Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, April 11, 2016

1966: The Impossible Man and Other Stories (Ballard, J.G.)

Allusive and symbolic – a labyrinth to cherish (4.5/5)

This is my fifth Ballard book, a tally which includes two other collections (Terminal Beach [1964] and Vermilion Sands [1971]), a fictional novel (The Drought [1965]), and a semiautobiographical novel (Empire of the Sun [1984]). Inclusive of The Impossible Man, these five books have been fantastic reads as their saturated with symbolism and parallelism, the layers of which tend to leave the mind reeling.

The most successful stories are the passive ones, those that don’t lend so much to the reader but with symbols or parallels subtle enough to be interpretive—each reader could read in to the stories in different ways. Actually, the same reader—me—can find meaning where none was found before, or where the symbolism wasn’t relevant before but now comes in full light.

Of these nine stories, I’ve read five before (four in Terminal Beach):
  • “The Drowned Giant” – 5/5 in 2012, 4.5/5 now
  • “The Reptile Enclosure” – 4/5 in 2012, 4.5/5 now
  • “The Delta at Sunset” – 4/5 in 2012, 4/5 now
  • “The Screen Game” – 3/5 in 2011, 3.5/5 now
  • “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” – 2/5 in 2012, 5/5 now

The nine stories span a time of only four years: 1963 to 1966. During these four years, Ballard actually wrote thirty-one stories of SF, so The Impossible Man collection is far from definitive… for that, you’d have to pick up the two volumes of Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories (2006), which includes ninety-five stories.

I haven’t read Ballard widely enough to understand his overarching themes, but the stories in The Impossible Man definitely have resonance in a few areas: the beach and sand, seagulls, dilapidated structures, Greek mythology, protagonist fallacy, and allusive or disassociative speech. I’m not the biggest fan of mythology, so some of Ballard’s use in the stories was above my head (on occasion, I would read up on the myths so better understand the story, like Eurydice and Oedipus.


“The Drowned Giant” (shortstory, 1964) – 4.5/5
After a storm, the ocean’s waves still crash upon the shore, but for one small town, the waves also beat against the jetsam of a giant. Initially skeptical then unbelieving, the townspeople slowly gather to view then scale the colossal man lying supine on the beach. Before long, the giant proceeds through states of decay as the more knavish of the onlookers chop off parts for personal gain; others, meanwhile, keep their respectful distance. Much later, evidence of their inhumanity and greed line the town’s periphery. 12 pages

“The Reptile Enclosure” (shortstory, 1963) – 4.5/5
People follow people; they amass on the beach for relaxation only to be surrounded should-to-shoulder with the same people they wanted to get away from. Pelham, in observation mode, waxes philosophically about some aspects of human nature while his wife doesn’t even feign interest. As the masses bask in the sun in reptilian repose, Pelham remembers a coming satellite launch, on which his colleague Sherrington has an interesting physiological theory. When a blue light pierces the sky, the masses gather only to push further forward. 13 pages

“The Delta at Sunset” (shortstory, 1964) – 4/5
With a turned and infected ankle, Dr. Gifford is unable to venture far from the site of his expedition: the ruins of Texcol. Gifford seems obsessively focused on the dune-scaling snakes that appear at specific times of day, only to retreat never to be seen. His wife and assistant, whom Gifford suspects of having late night trysts, don’t see the snakes for what they represent, rather, the three argue about the symbolism: transformation or wisdom. Unable to get help, Gifford’s delusion deepens through the nights as snakes convene in greater numbers. 18 pages

“Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer” (shortstory, 1966) – 4/5
After years of uncontrolled use of weed and insect killing chemicals, some birds have died while others have taken flights to distant coasts. When the resulting generations of those birds return, their proportions are Herculean. The once docile habits of doves and sparrows have turned hideous as they wreak havoc on human structures and feast on human flesh. Crispin is charged with the defense of one location with his machineguns, shooting the birds from the sky in droves. But one hermit woman tends to the corpses, plucking on feather from each, much to Crispin’s intrigue. 20 pages

“The Screen Game” (novelette, 1963) – 3.5/5
Near Vermilion Sands, Lagoon West is chosen as the setting for a Nouvelle Vague film called Aphrodite ’70 in which the legend of Eurydice will be rekindled through interpretation. Paul is paid to paint various scenes, including the million square foot painted desert and the moving screens of the Eurydician maze amid the arid scenery. In a balcony above the stage, Paul is enticed by the pale yet beautiful apparition of Emerelda, whose damaged psyche leaves her bound to her home and spurs her to bejewel the desert insects. 27 pages

“The Day of Forever” (shortstory, 1966) – 4/5
Earth’s terminator creeps westerly across the African continent where the circadian rhythm has been disrupted as the “days” have protracted. Halliday travels longitudinally along the terminator looking for respite, sustenance, and his dream-state. At a resort town, he comes across an alluring female painter and her doctor, as well as a disassociative woman and her chauffeur. Frustrating by time, Halliday sleeps without dreaming, then dreams of vivid ruins in the darkness, all the while a permanent darkness awaits him in the western sky. 20 pages

“Time of Passage” (shortstory, 1964) – 5/5
Falkman comes into this world from the grave, to his wake and deathbed, and from the very house he owned for so many years. He has his first gasp of breathe, opens his eyes, sees his elderly sister with an expression of grave concern, only he quickly rebounds to health. He enters highly into the workforce and social groups only to age younger, get demoted by more senior members, enter university, and watch his wife disappear from his life. By then, he’s living with his parents, entering primary school, and learning what words, limbs, and love are all about. 13 pages

“The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (shortstory, 1964) – 5/5
Bound to his home by convalescence, Maitland starts his enforced sightlessness struggling with boredom and anger. His wife tends to most of his needs, but what he requires most is denied to him by the doctor. The seagulls annoy him as his hearing becomes enhanced, yet over time his sight takes on a more sensitive, phantasmal degree: he can sense his illusion to a vivid death, make out details of a rocky outcropping, and feel the penetrating gaze of a female observer. When the doctor returns with good news, Maitland only wants to relive his fantasy. 11 pages

“The Impossible Man” (shortstory, 1966) – 4.5/5
Conrad had just seen the predatory gulls swoop and feast on the newly hatched turtles and the predatory elderly men who collection the shells for profit. As Conrad starts to cross the road, he’s hi by a car with such force that his leg is amputated above the knee. Doctors at a special hospital inform his that, given his age, he’d probably be very keen on receiving a donated limb—from the same man who nearly killed him. He listens to differing opinion on the operation, but only sees one facet of it until the limb is actually part or him. 20 pages