Analyzing J. G. Ballard's "The Intensive Care Unit" and His Prophetic Vision
Among the science fiction and speculative fiction writers of the twentieth century, a few names stand out as potential candidates for the most prophetic authors in the genre. William Gibson popularized the term 'cyberspace' and introduced the concept of the Matrix, while John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar accurately predicted various aspects of the early twenty-first century, including population growth rates, Viagra, and videocalls.
Another noteworthy figure is J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), an English writer born in Shanghai, whose childhood experiences in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp inculcated an outsider's perspective on late twentieth-century Britain when he arrived there in the late 1940s.
Ballard's unique vantage point likely enabled him to see further than his contemporaries, having already glimpsed a world in chaos and constant flux. While William Gibson remarked that the future is already here but unevenly distributed, Ballard's focus lay on the immediate future, exploring how it rapidly evolves from the present moment.
Prophetic Elements in "The Intensive Care Unit"
One of J. G. Ballard's most prophetic and unexpectedly humorous stories is "The Intensive Care Unit." It was published in 1977 and included in his 1982 short-story collection, "Myths of the Near Future," a title that alludes to his concern with the imminent future.
The story is narrated by a doctor living in the near future, where physical contact has become taboo. People are born through a process known as 'AID,' reminiscent of today's in vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques that were in their early stages when Ballard wrote the story. These individuals are raised in creches and never meet their biological parents.
In this world, all contact with others occurs solely through television screens. The screens serve as a means of childcare, education, socialization between partners, and even during sexual encounters, which take place with the individuals in separate homes. Every interaction unfolds on a virtual plane, mediated by cameras and TV screens.
The story's premise resonates with our contemporary reality. What might have seemed vaguely prophetic in 2019, when Skype was occasionally used for catching up with family members in different countries, became eerily prescient a year later.
During 2020 and 2021, and still in some contexts, various aspects of daily life, including schooling, work, and even doctor's appointments (which is how the narrator of "The Intensive Care Unit" meets his wife, Margaret, as she is one of his patients), transitioned to videocalls. In some workplaces, employees overwhelmingly voted to keep departmental meetings online indefinitely.
Moreover, an increasing number of young people have shifted their intimate encounters to online platforms, opting for virtual interactions instead of physical presence. Ballard's story envisions a world where this becomes the permanent norm.
The Story's Themes and Symbolism
"The Intensive Care Unit" begins and ends in the present tense, with Ballard's narrator, often a doctor in his stories, describing the catastrophic outcome of meeting his family in person for the first time. The result is a brutal showdown between the couple's son, David, and their daughter, Karen, against their parents. The physical proximity triggers an impulsive outbreak of psychopathic violence.
Ballard suggests that in a culture conditioned to view physical contact as taboo, being in close proximity with others, even one's own loved ones, leads to uncontrollable acts of violence. The story's title, a play on the term 'intensive care unit' found in hospitals, highlights the damaged family as a metaphorical intensive care unit within society. The narrator, a doctor, emphasizes the profound love within his family while simultaneously illustrating the chaos that erupts when they violate societal guidelines by physically being in the same space.
Ballard's underlying message in "The Intensive Care Unit" is that television, the primary theme of the story (though he couldn't have predicted the worldwide web), desensitizes us to an illusory version of reality. It creates a simulation or simulacrum, as Jean Baudrillard would describe it. When the narrator first encounters Margaret in person, he is struck by the imperfections of her skin compared to the idealized image he had seen countless times on television, where camera angles and makeup had enhanced her appearance.
The narrator reflects that on the television screen, there are no body odors, strained breathing, pupil contractions, facial reflexes, distrust, or insecurity. He suggests that empathy and compassion thrive at a distance, but when that distance collapses, violence ensues.
One wonders if the outbursts of energy seen during various protests in the "lockdown years," accompanied by orgiastic displays of violence and vandalism, stemmed from a similar psychopathology explored in Ballard's story.
It is worth noting that while many critics contend that Ballard's later works, produced in the last decade of his life, display a more humorous tone than his earlier writings, "The Intensive Care Unit" demonstrates that even in mid-career, Ballard possessed an arch sense of humor. His description of the wedding night as a triumph of the director's art, with Margaret located thirty miles away in a different room, and the narrator courting her through a series of bold zooms, stands as one of his wittiest moments, employing his characteristic detached, deadpan style to comedic effect.