J.G. Ballard died on Sunday in London, aged 78.
I’m a little surprised when I think about how much J.G. Ballard I’ve actually read. Like most people my first contact with him was through the movie of Empire of the Sun, which starred — trivia moment — a 13-year-old Christian Bale. Eating grubs. It was a truly, truly great movie.
So naturally I went and read some Ballard. At which point I discovered that a) most of that stuff in the movie actually happened to Ballard — his parents were English people who worked in Shanghai, and they were all put in concentration camps when the Japanese invaded. (It’s weirdly similar to Mervyn “Ghormengast” Peake’s early life – his parents were missionaries in China, and he grew up in a closed compound there.) And b) that Ballard was actually an SF writer.
Ballard was an implacable enemy of modern life, which he perceived as thoroughly dystopian. In his words, he “wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that.” What interested him was “the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television — that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.” He was a harsh critic of the war in Iraq. Late in life turned down a CBE (which is almost a knighthood), which takes some gumption. And here’s what really takes gumption. In 1964 Ballard’s wife died suddenly, of pneumonia, leaving him to bring up three small children by himself. Which he did.
There’s a lot of Ballard to read. He’s one of those writers, like Philip K. Dick (they were born 2 years apart, it turns out) who wrote way too much, and not always all that well — he wrote something like 15 novels, and even more short story collections. (He seems to have published three collections in 1967 alone.) I especially like his early post-apocalyptic trio — The Drowned World (eco-disaster turns the world into an overflowing tropical swamp), The Crystal World (a weird contagion is converting organic matter into crystal), The Burning World (really bad drought).
He imagined the ecological disaster of The Drowned World as a kind of global psycho-geological regression:
Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs… Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.
It’s kind of too much … but kind of cool, too. The twist in those books was that the characters were perversely attracted to the destroyed world. They grieved for it, but they also, despite themselves, grooved on it. At the end of Drowned and Crystal, the heroes set off straight into the heart of the disaster, to be (presumably) consumed by it.
Ballard’s interest in perverse desires came out more directly in some of his other work, like Crash, the one about people who get turned on by car accidents (also unfortunately a movie), and The Atrocity Exhibition, a radically deconstructed work in which Ballard thoroughly tests the reader’s nerves and stomach. Reading him, you often get the sense that there’s some kind of hideous hallucinatory order threatening to break through into ordinary reality. And part of Ballard wanted it to break through. It was too much for me as a reader — at a certain point, don’t you just have to turn away? I did. But somehow Ballard didn’t.