While reading Kingdom Come, I listed what I noticed are some characteristics shared by many Ballard novels. So rather than writing a review, I thought I’d copy my notes here in case anyone writing a novel would like to introduce a bit of dystopian chic, but can’t find any suitable advice.
- Structure the plot as a modified Western. A stranger arrives in a town that is in some way at a frontier of human existence. There is a fundamental contradiction between two warring parties. On the one side, a consensus has been built around a way of life that is punctuated by violent episodes. The community is isolated from the rest of society but has ambitions to reproduce itself. Some individuals, however, are terrified that things are wrong and about to get wronger.
- Make the stranger a middle-aged male. He has had a good career and is now taking time off to investigate a murder or disappearance. Ideally, make the victim someone close to him whose apartment he stays in during his investigations.
- Include a sinister male character who wears a white suit or blazer. Introduce him dramatically saving the protagonist/s from his ‘people’. Have him lurking in the background of the novel’s events to build the tension towards a conflict with the stranger.
- The stranger meets a woman younger than himself towards whom he feels attracted. Work towards a mildly violent confrontation between them that ends in a (brief) bedroom scene. They embark on a relationship that feels slightly antagonistic and doomed.
- The stranger gradually becomes sympathetic towards the people / community he investigates. Their goings-on lead to regular acts of violence. Set these acts in mostly public places. There are, mysteriously, no witnesses, or at least unreliable ones.
- Ensure that the stranger and / or other central characters squeeze people’s shoulders to reassure them, thus indirectly communicating a pervading unease.
- Set a car on fire by page 9. When not burning cars or buildings, smash glass. Turn some locals into silhouettes dancing feverishly to the destruction. Place them just a bit too far away from the stranger for him to positively identify them.
- Set scenes either amid destruction and decay or perfection and splendour. In the former, include materials such as concrete, rusty metal, puddles from incessant rain, and rubbish. In the latter, ensure that the luxury is either clinically modern or composed from a faded old-world charm.
- Conclude in a partly inconclusive way that leaves the reader wondering if a) the stranger will stay in or return to the alternative way of life depicted, and b) the community prevails / returns in the imminent future.
The above list is neither prescriptive nor exhaustive. Nor is it a formula. It’s guaranteed, however, to Ballard-up any story with the ambition to explore the worse angels of our nature.