Ballard is probably best known for the novels he wrote nearly 30 years ago, such as Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. These insanely, beautifully repetitious books explore the pathologies of late industrial society. They present desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes, filled with burning automobiles, crashed airplanes, and the detritus of abandoned factories and collapsed buildings. Demented behavioral scientists and rogue video artists wander through this wasteland, staging spectacular car crashes, measuring the erotic responses of experimental test subjects to images of dead celebrities, and masturbating over bodies deformed by flesh wounds, amputations, and radiation burns.
Though undeniably powerful, and despite its resonance with the recent terrorist attacks, much of this vision seems dated today. The reason is all of the changes that we group under the names of postmodernity and globalization. We live now in a post-industrial world, a world of networks and surfaces, a world dominated by "soft" or virtual technologies. We are no longer moved by deeply repressed impulses, but rather by the superficial, ever-changing vagaries of fashion. Our dreams and nightmares involve light, intelligent machines, not heavy industry and heavy metal. The cyborg has replaced the astronaut as the vehicle of our technological fantasies.
But today, in his 70s, Ballard has reinvented himself, rising to the challenge of social and technological change. His new novel, Super-Cannes, is his reckoning with the forces of the new millennium. Super-Cannes is recognizably similar to Ballard's earlier fiction: the mordant humor, the sexual fetishes, and the obsessiveness are all there. But the book has a new charge to it, a strange combination of resignation and fury. If Ballard's earlier novels envisioned the final, entropic death of a depleted Western culture, then Super-Cannes discovers that Western culture is alive and well, after all--and finds this prospect even more unsettling than its demise.
Super-Cannes is not set in an apocalyptic wasteland, but in the aptly named Eden-Olympia, a new, high-tech business park on the French Riviera. Eden-Olympia combines luxurious private dwellings, efficiently designed business offices, up-to-date telecommunications systems, multi-level parking lots, carefully cultivated green spaces, and facilities such as gyms, spas, medical services, chic boutiques, and fancy restaurants, all in a single, self-enclosed site. Eden-Olympia is the perfect home for the corporate elite. But it is also something more: a model for the future, an experiment in corporate engineering. Eden-Olympia has no public sphere or democratic political process. Such things have "been replaced by the surveillance camera and the private police force." Everything that used to belong to the social realm is now ruthlessly privatized. There are no public events, and there is no public space; there are only business relationships and contracts, and the petty secrets of people's personal lives.
The businesspeople who live in Eden-Olympia are perfectly suited to their environment. Apart from the rest of humanity, they are "a new race of deracinated people, internal exiles without human ties, but with enormous power." They are also workaholics, which is the price they pay for their power. And that is where things get sticky. The executives of Eden-Olympia tend to feel run down after awhile. They need some sort of release, to recharge their batteries. And not just any distraction will do. They are far too jaded to get their thrills from the "rather old-fashioned" bourgeois transgressions of "ennui, adultery, and cocaine." Their pumped-up nervous systems require something stronger and fresher.
And so, as a kind of psychotherapy, the executives of Eden-Olympia engage in ratissages, or vigilante street sweeps. Gangs of executives go out at night to harass immigrants, beat up racial minorities, and otherwise spread mayhem. The point is not to release deeply repressed violent and sexual impulses, but precisely the reverse: to implant such impulses into minds that would otherwise lack them. The executives are not racists by blind impulse, but by a carefully reasoned strategy. And the strategy works. Once the ratissages started at Eden-Olympia, we are told, "corporate profits and equity levels began to climb again."
Ballard, as always, presents his visions in a scrupulously detached, even clinical prose. Which is as it should be; the power of this novel comes from its almost plodding accumulation of seemingly trivial details. With its careful explorations of the glittering surfaces and ugly inner workings of postmodern globalized capitalism, Super-Cannes is the first great work of social theory of the twenty-first century.