J(ames) G(raham) Ballard Biography
J.G. Ballard comments:
Nationality: British. Born: Shanghai, China, 1930. Education: Leys School, Cambridge; King's College, Cambridge. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force. Awards: Guardian Fiction prize, 1984; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1985. Agent: Margaret Hanbury, 27 Walcot Square, London SE11 4UB.
The Wind from Nowhere. New York, Berkley, 1962; London, Penguin, 1967.
The Drowned World. New York, Berkley, 1962; London, Gollancz, 1963.
The Burning World. New York, Berkley, 1964; revised edition, as The Drought, London, Cape, 1965.
The Crystal World. London, Cape, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1966.
Crash. London, Cape, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1973.
Concrete Island. London, Cape, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1974.
High-Rise. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Holt Rinehart, 1977.
The Unlimited Dream Company. London, Cape, and New York, HoltRinehart, 1979.
Hello America. London, Cape, 1981.
Empire of the Sun. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1984.
The Day of Creation. London, Gollancz, 1987; New York, FarrarStraus, 1988.
Running Wild. London, Hutchinson, 1988; New York, Farrar Straus, 1989.
The Kindness of Women. London, Harper Collins, 1991; New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
Rushing to Paradise. New York, Picador USA, 1995.
Cocaine Nights. London, Flamingo, 1996; Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 1998.
The Voices of Time and Other Stories. New York, Berkley, 1962;London, Orion, 1992.
Billenium and Other Stories. New York, Berkley, 1962.
The Four-Dimensional Nightmare. London, Gollancz, 1963; published as The Voices of Time, London, Phoenix, 1998.
Passport to Eternity and Other Stories. New York, Berkley, 1963.
Terminal Beach. London, Gollancz, 1964; abridged edition, NewYork, Berkley, 1964; London, Phoenix, 1993.
The Impossible Man and Other Stories. New York, Berkley, 1966.
The Disaster Area. London, Cape, 1967.
The Day of Forever. London, Panther, 1967.
The Overloaded Man. London, Panther, 1967.
Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. Brighton, Unicorn Bookshop, 1968.
The Atrocity Exhibition. London, Cape, 1970; as Love and Napalm: Export USA, New York, Grove Press, 1972; published in expanded, annotated, illustrated edition under original title, with author's annotations, San Francisco, RE/Search Publications, 1990.
Chronopolis and Other Stories. New York, Putnam, 1971.
Vermilion Sands. New York, Berkley, 1971; London, Cape, 1973.
Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories. London, Cape, 1976.
The Best of J.G. Ballard. London, Futura, 1977.
The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1978; with introduction by Anthony Burgess, New York, Holt, 1995.
The Venus Hunters. London, Panther, 1980.
News from the Sun. London, Interzone, 1982.
Myths of the Near Future. London, Cape, 1982.
Memories of the Space Age. Sauk City, Wisconsin, Arkham House, 1988.
War Fever. London, Collins, 1990; New York, Farrar Straus, 1991.
A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. New York, Picador USA, 1996.
Contributor, Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories #22 (1959), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. New York, DAW Books, 1991.
Contributor, Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories #24 (1962), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. New York, DAW Books, 1992.
Contributor, The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, edited by Alice K. Turner. New York, HarperPrism, 1998.
J.G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography by David Pringle, Boston, Hall, 1984.
J.G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years edited by James Goddard and David Pringle, Hayes, Middlesex, Bran's Head, 1976; Re/Search: J.G. Ballard edited by Vale, San Francisco, Re/Search, 1984; J.G. Ballard by Peter Brigg, San Bernardino, California, Borgo Press, 1985; Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard, New York, Greenwood Press, 1991; Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J.G. Ballard by Gregory Stephenson. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1991; The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard by Roger Luckhurst. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
I believe that science fiction is the authentic literature of the 20th century, the only fiction to respond imaginatively to the transforming nature of science and technology. I believe that the true domain of science fiction is that zone I have termed inner space, rather than outer space, and that the present, rather than the future, is now the period of greatest moral urgency for the writer. In my own fiction I have tried to achieve these aims.
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As in the case of his acknowledged partial inspiration Graham Greene, J.G. Ballard seems to divide his distinguished canon into novels and "entertainments": serious, experimental prose which expands narrative possibilities, and productions which are, aesthetically, less rigorous. In the former category, one would find in chronological order The Drowned World, The Crystal World, The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, The Unlimited Dream Company, Empire of the Sun, The Day of Creation, The Kindness of Women, and Rushing to Paradise. Ballard's "entertainments" include The Wind from Nowhere, The Drought, the short story cycle Vermilion Sands, Concrete Island, High-Rise, Hello America, Running Wild, and Cocaine Nights. Ballard's voluminous short fiction could profitably be divided along similar lines, with far greater debate concerning what works best. Ballard's own selection of his best fiction is very reliable: sympathetic readers of Ballard will share his enthusiasm for "The Voices of Time" and "The Terminal Beach." Nonetheless, he has consistently produced rewarding short prose since the last exhaustive anthology, most of which has been collected in Low-Flying Aircraft, The Venus Hunters, Myths of the Near Future, War Fever, and A User's Guide to the Millennium. These collections of essays and reviews provide a useful glimpse into the process by which Ballard transforms his opinions on issues into powerful symbolic topographies.
However, such divisions merely recapitulate the divisions which characterize most criticism of Ballard's work. Our task should not be to categorize Ballard's output but to understand how these works operate. Both novels and "entertainments" are involved in creating imaginary landscapes that anticipate the full extent of the horrors of contemporary life. Ballard's works, which range from elaborate evocations of erotic car crash fantasies (Crash) to deep-sea still lifes of submerged cities (The Drowned World) create and explore physical and psychological places which, for Ballard, stem from the unconscious desires of capitalist culture. For this reason, Ballard's work may seem intimidating to the uninitiated. Beginning with an "entertainment" before venturing into the major canon will allow the reader to acclimate to Ballard's grasping imagination, his densely ironic voice, and genuine moral vision.
Empire of the Sun provides the kindest entry into the major canon. This novel is both boy-book, a work written for adults about childhood, and war memoir. Jim, the protagonist, has received inevitable comparisons with his author. Both were interred in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in China during World War II; Ballard admits these related events were his own in the foreword. As a result, Empire of the Sun allows the credulous to "solve" the case of J.G. Ballard. The young author's separation from his parents, radical dislocation, and struggle for survival produce the traumatic scene of the Ballardian text: a world of flat affect where setting predominates over character and action (unless a generic formula is being ruthlessly parodied), a landscape littered with aircraft fuselages, automobiles, miasmas, and tarmac, all aching to burn under the silent, bone-revealing glare of the Nagasaki explosion Jim witnesses in the ontological climax of the novel: "the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world." Thus begins the death-in-life of Jim Ballard.
This youth, our mythic construction of the ideal Ballard-author, grows up to become a science-fiction writer: the world he experienced did not match the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, so he turned to visions of the future, reading pulp magazines while an airman in Canada. W. Warren Wager in Terminal Visions offers us a helpful paradigm for reading Ballard's science fiction and experimental canon through time. Ballard, roughly, has moved from an obsession with feminized natural landscape in the quartet of so-called disaster novels (the world imperiled by the four elements, approximately), through an obsession with homoeroticized technological artifacts (The Atrocity Exhibition through High-Rise), to an achieved polymorphous perversity (The Unlimited Dream Company). Only after this long therapeutic journey could he return to the traumatic scene that collapsed all of these impulses into a single event. Furthermore, Ballard's own statements posit this progressive impulse in his work which, paradoxically, regresses from more distant future worlds to our present world of apartment complexes and flyovers, and ultimately to his Shanghai past. Empire of the Sun gives the critic marvelous ammunition for familiarizing an unsettling fictional presence. The affect-less Ballardian voice, similar to that of William S. Burroughs, can be traced to the peculiar traumas of the Japanese camps.
Such reductive remarks could have passed for an accurate assessment of Ballard's work until he returned to the fantastic after Empire of the Sun with more recent works such as The Day of Creation, Running Wild, Rushing to Paradise, and Cocaine Nights. But even before these publications one was suspicious about this narrative of the career. Something is lost in the neatness of it all; most notably, the inescapable belatedness of the recent mainstream work. We read it in the light of Ballard's earlier science fiction and experimental writing: the cramped cubicles of Lunghau C. A. C. irresistibly invoke the locales of "Billenium" and High-Rise. Ballard values the fabulative powers of science fiction too greatly to allow his summating work to stand outside them. The ultimate joke on the reader may be that Empire of the Sun is history revealed as the ultimate science fiction text, especially as Ballard writes either. As Gould remarks in "Low-Flying Aircraft," "The ultimate dystopia is the inside of one's own head." Empire of the Sun is an immense and real achievement, but only partially enlightening as an end result of Ballard's journey as a writer. Other, less reductive structures can be suggested to illuminate Ballard's strategies.
One of the most helpful perspectives for enjoying Ballard can be located in Roland Barthes's Mythologies, which explains the social significance of a linguistic decoding of contemporary symbols and popular culture figures. For Barthes, myth is a secondary order of signification, a higher code of accepted meaning. The image of an oak tree in an insurance company advertisement, by a theft of the sign, becomes a signifier of longevity, dependability, etc. The artist has two strategies for attacking the conventional accretions of myth: she or he, according to Barthes, can either restore to physical objects their uncanniness and historicity or create a third order of signification by looking behind the myth for its concealed signification.
A fairly plausible case can be made that Ballard has always attacked conventional signification, progressing from Barthes's first strategy to an increasing use of his second strategy. The early novels restore to things their non-mythic materiality. This is exemplified by the significance accorded the heightened elemental powers in the quartet, as well as the technological flotsam and jetsam blown about or floating by. Likewise, the crystallization process in The Crystal World provides an almost perfect allegory of the defamiliarization of bourgeois nature.
But Ballard has been honing his skills at discovering the third order of signification, which emphasizes the ironic undercurrent inherent in the significatory process, since The Wind from Nowhere. One of the few nice things one can say about this work—produced in two short weeks, it remains Ballard's worst novel—is that it knows at all points that it's formulaic junk, a parody of the "cozy catastrophe" John Wyndham school of disaster writing. Its successor, The Drowned World, employs similar methods through its transparent allusiveness. However, The Drowned World also questions its own generic con-fines: it is a disaster fiction that reveals an awareness of the narrative and symbolic structures underlying disaster fiction. For Ballard and his protagonist Kerans, disaster is concealed psychic opportunity. In the clearly indicated "happy" ending of the work, Kerans embraces the destructive principle, the chthonic, by heading south into greater heat.
As in most later Ballard, such self-destruction is always a symbolic invitation to transformation, a relentless reiteration that the old social, political, and biological orders are quickly mutating into a new form inherently hostile to humanity. In Michel Foucault's terminology, we are in a shifting episteme: writers like Ballard and Burroughs most clearly anticipate the shape of the end result of such a shift. Their strategies are those of survival. Ballard reveals in Empire of the Sun that "a code within a code" always intrigued Jim. He would always watch bridge games for this reason; later, such skills would keep him alive. The same applies for Ballard. This decoding process, often embedded in allegorical tableau, allows Ballard to predict, and thereby prevent, possible futures.
In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard's talents as a reader of bourgeois myth emerge strikingly. The book dissects some of the psychoanalytic significance behind the overdetermination of 1960s culture: television coverage of the Vietnam war, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, the automobile, cancer victims all converge in a terrifying psychedelic phantasmagoria of image, redeemed, like Naked Lunch, only by its abiding ironic humor, its Swiftian critical distance, and its undeniable prophecy. The obsessional accuracy of this series of "condensed novels" has aged remarkably well, as a chapter title like "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" indicates.
For some readers, Crash is even more difficult, a semiological anatomy of the automobile accident that exchanges breadth (in The Atrocity Exhibition) for depth of analysis. As in the later Empire of the Sun, Ballard toys with the reader by giving the narrator his own name. Ballard the character's quest for "the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology" horrifies, delights, and enlightens. At his best, Ballard's imagination risks the unimaginable, even as his clunky, chunky prose—with its transparent allusions and similes, its hard-boiled rhythms, and its vague redundancies—acquires a paradoxical grace all its own: a bombed-out, flat affect poetry that perfectly ensnares our era. His sinister replication of medical school textbook argot in this second phase assures us Ballard has a good ear; he knows exactly what effects he's achieving in this minatory technological pornography.
Ballard's recent polymorphous phase has given us some of his finest writing, in The Unlimited Dream Company, Empire of the Sun, and The Kindness of Women and his funniest in the overlooked Hello America. Lately, his quest for ultimate reality has passed through autobiographical incident to the ultimate contemporary reality: television. It remains an interesting question who's influencing whom: Ballard or Baudrillard, the cool rhetoric of "hyperreality," the triumphant televisual simulacrum. One suspects Ballard is the influence here, since Baudrillard has written on Crash, while Ballard seems uninterested in theory when interviewed. Be that as it may, I have been alluding to many postmodern theorists here because Ballard's practice so overtly complements their observations. Since at least The Atrocity Exhibition and short stories like "Motel Architecture" and "The Intensive Care Unit" in Myths of the Near Future, Ballard has been interested in the alternate gestalt of televisual reality. In this stage, the simulational triumphs completely over the real. In The Day of Creation, a fantastic river appears in Africa, created out of the embodied wish fantasies of Mallory, the main character. He alternately wishes to destroy and preserve his creation, to drift down it and to explore its source. It is what Deleuze and Guattari would deem a "smooth space," a zone of easy movement and free play that comes suspiciously to resemble the world inside our VCRs. One character, Senger, carries a broken camera and "films" an "imaginary documentary." When they drift rapidly downstream, the scenery looks like "a reversed playback." As Senger explains to Mallory, "Television doesn't tell lies, it makes up a new truth…. Sooner or later, everything turns into television." Baudrillard couldn't have said it better.
By the time we get to Running Wild, a tale of videotaped violence and suburban mayhem that intentionally resembles a child-ren's book, Ballard can revise reality through his simulations, as when the narrator compares some of the deadly children's journals to " Pride and Prejudice with its missing pornographic passages restored." The tone throughout all of Ballard, finely honed in the most recent books, is the creepy-funny both/and double register of postmodernism, the mood of any Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper performance. Is Ballard writing satire? Social criticism? Whimsy? Yes.
The Kindness of Women is his most remarkable achievement along these thematic lines. This novel-autobiography hybrid is a sequel to Empire of the Sun and a virtual retrospective gallery exhibition of all the major phases discussed above: for example, the chapter called "The Exhibition" returns to the interests of Crash ; the first three chapters rework Empire of the Sun. This book, if not his most accessible, is nonetheless the most thorough introduction available to Ballard's fictional project. And it offers a powerful culmination of his meditations on media and simulation. The climax of the book is his participation in Stephen Spielberg's filming of Empire of the Sun. Ironically, Spielberg chose to film the British section of Shanghai in Sunningdale, a residential area fifteen minutes away by car from Shepperton (a distant suburb of London where Ballard has lived for the last 35 years). As Ballard notes in his annotations to the Re/Search magazine reissue of The Atrocity Exhibition, "I can almost believe that I came to Shepperton 30 years ago knowing unconsciously that one day I would write a novel about my wartime experiences in Shanghai, and that it might well be filmed in these studios. Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences." The Kindness of Women unifies all of Ballard's lifelong obsessions and enables him to return full circle to his childhood, now made more real as Hollywood film: "All the powers of modern film had come together for this therapeutic exercise." Echoing Samuel Beckett's wish to leave "a stain upon the silence," Ballard sees his true immortality as a blurred image in the film, which is all that remained of his cameo appearance after final editing: "this seemed just, like the faint blur which was all that any of us left across time and space."
One story in his latest short fiction collection War Fever also deserves mention in this regard, the hilarious "Secret History of World War 3." It zanily prophesies a change in the Constitution enabling Ronald Reagan to serve a third term in the 1990s. His fading health comes to dominate the national consciousness so much that his vital signs scroll across all channels, his bowel movements deserve special news bulletins, and a brief nuclear exchange goes unnoticed by distracted viewers. Ballard was obviously thinking of Reagan's polyp operation, but the story anticipates the bloated media spectacles which increasingly dominate the public realm.
This assessment of the link between media culture, with its numerous sects and factions, and the natural world is developed in Rushing to Paradise. Here, as in his more recent Cocaine Nights, Ballard works consciously within the satirical tradition. Rushing to Paradise emphasizes the failures inherent in attempts to manufacture the utopian. In this sense, Ballard focuses on extremism and factionalism as forces that are as powerful as the four elements in his disaster quartet. As a result, Ballard shifts his focus from descriptions of imaginary places to detailed examinations of character. This movement is likewise evident in Cocaine Nights, with its emphasis on the lurid depravity of the rich on holiday. Such shifts indicate a new stage in Ballard's writings. These more recent novels operate like collections of prose such as A User's Guide to the Millennium in their more overt commentaries on the social aspects of contemporary culture.
Ballard will undoubtedly continue to grow along the amazing and original course he has charted. Much of his supposed classism and racism seems unfounded; his use of formulaic heroines, though periodic and appropriate for his gender-bound, extreme loners, has drawn greater and more justified criticism from feminists. Recent stories like "Having a Wonderful Time" and "The Smile" and the character of Noon in The Day of Creation adumbrate his own interest in correcting these misperceptions. Thematically, he will continue to gesture towards a problematic social transformation, hoping for its arrival but uncertain of its shape, wishing for it to resemble the community in his utopian Vermilion Sands, but, ever the survivor, willing to settle for anything shy of Eniwetok. As long as we avoid choosing the latter (and perhaps for a bit on the day after if we do not manage that), Ballard will continue to interest us as our bravest explorer of the psychic contours of post-nuclear humanity, the fabulist chronicler of our overlooked median strips. Somehow this maverick presence has become one of the most important and distinguished writers of English prose working today. His metaphors will haunt any reader; he dares to articulate what only the most obscure regions of our animal brain contemplate: desires for nuclear apocalypse, for incestuous sex, for participating in auto wrecks. Above all, Ballard maps these impulses, creating narrative places which reveal the innate connections between events and desires.
—Robert E. Mielke, updated by