By Richard Behrens
J. G. Ballard
"Fiction is a branch of neurology: the scenarios of nerve and blood vessel are the written mythologies of memory and desire."
-- J.G. Ballard
Working quietly over the last forty years from the domestic seclusion of a London suburb, J.G. Ballard has proven to be one of the world's most imaginative and thought-provoking writers. His books are primarily known to readers of science fiction, but he has produced work that crosses many boundaries, borrowing from and blending several genres, fusing action adventure with hard science, psychiatry with surrealism, and postmodernism with pulp narratives. His stories, often hallucinatory or dreamlike in character, are futurist predictions of where technology, media and the internal logic of our own suburban landscapes may be leading us. Ballard has described his mission as writing "a mythology of the future" and that is about as accurate a label as you can give to his collected works.
To a mainstream audience, he is the author of Empire of the Sun, a novel about his wartime experiences in China, and Crash, a puzzling and disturbing novel about the sexuality of car crashes. Both have been made into Hollywood movies, the former to great acclaim by Stephen Spielberg in 1985 and the later by David Cronenberg in 1995 amidst a controversy that resulted in the film being banned from certain parts of London. Both films have done justice to the source material, mixing Ballard's authentic poetic sensibilities with the highly individual visions of their respective directors. Hopefully, the films have helped his books find a new generation of readers.
Ballard has never stayed with the perimeters of his chosen professions. As a medical student in Cambridge, he looked at the dissected corpses upon which he labored with the subconscious fascination of a Surrealist poet. In The Kindness of Women, he wrote: "I held her dissected hand, whose nerves and tendons I had teased into the light. Its layers of skin and muscle resembled a deck of cards that she waited to deal across the table to me." As an RAF pilot-in-training, he was more concerned with the dream of mass atomic destruction than the craft of flying: "The mysterious mushroom clouds . . . were a powerful incitement to the psychotic imagination, sanctioning everything."
Likewise, as a science fiction writer, he shied away from the usual trappings of the genre. Missing are the spaceships, galactic empires, and imaginary fantasy worlds with their elven kingdoms and fanciful histories. Also gone are the alien races, the flying saucers and mutated atomic monsters so prevalent in the science fiction of the 1950's when Ballard got his start. Instead we are treated to a poet's vision of a haunted world. Though still essentially grounded in science fiction (his future technologies and ecological disasters are unsurpassed in the genre), reading one of his books is like falling into the interior world of a Surrealist painting.
Ballard often said that the main difference between a Surrealist landscape and one painted by a classical artist is that the Surrealist landscape is lacking the element of time. Whereas the scenes depicted by Rembrandt, for example, are always very explicit about time -- the light of the sun penetrating the picture in such a way that you can always pinpoint the time of day -- a landscape by Ernst shows a place where the element of time has been extracted. Ballard has tried over and again to not only portray these timeless landscapes (often needing to destroy civilization to bring them about in a way that makes narrative sense), but he has shown his main characters suffering from a time extraction that is very real.
Dr. Nathan passed the illustration across his desk to Margaret Travis. "Marey's chronograms are multiple-exposure photographs in which the element of time is visible-the walking human figure, for example represented as a series of dune-like lumps . . . Your husband's brilliant feat was to reverse the process. Using a series of photographs of the most commonplace objects-this office, let us say, a panorama of New York skyscrapers, the naked body of a woman, the face of a catatonic patient-he treated them as if they already were chronograms and extracted the element of time." Dr. Nathan lit his cigarette with care. 'The results were extraordinary. A very different world was revealed. The familiar surroundings of our lives, even our smallest gestures, were seen to have total altered meanings. As for the reclining figure of a film star, or this hospital...." (The Atrocity Exhibition)
The virus in The Crystal World that is destroying the African jungle is not a conventional virus, but one which freezes matter into a timeless state:
Radek paused, collecting his energies with an effort. 'Tatlin believes that this Hubble Effect, as they call it, is closer to a cancer than anything else -- and about as curable -- an actual proliferation of the sub-atomic identity of all matter. It's as if a sequence of displaced but identical images of the same object were being produced by refraction through a prism, but with the element of time replacing the role of light."
(The Crystal World)
The infected jungle landscapes he describes in the novel are worthy of a painting by Max Ernst, who transformed the Arizona desert with the keen eye of a timeless visionary. No wonder many of Ballard's early paperback collections of stories feature cover paintings that depict Tanguy-like amorphic blobs floating on the fused sands of psychic landscapes. What Ballard wrote was more like a Surrealist painting in prose, visions of vast subconscious shifts and the intersections where they touch the perimeter of conscious reality and every day life.
James Graham Ballard was born in Shanghai, China in 1930 where his father ran a textile firm. He was raised in the International Settlement amidst a discordant atmosphere of privilege, poverty and warfare. When he was seven, the Japanese invaded China and violent battles were fought in the outerlying suburbs. Ballard's family lived in their middle-class homes under a darkening sky, waiting for the war to close in them, watching their swimming pools drain and their Packards sit motionless in the driveways while artillery shells and stray bombs invaded their private world.
His parents remained in the city up until the Japanese occupation and scenes of apocalyptic devastation were daily fare for young Jim: tours of battlefields where mutilated bodies lay twisted in the mud, savage attacks on the Chinese populace by the brutal Japanese military, the omnipresent threat of arrest and death. After Pearl Harbor, the International Settlement was occupied by the Japanese and by 1943 the British living there had been relocated to a prison camp eight miles from Shanghai. This was the camp, with its swampy canals and malarial mosquitoes, that was recreated in the novel and subsequent film, Empire of the Sun.
After the war, Ballard moved to England, a country that was as alien to him as any distant planet. He claims that he suffered a culture shock that he has never recovered from, moving from a volatile world of warfare, death and political upheaval to one of bourgeois comfort, complacency and boredom. He attended Cambridge where he took up medical studies in a bid to become a psychiatrist, but after a few years of studying what he considered to be the interesting parts of medical studies (anatomy, physiology and pathology -- disciplines that would surface and resurface in all his later fiction), he decided he wanted to be a writer. In the late 40's and early 50's, he wrote a few unpublished works that were highly experimental, largely influenced by the Surrealist movement which he had discovered and regarded as one of the most important art movements of the twentieth century.
Soon he took an impulsive about-face and went to Canada with the RAF to learn how to fly. He realized that the atomic age would give birth to armies of airborne young men driving their bombers deep into the far reaches of the world carrying their destructive cargo, and he wanted to be a part of it. In spirit, he was embodying the farcical moral contradictions of Dr. Strangelove, a movie he would come to admire. His internal visions of world destruction were paving the way for the later creative projects that would destroy the earth over and over again in a series of powerful short stories and novels. It was at this time, hanging out with the RAF pilots in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, that he discovered in the racks of the airbase cafeteria the science fiction magazines that were to dominate the next few decades of his life.
His early short SF stories, published in magazines such as Science Fantasy and New Worlds Science Fiction, are at once both firmly rooted within the genre, consciously imitating other ../authors.html (Jack Vance in "Passport To Eternity," Ray Bradbury in "The Drowned Giant"); and at the same time transcendent of the traditional formulas through their use of experimental techniques such as surrealism. Of course he was not the first to mingle sci-fi with experimental fiction; William Burroughs had just published The Naked Lunch as he was coming of literary age, and Ballard openly admits that the Beat writer had a mesmerizing influence over him.
By the time Ballard published his first few novels, he had emerged as a mature voice with strong literary roots. In the jungles, deserts and drowned cities, in the legions of pirates, marooned scientists and obsessed adventurers that litter his early work, one can feel the dark landscapes of Joseph Conrad and the whale hunters of Herman Melville. It was recognized almost immediately that he was a skilled and visionary writer who, like his Surrealist predecessors, painted detailed, realistic and vivid scenes of inner landscapes and haunted dreams.
His early novels, The Wind From Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (a.k.a. The Burning World, 1964) and The Crystal World (1966), form a tetrology of the elements (Air, Water, Fire and Earth respectively), each depicting the destruction of civilization by some elemental disaster. The ice caps melt in the wake of a solar storm heating up the planet and the cities of the earth are flooded; a virus that crystallizes time spreads through an African jungle, etc. Ballard's post-apocalyptic universes are stages upon which he plays out the future evolution of human consciousness. His main characters are often scientists who are possessed by the changed landscape of the earth, living in the ruins of cities, usually in abandoned hotels, ignoring danger for the sake of following some change that is occurring deep in their psyches. Ballard's characters often prefer the destroyed civilizations in which they live over the living cities in which they grew up. Their changing psyches adapt to the landscape:
Sometimes he wonders what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would be merely an encumbrance.
(The Drowned World)
After a respectable and successful decade as a science fiction writer, Ballard produced two novels that challenged his reputation and placed his career on a different path. Perhaps he was outgrowing his need for science fiction contrivances and returning to his roots of experimental fiction; perhaps he was working through a personal crisis sparked by the accidental death of his wife; but his work grew considerably darker. Indeed, his later work has occasionally been labeled perverse, pornographic and even psychotic.
The first of these "new" novels was The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Fragmented, obsessive, cryptic, and openly inviting disgust, this novel comes as close as modern fiction can to the paranoid-critical vision of a Dali painting. It reads with the flavor of atrocity photographs from Hiroshima, dissection films, and Vietnam medical textbooks filled with photos of body mutilations. Though morally repulsive and almost completely incoherent, the novel still manages to paint a beautifully disintegrated vision of a future in which mental patients and their doctors piece out the fragments and images of World War III through their artwork, obsessions, and billboard advertising.
In his quest to write a "mythology of the future," Ballard was pilfering the present for the icons, images and psychologies that were emerging from the media consciousness of pre-World War Three culture. A novel like The Atrocity Exhibition is arguably a sane response to the moral dilemmas being raised on an almost daily basis by the psychotic media in the late 20th Century. In any event, there was nothing to compare with it: Ballard had finally arrived at an authentic and original voice.
Crash (1971), his next novel, was turned down by many publishing houses, one rejection letter even going so far as to recommend that the author seek out psychiatric help. Indeed, when Vaughn the perverted motorist stalks Elizabeth Taylor in an attempt to die with her in a head-on collision, and treats colored photographs of crash-induced body mutilations like pornography, one certainly can wonder about the motives and even the mental stability of Ballard himself!
But despite the outcry from the critics, Ballard knew exactly what he was doing with his dark creations. Few noticed that the author had brilliantly singled out car crashes as an iconic image that dominated our media. In the early 70's when the novel was written, pornography was just becoming an above-ground phenomenon with its own industry, and film audiences were demanding car chases and their subsequent crashes in ever increasing quantities. The relationship between eroticism, sex and car crashes was a pulse in our contemporary culture that everyone felt but few consciously noticed.
Throughout the 70's and early 80's, Ballard returned to more traditional storytelling with Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981). Never abandoning the themes he had begun exploring, however, these novels continue a fascination with deviant psychologies (the tenants of High Rise turn their own apartment building in a primal battlefield in which they are trapped like the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies), destroyed worlds (Hello America portrays a United States after its destruction by a rampaging desert), and new sexualities (the air pilot of The Unlimited Dream Company reduces the London suburb in which he crashes into a Edenic paradise through the strange medium of his own semen). Ballard even boldly continued his car crash theme in Concrete Island, in which a motorist crashes into an enclosed wasteland between highway ramps and becomes trapped in a odd landscape of abandoned basements and destroyed cars, populated by a homeless duo whose psyches have adapted to the surreal world of their concrete prison.
In 1984 he published Empire of the Sun, an account of his childhood experiences in China, and his first novel lacking any elements of the fantastic or the outré. This is not to say, however, that he made a radical departure from his usual thematic material. Empire of the Sun and its sequel, The Kindness of Women (1991) lay bare in clear fashion the autobiographical details that have helped shape his weird world of violent accidents, destroyed cities and dead astronauts. Like Dali, whose various autobiographies have helped many viewers demystify his strange paintings, these two novels reveal the meaning and motives behind many of Ballard's recurring themes and on-going obsessions. They have also helped solidify his reputation as a major Western novelist with serious intent beyond the usual trappings of the science fiction genre.
Since his mainstream success with Empire of the Sun, Ballard's novels have not yet returned to the harsh realms of science fiction from which he had gained his reputation and fame, but have all still mirrored themes, images and concerns from his earlier work. In The Day of Creation (1987), a stretch of African desert is transformed by an underground river accidentally brought to the surface by a mentally deteriorating English doctor. The Doctor, who identifies himself with the river, has much the same obsessiveness of the survivors of Ballard's earlier destroyed cities. He takes off along the river on a stolen ferry, journeying towards its source in a voyage that echoes Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and the dream-like Venusian landscapes of William Burroughs' Nova Mob novels.
Rushing to Paradise (1994) likewise doesn't fail in painting the familiar but strange beauty of Ballardian landscapes, here a former nuclear testing site in the South Pacific. An ecologist who fits Ballard's often used description of "a beautiful but insane woman" takes over the radioactive atoll to establish her own destructive utopia. Published at the height of the literary trend for political correctness, the novel manages to mock and offend both environmentalism and feminism, reminding us that throughout his entire career, with his on-going obsessions with car crashes, dissected female bodies, nuclear explosions, death and mass murder, Ballard has never exactly been a politically correct voice in literature.
Running Wild (1989) and Cocaine Nights (1998) are both mystery novels that focus on bourgeois communities where the wealthy raise their families in an atmosphere of security cameras, cafés, cinemas, and housing estates, all in suffocating isolation from the outside world. Reading these novels one is reminded of High Rise, an earlier work that probes the notion that the architectural landscape which we create can transform our inner life and alter the course of our psychic evolution, sometimes in dangerous and very destructive ways. One is also reminded of Ballard's own experiences in the International Settlement of Shanghai, where the aristocratic European elite lived in their luxury housing, maintaining their lifestyle amidst the turmoil and death in the outer lying suburbs.
What is one to make out of this all? To enter the Ballardian universe is much like approaching the collected works of Dali, a painter whom Ballard greatly admires and whose sensibilities have helped shaped his novels. Like that difficult painter, Ballard has littered his work with discrete images that recur and permutate to form a repeating music-like pulse: drained swimming pools, flooded or burned cities, concrete aprons and highway exit ramps, billboard hoarding, the haunted bodies of dead pilots and astronauts, silt-choked deltas, infested swamps and jungles, deserted military bases and hotels, psychiatric homes and the empty corridors of abandoned hospitals, rotting vegetation along tropical coastlines, crashed cars, buried airplanes, lonely beaches and the rusting gantries of empty space centers, high rise apartments, suburban streets and highway clover leafs, World War Two bunkers and weapons ranges. . . .
It is often hard to navigate through these recurring images and leitmotifs. Perhaps the whole of his work must be read to appreciate the depth, range and logical patterning of his constructions, from his earliest short stories to the recent Cocaine Nights. If one were to plunge directly into his most fragmented and troubling novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, or his most psycho-pathological, Crash, one would be adrift in a deepening ocean as destructive as the lagoons that flood the city of London in The Drowned World. But seen as a unified whole, his work emerges as a powerful meditation on the human consciousness -- often brutal and morally repulsive, politically insouciant, at times even nihilist; but unwaveringly focused on the rare and poetic beauty existing in the profound light that his characters feel radiating from the fabric of matter itself. His novels and short stories, written over the span of forty years, lay bare our interior worlds and our relationship to the ever-changing physical world and the landscapes we create upon it, be they Pacific atolls blasted by nuclear testing, the patterning of highway ramps that stretch across our cities, the luxury communities we build to shield ourselves from our primitive natures, or the rivers, deserts or solar flares that destroy our civilizations and force us to bind to a new covenant with the sun and the earth.
--Richard Behrens, 21 December 2003
More on J.G. Ballard
Bibliography -- The Libyrinth's bibliography of Ballard's novels, short stories, and nonfiction.
You may order Ballard's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's J.G. Ballard Bookstore.
BALLARDIAN: The Universe of JG Ballard -- Part of Sleepy Brain, Ballardian is intended to house tributes, homages, parodies, critiques, analyses, hagiographies, pastiches and idolatory ramblings to do with the work JG Ballard.
J.G. Ballard: Twentieth-Century Chronicler -- One of the more comprehensive Ballard sites on the Web, maintained by Jim Goddard.
JGBallard.com -- Maintained by Spike magazine, this is the Web's largest collection of links to Ballard sites, and has links to several reviews and interviews.
JG Ballard Collection of First & Variant Editions -- Rick McGrath's site features hundreds of cover scans, including scans of the rare trashed doubleday edition of The Atrocity Exhibition.
Interview With J.G. Ballard About William Burroughs -- Conducted by Salon.com in September 1997.
Re/Search Publications -- Always on the avant-garde edge of what is disturbing, Re/Search magazine has been an underground classic for many years. Re/Search Issue #8/9 is an extraordinary collection of writings by Ballard, about Ballard and interviews with Ballard. An absolute must for all serious Ballard readers. They have also re-published The Atrocity Exhibition with extensive annotations by Ballard himself.
Extreme Metaphor -- Chris Hall of Spike Magazine takes a long look Ballard and his work in this excellent essay.
The Official Crash Movie Web Site -- A site detailing the Cronenberg film.
Roger Ebert on Crash -- One of the more lucid reviews of this frankly disturbing film.
InterZone Magazine -- Considered by many to be the world's best Science Fiction magazine, InterZone has published many of Ballard's short stories.
Google Search -- This will search news groups related to Ballard.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Ballard.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Ballard and his work.
RICHARD BEHRENS is a native New Yorker whose fiction, poetry and film & music criticism has appeared in Parabola, Blue Light Red Light, Forbidden Lines, Chakra, Bogus Review, Artitude and Cinemaphobia. He has also been published in such on-line publications as InterText, Planet Magazine, Dark Planet, Morella and Road of Shadows. Richard lives in denial in New Jersey with his three cats Leopold, Stephen and Molly and his impossibly large book collection which keeps following him wherever he goes.
Back to the Scriptorium
Send Richard email
Send J.G. Ballard Info, Links & Comments to the Great Quail