AN APPRECIATION OF J. G. BALLARD
(First published in Book and Magazine Collector, July 2009)
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-
A young Jamie Ballard on his bicycle, as featured on the front cover of his memoirs
For the youthful Jamie, the stage-
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-
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-
Resigning his commission, he returned to London and started submitting stories, initially to the American science-
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-
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-
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-
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-
‘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-
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-
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-
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-
For the Atrocity Exhibition stories, Ballard further developed the non-
The UK edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, with another jacket featuring a surrealist artwork -
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-
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-
The ‘urban disaster’ trilogy of the early 1970s, the paperback editions of which featured garish artwork by Chris Foss and Richard Clifton-
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-
Ballard’s short story output accelerated again in 1975, many appearing in Bananas, a literary newspaper edited by his friend, Emma Tennant. Low-
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-
The years after the publication of High-
In 1984, Ballard published what is probably his most famous work, a semi-
The eagerly awaited follow-
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-
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-
Ballard’s next novel, The Kindness of Women (1991), returned to the semi-
From now on, Ballard would use the faux crime-
A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996) collected many of Ballard’s non-
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-