I seemed to be looking at an enormous illuminated painting, lit both by the unsettled water and by a deep light transmitted through the body of the cavern. What surprised me, as I pushed the cabin door against the current, was the intense clarity of every detail. In front of me, above its sloping lawn, was the half-timbered Tudor mansion. A number of people were watching me, like figures posed by the artist in a formal landscape. None of them moved, as if frozen by the burning aircraft that had burst out of the afternoon sky and fallen into the water at their feet.For all that the BSFA Best Novel award has its faults (notably, that the first thirty recipients included twenty-nine men and one woman), it has often looked to more inventive, if less enduring, works than the Hugo or Nebula. This is a case in point - a year when the two US-based awards both went to The Fountains of Paradise, a book that I love but which is hardly ground-breaking in its description of the engineering challenges of constructing a space elevator, with a couple of sideswipes at organised religion. By contrast, The Unlimited Dream Company is about a bloke who may or may not be killed in a plane crash at the end of the second chapter, and emerges to become the magical ruler of Shepperton (which is of course the Surrey gateway to other worlds, thanks to the film and TV studios located there, as I will discuss when I finally do my reviews of Here Come the Double Deckers). It's vivid, erotic, lush, surprisingly readable, and rather out of date even in 1979. It seems a much better fit for the sf of ten years earlier, though perhaps it is informed by the disappointments of the 1970s. It's very interesting that it won an award when it did.
Of course, awards are hit and miss. This was the only book by Ballard to win a major SF award. (Empire of the Sun, which is not SF, won a couple.) We know now that the best-selling and possibly also most influential sf novel of 1979 was The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Unlimited Dream Company now looks more like a last gasp of the New Wave (which was almost twenty years old by then) than a pointer to the future of the genre. Brian Aldiss, whose earlier work was more in line with Ballard, was about to shift decisively towards harder SF with Helliconia. Christopher Priest perhaps has stayed closest to the Ballardian path, but I don't think any of his writing is quite as, well, gonzo as this. Michael Moorcock still writes books like Michael Moorcock, at least. I'm glad that the sf community did eventually honour Ballard for his contribution to the genre, both in content and visibility; it's just a bit surprising that it took so long.