''The city was a vast and stationary carousel, forever boarded by millions of would-be passengers who took their seats, waited and then dismounted. I thought of the bomb cutting through another temple of enlightenment, silencing the endless murmur of cafeteria conversation. Despite myself, I felt a surge of excitement and complicity." The city is London, and bombs are being primed to go off at the National Film Theatre, Tate Modern and the BBC. In a new kind of urban terrorism, middle-class rebels are attacking the institutions that embody middle-class culture. They have no ideology and no programme. Ranging from the proliferation of double yellow lines to spiralling school fees, their grievances are pretexts for random acts of terror. In lives drained of significance, only motiveless violence seems to have meaning.
Millennium People is a dark, comic study of middle-class nihilism. The book's coolly detached narrator, David Markham, sums up the sense of emptiness that drives these improbable - and yet oddly credible - rebels against modern life. "The absence of rational motive," he observes, "carries a significance of its own." Markham is drawn into the netherworld of bourgeois terrorism when his ex-wife is killed in an inexplicable bomb attack at Heathrow Air-port. Trying to make sense of this tragedy, Markham infiltrates a protest group that has sprung up among the residents of Chelsea Marina, an exclusive gated community on the banks of the Thames. He finds himself in the rackety world of the ex-middle classes, where the old certainties of bourgeois life are barely memories.
The charismatic inspiration behind the insurrection is Dr Richard Gould, an ex-paediatrician with a shadowy past. The rebels themselves - a former film lecturer, a dislocated clergyman, a dissident civil servant turned bomb-maker - are the detritus of a turbo-charged economy that can no longer afford careers, and in which long-term commitments of any kind are increasingly dysfunctional. They are not rebelling against the pressures of work or family life. They no longer have jobs or families. They are rebelling against being - like the old working class - obsolete. "Knowledge-based professions are just another extractive industry. When the seam runs out we're left high and dry with a lot of out-of-date software."
The residents of Chelsea Marina have come to realise that they are superfluous, but their insurrection is not a protest against the economic system. It is a psychological reaction against the realisation that their lives are going nowhere. As Gould - himself driven by a much darker psychopathology - knows all too well, they are really rebelling against themselves and any such revolt is bound to be short-lived. By the end of the book, they have returned to their gated community, confirmed in their view of themselves as the new proletariat by a public that sees them as low-paid professionals like nurses and bus drivers. Their lives go on much as before, but the sense of meaninglessness has been kept at bay.
The search for meaning runs right through Millennium People and it is not just a reaction to being made redundant by turbo-capitalism. When Markham goes undercover in search of the bomber who killed his ex-wife, he is looking for more than a rational explanation of her death. He is trying to find some kind of meaning in an outrage that shows every sign of having none. His second wife, Sally, has been crippled in a traffic accident. Obsessed with the random nature of the event that altered her life for ever, she refuses to leave her wheelchair, conducting what Markham calls "a sit-in against the universe" - a personal protest against the blind chance that has left her disabled. Like the residents of Chelsea Marina, she is on strike against a world that has become meaningless.
Ballard is often likened to Joseph Conrad, and this mesmerising novel about a world on the brink of despair could be read as a Conradian fable of loss and dereliction set on the banks of the Thames. Ballard gives an ironic nod in Conrad's direction when he entitles a chapter - set in Twickenham - "The Heart of Darkness". Yet the world depicted in Millennium People is not one that Conrad could have recognised or foreseen, because it lacks the social structures that Conrad's characters took for granted - even when they rejected them or ended up outside their protection. Conrad's tales were set in colonial outposts in Africa and the South Seas where the veneer of civilisation was thin. But even in these faraway, exotic places, there were standards of professional duty that supplied a code of conduct. Lord Jim might have been a shipwrecked soul but he never doubted the seaman's code by which he measured his actions.
In Conrad's world, the consolations of religion were no longer available and political faith was already seen as an illusion, but work still promised a respite from emptiness. In Ballard's world, the structures of working life have rotted away, and only extreme behaviour can give a sense of release. Scanning his e-mails in his office at the Adler Institute, Markham reflects wryly on the earnest academic papers he finds offering remedies for the ills of the workplace. His colleagues are trying to manage conflict but the real threats cannot be managed. "No one was safe from the motiveless psychopath who roamed the carparks and baggage carousels of our everyday lives. A vicious boredom ruled the world for the first time in human history, interrupted by meaningless acts of violence."
With nothing left in society to which they can turn for support or comfort, the derelict figures that people Ballard's work are forced back into themselves, seeking meaning in the extremities of their own sensations. This may seem a bleak and despairing vision, but its effect is a kind of re-enchantment. No one who has read Ballard can look at filling stations or high rises, flyovers or shopping malls in the same way as before. Wrenched from routine perception, they become as mysterious as Stonehenge. Like all of Ballard's works, Millennium People is an album of surrealist images. Heathrow Airport is "a beached sky-city, half space station and half shantytown". Dust on a coffee table is "a nimbus that seemed like an ectoplasmic presence, a parallel world with its own memories and regrets". Pigeon-holed as a dystopian critic of consumerism, Ballard is a profoundly lyrical writer who can call up beauty in the most desolate places.
In the course of his career, Ballard has used a series of genres to convey his unique vision. Experimenting with science fiction, quasi-autobiographic realism and, more recently, the thriller, he has given us a rendition of the contemporary scene that is unsurpassed in its clairvoyant exactitude. In Crash, he announced the marriage of celebrity and sudden death that, more than a quarter-century later, was to give us the Diana cult. Seemingly a fable of the euthanasia of the bourgeoisie, Millennium People dissects the perverse psychology that links terrorists with their innocent victims. This is news from the near future, another despatch from one of the supreme chroniclers of our time.
John Gray is the author of Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (Faber & Faber)