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The Overloaded Man, by J.G. Ballard

Ballard's short stories are like little pocket watches, exquisitely constructed and finely though not ostentatiously detailed. And like watches, each reflects an invisible, intangible quality about the world. And also like watches, most of them are concerned with the flow and passage of time, and the ways in which time is perceived by the human animal.

I've previously read his short-story collection Chronopolis many years ago, though I remember very few of the stories—“The Drowned Giant,” “The Garden of Time,” “Billenium,” and the wonderfully devastating final line of the title story being exceptions. I've also read a number of his novels, the most memorable being The Crystal World, the least enjoyable being Crash.

This collection presents a handful of stories that I don't think I've read before. The first story, “Now: Zero” has a literal killer ending, and is quite fun. “The Time Tombs” is a bit tougher going, it's one of those we've-lost-sight-of-truth sort of moaning things and it took me a while to slog though, in spite of its intriguing setting. Like Philip K. Dick, a lot of the charm and intrigue of Ballard's work is in the tossed-off details that sketch the environs.

Most of Ballard's short fiction is pretty low key, which is why “Passport to Eternity” is such an oddity: it's filled with strange creatures, advanced technology and alien thinking—in the end, though, it doesn't really add up to much. It reads like a satire of some other writer, perhaps A.E. Van Vogt or Philip K. Dick. “Time of Passage” is a “time-travel” story, I suppose, and is pretty depressing, much like a lot of Ballard's work. “Escapement” however, is something of a surprise: while the forces milling about in the wings are elusive and powerful and not done with their tampering, the ending is affirmative, even a little romantic.

Other stories are “Thirteen to Centaurus” which is interesting but cynical on all sides, and “Track 12” which concerns microsonics. “The Venus Hunters” is a character study, or perhaps a two-character study in human interaction and expectation. “The Coming of the Unconscious” is a short essay on Surrealism. Finally, the title story is a brief portrait of a somewhat unpleasant man who learns to stop perceiving the world.

Ballard is generally a treat to read, though he can be quite depressing at times and one should probably not read him when at a low ebb. The book is only 158 pages total so the dosage of a single sitting wouldn't be lethal, I'm not sure I'd like to try it. I'm too prone to depression as it is. There are times when depression demands something of the kind, as a kind of wallowing therapy, but Ballard might be a bit too much. “Escapement” again being a wonderful exception.

This book was originally published in 1967, and what I have here is a reprint from 1971 so I imagine it won't be easy to find. I found it in a used bookshop for $1.25, the original price on the back has been covered over in black ink. If you're a Ballard fan it's definitely worth the hunt.