SF, Time, and the Death of Time

In the following extract. J. G. Ballard, unarguably one of the finest writers of the twentieth century, speaks on the future in an interview with Rosetta Brooks:


BALLARD: I think that time, in the strict sense, is dying. The whole progress of the twentieth century has been described in terms of death and decline. But I remember, too, that the late thirties and forties were periods of enormously accelerating change. That was the period when the twentieth century really invented itself. The super technologies, the military technologies and so on; the changes were absolutely colossal. Time just seemed to race past and govern everything. And this change continued until after World War II. Since then, however, everything’s begun to slow down. Probably the first casualty of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the concept of the future. I think the future died some time in the fifties. Maybe with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb.

In the thirties and forties people had an intense interest in the future. They saw the future as a morally superior world to the one in which they lived. All the great political movements – the New Deal, socialism, fascism, communism, whatever – were all highly programmatic systems, symptoms of a better future. But there was so much scientific change too: from the discovery of antibiotics, to jet travel, consumer society, television. One had a tremendous sense of the future. Magazines in the thirties were full of articles about the fastest train or the fastest aircraft in the world; of how the first passenger planes would revolutionise life on the planet. Yet some time around the end of the fifties, the future somehow lost its hold. I think it died.

BROOKS: Didn’t it just become shorter-term?

BALLARD: Yes, partly. People certainly lost interest in the future. They began to fear the future. And partly, I think, the prosperity in the sixties and seventies induced a kind of infantilism. People stopped dealing with a timescale that lay outside of their immediate present. They began to have no sense of what had happened yesterday or of what would happen the day after tomorrow. So people became immersed in the fulfilment of their own needs and their own satisfactions. They literally lost interest in the future. But by the same token, they also lost interest in the past. These days most people’s idea of the past is a rerun of Casablanca. They have very little idea of history nowadays. So time has dismantled itself.

I can see a time, probably about midway into the next century, when time will virtually cease to exist. The present will annex both the future and the past into itself. All desires will be fulfilled and people will live in a perpetual present. It may be a bit like the movie Star Wars where you have a peculiar surface of events taking place. Star Wars is very unlike the science fiction movies of the forties and fifties which always incorporated an intense feel of change; of how technological progress was going to radically alter life on this planet. But in Star Wars, events take place in a timeless limbo. They don’t impinge on anything outside themselves. The events could be taking place far, far into the future or far, far in the past. I imagine life itself is in danger of becoming like that.

(from “1988: Rosetta Brooks. Myths of the Near Future”, in Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (eds.) Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967 – 2008, London, Fourth Estate, 2012, 243-244)

(Note: Ballard gets it wrong about Star Wars, because the opening credits clearly state that it happens “a long time ago.” In other related Star Wars news, Disney shut down LucasArts game development a couple of days ago and laid off 150 workers)


The transhumanist author Warren Ellis analysed this phenomena at a keynote speech in Brighton last year (a transcript of the speech is available here: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=14314 ) Ellis’ piece succinctly shows why the future has started to seem banal and stopped unfolding in all its beauty in the imagination, and he concludes his piece with a passionate response:

“To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come. To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better. Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted. Think big. And then make it better.”


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