James Graham Ballard is regarded by many as one of the most important postmodern writers in English. Generally categorized as science fiction, most of Ballard’s work moves beyond that label to address the impact of technology and American culture on the imagination. The son of James Ballard, a businessman, and his wife, Edna, J. G. Ballard spent the first sixteen years of his life in Shanghai.
In his highly autobiographical novel The Empire of the Sun, which Steven Spielberg made into a film in 1987, Ballard’s protagonist, Jim, who is separated from his parents at the outbreak of World War II, spends three years in a Japanese prison camp. There the boy’s contacts to his old world (already a bizarre amalgam of Chinese environment overlaid with more typically European lifestyles) occur through magazines and the warplanes the United States sends to the Far East. In a touching scene, Jim clips out the photograph of a couple from an advertisement in Life magazine because of its likeness to his parents. It is not difficult to see how Ballard’s fiction came to be obsessed with the icons of America and why it centered on war, disaster, and imprisonment.
After being educated at Leys School and studying medicine at King’s College for two years, Ballard served in the Royal Air Force, where he underwent pilot training in Canada. Back in England, he worked as a science editor and in 1955 he married Helen Mary Matthews; she died in 1964, leaving him with a son and two daughters.
In 1956, Ballard sold “Prima Belladonna” to Science Fantasy magazine and soon after became a distinguished literary voice. His short stories are unique in their pictorial evocation of setting and psychological mood. Accordingly, they fascinate less through an intricate plot or a variety of different characters than through the intensity with which they explore places. In “The Garden of Time,” for example, Ballard describes a strange garden whose flowers arrest time.
Ballard’s longer fiction commenced with his 1962 The Wind from Nowhere, the first of a quartet of “natural disaster novels” that share a surrealistic setting and an emphasis on tableaux, or still scenes. The...
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