by being both an attempt at and a parody of the usual scholarly book. Theory-fiction is naturally marginal, and has tended to attach itself to marginal subjects; as a result, it remains broadly un-theorised, and there’s little consensus on what the genre is or might be. Perhaps the best tactic is to look at its (presumed) history. To provide a full genealogy for theory-fiction isn’t plausible here, but such a genealogy would include, as important recent exemplars, Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and to a significant degree the work of Ballard himself. Outriders to this presumed tradition might include J.H. Prynne’s ‘The Plant-Time Manifold Transcripts’, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing-World. What these otherwise disparate texts share is a dissolutive stance towards the everyday, blending the factual with the fantastical, analysis with illusion. Characteristically ambivalent with its materials and resistant to ‘high’-vs.-‘low’ aesthetic dichotomies, theory-fiction operates in the gaps between the world as it appears and the world as it can be reimagined, and it’s a dynamic that Sellars sees exemplified in Ballard:

Reality has haemorrhaged uncontrollably, rendering genre policing a pointless pursuit, the preserve of those unwilling or unable to confront the fluidity of a phenomenon that threatens to erase us at the same time as it promises to liberate.

Applied Ballardianism is a work which grapples with and is submerged by these fluidities, of genre, of subject, of person. Precisely in its pseudo-autobiographical qualities, it tries to live its insights and obsessions, to find exemplary failure in the blindnesses that accompany them. There’s no way to separate Sellars auteur from ‘Sellars’ the Ballardian miscreant, and the subtitle of his book, Memoir from a Parallel Universe, clearly indicates this equivocation. Besides, that’s another technique ripped straight from Ballard; witness the kaleidoscopic iteration of characters called ‘Jim’ and ‘Ballard’ in Ballard’s own ‘fiction’, as Sellars himself notes:

… if Empire is Ballard’s anti-autobiography and his most famous novel, then Crash, his most infamous work, is the anti-Empire – his anti-anti-autobiography. A narrator called ‘James Ballard’ in a novel about psychopathic sex addicts? What the devil is he playing at?

This, of course, is also the operative question throughout Applied Ballardianism; even as ‘Sellars’ carries out insane and dangerous acts, is subjected to unlikely tortures and visions, we can’t quite shake the itching sense that it’s all really happening.

Along with its catalogue of wild guesses and errant interpretations, Applied Ballardianism provides a kind of screwball historiography of Ballard scholarship, with Sellars frantically dropping in on conferences and academic papers, taking the temperature of this year’s Ballard scholia, becoming increasingly depressed and disoriented by what he finds. Feeling himself an interloper and a faker in a discourse that’s increasingly professionalised and decontaminated, he commits himself headlong to a critical method so extreme that it renders itself barely believable, and frames the accountants of the academic mainstream as unadventurous weeds.

This is a book of critical epistemology, of questioning what it is we know, what it is we can know, about and through literary texts. The refracted fluorescence of our own critical passions and compulsions visits us outlandishly, like lights in the sky.

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For those of us now fully captives of this millennium, to read Ballard has become, unavoidably, to read him from inside his own work, from the world his theory-fictions prefigured and constituted. The 21stcentury happens for us first as a second time; we were always all Ballardians by now. Sellars isn’t alone. ‘[T]he inferno of repetition’: in our nightmares the territory recurs, and we know as soon as we enter the dreamscape that we have been here before, that we are running in a ring both hateful and familiar. We want to escape the dream, but can only wake to some new variation on it, in a falling motion seemingly without a limit. Applied Ballardianism is nightmarish in this sense, for Sellars as it is for the reader. Having escaped the tangled concrete freeways of Melbourne, horrified by their latent violence, Sellars finds them recapitulated all over the globe, reconfigured as soulless airports, ruined bunkers, seedy hostels. He recounts a story of a man marooned for days in a stuck elevator, his thrashing and crying recorded on sleepless and unattended CCTV. This is hell, nor are we out of it – ‘in inner space no-one can hear you scream’.


Simon Sellars is a writer and editor. He is the custodian of ballardian.com, and the co-editor of Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008 (Fourth Estate, 2012).

Brendan Gillott was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. Alongside more properly academic writings, he has reviewed for the Cambridge Humanities Review and 3:AM Magazine, and his poetry has appeared in several fugitive venues. @BrendanCGillott

Applied Ballardianism is published by Urbanomic. Author bio and cover image courtesy of the same.

Image: ballardian art, Morgaine, Creative Commons