J G Ballard is one of the best known writers of science fiction in which he describes a dystopian world that is marred by destruction and disaster. One of his best known works is Empire in the Sun which was loosely based on his life as a young internee in a camp during the Second World War. Though Ballard trained to be a doctor for some time, he did not relate to the work and quit it to instead read English literature at Queen Mary College. But he did not complete this course either.
Relevance of the Title
The story describes a situation when the population of the world has grown to the extent there is no place for people to live normal lives. The space that each person can occupy is regulated by the city council. “Billenium” refers to the time far into future when overpopulation and not war is the threat human race faces.
The main themes of Billenium are overpopulation, power and loss of privacy. In the society that exists sometime in the future, overpopulation has swelled to the extent that space seems to have shrunk. All available land is utilized to feed the billions and space to live on is rationed to the extent that an individual is permitted to occupy only thirty eight square feet of space. Ward and Rossiter who are the main characters in the story stumble upon an unoccupied room which is like manna from the wilderness. Instead of using it wisely, they let it out to their girl friends who bring in their families too. Ward and Rossiter turn into usurious land lords who find that having extra space under their control makes them powerful. It is also a tool to make money. Soon there are so many in that room that they are worse off than when they had not discovered the extra space.
Ward is the middle aged protagonist of Billenium. He works as a librarian and shares the living space with Henry Rossiter. He is passive compared to Rossiter. Ward is more sensitive to beauty and is more disturbed when the Victorian wardrobe is destroyed to make more space. He despises the greedy landlords who reduce the size of the cubicles so that there is no space for him to walk without stumbling. But by the end, he becomes a usurious landlord himself when he finds the empty room.
Rossiter is very different from Ward though they are close friends. He is more aggressive in his approach and persuades Ward to let their girlfriends into the spare room. This is a disastrous move as the girls bring in their families too by and by. Rossiter is not sensitive to beauty and sacrifices the one thing that symbolizes beauty in their lives, the Victorian wardrobe.
The story is set in the distant future by which time the world population has stretched to such limits that space is severely curtailed. Ward and Rossiter are close friends who discover a hidden room. They exult in the extra space and plan to utilize to get maximum benefit. Later, Rossiter wants to invite their girlfriends to share this space. The girls then bring in their families too. Ward and his friend had despised the greedy landlords who provided tiny cubicles to their tenants. But soon they both turn out to be like them.
The story is set in the distant future as the name Billenium suggests. Nearly twenty million people are squashed into a city putting tremendous pressure on space. The city council has restricted the space that an individual can occupy to a mere 38 square feet. John Ward and Henry Rossiter are friends who share living space. They are both employed but find it hard to get by in the crowded city where pedestrian traffic jams can last for days with no one being able to move due to congestion. While knocking about their cubicle, Ward discovers a forgotten room adjacent to their cubicle. They exult in this new space, thrilled, as they have never known so much space. They buy a Victorian wardrobe which is the only thing of beauty in their drab living area. Soon, Rossiter has the idea of inviting their girlfriends to share the extra room with them. The girls in turn ask their families to move in and take advantage of the space. Ward who had hated the greedy landlords soon becomes a landlord himself, with making money taking precedence over enjoying their new room. In order to make more space, Ward and Rossiter break up the beautiful wardrobe.
The wardrobe is more than just a wardrobe; it stands for beauty and freedom. When Rossiter and Ward destroy the wardrobe, they are destroying the last traces of beauty from their lives. The word ‘cubicle’ appears several times in the story; it is used as a synonym for room. The word also symbolizes the lack of personal space and the lack of control over their lives. Even if they wanted to, they would not be able to move to more spacious accommodation.
The author uses third person narrative throughout. Words are chosen to highlight the crammed cubicles in which people live out their lives. There is no privacy or comfort. Describing Ward’s cubicle, the narrator says “partition pressed against his knees and he could hardly move”.
6 Important Quotes
1. As soon as he saw the advertisement describing the staircase cubicle he had left (like everyone else he spent most of his spare time scanning the classifieds in the newspapers, moving his lodgings an average of once every two months) despite the higher rental. A cubicle on the staircase would almost certainly be on its own.
John Ward lives in a city that teems with three million people with a million being added every year. He used to share a room with seven other people. The lack of privacy and space used to reduce him to despair. Most people were unhappy with their lodgings and were constantly on the lookout for better accommodation. This one that Ward chose seemed promising as he did not have to share it with anyone though it was tiny.
2. Two years earlier Ward had been caught in one outside the stadium, for fort-eight hours was trapped in a gigantic pedestrian jam containing over 20,000 people, fed by crowds leaving the stadium on one side and those approaching it from the other.
Pedestrian jams were one of the features of the dystopian city in which the protagonist lived. The one in which Ward was caught involved 20,000 people and it carried on for forty-eight hours, during which it was impossible to move at will. In spite of such gigantic crowds present at the sports events, people attended them to get away from the tiny cubicles in which they lived.
3. Rossiter smiled. ‘That’s the ultimate argument, isn’t it? They used it twenty-five years ago at the last revaluation when the minimum was cut from five to four.
Rossiter is the protagonist’s close friend. Unlike John, he is a realist. He is also sharp and matter of fact. Since he works for the government, he hears bureaucratic rumors about the minimum space for a cubicle is going to be slashed from four meters to a mere three and a half. Ward is not ready to believe it as it would need too many adjustments to the existing cubicles which would have to be shortened by half a meter. But Rossiter reminds him that such reductions have been enforced before and the city council could well do it again.
4. Ward wiped his eyes, then stood up wearily and reached for the shelves. Relax. I’m on my way. I’m going to live in a broom cupboard. “Access to staircase” – that’s really rich. Tell me, Louie, is there life on Uranus?
Ward occupied a cubicle on a staircase that was a little over four meters. For a while it came to no one’s notice though Rossiter often remarked on the room being spacious. One evening the manager drops in to say that the authorities have specified that any cubicle that is larger than four and a half meters will now be considered to be a double cubicle. If Ward wanted to continue staying there, he would have to pay more rent. The manager’s “access to the staircase” is ironic because the cubicle is off the staircase and it is really a drawback because the sound of people trudging up and down is disturbing. There are several instances of dark humor in the story – “Tell me Louie, is there life on Uranus?” is one of them. Life on Earth has become unlivable and it is time to look at alternatives is Ward’s suggestion. He wonders whether it is possible to live on Uranus.
5. For an hour they exchanged places, wandering silently around the dusty room, stretching their arms to feel its unconfined emptiness, grasping at the sensation of absolute spatial freedom.
Rossiter and Ward have moved into a double cubicle in a squalid building. The disturbing news that Rossiter has brought from office is that the world population has grown by eight hundred million people in just one year. This growth will necessitate further reduction in minimum specifications – likely to three meters. Ward is depressed at the thought and punches on the panel next to him to let off his anger and a small section breaks off and hangs loose. Thinking he may have disturbed the people next door, he peers into the opening that has been created and to his rapture he finds that it is a room that had been overlooked when the cubicles were made. Rossiter and Ward go over the room exulting in its largeness. They have never experienced such a large empty space before so they take turns to enjoy the freedom of stretching their hands without hitting anything.
6. Then he pulled himself together. It was a beautiful wardrobe, without doubt, but when it was gone, it would make the room seem even larger.
Ward and Rossiter buy furniture for the room that they have discovered. They choose heavy Victorian furniture that no one wants as there is no space to fit it in. They are especially fond of a mahogany wardrobe that has carved decorations. It symbolizes beauty in their lives, something that has been missing so long. But once Judith and Helen and later their families move in, the wardrobe loses its sheen as it is found to be occupying too much space. Slowly they start dismantling it. The wardrobe stands for a kind of life and beauty that they can never get back into their lives.
1. Billenium tells us what could happen if there were too many people on earth. It’s dark and foreboding but splashes of dark humor can be found here and there. What does it do to the story?
2. The landlords of Billenium are greedy and grabbing. How do Helen, Judith and Ward encounter them in their worst aspects?
3. Does the discovery of the ‘secret’ room change the lives of Ward and Rossiter?
4. What is the significance of the wardrobe?
5. The discovery of the room makes Ward and Rossiter powerful. How?
6. Though Ward discovers the ‘secret’ room, soon he is made to feel like an interloper. How does this happen?