J. G. Ballard, Concrete Island
No man is an island (not any more)
You are tracked pretty much everywhere you go. CCTV, the GPS on your phone or the signals sent by your more primitive model to the masts to keep in touch with the network. Your cash withdrawals, your purchases in Tesco and your journeys on public transport all add to the picture of where you are. If you drive, your sat nav will hold clues to where you have been and, if you disappear, where you might have gone to.
All of this then makes the premise of Concrete Island (1974) rather redundant nearly forty years on. So while it is an altogether more seemly and precise read compared to Crash (1973), it is rather harder to suspend belief. The fraught tensions of our inner sexual lives may not have changed in that time (or rather we still hold to a collective belief that something darker may lurk within us, ready to be drawn out by all that chrome and speed) but our ability to turn Robinson Crusoe most certainly has.
In Concrete Island, a middle-aged man (once again Ballard-by-proxy, one assumes) crashes his silver Jaguar over the embankment of the newly built Westway interchange. Injured, he tries and fails to attract the attention of passing traffic before being rescued by a community that live on “the island”.
In the introduction, Ballard compares the novel to Robinson Crusoe and while the comparison must hold some water, the novelty of the tropical island setting is to this day what captivates the reader. It may have been possible in 1974 to believe that someone could be ‘shipwrecked’ on a large interchange but in 2011 it is not so convincing.
Of course, we have been here before and advances in technology sometimes outstrip science fiction, even though we could argue that Concrete Island does not set out to be science fiction any more than Crash does. At least The Drowned World contained a sufficient number of outré creatures, characters and scenarios so that the reader can take the mistakes with a pinch of salt.
After The Drowned World, Ballard wrote a follow-up in The Drought that was less surreal and more grounded in reality. It seems that Concrete Island and Crash are similarly designed to be two sides of the same coin.
Next up, we have High-Rise, the last of a loose trilogy that contends that modern life is rubbish!