13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 60

Sedition, stylishly dressed

Steve King

MILLENNIUM PEOPLE by J. G. Ballard Flamingo, £16.99, pp. 294 ISBN 000225848X iir.G. Ballard's latest novel, like Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, the two bestsellers that preceded it, is a gripping thriller about a group of utterly repellent people who share some deeply weird ideas. This time the scene is Chelsea Marina, a cosy housing estate off the King's Road, full of well-heeled lefties and intellectuals. Under the influence of Richard Gould, a creepy but charismatic paediatrician known to his chums as 'the Doctor Moreau of the Chelsea set', the

residents residents are persuaded to embark on a mini-crimewave. From acts of petty vandalism and social disturbance they soon graduate to more serious japes, like planting bombs and burning down buildings.

A mild-mannered psychologist, David Markham, finds himself sucked into this maelstrom of mischief when he learns that his first wife, from whom he has been divorced for several years, has been killed by an exploding suitcase at Heathrow airport. His attempt to track down the terrorists responsible leads him to Chelsea Marina. There Markham is promptly seduced by a fetching lady revolutionary called Kay and, eventually, by the gospel of random violence preached by Gould. 'We're like children left for too long in a playroom,' says the deranged kiddies' doctor. 'After a while we have to start breaking up the toys, even the ones we like.' For David, a movie buff, that favourite toy turns out to be nothing less than the National Film Theatre, which he cheerfully helps to firebomb in a magnificent chapter-long set piece.

With its allusions to the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and, less directly, to the murder of Jill Dando, Millennium People is bound to strike some readers as zeitgeisty and relevant. Others will no doubt be appalled by its characters' insistence on the life-affirming delights of terrorism, though it's hard to say how seriously Ballard wants us to take all this. At any rate, he seems to enjoy himself hugely as he spurs his kinky detective story on. The characters, especially the eye-rolling, messianic visionary Gould, strut about with unashamed theatricality, while David's stream of smug psychobabble could fill the 'Pretentious, moi?' column for the next six months (Gould, he gushes. 'was trying to find meaning in the most meaningless times, the first of a new kind of desperate man who refuses to bow before the arrogance of existence and the tyranny of space-time...

As usual with Ballard, technology brings out much of the finest writing in the book. He is especially responsive to airports. Heathrow is transformed into 'a beached sky city, half space station and half shantytown'. David watches as 'an airliner came in to land, turbofans sighing as it eased itself onto the runway, a whisper of dreams bruised by time'. And an attractive Chinese girl receives a wonderfully backhanded compliment when she triggers a series of airport-related associations in David's mind: 'A faint but expensive scent floated between us, the tang of an unusual toothpaste, hints of the first-class lavatories on long-haul Cathay Pacific flights, a dream of sable coats and Hong Kong boarding lounges.'

Robespierre said that he wanted to dress like a businessman and think like a revolutionary. Say what you will about the kind of revolutionary thinking Ballard dramatises in Millennium People, as a prose stylist he is still one of the snazziest businessmen in town.