‘In the bottom compartment of her jewellery case he came across a small flat gold-cased object, equipped with a wrist strap. The dial had no hands but the twelve-numbered face intrigued him and he fastened it to his wrist.’-J.G. Ballard, Chronopolis
In a world where timepieces have been abolished, Conrad Newman is in jail, waiting to stand trial for murder.
The story opens with the protagonist Conrad Newman in jail awaiting trial. We learn that he has fashioned a sundial in his cell which he uses to keep track of the “daily roster.” It’s clear that Conrad is obsessed with time, as he worries about “going mad” if he is unable to tell what time it is “at any given moment.” There are no clocks in the prison.
The narrative then jumps back in time to Conrad’s childhood. He was always curious about the towers with white circles that displayed “twelve intervals,” but his mother told him they were “just signs” and meant nothing, “like stars or rings.” One day, when Conrad’s father catches him wearing his mother’s old gold watch, he is shocked and quickly takes it off him. “Sorry, son. […] I’ll explain it all in a couple of years.”
Looking for an explanation as to why watches and clocks are forbidden, Conrad continues to ask questions but is frustrated. Whenever he finds old watches or clocks, the “mechanisms” are always missing. Eventually he gets his hands on a real working watch. Will Conrad be able to keep it a secret from his friends and his father? And even more crucially, from the feared agents of the “Time Police”?
“Chronopolis” is the first J.G Ballard story I’ve read in a while, and I really enjoyed it. It’s hard to believe that it was published over sixty years ago. It didn’t feel like I was reading a “classic” science fiction story. Strangely, it felt almost modern, like it could have been written in the last couple of years; a reminder of what good science fiction has to offer as a genre. It asks intriguing questions and still feels relevant.
Ballard’s prose is clinical and efficient, without ever becoming overly descriptive or decorative. It’s a short story, so there isn’t much character development. We are told what the characters do, but not much of how they feel. All we know is that Conrad is obsessed with time and he likes order.
Being an early work by Ballard, “Chronopolis” eschews the more experimental style of his later writing. This makes it very readable and, I think, a good jumping-on point for new readers. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his work.
Thanks for reading!