(First published in Book and Magazine Collector, July 2009)

By Mike Holliday

Ballard photographed in in 1979

The visionary novelist J. G. Ballard died on 19 April 2009. Over a published career of more than 50 years, he wrote in what has the appearance of a variety of genres: science fiction, autobiographical novels, mystery thriller, fantasy. However, Ballard’s works are not easily assimilated to such categories; he was essentially a writer of the imagination in the same sense that, say, Moby Dick (a novel that Ballard greatly admired) is a work of imaginative fiction. In nearly 20 novels and over 100 short stories, he kept reworking, in various guises, a number of constant themes and concerns, attracting an international readership and the praise of fellow writers as varied as Graham Greene, Jean Baudrillard, Angela Carter, Kingsley Amis, and Will Self.

James Graham Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai of English parents. His father was manager of the China Printing and Finishing Company, and the family household was served by numerous staff, including a chauffeur, one of whose tasks was to ferry the young Jamie around Shanghai. What he saw out of the windows was a city governed by free-market capitalism - on the one hand, exuberant advertising displays and entertainments, and a wealth of American consumer goods for the Westerners who lived in the International Settlement; on the other hand, a multitude of desperately poor Chinese, forced to the city by famine and war in the countryside. So many died of starvation on the streets that a fleet of trucks was employed to pick up the bodies each morning. This ‘magic kingdom’ of Shanghai left Ballard with the sense that reality was a stage-set which might be torn down at any moment, and it left its imprint throughout his writings.

A young Jamie Ballard on his bicycle, as featured on the front cover of his memoirs

For the youthful Jamie, the stage-set was dismantled within a matter of hours when the Japanese tanks rolled into the International Settlement immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941; just over a year later, the Ballard family were interned at Lunghua Camp. Following the end of the war, a fifteen year-old Ballard sailed to Britain, which with its smoke and smog, rationing, and decaying Victorian infrastructure was very different from the land that he had read about in A.A. Milne and Chums Annuals. The sense of being a foreigner in his own country allowed him, he later felt, to write about English life, and about modern Western life, with a certain detachment – sometimes puzzled, but nevertheless absorbed by what he saw.

Attending the Leys School in Cambridge, and spending his holidays with his unfriendly grandparents in Birmingham, Ballard sought solace in art exhibitions, libraries, and Cambridge’s Arts Cinema. He became acquainted with the writings of Freud and the paintings of the Surrealists: two life-long influences. An enthusiastic storyteller as a young child, he now started his first serious attempts at writing fiction.

In 1949 Ballard went to Kings College, Cambridge, to start a course in medicine. However, after two years he left Cambridge, realising that long hours as a junior doctor would prevent him from developing his writing. He spent a year studying English literature at Queen Mary College, London, but feeling that the course was not contributing to his own attempts at authorship, he decided to finish with academic study and progressed through a series of jobs – advertising copywriter, Covent Garden porter, encyclopaedia salesman – whilst trying his hand at writing short stories, but without any success in having them published.

In 1954 he applied for a commission as a pilot in the RAF, and during training in the frozen tundra of Saskatchewan, Canada, found that the only readily-available reading material was American science-fiction magazines. Some of the tales behind the lurid covers were intelligent ‘what if’ stories, exploring the implications of trends such as rampant advertising, politics conducted through the mass media, and human dependence on technology. Ballard saw that we would soon be living in a world of consumer goods, motorways, and jet travel, and believed that the best way to write about this changing landscape was through science-fiction.

Resigning his commission, he returned to London and started submitting stories, initially to the American science-fiction magazines, from whom he received only rejections, and then to the British magazines edited by E. J. Carnell, who was much more enthusiastic. His first published stories appeared in December 1956: ‘Prima Belladonna’ in Science Fantasy, and ‘Escapement’ in New Worlds. Carnell’s magazines would provide Ballard with a ready outlet for his fiction over the next few years.

Science Fantasy #20, which contained Ballard’s first published story

Ballard had married Mary Matthews not long after returning from Canada. In 1961, with three young children and a job as Deputy Editor of the magazine Chemistry & Industry, he felt he needed to find a way of becoming a full-time writer. During a fortnight’s holiday, he wrote The Wind from Nowhere, specifically for the lucrative U.S. paperback market. Ballard’s usual themes are absent from this speed-written novel, and it has long been ignored by the author himself. Although the plot and characterisation are not much more than hack-work, the irresistible growth in the wind and its alien nature are powerfully conveyed. After being serialised in New Worlds as ‘Storm-Wind’, a revised version was published in the U.S. by Berkeley in 1962. Writing The Wind from Nowhere achieved its objective, as Berkley now proceeded to publish a number of paperback collections of Ballard’s short stories; the success of the Berkley books, and of his next novel, allowed Ballard to become a full-time writer in 1963.

The Drowned World, regarded by the author as his first ‘real’ novel, portrays an Earth covered in water and lush tropical landscapes following the melting of the polar ice-caps. In Ballard’s hands, this is not so much a disaster novel as a surrealist investigation of the impact on the characters’ minds of the altered landscapes around them; their psyches return to deeper and more ancient levels, in the same way that the giant reptiles reappear to claim dominion over the Earth. It is characteristic of Ballard’s work that at the end of the novel the main character heads South, deeper into the tropical forest and towards the sun, rather than North and apparent safety; this perplexed the novel’s U.S. publisher, who mistook it for a downbeat ending, something Ballard vehemently denied, regarding the novel as a story of psychic transformation and fulfilment. The novel was well-received in Britain, Kingsley Amis referring to the author as ‘one of the brightest new stars in postwar fiction’.

Doubleday published Ballard’s first two novels as a ‘2 for 1’ hardback

The regular outlet provided by Carnell’s magazines allowed Ballard to hone his craft, and his output in the early 1960s included several classic, and much anthologised, stories such as ‘The Voices of Time’, ‘Billenium’, and ‘The Subliminal Man’. The short format, he felt, suited his writing temperament, which he described as an ‘obsessive and roving imagination’. With several years’ worth of stories already published, 1962 to 1964 saw no less than four collections published in U.S. paperback by Berkley. There were also two collections in U.K. hardback: The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) and The Terminal Beach (1964).

Two of the short story collections published by Berkley in the early 1960s, with front cover artwork by Richard Powers

Initially, Ballard’s stories had used many of the tropes from 1950s science fiction, albeit set almost entirely on Earth and in the near, rather than the distant, future. In fact, he had already tried writing in experimental formats before turning to science fiction, but now found himself unable to move too far outside the standard genre formulae because of the commercial requirements of the SF magazines. The American magazines were finally publishing his stories, but none of them would accept ‘The Terminal Beach’. Even the usually enthusiastic Carnell hesitated, only taking the story after Gollancz, who wanted a follow-up collection to The Four-Dimensional Nightmare, agreed to include it as the title story. With its fractured and interiorised narrative concerning an obsessed pilot who deliberately maroons himself on the Hydrogen-bomb test site at Eniwetok, ‘The Terminal Beach’ was a portent of things to come. The contents of The Terminal Beach collection showed greater variety than its predecessor, and included a number of stories that had not previously been published in the science fiction magazines. These stories suggested a greater confidence by Ballard in his writing, and were indicative of his growing dissatisfaction with the state of both science fiction and the ‘English literary novel’.

‘The Terminal Beach’ first appeared in New Worlds in March 1964 and subsequently in Gollancz’s second collection of Ballard’s short stories

During the early 1960s, Ballard regularly shared these dissatisfactions over pub lunches with fellow New Worlds writer Michael Moorcock. For inspiration, they looked instead to authors such as Borges and William Burroughs, to the pop artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi, and to Ernst and Dali. Moorcock took over the editorship of New Worlds from Carnell in 1964, and his first issue featured an article by Ballard extolling the work of Burroughs, together with the first section of a two-part serial, Equinox, which would later be expanded into the novel The Crystal World.

In fact, his next published novel was The Drought, which first appeared as a U.S. paperback by Berkley (1964) under the alternative title The Burning World.  In this book, Ballard turned from the psychological import of the past to that of the future, embodied by the formless and affectless landscape of a world where the rains have stopped and the land turns to desert.

Ballard felt that The Drought had not worked as well as he had hoped, and his next novel, The Crystal World (1966), may have been more what he had in mind. In this third novel of what would be seen as a ‘disaster trilogy’, a strange physical process is draining time out of the universe, and the world is slowly transforming into a crystalline structure. The main character, Dr. Sanders, is investigating the emergence of this phenomenon in the African rain forest, and finds himself drawn to the transcendent possibilities of a ‘world without time’. Based on an earlier short story, ‘The Illuminated Man’, The Crystal World ‘s striking descriptions of bejewelled forests and animals struck a chord in 1966, and the book was a popular and critical success in both the U.K. and U.S.

The Crystal World was serialised in New Worlds as ‘Equinox’ before being published by Cape, complete with a wrap-around jacket featuring Max Ernst’s painting The Eye of Silence

However, by the time The Crystal World was published, Ballard’s life had dramatically changed. In the summer of 1964, he and his family went on holiday to Alicante. There, his wife caught an infection which rapidly progressed to pneumonia – within days, she was dead. Ballard buried his wife in a local cemetery and drove his three young children back to their home in Shepperton, where he now brought them up on his own, writing in the hours while they were at school.

The loss of his wife affected Ballard deeply, and although he did manage to finish The Crystal World, he published no short stories for 18 months – a dramatic change for an author who had ten stories published in 1963 alone. When new writings did start to appear again, they were often startlingly different from his earlier work. The obsession that now drove Ballard was to understand the affectless, violent, and media-saturated world around him, and to do so in a way that might somehow make sense of the many meaningless deaths … of his wife, of the civilians and soldiers he had seen slaughtered in Shanghai, and of the iconic figure of President Kennedy – the most public death of all.

The stories written around this theme during the period 1966 to 1969 were later collected into The Atrocity Exhibition. Most of them concern a protagonist, variously named Travis, Tallis, or some variant thereof, who is a psychiatrist undergoing a mental breakdown. In order to re-establish meaningful connections with the world around him, he re-enacts iconic events such as Kennedy’s assassination and the launch pad deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts. Other pieces were satires, in the form of mock psychological studies. One of these, provocatively titled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’, was originally published as a pamphlet by the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton, and featured in the trial of the bookshop’s owner, Bill Butler, on charges of obscenity.

For the Atrocity Exhibition stories, Ballard further developed the non-linear style he had used in ‘The Terminal Beach’, stripping the narrative of anything that was not central to the development of the ‘psychological drama’ of each short section, and thereby omitting the personal and social history that normally backgrounds a story. The result was a dense, rich concoction, with different aspects and connections becoming apparent as the reader delves deeper into the text. Despite the generally poor reviews it received in the U.K., The Atrocity Exhibition is possibly Ballard’s greatest achievement, chosen by Michael Moorcock in 1999 as ‘book of the century’, and described by the New York Times as ‘a high-water mark in English experimental fiction’.

The UK edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, with another jacket featuring a surrealist artwork - this time by Dali

The Atrocity Exhibition was enthusiastically accepted for U.S. publication by Doubleday, but just as the printing presses were beginning to roll, a member of their senior management picked up a copy and took exception to the contents. The order went out to stop the presses and to destroy the entire edition. However, some advance review copies and file copies survived, perhaps around a dozen or so, and this is certainly the rarest of Ballard's books. The collection was eventually published in the U.S. by Grove Press under the revised title Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. (1972). This edition quickly went out of print, and the book did not reappear in the U.S. until 1990 when Re/Search published a large format, extensively illustrated, paperback edition that included sidebar annotations newly written by Ballard.

Many sections of The Atrocity Exhibition had first appeared in Ambit, a magazine that had been started by London paediatrician Martin Bax in 1959 and which mixed poetry, fiction, and art. Ballard met Bax in 1965, became prose editor of Ambit the following year, and continued to contribute to the magazine for a further 20 years.

Ballard’s next novel, Crash (1973), took up one of the themes that had briefly appeared in The Atrocity Exhibition – our fascination with the automobile, and the links that exist between the car and our deepest fears and desires. The experimental style of the previous book was discarded for a more conventional narrative, albeit one that is almost airless in its obsessive descriptions, or as Ballard put it, ‘a book where the reader had nowhere to hide’. The result was again contentious and garnered luke-warm reviews in Britain and the U.S. It was however a success in France, where it sold more in translation than any of Ballard’s earlier books had done in English.

Crash was quickly followed by two more novels which completed what became known as Ballard’s ‘urban disaster’ trilogy. Concrete Island (1974) was a minor work compared to its predecessors, but High-Rise (1975) might be considered something of a buried treasure. Overshadowed by Ballard's better-known novels, it has one of the most startling first lines in modern fiction: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ The novel describes the descent into chaos, and eventual barbarism, of an apartment block peopled by middle-class professionals. Ballard’s ironic, dry humour is more evident than in Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition (although it is not entirely absent from those books, either), and the concerns that in his previous novels had been portrayed through a single, isolated individual are here examined from a larger, social perspective.

The ‘urban disaster’ trilogy of the early 1970s, the paperback editions of which featured garish artwork by Chris Foss and Richard Clifton-Dey

Apart from the pieces that comprised The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s short story output had declined dramatically after 1964. The collections published in the following 10 years were therefore largely put together from those stories omitted from earlier volumes. One of particular note was Vermilion Sands (1971), a collection of stories set in a fictional resort, where the population of artists, poets, and ex-actresses pursue their whims and desires in a society governed by leisure rather than by work.

Ballard’s short story output accelerated again in 1975, many appearing in Bananas, a literary newspaper edited by his friend, Emma Tennant. Low-Flying Aircraft (1976) collected a number of stories from the previous 10 years, although it is one of his less-inspired volumes.

After three novels in as many years, Ballard did not publish another for four years, later explaining that he felt he had somehow ‘lost his audience’ with the novels of the early ‘70s. In fact, these were the books that brought Ballard to the attention of intelligent, disaffected youth later in the decade; by the early 1980s, he was as likely to be interviewed at length in the NME as anywhere else.

Ironically, just as Ballard was beginning to acquire something of a cult status, the author himself was moving off in other directions. Each of his novels over the next twenty years would offer something different. The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) moved towards outright fantasy, describing how a young pilot named Blake crashes a plane into the Thames at Shepperton and, finding himself physically unable to leave, develops a series of magical powers with which he can transform the town and its inhabitants: exotic plants bloom over the buildings, and Blake teaches the townsfolk to (literally) fly. At the end of the book, the inhabitants of Shepperton soar upwards into the waiting universe, whilst Blake stays behind in order to work a similar transformation on the rest of the world. The book drew high praise on its publication (although many reviewers missed its ambiguities and darker side, amidst the more ecstatic rhapsodies), but it seems to have been largely forgotten following the success of Empire of the Sun a few years later.

Hello America (1981) was originally intended as an illustrated, comedic novella for a proposed series by Pierrot Books; when this venture fell through the text was amended by Ballard and published as his next full novel. The young protagonist and the lighter-hearted style reflects its original intended market, but the book does display Ballard’s enthusiasm for American culture, here rediscovered by a group of European explorers sent to investigate a continent that is nearly deserted after dramatic climate changes.

The years after the publication of High-Rise were something of a mixed bag, with novels such as Hello America and stories in the literary newspaper Bananas

In 1984, Ballard published what is probably his most famous work, a semi-autobiographical novel based around his childhood in Shanghai and internment by the Japanese. It was on the best-seller list for months, won the Guardian Fiction prize, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. However, Empire of the Sun, later filmed by Steven Spielberg, was nevertheless fiction, exploring some of the author’s longstanding themes such as the provisional nature of what we take to be the real world, and the underlying pathological aspects of human nature – embodied here in the boy Jim’s premonitions of a never-ending World War III.

The eagerly awaited follow-up novel, The Day of Creation (1987), may have disappointed some of those who came to the author via its successful predecessor. Yet Creation is in many ways classic, albeit low-key, Ballard. This tale of a journey up an African river by a British doctor, a river that he himself has accidentally created, is in some ways a return to the dream-allegory of The Unlimited Dream Company, albeit lighter in tone. Another of Ballard’s tributes to the potential of the imagination, the novel also meditates on the ambiguous power of the media as seen via its effects on the characters who accompany the doctor on his journey to the river’s source.

Running Wild (1988) was a novella written for a short fiction series published by Hutchinson, and contained striking full page illustrations and cover artwork by Janet Woolley. Ballard used the format of the crime novel to consider the effects of gated communities on the families that inhabit them; for the children, these ‘zones of safety’ force their lives down pre-ordained routes, and they seek some sort of freedom through their own interior and sub-conscious resources – a familiar refrain. The resulting violence, as the parents are butchered by their offspring, is a typical Ballardian inversion; the search for a life of certainty and fulfilment has led only to its opposite … not because of some mischance, but because of the complex and ambiguous character of human beings. In Ballard’s hands, the detective aspects of the book are perfunctory, the solution being obvious to the reader almost from the outset; the lack of insight of the characters is in fact a surreal outcome of the same society that has produced the gated community and its murderous progeny.

The illustrated novella, Running Wild, with cover and artwork by Janet Woolley

Short stories had continued to flow from Ballard’s typewriter, albeit in reduced numbers, finally ceasing in the early 1990s; many appeared in a new British science fiction magazine, Interzone. Ballard’s stories from the late-1970s and 1980s included some of his best, among them ‘The Index’, ‘The Intensive Care Unit’, ‘Memories of the Space Age’, and ‘The Enormous Space’. Most of these stories were collected in Myths Of The Near Future (1982) and War Fever (1990). Memories Of The Space Age, published in the U.S. by Arkham House in 1988, was a themed collection of Ballard’s ‘astronaut’ stories, and included a number of full page illustrations by Jeffrey K. Potter.

Ballard’s next novel, The Kindness of Women (1991), returned to the semi-autobiographical approach of Empire of the Sun, describing Jim’s life in England after the end of the war. This ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s best-known novel was generally well-received, the tender tone of Jim’s relationships being unexpected in the author of works such as Crash. However, many regarded the next offering, Rushing to Paradise (1994), as the author’s least successful novel.

From now on, Ballard would use the faux crime-novel approach of Running Wild to investigate those quintessential aspects of the modern world that had been routinely ignored by mainstream British fiction - the shopping malls, business parks, and gated communities of suburbia. He had already explained the fascination that these held for him at the time of the publication of Running Wild: ‘I am interested in the “landscape” of consumer goods, and I feel that suburbia, which is generally regarded as a place where not that much happens, is in fact more crucial in terms of social change than people realize. Changing lifestyles, changes in social consciousness - they are much more apparent in a place like this than you might think.’ Of these four explorations of what Ballard termed ‘the suburbanisation of the soul’, Super-Cannes (2000) is probably the most successful.

Super-Cannes - the pick out of Ballard’s later novels

A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996) collected many of Ballard’s non-fiction pieces over the previous 30 years or more: film and book reviews, opinion pieces, autobiographical passages, art appreciations – most of which pursued by other means the same concerns that had been evident throughout his fiction.

In 2008 Ballard published his autobiography, Miracles of Life, at the end of which he revealed that he was suffering from advanced cancer. Garnering appreciative reviews, this clear-sighted look back at his own life brought out the distinction between Jim Ballard, the family man, and J. G. Ballard, the author of books such as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash that might appear to some readers to lack characterisation or emotion. As Ballard had already explained back in 1991, the warmth had always been there, it was just that as an author his interest was not in human relationships, but in what he termed ‘the new logic of our lives’.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the issue of “Book and Magazine Collector” for July 2009. Mike Holliday, February 2018

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