There’s only one piece of news that matters today: J.G. Ballard is dead.
Along with fellow ‘new wave’ science fiction writers like Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ballard revolutionised the way British people saw ourselves, our present and our futures. He recognised that the real danger to society was not some distant dystopia, but a current and ongoing nightmare of consumer-driven ennui, a lethargic cultureless space of casual selfishness and lost ideals. Anticipating academics like Baudrillard and Marc Auge by some years, he saw the future in what Nairn called ‘subtopia’: suburbs, industrial ruins, traffic islands, gated communities. He once said that the airport departure lounge was the apotheosis of western civilisation and its ultimate destination.
Some of the obits would give you the impression that Ballard disliked being classified as a science fiction writer. But it is probably truer to say that mainstream critics disliked having to heap praise on a man who was so obviously writing science fiction, a genre that attracts nothing but disdain by many rather ignorant commentators. What he did might now be classed as ‘slipstream’ or put in the same box as the great experimental mid-century European writers like Italo Calvino. Anything but SF. Those critics did not, and still do not, realise that science fiction, as Ballard himself put it, was the most authentic literature of the Twentieth Century. What Ballard disliked was being classified by people who understood what he was doing less than him, who perceived what was happening less insightfully than he did.
That said, Ballard was not a traditional British writer of what Brian Stableford called ‘scientific romance.’ Like many writers who grew up during the mid-century, he was instead informed by the experience of war, in his case being a child in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation. However, like Aldiss, he also drew on the legacy of experimental political / artistic movements like surrealism. His early disaster novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965), The Crystal World (1966) and so on, demonstrate this quite clearly, although the high point of his modern fantasy is probably the quite wonderful The Unlimited Dream Company of 1979 in which his native Shepperton is transformed into feathery tropical colours by the arrival of a birdman.
He could be quite terrifyingly acute about the moral vacuum in contemporary consumer capitalism. Before Bauman and Baudrillard were producing their sociological and semiotic takes, in the more optimistic climes generated by MacLuhan’s ‘global village’, Ballard was writing The Atrocity Exhibition (1969), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise(1975), four of the most uncompromising, bleak portrayals of the decline of western civilisation in any language or any genre. Although the mood of these novels was shared by other contemporary ‘new wave’ SF writers like Samuel Delaney (Dhalgren), Philip K. Dick (A Scanner Darkly), Brian Aldiss (Barefoot in the Head) and John Brunner (The Sheep Look Up), nothing quite so tellingly vicious and dark was produced by mainstream writers until some thirty years later when Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road.
At the same time however, for most of his career, Ballard’s imagination was never dominated by a single approach. His conceptions and his writing were often beautiful and elegiac, especially in his short-stories, a form central to the development of SF but over which he showed a uniquely total mastery. The collections that became Vermilion Sands (1971) and Memories of the Space Age (1988) have an atmosphere of decline, abandonment and loss of memory, that is at once frightening and liberating. The amnesiac astronauts who inhabit the ruins of Cape Canaveral are all of us, lost, looking for roots in the remains of life, yet somehow living a dream from which they cannot, and would not, want to wake.
Ballard’s later writing did become more mainstream and more accessible, both less acute in many ways and more obviously reflective of now: the world, in other words, gradually caught up with him. Thus novels like Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), and Kingdom Come(2006), are no longer SF, partly by design, but partly because we have arrived. The departure lounge is all around us. With all the paranoia, the obsession with security and surveillance, the petty micro-authoritarianism, the gated, golf-playing, consumer utopias, we live in Ballard’s world now; in what Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk recently termed the ‘evil paradises’ of neo-liberalism.
For me, Ballard reached a high point of his craft in this vein with 1988’s Running Wild, his taut, economically-written novella of a middle-class spree-killing in a private estate, a work which drew on the reality of the Hungerford Massacre, one of Britain’s worst spree killings. In the 1980s, he gradually became more intensely self-reflective and his best works were autobiographical: Empire of the Sun (1984), The Kindness of Women (1991) and most recently, Miracles of Life (2006). It was also welcome, in 1996 to see his selected essays published as A User’s Guide to the Millennium – the title was not in any way egotistical. Ballard was probably the only person alive who could justifiably claim to be able to have written such a thing. Ballard could have been Britain’s Philip K. Dick but whereas Dick was driven wild-eyed and ragged in the effort to understand what he saw and was as out-of-control as his words, Ballard remained clear-sighted, level-headed and produced disciplined, considered prose.
He will be much missed.
J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) – writer, thinker, intellectual freedom-fighter.