The Voices of Time • 1960 • Dystopian novelette by J. G. Ballard


Synopsis: In a dystopian Southwestern U.S. near future, everything goes downhill: a research clinic in an arid landscape after drought, sterility following nuclear fallout,  humans turning into “sleepers”, and life itself is in decline after the peak of evolution.

The story follows researcher Powers whose wakeful hours slowly drift away, and he documents his last days before joining the sleepers.

Powers’s colleague has found out that X-rays can activate a “silent pair” of genes, turning on unknown powers, like gamma radiation vision, or spiders with web-like extraneous nervous systems. Animals outside the lab exhibit similar mutations, like a frog with a protecting lead shell.

The theory is that these silent pair genes are natures last ressort in evolution, to be activated in a kind of panic mode to preserve life in the case of nuclear fallout.

Just before Powers runs out of wakeful hours, he activates his own silent pair – granting him to hear time.

Review: What a masterwork! Ballard has written a huge body of stories and novels. This novelette is among his earlier works, and if you ever want to read a story most typical for his works, then this is it:
trademark images like a drained swimming-pool or mandalas, entropy, dystopian setting with postapocalyptic environments. Or in his own words:

If I were asked to pick one piece of fiction to represent my entire output of 7 novels and 92 short stories it would be ‘The Voices of Time’, not because it is the best (I leave that for the reader to judge), but because it contains almost all the themes of my writing – the sense of isolation within the infinite time and space of the universe, the biological fantasies and the attempt to read the complex codes represented by drained swimming pools and abandoned airfields, and above all the determination to break out of a deepening psychological entropy and make some kind of private peace with the unseen
powers of the universe.

Ballard’s works were (together with John Brunner and Brian Aldiss) in the core of the 1960s/70s New Wave of SF, a term created by Michael Moorcock, and propagated through the magazine New Worlds, which published this novelette in 1960. This subgenre changed SF more towards an Inner Space point of view, and highly influenced the later Cyberpunk subgenre. William Gibson bombards the reader with a mass of unexplained SF images, but his mentor with this literary style was Ballard.

Back in the 80s, I sucked up everything that I could grab by Ballard, and found myself saturated never to return. Until now, and this is my first review of a story by this Grandmaster not only of SF but also of mainstream literature (e.g. with his “Empire in the Sun“).

I cannot even express how important and amazing some of his works are, and how ridiculous it is, that he never won one of the major awards – his popularity in the U.S. wasn’t the best, of course, because he broke with reader expectations and never was easily accessible.

Stream-of-consciousness, evocative lyrical descriptions, psychological takes, surreal paragraphs, a calm narration, complicate relations, and – in the case of this story – the near abscence of plot. In summary, those experimental forms of speculative fictions are very appealing to me and might create the exact opposite feeling in other readers.

Some elements of this work need translation – there is this cool catch that Mercury astronauts landed on the Moon. Not everyone knows the history of NASA’s space program, but everyone knows that it was Apollo 11 that brought humans up there. Ballard couldn’t have known this, because the Apollo program started only in 1961, two years after he wrote this piece, as a follow-up to Project Mercury.
There is also this glitch with a female scientist offering Powers to cook something for him in a classical gender role. Besides of this, the story aged remarkable well, as do most of Ballard’s works.

The author’s meditations on entropy, time, and ultimately death resonate with me and make this story unforgettable.

Highly recommended for readers of experimental SF who don’t need action or plot.

Meta: isfdb. Available online. I’ve read it in James Gunn’s Road to SF #5, and reread it in the Big Book of SF.

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19 Responses to The Voices of Time • 1960 • Dystopian novelette by J. G. Ballard

  1. pdtillman says:

    Thanks for the link! Many years since I’ve last read this one. Sounds like it’s in the vein of, but independent of his great Vermilion Sands series? [looks] Definitely of that era. VS stories published 1956-71.
    VS & his semi-autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” (1984) are his two masterworks, to my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andreas says:

      I‘d rank some of his other works even higher: Concrete Island, Crystal World, Drowned World, maybe Crash.
      Voices of Time is not a part of the Vermillion Sands series as far as I understand.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ola G says:

    Oh that sounds just perfect! Thanks for the link, I’ll definitely check this out!
    I’ve only read Empire of the Sun by Ballard, and it seems to me that many of his recurring themes are there, distilled and ruthlessly, clinically depicted, but with a softening poetic overlay that makes the reading of the whole an unforgettable experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bkfrgr says:

    This sounds like everything I am coming to appreciate about Ballard. Great review!
    So sorry I wasn’t following you before Andrea’s. I’ve fixed that now! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Apart from The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere, which I read ages ago, I have not sampled anything else from Ballard, and this one sounds fascinating enough that I would give it a look: your series of post is certainly taking me down Memory Lane quite a bit, as far as authors are concerned! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: So much Vintage SciFi, I can’t keep up! | the Little Red Reviewer

  6. lydiaschoch says:

    I’m so curious about The Forces of Time now!


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