J. G. Ballard
”I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen”
—— J. G. Ballard
Ballard’s most famous novel is probably Empire of the Sun (1984), a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experiences in Shanghai and the Lunghua internment camp during World War II. The origin of many of his recurrent visual motifs (abandoned runways, empty swimming pools, etc) can be found in that novel.
J. G. Ballard’s first novel was The Wind from Nowhere (1961) but it was his unusual ‘catastrophe’ novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964, expanded as The Drought, 1965) and The Crystal World (1966) which established Ballard as a leading figure in the science fiction New Wave movement associated with Michael Moorcock‘s New Worlds magazine.
New Worlds & Science Fantasy
Ballard’s first two stories were published almost simultaneously in December 1956: ”Prima Belladonna” in New Worlds Science Fiction #54, and ”Escapement” in Science Fantasy #20. The former was the first in a series of short stories set in the resort of Vermillion Sands.
Ballard became a key figure in the 1960s New Wave.
Ballard’s first full length novel was The Wind from Nowhere (1961) but Ballard later dismissed this novel – written in just ten days – as ”a piece of hackwork”.
It was in his unusual ‘catastrophe’ novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964, expanded as The Drought, 1965) and The Crystal World (1966) that Ballard first achieved his novelistic ”voice”.
In these novels the disasters tend to reflect the internal states of the protagonists and the ‘disaster’, as such, is treated ambiguously.
An extract from The Drowned World was published in Ambit #23 (Spring 1965) and this began a long association with the magazine and introduced him into the social circle of Editor Dr Martin Bax, Art Editor Michael Foreman and eventually artist Eduardo Paolozzi. The magazine would see the first publication of several of Ballard’s ”condensed novels” that would be included in Ballard’s collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1969).
Ballard’s short story collection The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) was the subject of an obscenity trial. One chapter of is entitled “Crash!” and inspired Ballard to organise an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory in 1970, which he called “Crashed Cars”.
The first of Ballard’s ”Advertiser’s Announcements”, ”Homage to Claire Churchill”, appeared in both Ambit #32 (Summer 1967) and New Worlds #176 (October 1967)
The second ‘advertiser’s announcement’, ”Does the Angle Between Two Walls Have a Happy Ending?” also appeared in New Worlds #178 (December 1967) in again in Ambit #60 (Autumn 1974).
The third announcement, ”A Neural Interval” appeared in Ambit #36 and New Worlds #185 (December 1968)
”Placental Insufficiency” appeared in Ambit, #45 (Autumn 1970).
The final ‘advertiser’s announcement’, ”Venus Smiles”, appeared in Ambit, #46 (Winter 1970/1971)
This preoccupation with sex, death and the motorcar culminated in his most extreme novel Crash (1973).
”A central concern in the work of J.G. Ballard is the problem of transcendence, that is, of exceeding, escaping the limitations of the material world, time and space, the body, the senses and ordinary ego-consciousness. In various wise, this theme informs the greater part of the author’s work, and has often been misapprehended by critics as a nihilistic or fatalistic preoccupation with devolution, decay, dissolution and entropy… [T]he theme of transcendence… represents, not a negation of human values and goals, but an affirmation of the highest humanistic and metaphysical ideal: the repossession for man of an authentic and absolute being.”
— Gregory Stephenson (1985, p.38)
Ballard and Postmodernism
Although a darling of postmodern Theorists Ballard was scathing of what he saw of their over-intellectualizing:
I thought the whole problem SF faced was that its consciousness, critically speaking, had been raised to wholly inappropriate heights—the apotheosis of the hamburger. An exhilarating and challenging entertainment fiction which Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain would have relished has become a “discipline”—God help us—beloved of those like the Delany who will no doubt pour scorn on my novel of the early ’70s. The “theory and criticism of s-f”!! Vast theories and pseudo-theories are elaborated by people with not an idea in their bones. Needless to say, I totally exclude Baudrillard (whose essay on Crash I have not really wanted to understand)—I read it for the first time some years ago. Of course, his Amerique is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift— brilliancies and jewels of insight in every paragraph—an intellectual Alladin’s cave. But your whole “postmodernism” view of SF strikes me as doubly sinister. SF was ALWAYS modern, but now it is “postmodern”—bourgeoisification in the form of an over-professionalized academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance is now rolling its jaws over an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone. You are killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be! Turn your “intelligence” to the iconography of filling stations, cash machines, or whatever nonsense your entertainment culture deems to be the flavor of the day. We have enough intellectuals in Europe as it is; let the great USA devote itself to the spirit of the Wrights—bicycle mechanics and the sons of a bishop. The latter’s modesty and exquisitely plain prose style would be an example to you— especially his restrained but heartfelt reflections on the death of one of his sons, a model of the spirit animating SF at its best. But I fear you are trapped inside your dismal jargon.
— J. G. Ballard, ”In Response To Jean Baudrillard”
- Ballard, J. G. (1961) The Wind From Nowhere
- Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Harindranath (2001) The Crash Controversy
- Baudrillard, Jean (1991) ”Two Essays: 1. Simulacra and Science Fiction & 2. Ballard’s Crash” (Translated by Arthur B. Evans) in Science Fiction Studies #55, Volume 18, Part 3, November 1991
- Brigg, Peter (1986) ”The Night Dream and the Glimmer of Light: J.G. Ballard’s Hello America” in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction #36, Summer 1986
- Gioia, Ted, ”The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard”
- Hayles, N. Katherine, David Porush, Brooks Landon, Vivian Sobchack and J.G. Ballard (1991) ”In Response To Jean Baudrillard” in Science Fiction Studies #55, Volume 18, Part 3, November 1991
- McKee, Alan (1993) ”Intentional Phalluses: The Male Sex in J.G. Ballard” in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction #57, Spring 1993
- Ruddick, Nicholas (1992) ”Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard” in Science Fiction Studies #58, Volume 19, Part 3, November 199 2
- Stephenson, Gregory (1985) ”J.G. Ballard: The Quest for an Ontological Eden” in Foundation #35, Winter 1985/86
- Unknown, ”William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard: An In-Depth Account Drawing on Interviews, Correspondence, and Unpublished Documents” at RealityStudio: A William S. Burroughs Community