Many of the stories in the book are indeed dystopian and bleak but they also seem like a bridge from the traditional science fiction of the 1950’s to the new wave and Cyberpunk SF that emerged in the 70s and 80s. Some of the stories don’t really feel connected to anything in historical science fiction; they have a dream-like or nightmare-like quality that’s, well, Ballardian.
The book starts out with The Voices of Time, not where I’d recommend anyone start if they’ve never read Ballard before. I almost didn’t go on to the next story. It’s not badly written or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It’s a bleak, depressing tale whose goal seems to be finding the reader’s tolerance level for bad news. It’s the story of a scientist named Powers who is becoming a Sleeper, a condition which affects a growing number of people. Over time, it reduces one’s ability to stay awake; each day one spends slightly more time in a coma-like sleep until sleep eventually becomes continuous.
Powers theorizes that the Sleeper phenomena is an attempt by life to adapt to a world poisoned by radiation from atomic weapons tests. Powers’ friend and colleague, Whitby, now in permanent sleep, studied animal biology. He learned that every species is evolving into nightmarish, violent creatures; to be followed by extinction. Whitby believed the cure for Sleepers was in understanding why animals were changing. With Whitby gone, Powers realizes any hope for a cure has gone with him.
Power’s nemesis, Kaldren, has so far escaped the Sleep and has been busy deciphering a numerical signal flooding the world’s radio telescopes. Kaldren concludes it’s a countdown to the end of the universe, being broadcast to any remaining life forms so they can get their affairs in order. He recounts to Powers the story of astronauts who recently made first contact with aliens. The message they received is that we left the Earth too late; the Universe is old and dying, all the interesting races are long gone, there’s nothing left to see, no one to meet, nothing left to do but wait for the quickly approaching end of our planet.
I could go on but you get the idea; anyway, things really take a turn for the worse at this point. It’s not a spoiler to say the story has no happy ending.
Fortunately, I didn’t stop with The Voices of Time. I read on and found some truly amazing stories. It’s no wonder the book is named for the story Chronopolis. This was one of the most enjoyable in the anthology. It’s set in a dystopian future, but in a good way. We get an early mention of “time police” but this is no time-travel story. The time police are on the look out for illegal clocks. Clocks, watches, time keeping technology of almost every kind is forbidden. The story concerns a boy growing up in this timeless world who dares to wonder about clocks. The turning point is a chance encounter that leaves him in possession of a working and very illegal wrist watch.
His secret knowledge of time changes life for the better but when a school teacher discovers his watch, he is taken to visit Chronopolis, the time city, a huge ghost town that was the center of the world in the era of clocks. He’s peppered with propaganda about Chronopolis and what its clocks were used for, how they ruled everyone’s lives. The intent is to show him the horror and evil of clocks but, instead, it feeds his fascination. The question is whether he can escape the time police and fulfill the destiny he sees unwinding before him.
Billenium concerns the adventures of John Ward and his friend, Henry, in an over-populated future where personal living quarters have a maximum size set by law. After Ward is evicted from his cubicle and hears rumors the space quota is being reduced to 3 square meters per person, he and Henry go hunting for a new cubicle they can share.
While looking at a cubicle in a very old building, Ward punches the wall in a moment of frustration. A hole is created revealing a large 15 x 15 foot room, an unimaginably huge space that even the wealthiest person couldn’t afford to possess. It was walled over during some long forgotten repartitioning. Without hesitation, they sign a lease for the cubicle and build a secret door into the hidden room.
At first they take turns sleeping alone in the vastness but guilt gets the better of them. One by one they begin letting others in on their secret; first inviting two female friends to live with them, then relatives. Along the way things get complicated. The story has more humor than most in the book, even if it’s a dark humor. I also found it reminiscent of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (which became the film Soylent Green) and Logan’s Run.
What would the world of Billenium look like hundreds of years down the line; a world where buildings covered every square foot of the Earth? Such a world is imagined in Build-Up. Civilization has long since collapsed and is now rebuilding. The old high-speed trains are running again, education of sorts is returning. But knowledge of the Earth and how people came to live the way they do is long lost. There is nothing to the world beyond level after level of corridors and rooms. Any talk of a “top” level or “bottom” level or of what could lie beyond them is considered superstitious nonsense.
Franz, a university student, has imagined a flying machine. In attempting to describe it to his friend, it’s evident that such a machine would be pointless without a very large room to fly it in. The largest room anyone has seen is the district’s stadium but even in so large a room what purpose could it serve to fly across it? Franz speculates about whether there could be “completely free space” – an area that has no walls, no floors above or below. His friends find the concept ludicrous but Franz becomes obsessed. He begins to question how the world came into existence – who built the first walls and floors, what was there before them?
He decides to find answers and starts by asking the local transit authority how far the trains go. They don’t know. Their trains go a few districts in each direction but the tracks go on and there are other trains. No one ever had a reason to travel more than a district or two away; why would they? Franz knows what he has to do. He takes all is money and buys transit tickets, determined to ride the trains continually in one direction until he finds an answer. What he finds instead is so much stranger than free space that he begins to doubt his sanity. This story was later retitled to The Concentration City in later Ballard collections.
There are a total of sixteen stories in this anthology and every one of them is well written, readable, and addicting. I found even the ones I didn’t entirely like were too compelling to put down, I had to find out what happened. I’m fairly sure it’s out of print (no suprise there, what good science fiction book isn’t out of print?) but if you can find a copy, buy it and read it! Oh, and my edition has more of that classic Richard Powers artwork on the cover.