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

NW 54SF 20

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.

Early novels

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”.

Wind from Nowhere 1stDrowned World Berkley

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”.

Burning World 1stCrystal World 68

In these novels the disasters tend to reflect the internal states of the protagonists and the ‘disaster’, as such, is treated ambiguously.

Ambit

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).

Ambit 23Ambit 27

Ambit 29Ambit 31

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”.

Ambit 32

Homage

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)

Ambit 33Angle

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).

Ambit 36Neural

The third announcement, ”A Neural Interval” appeared in Ambit #36 and New Worlds #185 (December 1968)

Ambit 45Placental

 

”Placental Insufficiency” appeared in Ambit, #45 (Autumn 1970).

Ambit 46Venus

 

The final ‘advertiser’s announcement’, ”Venus Smiles”, appeared in Ambit, #46 (Winter 1970/1971)

Urban Nightmares

This preoccupation with sex, death and the motorcar culminated in his most extreme novel Crash (1973).

Crash (1973) forms the first part of a thematic trilogy which was continued with with Concrete Island (1974) and concluded with High-Rise (1975).

”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)

Mainstream Success

Empire of the Sun was filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987 and starred a young Christian Bale as Jim, while Crash was filmed by David Cronenberg in 1996.

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”

References
Comments
  1. Jim Endersby says:

    Very small point, but I think it was “Escapment” that appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction (#54 December 1956) and “Prima Belladonna” (Science Fantasy, v.7 #20, 1956) — you have them the wrong way round. See the Internet Speculative Fiction database: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?44449 and http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?44450

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