When I told Adam Greenfield on Twitter that I had never read any Ballard, but that I had Concrete Island lined up to get my feet wet, his advice was “Go thou back and acquire Crash,” so I could get the “distilled” Ballard effect. Crash won’t be an option for probably another month or more (and I absolutely loathed the Cronengberg film, so despite Adam’s insistence that the film is “immaterial,” I’m still reluctant). Concrete Island will have to do for now. And besides, it’s a fascinating premise.
The premise is this: Richard Maitland, an adulterous middle-class asshole (yeah, I have no class prejudices at all, do I?) is distracted on his drive home from a rendezvous with his mistress and hits a concrete barrier near an expressway ramp. He goes off the road and onto a large traffic island, where his wrecked Jaguar is hidden from the cars driving past. Maitland doesn’t make it out of the crash in one piece; his leg is injured, and when he finally comes to, he gets hit by another car while trying to flag down some help. After that he’s too weak and too badly injured to climb back out, trapped in a quasi-urban no-man’s land for days.
I’d heard that many gritty, contemporary science fiction authors were heavily influenced by Ballard, and I can definitely see it here. The texture, the level of detail is clearly echoed in William Gibson’s work, for example, but so is the attention to social codes, things like brand names, vocabulary, clothing. Concrete Island isn’t one of Ballard’s science fiction novels, but it shows many of the same concerns as a lot of science fiction, especially if you think of science fiction as a narrative strategy rather than simply a genre.
Maitland isn’t alone on the island, but he’s there for several days before he realizes it, suffering from fever, starvation, dehydration, and a variety of other difficulties related to the crash. He tries in vain to signal to passing motorists, at one point even lighting his car on fire to create smoke, all to no avail. He begins to see things, or to imagine that he sees things, the island becoming a reflection of his inner self. And it ain’t pretty. It’s interesting—and more than a little disturbing—to watch as he abandons ethics entirely and uses his superior ability to read and manipulate social codes to dominate (in part, by making false appeals to their moral sensibilities) the “native islanders.” Perhaps most disturbing is that, though never a particularly moral or ethical man (he was an adulterer, after all), at the end of the novel, Maitland doesn’t even to return to that original state. It’s difficult not to think of him as a psychopath or a sociopath, and it’s frightening to imagine what he will do once he returns to society.
Next up is Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson.