31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 28: “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard

May 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Best_Stories_of_JG_BallardIf the job of science fiction writers is to take the measure of our present and gaze into the future with an eye to providing an imaginative assessment of where we might be headed, it is hard to cavil with the prescience of the late English author J.G. Ballard. Hard, and quite terrifying, since what Ballard wrote, by and large, was at the time considered dystopian fiction. Today, it might well be considered simple naturalism.

Take, for example, this passage from his story “Chronopolis,” describing the burnt-out husk of a dessicated urban downtown:

On either side buildings overtopped the motorway, the congestion mounting so that some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades.

In a few minutes they passed between the first of the apartment batteries, the thousands of identical living units with their slanting balconies shearing up into the sky, the glass in-falls of the aluminum curtain walling speckling in the sunlight. The smaller houses and shops of the outer suburbs had vanished. There was no room on the ground level. In the narrow intervals between the blocks were small concrete gardens, shopping complexes, ramps banking down into huge underground car parks.

Ballard’s story was published in 1960, but his vision of congested apartment complexes lining the side of the highway so tightly that “some of them had been built right up against the concrete palisades” is a pitch-perfect description of the sight from the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto today. The vision of the city as “an enormous ring, five miles in width, encircling a vast dead center forty or fifty miles in diameter” is a fairly accurate description of post-white-flight Detroit. And the description of “plate-glass shopfronts” that have “slipped and smashed into the roadway, old neon signs, window frames and overhead wires [hanging] down from every cornice, trailing a ragged webwork of disintegrating metal across the pavements” could be a snapshot of an inner-city neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Los Angeles. (Or, for that matter, Hamilton or London in Ontario.)

If these portraits seem eerily familiar from a 2014 perspective, we would do well also to pay attention to Ballard’s more exaggerated conceit in this story, since it, too, offers a highly ironic comment on aspects of our post-industrial, 21st-century milieu.

“Chronopolis” focuses on a society that has outlawed any kind of timepiece – clocks and watches are banned, and anyone caught in possession of one of these contraband objects by the secretive and ubiquitous Time Police is subject to arrest and prosecution. The crackdown followed a revolt against the highly regimented technological and bureaucratic makeup of what has come to be known as Chronopolis, or the Time City. All the clocks in Chronopolis “were driven by a master clock,” and the clocks dictated every moment of people’s lives. The city’s population had ballooned out of all proportion, such that the infrastructure in place was unable to handle the pressure on it. Therefore, each segment of society – executives, secretaries, manual labourers, and so on – were provided schedules detailing the daily blocks of time during which they were allowed to eat, use the telephone, watch television.

“Think of the problems,” one of Ballard’s characters says:

Transporting fifteen million office workers to and from the center every day; routing in an endless stream of cars, buses, trains, helicopters; linking every office, almost every desk, with a videophone, every apartment with a television, radio, power, water; feeding and entertaining this enormous number of people; guarding them with ancillary services, police, fire squads, medical units – it all hinged on one factor … Time!

Once again, if this sounds uncannily like urban existence in 2014, we should take no comfort or pleasure in the recognition. “Don’t you think there’s a point beyond which human dignity is surrendered?” Ballard’s character, Stacey, asks regarding the concessions demanded of the citizens of Chronopolis.

Stacey is a teacher, who accompanies his student, Conrad, on a tour of the abandoned city center as a means of educating the young man in the ills of a technologically overdetermined society. Stacey has caught Conrad with a watch, and instead of turning him in to authorities, determines to embrace what would today be called a “teachable moment.”

Ballard employs a framing structure in his story, beginning and ending with Conrad, now known by his surname – Newman – in jail on a murder charge. The central portion of the story follows Conrad’s discovery of the phenomenon of clocks, watches, and regimented time, and his experience in the degraded downtown of Chronopolis. In prison, Newman has fashioned a rudimentary sundial for himself, which makes him invaluable to his warden, who becomes the most efficient member of the prison staff thanks to his prisoner keeping him on time for everything.

This is only the first of the several cascading ironies that flow throughout Ballard’s story. What is immediately noticeable is that while Ballard focuses on the community that has banished clocks and timepieces, he continues to return to the language of time and schedules. The English class that Stacey teaches runs exactly forty-five minutes; the teacher ensures he keeps to this by employing a rudimentary timer. Conrad appropriates the watch from a man who has a heart attack in a movie theatre; while movies in 1960 ran continuously, such that a viewer could come in at any time and stay for the next showing to catch what he or she had missed, as a medium, movies nevertheless unspool over a set running time. As the teacher and his student drive through the suburbs toward the heart of Chronopolis, they pass “a small factory still running although work was supposed to end at noon.” And later we are told that the pair drove on “[f]or half an hour.” The irony is sharp: even a society that has forsworn time and devoted itself to a kind of back-to-basics primitivism is unable to jettison its temporal existence altogether.

The ironies come to a head in the story’s final section, after Newman finds himself convicted for a crime he did not, in fact, commit. He is at first delighted to discover a working clock in the cell where he is to spend the next twenty years, but the final lines of the story tilt in the direction of the madness that can result from the presence of a clock when all one has in one’s life is time.

It is also interesting to note the changing way in which Ballard refers to his protagonist. In the central part of the story, told in the narrative past, the character is referred to as Conrad, conjuring notions of the writer who sent his own most famous protagonist on a journey into the heart of darkness: Conrad’s trip to Chronopolis, we can infer, is symbolically doomed from the outset. In the framing sections, he is called Newman, inviting commingled readings of a reborn “new man,” and a man of (or from) the future. But does the future represent a disavowal of industrial, technological society, or is this very disavowal, as we see at the story’s close, simply another road to ruin?

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