Chronopolis

Chronopolis

Chronopolis is a 1971 anothology of science fiction short stories by J. G. Ballard. I’ve not read much by this author but I’m definitely looking forward to another Ballard book after reading this one. His stories have a certain uniqueness that’s hard to describe; so much so that the adjective Ballardian was coined and according to the Collins English Dictionary, means “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballardโ€™s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.”

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.

Do I Detect a Cultural Regression?

I’ve noticed an increasing number people suggesting that conservatives are being replaced by “regressives”. By definition, conservatives advocate keeping things the same or “conserving” the status quo. To them, any problems we have are caused by change. Preventing change prevents problems. Progressives believe problems are inevitable and their solution requires us to change or “progress”. We used to have a third group, almost extinct, called moderates who believed we needed to use both approaches in moderation. Lately, a new group seems to be evolving. It started out as a small faction on the far religious right but it’s rapidly assimilating much of the right, maybe the entire Republican political party. For this new group, everything about the modern world is a problem that must be solved by regressing to ideas discarded in the past. The name “regressive” has been suggested to describe members of this group. In a Nov, 2011 blog post, Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkley, described some differences between regressives and the conservatives they’re replacing.

What sort of regressions are we talking about? They want to take science out of education and replace it with religion. They want to roll back religious freedoms and replace them with a Christian theocracy. They want to turn back civil rights for women to days when women couldn’t vote and were property to be owned and used by men. They want to roll back regulations that protect the economy and the environment from the abuses of corporations. They want to roll back awareness of our place in the natural world, the importance of the environment, and any belief that the human race should conserve natural resources. To quote Ann Coulter, “God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it.” They want a world where they can pollute the air and water, sell toxic foods and drugs with impunity. When they talk about deregulation, that’s what they’re after; rolling back any and all restrictions on business. At the same time, they advocate an authoritarian government that restricts freedoms, liberties, and privacy of individuals. They advocate government mandated, unnecessary medical procedures and other draconian measures to enforce their religion’s moral code on all citizens.

The regressives also want to roll back public education. They target education and science as “elitist” and frequently demean books, scientists, schools and teachers. If they really want to insult someone, they call them “professorial” or “academic”! They have already personally regressed to a time when the concepts of “believing” and “knowing” are conflated. In their view, science and facts are just sets of beliefs, like religion. This leads to a phenomenon known as denialism that seems to go hand-in-hand with regressionism. Because facts are no different than beliefs, there’s no reason to accept them if you don’t want to. Don’t like the latest theory of climatology? Deny it. Have pesky geologists and cosmologists determined the Earth is older than the 5,000 years you’d like it to be? Deny it. Don’t like that theory of Evolution that biology is based on? Deny it.

They deny medical facts like the efficacy of vaccines and the existence of AIDS; historical facts as big as the Holocaust or as small as Obama’s birthplace. I can think of no field of science or history immune to denialism. Instead of truth, they now seek truthiness. And having lost their grip on reality, they seem to easily succumb to belief in every form of superstition, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory. From Tea Party claims that electric utility Smart Meters emit “spy rays” to a resurgence in belief that the Earth is flat, I don’t remember any time in the past when so many people fall victim so easily to so many forms of quackery and nonsense. If you can choose what’s a fact on a whim, it’s easy to choose “facts” that reinforce your existing views and deny those than don’t. This creates a feedback loop, constantly pushing you to further extremes.

Ironically, denialism among fundamentalists has taken them so far to the right that they now see “liberal bias” in the Bible that needs to be denied! They’ve started the “Conservative Bible Project” to rewrite the Bible without the dangerous “liberal ideas” that have “crept in”. Their new-and-improved Bible will be anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-women’s-rights, anti-communism (apparently the word “comrade” is used too frequently in modern translations!). It will leave out “liberal falsehoods” such as Jesus defending a prostitute from stoning by telling the crowd that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. Also to be dropped is Jesus saying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Obviously, if God and Jesus were good conservatives they’d stick to the party line as understood by the modern right.

No better example of denialism exists than North Carolina’s bizarre new law that restricts the rate of sea level rise and limits the methods scientists may legally use to study it. It also forbids them from discovering that the ocean may rise at an accelerated rate in the future! Perhaps next they’ll make a law requiring the Earth to be flat or legislate gravity out of existence?

What’s the reason for this growing group of regressionists and their denialism? Is it just a chance coalition of religious fundamentalists and far-right facists? Is it our equivalent of the Taliban? Is something in the water making people stupid?

Perhaps regressionism is an over-reaction to the increasing pace of scientific and cultural change in the world; change that can erode traditional beliefs. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by change, especially when we hold on to a too-rigid world view that can’t adapt to new facts. Maybe it’s something else. I honestly don’t know. I hope we can find a way to fight it. If not, well, when the Regressive Inquisition kicks down your door and hauls you off to be burned as a witch for having too many books or “believing in” science, don’t say I didn’t warn you.