Ballard, Media and Art

More Media Prescience

In my last post, I discussed the ways in which Billy Wilder augured the future of media culture in his 1951 film, “Ace In The Hole.”  Along similar lines, JG Ballard‘s short story, “Studio 5, The Stars” anticipates the paradox of the insatiable need for content, and the failure to create anything of substance.

The Story

Paul Ransom is poetry editor of a literary magazine, Wave IX, who finds himself accosted by scraps of poetic lines which interupt his relaxation at a resort. He learns that they are the handiwork of Aurora Day, an aspiring, but awful poet who wishes to be published in Wave IX. Ransom refuses, despite acknowledging that Aurora Day has a supernatural ability to torture him. When the new issue comes out, Ransom discovers that all the copy has been replaced by Aurora Day’s work. She insists that he publish an edition of original poetry, using human generated verse instead of the usual form of compositon, a “verse transcriber,” (VT) a computer that artificially generates poems. To make sure there’s no cheating, she destroys all the VTs.

Mass-Produced Media

Ransom considers the poet’s ability to compose without a VT on par with doing complex math without a calculator. None of usual contributors will even consider it; none but Tristram Caldwell, a lothario whose work is normally substandard due to the shoddy upkeep of his VT. Caldwell agrees and Ransom attributes his ability to produce to the assumption that Caldwell’s is last operational VT in the world.

The Savior

Aurora Day believes herself to be acting out the fictional Legend of Melander and Corydon, in which a court poet kills himself in an act of sacrifice to the muse Melander, which inspires the other poets to create. She, of course plays Melander and Caldwell plays the doomed Corydon.

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Ballard’s Media Foresight

This type of moralizing is atypical of the usual Ballardian nightmare. Typically, characters find themselves trying to preserve the reality of the present, but wind up forced to abandon the destruction of the old way and everything they knew and loved. Rather than than clinging to the past, Ransom is terrified of it and literally cannot imagine a world without the VT. Contemporary technology is the only reality he can fathom.

Ransom makes a living generating content. He demands quality, but defines it as a quantifiable product of a well-functioning machine. Similarly, internet writing in our world is valued not so much for the quality of the prose, but by its timeliness, relatability to trends and its SEO clout. We usually discuss this sort of writing in terms of its relationship to journalism (fact-checking, sourcing). Aurora Day reminds us that in our obsession to fill the pages (or Recent Post sidebars) with new material, we often forget about the emotion and human elements that make art beautiful and real.

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