Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Question in Bodies #42: F*** the Future (iii)

(A digression concerning low-flying aircraft)
In Ballard's story “Low-Flying Aircraft”, a couple, Forrester and Judith, travel north to Sweden to have a baby. While there, they see the odd behaviour of a local doctor, who flies back and forth across the landscape, spraying lines in silvery paint. The world’s population has plummeted, due to most babies being born apparently deformed. In fact, we find out, human fertility has skyrocketed, and the supposedly deformed children – although blind they can sense their environment and communicate in ways “able bodied” people cannot – are the next step in human evolution, delayed by a desperate desire for eugenic purity. “Mutant” children are routinely aborted the moment they are identified in the womb, or summarily killed when they are born. Except sometimes they aren’t.

Forrester initially believes that the doctor is stealing art treasures from abandoned museums and galleries. But in fact the physician is spraying the ground to help a community of the evolved young people, among them his daughter, hidden and protected in the mountains: they can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, and the reflections of the silver paint help them to find their way. At the end of the story, Judith’s baby is born, a mutant, and the parents hand over the child to be raised in safety.

We need to contrast this with the other texts we are looking at. It would be easy, looking at these three pivotal parts of his canon, and in fact several others, to conclude that Ballard himself was prone to sociopathy, that the sometimes chilly, detached nature of his writing was his signature style. But this, one of his most quietly moving stories, really isn’t like that. The human race has clearly taken a horrific wrong turn here, and although he describes a world of shocking, matter-of fact cruelty, he posits the solution to extinction is to allow the children to be allowed to live and be different.

Solveig Nordlund’s Portuguese film adaptation of 2002, Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude, is pretty faithful. As a low-key feature adaptation of a fairly brief story, it has the space to flesh out its protagonists. Judith (Margarida Marinho) is given significantly more depth and the film explores her fear, sadness and despair, while her husband, here called André (Miguel Guilherme), is somewhat more sympathetic than he is on the page. The flying doctor (Rui Morisson) is as much the key to the story’s mysteries as his literary counterpart. The world’s descent into depopulated fascism is deftly portrayed in background detail and lightly-sketched events – fear-mongering visual propaganda; an encounter with a some border guards; the sad, lonely decor of the hotel where much of the drama takes place.

Ballard wasn’t afraid to write about post-apocalyptic scenarios – the earlier novels that made his name deal with different end-of-civilisation scenarios: The Wind from Nowhere (1961); The Drowned World (1962); The Burning World (1964); The Crystal World (1966). In the period that he wrote “Low-Flying Aircraft”, however, he had moved on.

“The ultimate dystopia is the inside of one’s head,” says a character in “Low-Flying Aircraft”. It’s about as programmatic a statement as Ballard would ever make. “Low-Flying Aircraft” serves as a sort of bridge between his earlier apocalypses and his 1970s social experiments. The apocalypse is underway here, but rather than wind up in a stereotypical wasteland-and-barbarism postapocalypse like, for example, handsy sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison’s near-contemporary A Boy and His Dog (1969, filmed 1975), Ballard’s is lower in key, more believable. As time has gone on, Ballard’s version of the twilight of Western civilisation is looking more and more like the kind of apocalypse we'd really find ourselves in, one where people just carry on living and working the way they always did, even as society collapses around them, and slides quietly into the excesses of fascism (conversations about COVID are so inevitable we’ll just assume that we’ve had this talk and leave it there). Ballard lived through several apocalyptic near-misses – the twentieth century was characterised by them, really. But he was, if not unique, unusual enough to work out what a twenty-first century apocalypse might really look like.

“I can imagine Oprah Winfrey interviewing Hitler or Goebbels, and saying, 'Let's bring this anti-semitism thing into perspective'. As if in some way, by analysing their childhoods or getting them to be frank, one could somehow defuse the threat posed by unreconstructed anti-Semitism. Ultimately, I think this idealism is a refusal to look evil in the face, and to admit that apparently normal people are capable of appaling acts of cruelty.”
– Ballard, interviewed in “Dangerous Driving”, Frieze 34, May 1997.

The subtext of “Low-Flying Aircraft” is that ordinary, average people are able to normalise genocide. If there’s an accidental anti-abortion message here, it needs to be stressed that the abortions aren’t the problem. It’s the reason for them. By making the protagonists a couple who are desperately trying for a child, Ballard makes that clear enough: unwanted pregnancies being terminated are not the issue. It's the desired ones. The issue here is eugenics.

Already medical science is working out how to screen pre-natally for various disabilities, the best-known being Down’s Syndrome. And it’s getting more complex as time goes on. If you knew that the child you initially wanted was going to be deaf or blind, would you still want to have them? 

Ongoing research into the genetics of things that are at best arguably even disabilities – neurodiversities like autism – increasingly looks like a tool for those who wish to eradicate or “cure” the neurodiverse. This has been widely reported in the last few years. (Note: e.g “Prenatal Sequencing for Some Autism Genes May Soon Be Available”, The Scientist, 22 April 2019; “Are we ready for a prenatal screening test for autism?” The Guardian, 1 May 2014.) In September 2021, the Spectrum 10k genetics project in the UK was put on hiatus after concerns that it could be used as a tool for exactly this kind of eugenic meddling. (Note: “High-profile autism genetics project paused amid backlash", Nature, 27 September 2021.)

Scientists have been looking for “queer genes” too, for as long as genetic research has been a thing. And at the time of writing the spectre of eugenics has been raised by “gender-critical” campaigners freely thinking aloud about the low-key extermination of young trans people. 

(Note: For example, “gender-critical” campaigner Helen Joyce, intervewed in June 2022: “And in the meantime, while we’re trying to get through to the decision-makers, we have to try to limit the harm and that means reducing or keeping down the number of people who transition... every one of those people is basically, you know, a huge problem to a sane world... every one of them is a difficulty.”)

I live with the deep, sickening certainty that if, back around the time when Ballard was writing these stories, my parents had known they would have a child who was autistic and queer, I would not have been born. There is no doubt of it. I don’t think I am alone in that. I don’t think I am alone. Even parents who actually value their children often fall in love with their offspring after they have been born. Before, the child is a potential, a cipher. The attachment of Pro-Lifers to the unborn doesn’t really extend beyond an ideological conviction rather than an expression of love (you only need to see the cavalier attitudes of these people to children after they have been born to realise that).

For Ballard, being afraid to allow the next generation to be something we might not currently recognise as human in the way that we define it is a fast track to extinction. Our future depends on our descendants developing in their own way. We have to let our heredity be mutable.

We have to be prepared to let the children live.