As a story concerned with property and living spaces, J.G. Ballard’s bleak futuristic narrative bears an interesting comparison with Waugh’s An Englishman’s Home. That story is about protecting spacious, rural residences, while Billennium is about the closing in of walls, the restriction of urban spaces and the curtailment of freedom.
The first paragraph deftly sets the scene, presenting Ward’s accommodation with language which consistently suggests both restriction and low quality – ‘cubicle’, ‘narrow alcove’, ‘plywood walls flexed and creaked’. The ‘tramp of feet’ creates both an auditory sense of oppression and hints at the problem the country is facing – massive overpopulation. This aspect is developed through the second paragraph, with reference to a ‘ceaseless press of people’, ‘an endless clamour of voices’ and crowds ‘already jammed… from sidewalk to sidewalk’.
Ballard emphasises the horror of this dystopian view of the future by showing that the characters accept their life as normal. Ward even celebrates the fact that he can ‘fit a small straight-backed chair’ into his living quarters, which his friend describes as ‘enormous’. This is almost a joke, but Ballard means no humour. He marks the contrast with a quick reference to ‘fifty years earlier’ when people lived one to a room, but calls the time when people lived singly in their own apartment ‘unbelievabl[e]’. Rossiter’s access to the official growth figures confirms a population growing at 4% a year. This indicates Ballard’s time setting and also provides a useful comparison between Ward’s world and the one which readers inhabit.
Speculative Fiction’s Commentary on the Contemporary
Ballard’s grim vision of the future extends beyond the limitations of accommodation. People in the streets are dehumanised into ‘a shuffling mob’; the difficulty of their progress along ‘packed’ streets is depicted in the verb ‘wrestling’, which suggests that walking has become a violent competitive tussle. The ‘locks’ would be grim humour if not so horrific, people crammed so tightly that they are ‘jammed’ ‘for days’. Ward’s own experience is used to make the dangers vivid: ‘over forty-eight hours’ stuck with ‘over 20,000 people’ becomes a ‘nightmare’ where he is ‘terrified of losing his balance and being trampled underfoot.’ Such things do happen at mass events – in 1990 1,426 people were killed, while approximately 2,300 people lost their lives in 2015 at the Hajj in Mecca, for example. The population of Ward’s city is 30 million, which is currently the total population of countries like Angola and Mozambique, or roughly equivalent to the population of Delhi, the third most populous city in the world. Ballard wrote the story in 1961, since when the global population has more than doubled. The role of speculative fiction to project the results of current trends is amply demonstrated by this story, including the industrialisation of agriculture to feed the growing population.
The key event in the story is Ward’s and Rossiter’s discovery of the hidden room adjacent to the new one they are forced to rent. The revelation is a result of frustration, as Ward ‘punched the wall’ in his fury at the change in regulations which will decrease legal living space further. The shock of the discovery is apparent in Ward ‘seiz[ing]’ Rossiter, their amazed ‘Breathing’ while they ‘stared’ and Rossiter’s mind being ‘staggered’ at the size of the space. Ballard achieves his strongest effects by using words which have had no place in this story before: ‘wandering silently’, ‘stretching’, ‘unconfined emptiness’, ‘absolute spatial freedom’. This lexical and tonal shift allows the reader to share the characters’ astonished sense of space.
Unlike Ward’s single chair, the two men are able to fit an assortment of furniture into their new space, the most significant of which is the ‘mahogany wardrobe’, an ornate piece with ‘carved angels and castellated mirrors’, which itself become a key symbol in the developing story.
Ballard makes the pace of decline from this high point very rapid, taking just a couple of pages at the end of the story. No sooner have Ward and Rossiter generously offers space to their homeless friends than they are quickly forced into agreements to house an aunt and a mother, then a father. Rossiter manufactures a range of partitions to divide up the space. Some furniture is taken away again. And Ballard’s language shifts back to the lexis of the early pages – ‘squeeze’, ‘cubicle’, ‘encroaching’. Yet Ward still is ‘fascinated’ by ‘so much spare space’ even as Rossiter adjusts the partitions ‘closer together’. It is a sad irony that at the end the ‘beautiful wardrobe’ is dismantled to make the now tiny space ‘seem even larger’, as the elderly newcomers hint that Ward, the original discoverer of the room, should move out. Ballard suggests that the restriction of space becomes inbuilt and accepted, while at the same time restricting the generosity of the human soul.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Speculative fiction
- Dystopian fiction