British author J.G. Ballard's "Millennium People" takes on revolution and terrorism in an upscale setting.

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‘Millennium People’

by J.G. Ballard

Norton, 287 pp., $25.95

How to describe the tone of J.G. Ballard’s fiction?

It teeters continually between psychodrama and parody, reveling in feelings that are simultaneously heightened and deflated, serving up characters who veer in their behavior from the operatic to the bathetic in the turn of a phrase. Much of Ballard’s humor — and he can be zanily funny — comes from his protagonists never quite losing their proper British bearing even as they explore deranged veins of liberating nihilism.

These contradictions allow Ballard (1930-2009) to slip caustic social critiques into the most banal settings. “Millennium People,” published in the U.K. in 2003 and making its first appearance here, focuses on an upscale London estate, Chelsea Marina, that is the site of a revolution “so modest and well behaved that almost no one had noticed.”

Although not as brutal as “Crash” or “High-Rise” (Ballard’s scorched-earth satires of the 1970s), “Millennium People” hits a sensitive nerve as it plays fast and loose with notions of terrorism. Ballard keeps the novel’s viewpoint in ambiguous flux by employing as his narrator the blandly named David Markham, a psychologist who’s gone undercover as a police spy: “A deception,” he says, “I was the last to discover.”

A spy who doesn’t know he’s a spy? An insurrection by people who, at first glance, have little to whine about?

Ballard is playing games with us here, tapping into the anxieties of “an entire professional caste … rejecting everything it had worked so hard to secure.”

Markham is drawn to Chelsea Marina because he thinks he sees clues there to the plot behind a bombing of Heathrow Airport that killed his ex-wife. Indeed, there are several charismatic figures leading this odd revolution whose appetite for mayhem has few boundaries.

“If the means are desperate enough,” one says, “they justify the ends.”

“They’re not really bombs,” quips another. “They’re acoustic provocations.”

It isn’t long before Markham himself is feeling like a co-conspirator in the case he’s trying to crack.

Ballard’s descriptive powers are in top form. Who else would see Heathrow as “a beached sky-city, half space station and half shanty-town”?

His dialogue, too, has an enjoyably Wildean flair to it: “Believe me, the next revolution is going to be about parking.”

Where “Millennium People” disappoints slightly is when its true villain comes out of the shadows and starts holding forth a little too pedantically on humankind’s “deep need for meaningless action, the more violent the better.” Still, just when you think Ballard’s anti-heroes are the stuff of fantasy, something like Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot comes along and gives you pause.

Two other Ballard titles, the novel “Kingdom Come” and a memoir, “Miracles of Life,” have yet to be published in the U.S. A biography by John Baxter, “The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard,” is due out in the U.K. in the fall.

We still haven’t tapped all the mysteries or scary pleasures of this essential writer.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: