"To hope is to contradict the future." -E.M. Cioran
"But as he listened to the old man warning him that sooner or later he would add to these terminal moraines, Halloway had been exhilarated by the scenes around him. Far from disfiguring the landscape, these discarded products of Twentieth Century industry had a fierce and wayward beauty." (From the Ultimate City)
A 1976 short story by British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard, first published in his collection Low-Flying Aircraft. Similar in tone to his other novels depicting a world depopulated by natural calamity (e.g. The Drowned World, The Burning World), this story is one of his more elaborate examinations of civilization brought to its own demise through resource scarcity, economic waste, moral corruption and environmental pollution. As a result, it joins I Am Legend and A Canticle For Leibowitz as a classic in the early post-apocalyptic canon.
The narrative begins with Halloway, a young ophan, taking his inherited glider out for a glimpse of the area around the commune where he was born and raised. The peaceful, planned agrarian village sits quietly below as he circles silently with the birds and wind. However, in a fit of curiosity, Halloway decides to pilot his small craft across the nearby river to the ruins of the metropolis looming on the horizon. And amid the empty skyscrapers and abandoned cars, he crashes and is stranded.
With little fear, Halloway sets out to find the old home of his parents who lived in the city prior to the collapse of the global economy and flight to the rural farm life he has come to know. He is captivated by the dead technology and lost craft of automobiles and televisions, fashion and and neon lighting. He even finds mysterious signs that someone has survived in the city and is still using the industrial relics to revive a few great engines of the late Twentieth Century.
From there, the tale deepens to become a parable of scientific progress and societal decline, a critique of urbanization, a lyric of late industrial organization and a satire of contemporary city lifestyles. This comes complete with violent car chases, attempted rescues, evil henchman and exploding car parks. In addition, as all Ballard's stories require, the commentary washes down with gulps of dead-dry irony, pitch black humor and wistful poetic futility.
Along with his 1956 parable "The Concentration City", the paranoid classic "The Watch-Towers", the quietly lyrical "Chronopolis" and his last, wholly underrated novel Kingdom Come (2006), "The Ultimate City" is one of his darker reflections on the vapid symbols of modern urban life.