There isnt really an appropriate way to begin this review other than to say that this is, for me, Ballard's best and that he has clearly only improved with age. Millennium People could not be more typical Ballard from the outset: Urban setting, usual themes, dystopian vision etc. but he has excelled himself by sticking to his strengths and improving on them.
Characters in Millennium People are far more sophisticated than a Ballard reader might expect. From the mysterious Richard Gould to the fiery Kay Churchill this improvement in characterisation helps convey the many messages in the story. What Messages? Well as usual, themes are around society, psychology, philosophy and politics, but instead of being deduced from the outcomes of the plot (as you might with say, High Rise), the morals come directly from the characters mouth and being the ever naive and passive David Markham, you get to hear everyone's side of the story.
The development around middle-class society, violence and even the meaning of life is very well handled and kept interesting and relevant with a twisting, mystery plot to which you're always trying to guess the ending whilst grappling with the challenging questions the characters ask of you and Markham.
To summarise, this is exciting, accesible, thoughful, sophisticated, interesting and enjoyable. It has the feel of an author reaching perfection with the complexity of The Atrocity Exhibition combined the atmosphere of High Rise...
...and to top all of that, this edition from the nice people at Harper-Perennial comes with a lovely jacket and an interview thingy at the end so read it and enjoy!
on 4 October 2003
The hallmarks of Ballard's speculative fiction surface again here: airport locations, chronically unfaithful wives, messianic figures, civil unrest and alienation. And above all the desire for violent catharsis and the alchemical transformation into a more authentic level of meaning. In his early science fiction this was by means of natural forces. In 'Crash' there is again the overwhelming urge to destruction via technology. Here it is by social forces - dissatisfaction, uprising and revolution.
The intriguing feature of this novel though is that the uprising is by the comfortable middle classes who appear to have everything they need. And here is the rub - this security and comfort is possibly a fiction , an illusion to keep the status quo of a controlling society. The 'chains' here are not tied by others, the rules are not imposed from without; the imprisonment of the middle class is entirely of its own making. In 'Millenium People' it is never made entirely clear what is wanted to replace things after the revolution; we just have rebellion for its own sake. The middle classes have comforts in abundance so what is lacking? Are they being hoodwinked into conformity and passivity? Is their obsession with rules a symptom of masked fear and insecurity? Whatever, Ballard certainly invites the reader to ask these sort of questions and to take a look at current social phenomena from a different perspective. The writing here is disquieting - cosy views are being challenged.
In the novel, random and meaningless acts of violence can be interpreted as attempts to kick back against a stultifying and deterministic universe. Perhaps there is a deep resentment of too much safety, security and comfort. A sort of scaled down 'paradise syndrome' is afflicting the affluent society - maybe they need a good riot or two just to feel human again! The existential themes dealt with in this book have wider application, especially as what is now understood by 'middle class'(the term Ballard uses throughout the novel)has changed a good deal over recent decades and now includes much broader sectors of the population than in the past.
Humanity is biologically designed for fight and flight - testing boundaries is hardwired into our nervous systems. If the environment is not challenging enough we may make our own challenges; anything to avoid psychic atrophy. We need something to tussle with, to fight against in order to survive and evolve. The uprisings in 'Millenium People' could be a symptom of this yearning for a more dangerous and elemental life.
I see a warning in this book. The time is ripe for a charismatic leader to tap into the collective consciousness and stir up disaffected swathes of the populace. An all pervasive media and telecommunications network could fan the flames of a revolution far more rapidly than at any time in history. Maybe there is nothing like a good uprising to kill off boredom, lassitude and the dreary 'business as usual' predictability of modern life. In 'Millenium People' this is played out on a small scale but the novel unnervingly shows that the seeds of discontent are already in the ground and just waiting for the right moment to germinate.
on 21 March 2004
The publication of a Ballard novel has become as familiar an event as Wimbledon, the Cheltenham Gold Cup or a terrorist bomb. And I think Ballard would like that. This story begins with an explosion at Heathrow Airport which kills the ex-wife of psychologist David Markham and in light of the attacks which have recently taken place in Madrid and the expected atrocity Britain is waiting for, this book attains a rare level of importance. The events described herein cast a shadow from the near future which falls on our tube stations, bus lanes and shopping malls.
The initial twist in 'Millennium People' is that the Heathrow bomb plunges Markham into a world of middle class revolutionaries and agitators who may or may not have planted the device. Markham allows himself to be sucked into the front line of all manner of protests as he seeks to penetrate this new class of anarchist, where a simple argument over double yellow lines in Chelsea is inflated into a man the barricades issue.
There were two moments of extreme bravery in the novel when Ballard touches upon the Hungerford massacre when a man named Michael Ryan went crazy in the town with an AK-47 and also the murder of tv presenter Jill Dando. When I read these sections of the book, everything seemed to be in slow motion, as if I was reliving the original news reports of those real-life tragedies. When a writer does that to you, the importance of the novel is beyond doubt.
If you like this book I would recommend any other Ballard novel - especially 'Super Cannes' and 'High Rise' which both demonstrate the collapse of middle-class loyalties to the establishment.
on 2 October 2003
JG Ballard has a lot of fun with his Observer-worshipping, Volvo driving, Tuscany-holidaying readership by choosing these totems of middle-class 21st century life as the basis for a revolution. His psychologically "injured" characters manage to blow up the Tate Modern, Heathrow T2, and the local Blockbusters, whilst trying to overrun Auntie Beeb. The protagonist, a psychiatrist, treads a thin line between trying to understand the revolutionaries and joining their struggle. There's even a bit of the calliper-based car fetish last seen in Crash, but this time involving a dead paedeatrician in a Saab.
Despite the absurdity of civil unrest in Chelsea, the novel raises some thought-provoking points about a paranoid, over-worked, and spiritually redundant UK society. Overall I enjoyed reading The Millenium People, although I was left feeling slightly annoyed by the Range-Rover-driving characters and I wished a few more of them had been victims of their own bombs.
Millennium People should appeal to long-term Ballard readers, continuing the thriller-aspects prevalent in Cocaine Nights & Super Cannes. As ever, Ballard points to a future that he is liklely to predict- the notion of Middle Class Revolt occurred with the petrol tax protests of 2000 & the upcoming Council Tax threats (from the very generation that voted Thatcher in! Ironic...). Recalling a famous film producer, Ballard appears to have taken the ideas for Millennium People from the headlines of our papers. Fused with the fictional world of the book are events such as the murder of Jill Dando, Hungerford, the World Trade Centre attacks, protests against globalisation, the manner in which surveillance dominates (post)modern life. But there's plenty of the past, of the Ballardian world here also: London, car crashes, marriage, subcultures, film, philosophy, existentialism, embracing a way of life (no matter how destructive) etc.
Millennium People appears to be Ballard's Fight Club- frequently noting the emptiness & prison of middle class existence, of the ways in which free market capitalism constrains people. & how this collides with the meaning (or meaninglessness) of terrorist actions- notably the attacks on Heathrow, the NFT & the Tate Modern here. As the disturbed vicar (really!) here notes,"Look at the world around you, David. What do you see? An endless theme park, with everything turned into entertainment. Science, politics, education- they're so many fairground rides.Sadly people are happy to buy their tickets and climb aboard." Ballard depicts a regulated society, defined by its media and those that run it, react to their repressed status. Here we get the enjoyable attacks on the 20th Century, the allusions to Marinetti, the smoke encrusted millennium wheel & Dr Gould- very much a descendent of the Doctor going insane in The Atrocity Exhibition & of course, of Vaughan from Crash. Ballard explores, or at least notes, the significance accorded to American or celebrity deaths- the reasons for the terrorism are to offer an arbitary meaninglessness to counter this bias (perhaps)
Other familiar notions within the Ballard universe present themselves- pornography,psychiatrist ,violence,cars,child abuse, mental disorder, disability- Ballard reflecting on the world of NOW. The terrorism & enduction of David into this subculture recalls Fight Club, to a degree, David having become emasculated & ordered by his position (via father in law) at the Adler Institute. Ballard offers up the usual black comedy, whethr making reference to Conrad or Wells, or playing with the symbols of contemporary existence (McDonalds, Blockbuster style video shops), or fusing both (the chapter title 'The Bonfire of the Volvos!'). Ballard explores the darker, unconscious ramifications of our contemporary world, a place where it has become pointless to travel, as everything has attained a global uniformity. The book ends up reading like Ballard crashing (how else?) into Chuck Pahulinuk, No Logo, newspaper headlines, & even a standard thriller from someone like Frederick Forsyth- not that I've read anything of Forsyth's since I was 10, but that element with Kendall/Tolloch/the Home Office is there. The denoument is as neat as an Elmore Leonard...
Millennium People is both great fun & thought provoking- many points and perceptions are made of our well made world- & its nice to see Ballard return to London, the locale of debut The Drowned World (1961) & High Rise (1975)- perhaps the novel this most resembles? I also thought a little of a story like 'Having a Wonderful Time', which showed the middle class go on a permanent holiday as a protest against their ordered existence...
Dennis Potter said in his final interview that writers tended to plough a narrow furrow (or words to that effect), Ballard appears to do that- but when Ballard's universe is suitably vast and all encompassing- we're hardly confined, are we? Millennium People is another great book from JG Ballard & would probably provide a suitable introduction to Ballard's world. Ideally read in the Tate Modern or on the Millennium Wheel? Millennium People treats the world like a film, and comes across as a film review of the world before our eyes- Ballard taking actions and elements of our world HAPPENING NOW and exploring them in his typical manner. Quite a revolutionary book for a man in his 70s!
on 10 June 2004
'Millennium People', the latest novel from J. G. Ballard, describes how violent dissent gradually infects a section of the affluent British middle-class. As in 'Cocaine Nights' and 'Super-Cannes', the narrator is a man - ordinary but troubled in his own way - investigating an unexplained death; and here, just as in those two books, the narrator becomes ensnared, and eventually blinded, by the world he investigates. David Markham is not as convincing or as interesting as the protagonists in Ballard's earlier, thematically and structually connected novels; but his abject gullibility and startling lack of intuitive thinking holds the reader's attention - it is less that we sympathise, and more that we look on in sheer bewilderment. But Markham is very clearly protagonist as blunt tool of the author, his impotence necessary if the narrative is to unfold as it does, and Ballard is happy for us to know this.
The setting of most of the action is Chelsea Marina, an estate inhabited by doctors and architects, middle-managers and orthodontists; trouble is brewing, and the usually placid inhabitants are breaking laws they would never previously have even considered breaking. Like Ballard's earlier explorations of social disharmony, the motif of 'Millennium People' is chaos encroaching on normality; characters talk energetically, struggling to express their dissatisfaction with their lives, their society - their world - while holding on to the very things that don't satisfy. The problem, however, is that the chaos in 'Millennium People' seems too neat, the normality too thinly sketched. Very few of the characters really come to life, with Sally, although rarely seen, a notable exception.
While 'Millennium People' is a less accomplished work of fiction than 'Cocaine Nights', it is more entertaining than 'Super-Cannes', and every bit as thought-provoking as you would expect a book by Ballard to be. Altogether, it is a novel deserving of your time; but be prepared to finish it aching to read more - itching to see where Ballard goes next, now this cycle of novels is complete.
on 6 October 2003
You're never in any doubt that Ballard is on home territory again in this novel. Thematically he seems to be taking themes explored in Cocaine Nights and Super Cannes, adding a touch of High Rise in for good measure. I'm loathed to call this book prophetic ! Ballard is extremely amusing, the trip to stir up middle-class Twickenham had me laughing out loud frequently. The same types which are ridiculed in Private Eye's 'Its Grim up North' and the 'Commuters' come under his microscope. Really its hard to nail down precisely what the message is here. Undoubtedly he's taking stock of the world post 9/11 and exploring the idea of mindless acts or violence for their own sakes. Perhaps this is a dig at all those people maintaining the tedious status-quo which seems to afflict London's wealthier classes (why complain so much yet put up with London's awful transport, unaffordable housing and hospitals rammed with immigrants etc etc) ?
As work of literature, Ballard manages to weave poetic magic into his novel with some unforgettable descriptions of his favourite locations, Heathrow and West London. The novel reads like a thriller and has all the tension of the Super Cannes but without the febrile edge.This is another class act from our finest and most virtuosic wordsmith.
on 26 August 2009
It seems with Ballard you either like his brand of stark social comment or you don't, and this book just doesn't work for me. I don't find the central idea plausible, yet it's the sort of book that needs you to believe in the storyline because really there's nothing else to keep you interested. A writer can get away with unconvincing plots if there's enough humour and good characterization, but these millennium people are dull and lifeless and totally unconvincing.
What we're supposed to believe is that the middle classes are prepared to reject everything they previously worked for and turn to acts of violence and terrorism, in the process destroying their own comfortable lives. And what are they protesting about? Why have they been collectively driven to this incredible state of anger? Well their school fees are on the high side and their jobs have become rather meaningless. Surely that's enough to send you running into the street to burn a few cars.
It might make a good farce, but despite some of the blurb on the back cover ('one of the most amusing novels I've read in a long time', says some poor Guardian reviewer, who probably ought to get out more) Ballard doesn't do humour. What he tries to do is make novels out of ideas and to comment on the way society is going, but we shouldn't lose too much sleep worrying about this particular middle-class revolution.
Watching the Devil kick the Millennium
Over the Golden Mountain." Edgar Lee Masters
"Millennium People" has an interesting story line. Set in the UK shortly after the Millennium, psychologist David Markham is mourning the murder of his ex-wife. She was the victim of a terrorist bombing at Heathrow Airport. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter he begins his own personal investigation. He quickly finds himself thrown into a strange world: a world filled not with foreign interlopers from abroad or proletarian rebels but, rather, one filled with disaffected tea-sipping, Volvo-driving, over-extended mortgage holding members of the British middle classes. For reasons explained in the book they are just fed up, prisoners of their own success apparently. And, contrary to what one would expect of a stereotypical British member of the bourgeoisie, they seem easily led to increasingly violent acts. Finally, Markham meets the `hidden hand' behind the angst and from there the story comes to a rather dramatic conclusion.
By the time I was one-third of the way through J.G. Ballard's "Millennium People" I was reminded of Lindsay Anderson's 1968 movie If... (The Criterion Collection) in which a young Malcolm MacDowell play a privileged teen who, chafing at the oppression of an old, elite English boarding school, leads a group of children of the middle and upper classes on a violent revolt. Millennium People struck me a story of what those teens might get up to if they had decided to rebel against their stolid, middle class, middle-age surroundings. I soon became convinced that the book reminded me of Paddy Chayefsky's Network, where people, once again mostly middle class start chanting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." By the time I was finished, when the Millennium People took its last twist and turn, or descent if you will into a study of madness, I was sure that it shared some literary DNA with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
These shifting comparisons represent for me both the enjoyment and disappointment I had with Millennium People. Weaving three themes through a book is not all that unusual and when it works it can be brilliant. But, when they don't connect, when the individual themes don't seem well-integrated than I think that leaves room for a bit of disappointment. That was the difficulty I had with Millennium People. At the end of the day I think of a book in which the individual parts were greater than the whole. While the book was a pleasure to read, as Ballard's books typically are, I felt a bit unsatisfied. Now this dissatisfaction is not the sort I feel when I read a `bad' book. Rather, it is the slight disappointment I feel when I read a book that is filled with terrific passages, with good writing and thoughtful insights into the human condition but which does not quite live up to the expectations that those passages and insights provide.
As noted, I admire Ballard's work. Although perhaps best known for Crash and Empire of the Sun I think his best work can be found in his short stories. His The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard show Ballard at his finest. I think coming to Millennium People after his short stories may be responsible for my slight disappointment. His short stories are masterful, compact, and powerful. All in all, I would recommend Millennium People to any reader. Despite my disappointment I was far from sorry that I read the book. It kept me engaged throughout. It just didn't quite live up to the promise of its individual themes.
on 24 June 2008
If you like Ballard's themes of what happens when polite society breaks-down then you'll love this book - if you don't ... then you won't!
I loved it. Excellent stuff.