In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
I imagine that the process behind how I pick a particular author any particular month can be very nebulous for you. I generally assume that you don’t actually care how I come to these decisions. This month’s pick came from very clear inspiration that you might relate to, so I’ll share it. Netflix finally released the second season of Love, Death & Robots after what felt like an eternity, and I dare say that this season is even better than the first. I was particularly taken by the episode titled “The Drowned Giant”, so much so that I looked up the writer. It turns out that a few of the episodes of season two are based on vintage science fiction stories, and this one is by J. G. Ballard. Turns out I had a copy of The Drowned Giant amongst all my anthologies. I also had at least two other Ballard stories. So here we are.
James Graham Ballard was a prolific writer and yet another of the “New Wave” science fiction authors. Ballard’s numerous apocalyptic or satirical novels and short stories are finding new audiences today, but interestingly he seems to have had his biggest recognition outside of science fiction circles, despite having written lots of science fiction. Ballard appears to have been that rare form of science fiction author that appealed to a mainstream audience more than to genre fans. As “The Drowned Giant” implies, his writing is very poetic, bordering on pretentious. Bordering, but not crossing over. Who couldn’t use a bit more poetic sci-fi in their life?
The Drowned Giant
Originally published in The Terminal Beach (1964)
Read in Nebula Award Stories 1965
What really struck me about the Love, Death & Robots episode was the poetic nature of the narrative, which one would imagine comes directly from the short story. Indeed it does, and the prose possesses a macabre beauty reminiscent of Poe. If you’ve not familiar, The Drowned Giant tells the story of the body of a hundred foot tall dead man washing ashore in England. There is wonder and beauty in that realized fantasy, which quickly degrades because there can be no real wonder and mystery in our world. Quickly everything becomes mundane by the very nature of its solid existence.
The crowds that gather to watch the giant begin to climb on him, desecrating the wonder with the mundane. Our narrator doesn’t join them, instead choosing to watch from a distance until finally, when the giant has begun to decompose, he is able to climb up.
The giant’s supine right hand was covered with broken shells and sand, in which a score of footprints were visible. The rounded bulk of the hip towered above me, cutting off all sight of the sea. The sweetly acrid odor I had noticed before was now more pungent, and through the opaque skin I could see the serpentine coils of congealed blood vessels. However repellent it seemed, this ceaseless metamorphosis, a macabre life-in-death, alone permitted me to set foot on the corpse.
I include a direct quote because the poetic narrative is a big part of the appeal. It’d be like reviewing Lovecraft without quoting his narrative style; you can do it but it misses a big part of the point. The Drowned Giant really is an incredible story, with many interpretations for the reader to find, but to me it really felt like a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. I want to believe in wonder, and this story strips wonder away one layer at a time.
Originally published in New World’s Science Fiction #95 (June 1960)
Read in The Vintage Anthology of Science Fantasy
This story follows a man living in a world where clocks are outlawed. There is an obvious element of absurdity for sure, but unraveling the mystery of why clocks are banned provides a good motivation for the reader. This is an odd one, but like our first story it landed well with me quite a few times. A particularly good exchange comes between our protagonist and his teacher.
“It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt anybody with a clock?”
That last line hit me like a ton of bricks. I think the core message has relevance for most of us, but this story lands true in a time when Amazon clocks its factory workers like robots. If Ballard was warning us of a future world – as a lot of science fiction authors try to do – then we may be closer to that world than ever before.
The Voices of Time
Originally published in New World’s Science Fiction #99 (October 1960)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
I’ve been doing these Vintage Sci-Fi Trifectas long enough to know what to expect from a New Wave science fiction writer, namely a lot of confusion. “Experimental” often means you’re not sure even the author knew what the hell was going on. In the two stories above I didn’t feel like that represented Ballard, who leaned heavily on the literary bend of New Wave writers. The Voices of Time though… I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be about. It’s definitely an apocalyptic tale, which Ballard is known for, but I can’t say I left this one any wiser. I can’t say I left it any more entertained either. It’s a moderately long story, but even at that I found it look me far more sittings than necessary to get through it, with a lot of mind wandering along the way. The story of what appears to be the end of all life on Earth, The Voices of Time was a little too confusing for me to actually feel sad or to care about the characters. Though the idea of sleeping more and more each day until you just never wake up is certainly terrifying, the story didn’t come across to me as horror. Overall there were a lot of ideas here with little payoff. There were also some very odd narrative techniques, like having a section of dialog written as a transcript, and randomly lapsing into diary mode, which did nothing but annoy me by clearly leaning into the “experimental” part of the New Wave. Still, one disappointing story out of three is a good run.
Overall I’m not sure I’d seek out J. G. Ballard’s work, but I’m likely to give it a read if I come across it. In researching him I discovered that another item in my Netflix queue (“High Rise”) is an adaptation of one of his novels, which I admit I’m now even more curious to watch.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.