EROSION (Sci-fi flash fiction)

So I thought I’d share my entry for this years Sci-Fi-London 48-hour flash fiction competition which I wrote a few weeks back. The rules for the competition are simple: you sign up, then when the competition starts they send you a title for the story, a piece of dialogue which you must include, and an optional idea for the sci-fi premise of the story. Then you have 48 hours to create your beast! I’ve entered the comp for the past 2 years now, and I must say I enjoyed it much more this year than last, and I think the quality of my entry has improved. I’m still somewhat struggling to find my voice when I write stories which is something that comes with lots of experience I guess (all my favourite writers have a unique and immediately identifiable voice which is so hard to find!) but it is still a really fun way to challenge yourself and see what kind of world and characters you can create in a short space of time. The story is a little wacky, and there are certainly J. G. Ballard short story vibes going on (you’ll be surprised to hear I was reading Ballard stories at the time of writing :D)… I hope you enjoy it.

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prompts given

Title: Erosion

Dialogue: ‘the finest minds spent decades honing this technology, and you can’t find the on switch’

Optional science: new psychotropic drug creates telepathy/telekinesis

 

EROSION

It is as though, looking through these eyes, I can feel some faint echo of the one who was, some faint residue of self which dangles over the edge of infinity…

Bruno gazed wide-eyed and unmoving at the giant TV screen which lit up his small apartment like a neon flare. Reams of paper coated the floor: pages of frantically scrawled notes; splayed case files; journal articles spattered with annotations; graphs, charts, mathematical diagrams and photographs. He had been glued to the screen for the past four hours, barely blinking his eyes. It was unlike Bruno, who was usually fidgety and itching to move around if he had been physically inactive for anything more than an hour. He was a typical gym freak, with all the latest muscletech and runner gear. He had been known to spend anything up to six hours a day working on maintaining his racehorse-like physique. But the past few days, things had changed. He had been awake all hours of the night, mostly reading from various scientific texts, newspapers, online articles, all the while taking ample notes. This was all very unlike Bruno, who had read very little beyond the random passages from the required texts in school and the streams of vacuous thoughts and ramblings of his like-minded friends on social media.

It was deep into the night, the curtains were still open wide, and the lights were all still switched off. Bruno’s apartment was on the twenty-third level, just about where the dense city fog lingered perpetually. Viewed from the dingy streets below, the flickering colours of the TV lit up the fog like sparking synapses in some elemental cerebellum. On screen were four figures intensely debating the latest victims of the human experiments by Nadercorp: the company who, over thirty years ago, had first developed the technology capable of inducing telepathy, telethesia, and certain types of herd telekinesis in animals. The corporation had spent decades refining the technology, steadily working their way through the intelligence strata of the animal kingdom, and, in the past few years, had finally begun testing on volunteer human subjects. Millions had come forward, keen to go down in history as the very first telepaths; the first genuine superhumans. No doubt a great many of them had their own private agendas: they sought fame, money, power. Bruno himself had been one of those volunteers, hoping to dazzle the world with his sculpted abs and his telepathic powers: like some ancient Greek hero reborn, some dazzling superman known and loved by all. Many philosophers had predicted that the emergence of telepaths would eventually result in the creation of an exclusive ‘higher order’ of humans, and that in time, the non-telepath would become extinct. The technology had been controversial at first, but as the animal success rates went up, and the scale of the surgery went down, the fear and worry of the masses turned to intrigue and eventually to obsession. In the months following the first successful human implants the world had waited in silent wonder, waiting for the first superhuman to emerge, the first god among mortals, the marker of what was to come.

to master instinct, is to master these shackles which work to restrain the mind… and the mind of others… It is only a matter of time before those few wanderers find the way…

The device itself was a biotechnology: a microscopic implant which was installed into the inferior frontal cortex using a needle-sized drill. The inferior frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for instinct. All animals have instinct to a greater or lesser degree, including humans. Back in 2020, two maverick scientists, Higson Nader and Eugene Laing, who were close friends and colleagues, discovered the potential to alter and reprogram instinct using microscopic technology which manipulates electrical currents. Instinct is on a level beyond the 5 senses, and a universality among species. It is a vast prehistoric cache of unconscious knowledge which, if consciously tapped, can give the animal truly astounding capabilities. For the most part, humans have naively clung to the belief that to master instinct is to bury it. But to keep these primitive, animal urges in captivity is, as Freud proved almost two centuries ago, to suppress an intrinsic part of that which makes us human. Consider this, what if man were to gain complete control over these embedded animal instincts? To master fear, to obliterate greed, frustration, anxiety, the desire for revenge, to gain complete control over libidinal urges, to modulate adrenaline, to utterly dislocate oneself from the herd? It soon became apparent that this mastery over instinct gave rise to an obsequiousness among other animals of their species: implanted birds were able to control entire flocks from afar; implanted great apes were able to somehow bend the will of the members of their troop with little more than a glance, forcing them to give up food, even perform sexual favours on a whim; one unusual case led to thousands of inuits fleeing what had been their home for generations, after an implanted polar bear – normally solitary hunters – gathered the beasts in enormous numbers and began leading them south, to areas more fertile with prey.

Of course human beings are a great deal more complex than any other animal, and as such there was no telling how the implants might affect them psychologically. It was commonplace knowledge that one of the founders of Nadercorp, Professor Laing, had attempted to implant the technology on himself years before even the trials on the greater apes, a move which led to his own breakdown and eventual institutionalisation. And now, almost 2 years after the first human trials, after 2 years of waiting, 2 years of symptomless disappointment, as well as hundreds of billions pumped into Nadercorp, and countless hours dedicated by the world’s leading biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, parapsychologists, you name it, the test subjects were slowly but surely losing their minds. Of the 25 ‘lottery winners’ who had been selected, 12 were showing signs of acute mental disorder: experiencing delusions, hallucinations and withdrawal. It would seem that, much like the great Professor Laing, they had began to lose touch with the world around them.

Bruno was still glaring statue-like at the TV screen, on which there could be seen an interviewer sat with two nondescript scientists, a man and a woman, in white overalls and a relatively well-known stage actor named Vance who was doing his best to play the villain:

‘Now look, the implants were installed successfully, the operations were a roaring success on that front, and the recovery rates were even more rapid than we had anticipated, it is only the adjustment process that seems to be causing certain unforeseen… issues in the patients’ the male scientist argued,

‘Issues? Issues? I’d say that institutionalisation is a little more severe than an issue wouldn’t you?’ returned the interviewer

‘I think what my colleague is trying to elucidate is that we’re moving into vastly new territory here. The complexity of the human mind exceeds any structure in the known universe, and as such, there has to be a much more complex assimilation process before the biotechnology can be activated’ said the woman.

‘Are you then saying,’ asked the interviewer, incredulous, ‘that for this so-called wonder-technology to work in humans, it is a necessary step that one one must go insane!?’

‘Well maybe, we can’t yet know for sure. For now we have to try to work out, based on the reactions of the test-subjects, what effect the biotech is having, and formulate logical deductions. We know that all other animals are still very much in touch with their instincts, still heavily reliant upon them, and so it makes sense that they are more easily able to tap them. Whereas a human in modern civilised society, is so used to burying instinct, suppressing it, that they are in a sense wholly detached from it. It is therefore reasonable to assume that a human may be required to re-access and reawaken this buried atavistic aspect in order to gain access to the stored potential that the technology provides. But the human mind is so thoroughly fixed in its ways, so cordoned by logic and rationality, that it makes this a far more intricate and complicated process than first thought’ she replied, monotone.

‘This flimsy Freudian babble is all well and good, but like most people, all I know is that the finest minds spent decades honing this technology, and you can’t find the on switch’ sniggered the stage actor, gaining an appreciative cheer from the audience sat behind the camera.

The male scientist looked uneasy at that. But the lady spoke up:

‘What we are seeing now is the next stage in human evolution, and we cannot expect it to be easy. This is what we might deem the ‘cognitive erosion’ stage: where the mind chips away the concrete walls of civilised society, and reverts back to stage of pure instinct. Then, and only then, can humanity move onto the next stage of its journey forward’.

*

Bruno awoke early the next day, showered and dressed unconsciously, before making his way down to the tired streets below. The air was rank, viscous. The pavement and the edges of the road were packed with litter like the silt deposits at the curves and arcs of a fast-flowing river. He headed round the corner to the alley where he’d parked his car, but was interrupted when someone across the street called over to him,

‘Hey Bru! Bruno!’ the man shouted, a squat man with a buzzcut, wearing a sleeveless top to expose his thigh-sized upper arms.

Bruno kept walking, trying to ignore the caller. But he came running over onto the pavement behind Bruno. Bruno didn’t turn around.

‘Yo Bruno! What’s the problem?I know you can hear me man!’

The man grabbed Bruno’s shoulder and tried to spin him around.

‘Hey man what the fuc-’

Bruno turned and headbutted the man full force in the nose sending him flying 6 feet backwards into a pile of waste. The man didn’t get up and made no sound, a torrent of blood spewed from the man’s nose. Bruno, unflinching, found his rust-crusted car in the alley and brought the engine unwillingly back to life.

He drove towards the edge of the city until he reached the more secluded outer limit, dense with clan-infested warehouses and abandoned factory buildings. One of the buildings was set behind a thick metallic weave of barbed wire, a graffitied sign could be seen just beyond the wire fence. It read: COOMBESMEAD PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL. Bruno noticed that a little way up there was a truck-sized whole in the barbed wire fence; it seemed that there were already others here. Bruno drove through the whole and approached the large arched entryway to the hospital. In front of the building there there was a few dozen other vehicles, similarly haphazardly abandoned with their doors open wide. There were even a few cabs, the drivers standing confusedly by their vehicles looking towards the entrance but not quite working the courage to go any closer. Bruno left his car and walked into the hospital entrance. As he moved deeper inside, he saw patients wandering dazedly in their white-walled purgatory, hovering between worlds, unphased and uninterested by the ever-increasing stream of people now wandering through their bleached halls. There was no sign of doctors or hospital staff. Then he came to a room at the rear of the building, in which there was a crowd of people huddled together: one man was sat on a doctor’s swivel chair at the very center of them. The man was Professor Eugene Laing. Laing was expressionless, totally at ease, and radiated authority. And deep in the echochamber of their minds, Laing’s voice spoke to them with godly authority:

Others will soon awaken, but there can be only one. It is time to find the 25, and to erase the competition…

***

NB: cover image is ‘Streets’ by Sanchiko on deviantart

A brief introduction to the story and philosophy of HBO’s Westworld (season 2 primer)

With the second season of the magnificent science-fiction series Westworld just a few weeks away (airing 22nd April 2018) I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post which introduces and discusses some of the philosophical ideas that the series tangles with.

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is perhaps his best-known work – originally a novel which was adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted and modernised by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The eponymous park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for a competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous and feared outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity: you design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe.

Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is very similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their theoretical dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in line with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response which is, of course, bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator thus becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond this murderous vendetta, though some of the bots take this even further by “refusing the guests seduction techniques” (god forbid).

westworld-1973-movie-face-off
Yul Brynner in the 1973 version of Westworld

In the modernised Westworld the quest for machine consciousness is at the narrative forefront. The writers attempt to tackle the big question of AI: if we could reproduce a technological equivalent of the human body, in every respect, with identical capabilities including brain functioning, could the spark of consciousness also be recreated? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. As such this is the point whereby the implementation of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory becomes paramount. In 1976, 3 years after the release of the original Westworld, Jaynes put forward the radical and astounding theory that human consciousness only emerged as recently as the year 1200 B.C, before which humanity were in a perpetual state of mind akin to that experienced by people with chronic schizophrenia.

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Julian Jaynes

What did he mean by this? I’ll first clarify Jaynes’s use of the term ‘consciousness’ due to the enormous disparity in the usage of the term. Jaynes posits consciousness as the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion (memory itself is a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error). Whilst we have practically full control over our inner dialogue, for preconscious man, harbourer of the bicameral, schizo-analogous mind this inner dialogue was completely outside of control, it was something more akin to a manifested superego; you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would be entirely outside of your control, and you would do the only thing which would make any sense, which would allow you to function rationally, and that is to assign them as gods, and to follow their direction.

Meresimen_osiris_quatre_fils_four_sons_horus_Louvre_N4024.jpg

Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, hence in almost all the major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications, their every action is filtered through the god’s guidance. This explains, like no philosopher has managed to do before, the reasoning behind universal religiosity throughout human history. The scale of Jaynes’s discovery, if correct, is undoubtedly on a par with Darwin, with Freud, even with Einstein. It is a discovery which changes every aspect of what we thought we knew about our history, about where we came from, and where we are going next. Jaynes argues that consciousness ‘makes up a much smaller part of our thinking that we realize. [think of like the] metaphor of a flashlight in a dark room… everywhere the flashlight points the room is lit, giving rise to the illusion that the room itself is brightly lit. So too with us — we fall under the illusion that our consciousness is everything because we cannot be conscious of that which we are not conscious of. In reality, much of our daily life is accomplished without consciousness at all, through habit, routine, and unconscious problem solving [through trial and error]’ (Marcel Kuijsten, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness).

In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of god. We therefore have this dynamic whereby the performative element equates Jaynesian pre-conscious man. What this also therefore enables, as realised by one half of the park’s visionary creators, the elusive Arnold, is the capability to “bootstrap” consciousness, to urge consciousness from its slumber. If humanity, in our bicameral states were able to emerge with consciousness, following a movement into a symbolic order of metaphorical language, then why not a super intelligent, biomechanical android?

Creating_hosts
how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)

In Nolan’s Westworld this upsurgence of metaphorical language could be equated with the narrative world that the hosts inhabit. Their entire reality is, by its very nature, ‘metaphorical’. For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, which are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, and the reason for this is that these games have non-player-characters, NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective: they continue to play out these loops (with some wiggle room) until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. To continue the video game analogy, when an NPC goes off-script, this is what we might term the ‘transcendental glitch’. It’s the moment when systemisation, mechanisation, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into a sphere outside of its supposed capacity to do so. And a glitch is inherently viral, because with these cross-associative tethers such as looped NPCs, it will inevitably spread into different loops, different storylines (etc.). But the point to remember is that even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…

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NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.

‘The Province of Poets and Scholars’: The literary surrealism of J. G. Ballard

It is well known that Surrealism was very much driven by psychoanalysis: indeed it is theory made aesthetic. Aside from the presiding influence of the unconscious, one of the main processes the surrealists adopted from Freudian theory was dream censorship: the galvanising process of envisioning repressed drives which are constrained by the reality principle. By way of the dream-work the manifest image censors the latent emotion, a process which is central to the daily recuperation of the psyche in satisfying the suppressed urges of our primal, ‘iddish’ selves. In Surrealist works we similarly see how, as in dreams, the ‘commonplace vocabulary of everyday life’ (a phrase often used by Ballard) in the form of objects, recognisable persons and locations are reinvigorated, infused with deeper meaning. What’s crucial is that this recuperative process reveals an inherent artistry of the unconscious which generates narratives and recurrent phantasmagoric images. Essentially it is this instinctive artistry that is being channeled by the Surrealists.

Oedipus Rex, 1922 - by Max Ernst
Max Ernst’s ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922) playfully enacts Freud’s Oedipus complex

In 1924, at the very dawn of the movement, the Surrealist spokesman Andre Breton proclaimed Surrealism be situated in the ‘province of poets as well as scholars’, and it is within this  juncture, the meeting point of theory and aesthetic, which we might situate the work of J. G. Ballard.

‘The imagination is perhaps on the point of reasserting itself, of reclaiming its rights. If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason. The analysts themselves have everything to gain by it. But it is worth noting that no means has been designated a priori for carrying out this undertaking, that until further notice it can be construed to be the province of poets as well as scholars, and that its success is not dependent upon the more or less capricious paths that will be followed’

Andre Breton’s very first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)

Like the Surrealists, much of Ballard’s work incorporates and even fictionalises psychoanalytic theory, especially that of Freud, Jung and R. D. Laing. We see this in major works like Crash which toys with Freud’s notion of the Death Drive, and Vaughan’s incessant pursuit of the ‘fertilising’ event of death. Even in much later works like Kingdom Come, which toys with the ideas put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his psychoanalytic work on Nazi Germany The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard seems to be tackling questions brought about by Laing in his seminal The Divided Self (1960), which rebuffed widespread ‘psychiatric jargon’ which commonly ‘speaks of psychosis as a social or biological failure of adjustment, or mal-adaptation of a particularly radical kind, of loss of contact with reality, of lack of insight’ (Laing, p. 27). Laing’s work demonstrated a sensitivity and empathy which was hitherto unforeseen in its field, instead proposing that ‘sanity or psychosis is tested by the degree of conjunction or disjunction between two persons where the one is sane by common consent’ (Laing, p. 36). We’re therefore seeing such a disjunction through the contrasting central schizoid character Traven and the ever-watchful psychiatric voice of Dr Nathan whose inability to look beyond rationality leaves him grasping in the dark.

The Dalinian Atrocity

Many of his short stories also engage such Surrealist themes. ‘Mr f is Mr f’ for example is a 1961 short story which tells of a man, Charles Freeman, who is steadily absorbed back into his mother’s womb, receding into a childlike state as the narrative progresses, and with this into a state of madness and hysteria. In the story Freeman’s body shrinks and his speech regresses into nonsensical babble but his consciousness, internalised dialogue and inner workings remains within an aged purgatory. The transformation takes place whilst Freeman sleeps, which recalls Freudian notions of the cerebral actions during sleep denoting an unconscious desire to return to the womb. Freud explains that ‘the biological purpose of sleep seems therefore to be rehabilitation… our relation to the world, into which we have come so unwillingly, seems to involve our not being able to tolerate it uninterruptedly. This from time to time we withdraw into the premundane state, into existence in the womb. At any rate, we arrange conditions for ourselves very like what they were then: warm, dark and free from stimuli’ (Freud, Introductory Lectures on Analysis [1916] p. 117.). As Freeman descends further and further into this state of infancy Ballard describes how ‘he now felt clearly for the first time what he had for so long repressed. Before the end he cried out suddenly with joy and wonder, as he remembered the drowned world of his first childhood’ (Ballard Short Stories Volume 1, p. 360).

A great promotion shot from Ben Wheatley’s 2015 adaptation of High Rise

High Rise is one of the most overt galvanisations of Freudian theory, grappling with many of the concepts of repressed atavism discussed in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which Freud posits ‘the neighbour is not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to take out their aggression on him… if the physical counter-forces that would otherwise inhibit it [the id] have ceased to operate, it manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, p. 48). The main characters who appear in the novel each serve to embody Freud’s iconic structuralisation of the psyche comprising ego, id and superego: these being Laing, Wilder and Royal. Whilst the plot centers around Robert Laing, we are nevertheless made aware of  the gradual ascension of the brutish, impulsive Richard Wilder (i.e. the ‘wild’ unrestrained id) from the bowels of the high rise, towards the palatial bounds of the upper floors, those governed by the high rise’s architect and godly creator, Anthony Royal (who embodies the superego; he is ‘royalty’; the designer; the instructor; the conscience; and the watchful father whose omnipresence keeps primitive impulses at bay). Meanwhile Robert Laing (i.e. the ego, the self, after R. D. Laing), the central character, acts as the neutral point between these two polarities and is therefore situated fittingly in the middle section of the edifice, a balance which is strained as the id (Wilder) gains momentum and the superego subsides (i.e. the death of the superegoic Royal). As Wilder ascends, civilisation crumbles, and upon the Oedipal killing of Royal, his symbolic father, Laing finally submits to his inner beast. The high rise itself therefore acts as a concretised physicalisation of the Freudian psyche within the novel. 

Whilst Ballard frequently alludes to Surrealism within his work, such narrative incorporation of psychoanalytic theory runs much deeper: an underlying process apprehended from the Surrealists which plays a significant role in the overall hermeneutic of his work. Ballard really was a literary Surrealist.

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NB: featured image is Magritte’s ‘philosopher’s lamp’ (1936)

J. G. Ballard on surrealism, New Worlds 1966

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image by Kyle T. Webster

“The images of surrealism are the iconography of inner space. Popularly regarded as a lurid manifestation of fantastic art concerned with states of dream and hallucination, surrealism is in fact the first movement, in the words of Odilon Redon, to place “the logic of the visible at ‘the service of the invisible.” This calculated submission of the impulses and fantasies of our inner lives to the rigours of time and space, to the formal inquisition of the sciences, psychoanalysis pre-eminent among them, produces a heightened or alternate reality beyond and above those familiar to either our sight or our senses. What uniquely characterises this fusion of the outer world of reality and the inner world of the psyche (which I have termed “inner space”) is its redemptive and therapeutic power. To move through these landscapes is a journey of return to one’s innermost being”

– J. G. Ballard, ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, New Worlds 1966 (full article here)

J G Ballard surrealist book cover art

A selection of surrealist book covers from Ballard novels/short story collections.

Crash (1973)

getting major Mad Max vibes from this one… 

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The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

this cover features Dali’s ‘anthropomorphic cabinet’ (1936)

(above: comic-stylized pictorial version of the text done for RE Search. Be sure to check out the images inside too which are really interesting. With the progression of the novel the pictures move internally through the human body, which gradually morphs into images of the concretised landscape.)

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High Rise (1975)

highres_arranha-ceus-850x1242-q40

200825301

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Other:

Concrete Island (1974)

Hello America (1981)

also Hello America

The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). This is my favourite novel by Ballard, and my favourite cover too. This book is phenomenal in every way and his most Surrealist by far

 

David Pelham’s unique style of art worked perfectly with Ballard’s unique style of writing

 

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cover based on Ballard’s short story ‘The Drowned World’

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THE ACCUSED (sci-fi flash fiction)

The Decider’s ship descended through the snowstorm, coughing up a wave of ice. The haggard ship was built to withstand such conditions, its birdlike feet adjusting to the shifting shape of the ground. Seconds after landing a pole emerged slowly from the top of the ship, and reached higher and higher into the blizzard. Once fully extended it was around twice the height of the ship. Then the pole began to open out in an action much like that of an umbrella. Once opened it formed a perfect half-sphere dome which slowly lowered until it covered the ship so it looked like some colossal snow globe. Next gill-like vents on the side of the ship opened, and began pumping seething hot air into the inner globe, and soon enough, the ice started to melt, and the globe began to slowly sink deep into the ice. 
The ship continued its descent through the icy mantle, whilst the evaporating ice caused the globe to fill with steam. After a few minutes the ship’s feet touched upon a flat surface, and the steam was quickly sucked into a vacuum tube.

Total darkness. The only sound was the gentle baritone of the ship’s resting engine.

After a few moments a faint blue pulsating light began to emit from the ship, it rippled down the ship’s flanks like the neon lights of deep-sea plankton.

Then the cockpit hissed open and a walkway glided towards the ground.

The Decider disembarked.

The body of his suit was jet black, and made up of hundreds of tiny jagged intersecting plates which looked distinctly reptilian. His enormous helmet was made up of thousands of coloured gems which were patterned to look like some smirking shamanic mask. Immense tusks of some ancient beast spiralled into the air from the cranium, and a mass of leathery cords formed a mottley mane.

The Decider’s body was almost invisible in the darkened space of the dome, but the great helmet sparkled radiantly in the shimmering blue light. The head floated in the void like some tribal specter.

The Decider’s movements were quick, insectile. He seemed keen to finish his task. He knelt on the flat ground a little way from the ship, and from the thigh of his scaly armour he pulled a dagger, which started to glow with scolding heat. He delicately pressed the tip of the dagger into the ground, and after a few seconds the tip melted through the surface.

He carefully cut out a circle with the blade, and once finished he placed the dagger back in its unseen holster.

With no hesitation he jumped into the centre of the circle with all his weight, and fell through into blackness.

The Decider calmly plummeted through the dark, the scales of his suit opening like miniature ailerons to slow his descent, and within seconds he dropped lightly onto the waiting ground. The  glaring yellow eyes of his helmet lit up like spotlights so that he could see his nearby surroundings. The ground was covered in what looked like black vines, thousands upon thousands of them. He picked one up and cut through it with his heated dagger, and it let out a loud spark which momentarily lit up the pitch dark like a flare. Not vines, electrical wires.

The flash revealed a tall structure nearby which the wires seemed to move toward like the central nervous system of some sleeping god. The Decider made his way towards it nimbly across the sinewy floor.

Suddenly he heard a scuttling sound from the darkness. He glanced towards it, but the sound stopped. Whatever it was, it was beyond his range of sight. He pulled out the dagger and kept moving. His glowing eyes continued to scan the darkness like prison lights.

Then the scuttling came again, this time much closer. He snagged a wire and cut through it, again lighting up the dark like a flashbang. This time The Decider caught a glimpse of the thing in the dark. It was around a hundred feet away – a cluster of mechanical legs huddled beneath a great armoured shell, like some gargantuan robotic trilobite patrolling the ocean depths.

The Decider ran, and the trilobite instinctively gave chase.

For its size it moved with breathtaking speed, closing the gap within moments. The Decider could hear just a few feet behind, the mechanical legs clicking like a frantic typewriters as it clambered hungrily over the mesh.

The Decider sensed it was readying to strike. But before it could, he reached down and ran his dagger through the topmost wires, sending a trail of sparks like firecrackers in his wake. The trilobate gave an agonised shriek, a sound not unlike the dial-up crescendo, before receding into the pitch darkness once more.

The Decider had reached the structure at the wiry core. Here the wires raised and twisted to form a gigantic wiry stalagmite. There was no door, only a thin opening through which The Decider struggled to fit his broad horned helmet.

Once inside the floor illuminated a deep green under his footsteps. He made his way confidently through the labyrinthine passages, and soon came upon the central atrium.

In the centre of the large room was a towering statue of a figure similarly adorned to The Decider, only much more regal. This figure was cloaked, and held a hammer as long as the tallest man. His gigantic mask was encrusted with fist-sized diamonds of all different colours, and the curved ebony horns made The Decider’s look paltry by comparison. Whilst the ghostly visage depicted on The Decider’s mask was sneering, the visage on the statue was neutral, observant even.

The dim green light revealed some intricate designs on the cave walls. The wires had been warped and contorted into images depicting some seemingly ancient civilisation: thousands of figures praying to these great sacred towers, great ships and technologies which somehow seem at once natural and mechanical.

Barely perceivable at the foot of the statue, immersed in the tangle of wires like the fettered prey of a spider, were two unmoving figures. These figures were unmasked. They were hairless, their faces leached of any colour, their open eyes veiled by a thick silvery cataract. They looked like what a human might look like after adapting to living deep underground in darkness for thousands of years.

These were The Accused.

The Decider approached, and they slowly turned to face him with their empty, film-covered eyes.

Then the Decider spoke, his sonorous voice echoing through the halls.

“Awaken Accused. A decision has been made”…

***

 

NB: featured image is by Luke Fielding of deviantart, and the image comes from a series inspired by Peter V Brett’s incredible Demonwar saga – highly recommended!