Chronopolis by J. G. Ballard, 1971
by J. G. Ballard, 1971
By the late 1960s J. G. Ballard was one of the most innovative writers in the English language, but he began his career as a writer of more or less conventional science fiction. "Chronopolis" is a good example of his early work, not only because it does what good science fiction ought to do but also because it illustrates how and why even Ballard's earliest stories are not entirely conventional. The story was first published in 1961 and was the title story of a 1971 collection.
The science fiction story is almost always a projection into the future. Generally speaking, the writer says, "If life continues in this way, here is what things will be like later on." Also, in general the science fiction story addresses the issue of technology—what it is and what it might be in some future time. Science fiction is science fiction precisely because of these two components: the future (fiction) and technology (science).
"Chronopolis" is a blend of futuristic fantasy and technology, and yet, as is characteristic of Ballard's work, this future is not particularly distant and the technology not exotic. Apart from a few differences, "Chronopolis" could be set in our own time, and the technology does not involve spaceships or time machines or supercomputers; rather, it involves ordinary timepieces—wristwatches and clocks.
In a world where timepieces have been abolished, Conrad Newman is in jail, waiting to stand trial for murder. People use timing devices—more or less elaborate egg timers—to wake them in the morning or to measure the length of the workday, but no one ever knows precisely what time it is.
Newman, however, is obsessed with time. He has built a sundial in his holding cell, and he is able to amaze the other prisoners by predicting daily events (inspection, roll call, breakfast) that are measured out according to timers and which, therefore, take place at regular intervals. He understands the purpose that timepieces once served: to regulate, to standardize, to make life predictable. It is precisely this sense of order that the world of "Chronopolis" has lost.
The story moves back to Conrad's childhood, when he first notices clock towers in the older, rundown sections of town. In every case the hands and inner mechanisms of the clocks have been removed, and when he asks adults about these unfamiliar devices, they either cannot or will not answer him.
As an adolescent Conrad builds his own water clock, which allows him to regulate his life. As a result he excels at school, because he can make better use of his time than can his fellow students: "The water clock had demonstrated that a calibrated timepiece added another dimension to life, organized its energies, gave the countless activities of everyday existence a yardstick of significance."
Conrad still does not understand why timepieces are illegal, however, and eventually he asks his English teacher, Mr. Stacey:
"It's against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt anybody with a clock?"
"Isn't it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something."
" "Then you can make him do it faster."
Stacey takes Conrad to "Chronopolis, the Time City." Clearly, the city is London, now abandoned, and Conrad learns that he has spent his life in one of the suburbs of this "vast dead center forty or fifty miles in diameter." The city is full of clocks, all stopped at 12:01.
Conrad, not convinced of the evils of time, escapes when Stacey, a secret member of the Time Police, tries to kill him. He meets old Marshall, who is dedicated to starting the clocks again, and in time they get the master clock working. The people of the suburbs hear the chimes and fondly remember "the ordered world of the past." The police arrest Newman, and Stacey is killed by Marshall, but Conrad takes the blame to allow his friend to continue with their work.
Is Conrad Newman a hero or a villain? Typically, Ballard refuses to offer any simplistic judgments. A world without clocks is disorderly and uncomfortable, even meaningless; a world with clocks is slavery. For Ballard technology is what makes modern life possible, but it is also what makes modern life impossible. He never suggests a resolution to this dilemma.
In the end Newman is sentenced to 20 years, and he is thrilled to find a working clock in his new cell. At first Newman finds this ironic and amusing. "He was still chuckling over the absurdity of it all two weeks later when for the first time he noticed the clock's insanely irritating tick…." It seems that, for Newman and perhaps for all of us, clocks are both a salvation and a punishment.
—Welch D. Everman