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Ballard, J G

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1930-2009) UK author, born in Shanghai and as a child interned in a Japanese civilian POW camp during World War Two. He first came to the UK in December 1945, and read medicine at King's College, Cambridge, but left without taking a degree. He began publishing sf with simultaneous stories in each of E J Carnell's two sf magazines: "Escapement" for New Worlds and "Prima Belladonna" for Science Fantasy, both December 1956. From the first, his writing was influenced by the Surrealist painters and the early Pop artists, and it was soon clear he was capable of opening up new prospects for sf; in retrospect it was clear from his earliest beginnings that he might become revered (and detested) for the corrosively inescapable vision of the late twentieth-century world, which his stories seemed not so much to reflect in a distorting mirror as (alarmingly) to reflect, for the first time, without defensive evasions. The only recognition the sf field has accorded him was a BSFA Award in 1980 for his one and only anodyne novel, The Unlimited Dream Company (see below), which was not in any case sf.

Ballard's interest in Psychology and in the emotional significance of deserted landscapes and wrecked Technology soon became apparent in such stories as "Build-Up" (January 1957 New Worlds; rev vt "The Concentration City" in The Disaster Area, coll 1967), "Manhole 69" (November 1957 New Worlds), "The Waiting Grounds" (November 1959 New Worlds), "The Sound-Sweep" (February 1960 Science Fantasy) and "Chronopolis" (June 1960 New Worlds). On the whole, he eschewed such sf themes as space travel, Time Travel, Aliens and ESP, concentrating instead on Near-Future decadence and Disaster. In 1962 he began using the term Inner Space to describe the area of his obsessions – see "Which Way to Inner Space?" (May 1962 New Worlds) – and declared that "the only truly alien planet is Earth". "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds) is his most important early story, an apocalyptic view of a terrible new Evolution (or Devolution) faced by the human race and echoed by signals from distant stars (see SETI). As with much of his work, its impressive quality is a result of Ballard's painterly eye, as shown in his moody descriptions of landscapes. Landscape, for instance, dominates "Studio 5, The Stars" (February 1961 Science Fantasy), in which Ballard returned to the setting of "Prima Belladonna": a decaying resort, Vermilion Sands, where poets, artists and actresses pursue perverse whims (see also Wordmills). He subsequently wrote seven more stories against this background, and the series, which constitutes one of his most popular works, was collected as Vermilion Sands (coll 1971; with 1 story added rev 1973).

Ballard's first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (cut version September-October 1961 New Worlds as "Storm-Wind"; rev 1962), was written in a fortnight, and the money that he earned from it enabled him to become a full-time writer. It is his only work of formula sf, the formula being that of John Wyndham's disaster novels. In The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) Ballard more characteristically inverted that model, creating a hero who conspires with rather than fights against the Climate-Change disaster that is overtaking his world. It was this novel which gained him acceptance as a major author, with its brilliant descriptions of an inundated London and an Ecology reverting to the Triassic, a vision intensified by clear analogues between the savage Antihero Strangman and his gang in the jungle, and Mr Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine as "The Heart of Darkness"; in Youth: A Narrative, coll 1902). However, the self-immolating tendency of his characters drew adverse criticism; some readers, particularly devotees of Genre SF, wrote Ballard off, defensively, as a pessimist and a life-hater. His next two novels, The Burning World (1964; rev vt The Drought 1965) and The Crystal World (fixup 1966), served further to polarize opinion. All these novels contain lovingly described cataclysms to which their protagonists react not so much with ambivalence as love: for these novels, though ostensibly they focus on planet-devouring catastrophes, are also liebestods, songs of love-death. Very swiftly, some commentators – e.g., Kingsley Amis and Michael Moorcock – understood that something new was afoot in the world of the fantastic, and praised Ballard's early novels highly. Sympathetic readers like these regard Ballard's unique "properties" and landscapes as being very appropriate to the contemporary world: they constitute a "true" dream vision of our times. (In an essay – "Myth-Maker of the 20th Century" [May/June 1964 New Worlds] – Ballard himself acknowledged similar qualities in the work of William S Burroughs.)

Ballard is regarded by some as a better short-story writer than novelist, however, and his 1960s stories drew an enthusiastic audience. "Deep End" (May 1961 New Worlds), "Billenium" (November 1961 New Worlds) (spelt thus rather than "Billennium" on its first appearance, and sometimes thereafter), "The Garden of Time" (February 1962 F&SF), "The Cage of Sand" (June 1962 New Worlds) and "The Watch-Towers" (June 1962 Science Fantasy) are among the excellent stories reprinted in his collections The Voices of Time and Other Stories (coll 1962), Billenium (coll 1962) and The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (coll 1963; rev 1974; vt The Voices of Time 1984). "The Subliminal Man" (January 1963 New Worlds) (see Subliminal), "A Question of Re-Entry" (March 1963 Fantastic) and "The Time-Tombs" (March 1963 If) are masterpieces of desolation and melancholy, as is "The Terminal Beach" (March 1964 New Worlds), which shows Ballard beginning to move in a new direction, towards greater compression of imagery and nonlinearity of plot. All these stories contain "properties", described objects, which have become Ballard's trademarks: wrecked spacecraft, sand-dunes, concrete deserts, broken juke-boxes, abandoned nightclubs, and military and industrial detritus in general.

In the mid-1960s Ballard became prose editor of Ambit (see Martin Bax) and during the following two decades published many of his own stories, plus novel extracts and some concrete Poetry, in that magazine.

Perhaps Ballard's strongest single collection of stories is The Terminal Beach (coll 1964), not to be confused with Terminal Beach (coll 1964): the titles have only two stories in common. (The earlier US collections of Ballard's short stories are quite different from the contemporaneous UK editions, and normally have different titles. Most of the earlier short stories appear in at least two collections.) Other collections, all containing much good material, are Passport to Eternity (coll 1963), The Impossible Man (coll 1966) and The Disaster Area (coll 1967). One story, "The Drowned Giant" (in The Terminal Beach, coll 1964; vt "Souvenir", May 1965 Playboy), was nominated for (but did not gain) a Nebula. Ballard did, however, become a figurehead of the New Wave of the later 1960s: younger UK writers such as Charles Platt and M John Harrison show his influence directly; and when a writer like Jeff VanderMeer, from an even later generation, depicts Cities at the end of time, a hard desolate Ballardian core can sometimes be discerned within the nostalgic turns of this subgenre.

"You and Me and the Continuum" (March 1966 Impulse) inaugurated a series of stories – "condensed novels", as Ballard has called them – which explore the Media Landscape of advertising, broadcasting, Politics and War. Collected as The Atrocity Exhibition (coll 1970; vt Love and Napalm: Export USA 1972; rev 1990), these are Ballard's most "difficult" works, and they provoked more hostility than anything that had gone before; the collection's intended 1970 US edition, from Doubleday, was printed but, on the instructions of a panicking executive, pulped just before publication. The hostility may have had something to do with potential legal implications of Ballard's ruthless and sometimes savagely scatological use of real people such as Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys and Ronald Reagan as "characters".

In the novel Crash (1973) Ballard took his obsession with automobile accidents to a logical conclusion. Perhaps the best example of "pornographic" sf, it explores the psychological satisfactions of danger, mutilation and death on the roads; it is also an examination of the interface between modern humanity and its Machines. Brightly lit and powerfully written, it is a work with which it is difficult for many readers to come to terms; one publisher's reader wrote of the manuscript: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." The novel was filmed as Crash (1997) directed by David Cronenberg. Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975) are also urban disaster novels set in the present, the one concerning a driver marooned on a traffic island between motorway embankments, the other focusing on the breakdown of social life in a multistorey apartment block; the latter was filmed as High-Rise (2016). All three of these novels are about the ways in which the technological landscape may be fulfilling and reflecting our own ambiguously "worst" desires.

In the mid-1970s Ballard returned to the short-story form. Such pieces as "The Air Disaster" (January 1975 Bananas), "The Smile" (Autumn/Winter 1976 Bananas) and "The Dead Time" (Spring 1977 Bananas) are outstanding psychological horror stories on the fringes of sf. The collection Low-Flying Aircraft (coll 1976) contains an excellent original novella, "The Ultimate City", which projects Ballard's urban obsessions of the 1970s into the future. Later volumes of stories are Myths of the Near Future (coll 1982), Memories of the Space Age (coll 1988) and War Fever (coll 1990), all of which contain a good deal of sf mixed with psychological fantasy. His short fiction, with negligible exceptions, has been assembled as The Complete Short Stories (coll 2001).

The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Ballard's first fully fledged Fantasy novel, concerns a young man who crashes a stolen light aircraft into the River Thames, apparently dies and is reborn, finding himself trapped in the riverside town of Shepperton (where Ballard in reality made his home). The hero discovers the ability to change himself into various beasts and birds, and to transform the sleepy suburb around him into a vivid garden of exotic flowers. More sinisterly, he is able to "absorb" human beings into his body – before expelling them again, in the apocalyptic climax to the novel. The book is a remarkable fantasy of self-aggrandizement, colourfully and compellingly told, though in the end its very privacy of imagery and implication seemed unchallenging, and won (see above) the only award Ballard has ever accepted. It was followed by Ballard's most conventionally accessible sf novel in some years, Hello America (1981), in which a European voyage of rediscovery finds an America transfigured by radical Climate Change: New York has become a Ballardian desert, sand covering the skyscrapers of Manhattan, though the Statue of Liberty has been drowned after a botched attempt to rescue her from the ruins; and Los Angeles (see California) has become a rain forest, in the heart of which spider monkeys (see Apes as Human) mime fragmented aspects of urban life.

Ballard moved away from sf again for what became his most commercially successful novel, Empire of the Sun (1984). Based on his childhood experiences in Lunghua POW camp near Japanese-occupied Shanghai, it gained him a vast new readership. The book has great merit as a psychological war novel, but for the sf reader part of its interest lies in its apparent revelation of the "sources" of many of Ballard's recurring images and "properties" (the drained swimming pools, abandoned buildings, low-flying aircraft, drowned landscapes – all can be found here, documented). The novel was filmed in 1987 by Steven Spielberg, and Ballard wrote a sequel, The Kindness of Women (1991). This latter is told in the first person – Empire of the Sun is told in the third – and covers a 50-year timespan: heavily autobiographical, it is an intriguing work for anyone interested in Ballard's career, but contains little direct reference to sf. A later personal memoir more conventionally cast as nonfiction is Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography (2008).

After the watershed of Empire of the Sun, Ballard continued to produce sf novels and tales, though none of his later work is infused with quite the incandescence and cold fury of his first decades as a writer; at the same time, his later fiction speaks honourably and cogently to the contemporary world. The Day of Creation (1987), set in an imaginary African country, is less overtly fantastic than The Unlimited Dream Company but resembles that novel in terms of theme and imagery. The narrator inadvertently causes a new river to well up from the parched earth, transforming a barren war zone into a luxuriant, although short-lived, jungle. Like all Ballard's novels it contains extraordinary descriptive passages embedded in a fairly simple plot peopled by perverse characters of some psychological complexity. This book was followed by an acute and entertaining novella, Running Wild (1988 chap), a Thames Valley murder mystery of marginal sf interest. Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000) both focus on the spiritually frozen Mediterranean littoral, where post-twentieth-century hedonists and global-corporation apparatchiks cohabit in landscapes gradually being transformed into Keeps. The imagery and motifs of these late books have become static, but by no means uncharged; the surrealist influences of Ballard's early work is here submerged (as Rob Latham has noted) in visions derived from Edward Hopper (1882-1967). The British venue for Millennium People (2003) is similarly fixated, being a world which is meaningless but which enforces obsessive attention from its cast – all three late novels feature protagonists who act as detectives, prising loose crimes it does them little good to uncover.

A fair fraction of his acerbic, proleptic nonfiction has been assembled as A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews (coll 1996) and the much larger Selected Nonfiction 1962-2007 (coll 2023); along with his attack on the "bourgeoisification" of sf by an "overprofessionalized academia", the latter contains well over 100 individual pieces. Along with Philip K Dick, Ballard remains the most influential of all sf writers who focused their transformative energies on the marriage between Inner Space and world. Both writers changed the way we perceive the course of that marriage. [DP/JC]

see also: Absurdist SF; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Conceptual Breakthrough; Crime and Punishment; Cyberpunk; Definitions of SF; Economics; Entropy; Fantastic Voyages; France; Great and Small; History of SF; Islands; Leisure; Mars; Medicine; Messiahs; Music; Mutants; Optimism and Pessimism; Overpopulation; Perception; Poisons; Post-Holocaust; Raymond Roussel; SF Music; Seiun Award; Sex; Space Flight; Supernatural Creatures; Time in Reverse; Time Viewer; UFOs; Weather Control.

James Graham Ballard

born Shanghai, China: 15 November 1930

died London: 19 April 2009


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