Writing against the grain of conventional realism has become the trademark of an author whose fiction is after bigger game: the fantastic truth hidden behind the scintillating facade of contemporary Western culture. A writer of extraordinarily imaginative and intellectually challenging science fiction, J. G. Ballard centered his short and long fiction on questions of humanity’s mental and physiological relationship with a drastically altered environment, in which change is brought about either by advanced technology or by a global natural disaster.
From the beginning, J. G. Ballard’s short stories demonstrated his preoccupation with the internal landscapes of the mind and humanity’s mental reaction to profound changes in everyday environment. Ballard, however, typically refused to deal with his subject matter in a realist fashion. Instead of presenting “true” psychological conflicts and offering obvious and well-accepted solutions, he often imagined his own mental diseases and has his characters embark on apparently irrational but certainly innovative courses of action. This defiance of the “normal” in the widest sense and this fictional probing of the radically new are crucial aspects of Ballard’s fiction. In turn, his authorial insistence on total imaginative freedom has also led Ballard to write fiction that successfully experiments with style and language. Imbued with the postmodern consciousness, Ballard has been compared with such key American authors as Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William S. Burroughs. His work, with its uncomfortable dissection of Western cultural icons, has also been hailed as a fictional equivalent of the literary and cultural criticism of scholars such as Roland Barthes.
Overall, Ballard’s continuous revisiting of his favorite themes, which was a mark of his fiction, is artistically successful because it always leads to a reshaping and sharpening of the highly original myths of his imagination. Furthermore, Ballard was at his best when he gracefully embraced the surreal and did not even try to establish an overt link to the natural world. Stories such as “The Subliminal Man” or “The Largest Theme Park in the World,” which deal with subliminal advertising and the emergence of a European beach culture that leaves the interior of the continent deserted for foreign visitors, are less successful than the more outrageously imaginative stories that present an inner truth unconnected to any naturalistic scenario. The beautiful resurrection story of Ballard’s “Myths of the Near Future,” in which Elaine Sheppard, the victim of space sickness, is in essence brought back to life through the power of her former husband Roger’s loving imagination, hints at exactly such a truth as the imagination Ballard presents to his readers.
In imagining his protagonists, who are often thrust into strange new worlds and alien landscapes that they accept with little questioning, Ballard typically created well-educated, articulate, and emotionally controlled men and women with an apparently solid upper-middle-class background. Yet, underneath this tranquil facade of reason, control, and often literally clinical detachment, Ballard installed a second, deeper layer of strange obsessions and aberrant needs that the new world, in which the characters find themselves, causes to spring to the surface. This evolution of the everyday postmodern person into a driven, irrational, yet also strangely liberated character who, through a subjective reading of his or her unfolding situation, finds a sense of meaning previously missing from the “real” world is clearly the trademark of Ballard’s short fiction.
In one of his first stories, “Concentration City,” Ballard skillfully maps out the complex relationship between obsession, liberation, and a surreal landscape. Franz Mattheson’s (re)invention of an airplane spurs him to search ingeniously for the limits of a jam-packed futuristic city that has built up even the sky, thus depriving the young inventor of the medium in which to fly his plane. Not only is the motif of flying introduced here—Ballard’s central metaphor for humanity’s yearning for freedom—but also, in a surprising turn at the end, Ballard’s fascination with time serves, for the first time in his fiction, as the ultimate medium for the fantastic. Thus, upon his return to his exact geographical point of departure after an uninterrupted railway journey across the globe-spanning city, Franz finds out that even the fourth dimension, time, is a prison: Incomprehensibly, the clock turns back to the day of his departure weeks earlier, confirming the impossibility of flight from the metropolis.
Turning from a four-dimensional prison to the incarceration of the mind, “Manhole Sixty-nine” is the first of Ballard’s stories in which a hospital setting serves as the nexus of modern technology, the scientific method of reasoning, and the new tortures for the human soul. His story chronicles the result of a neurosurgical experiment that has enabled three men to live without sleep. Unable to cope with ever-present consciousness, however, each of the patients mentally forces his universe to collapse into a space just large enough to contain a single body. Drawing on his familiarity with the knowledge, jargon, methodology, and mind frame of medical research, Ballard presents a haunting picture that derives its uncanny effect from a masterful mix of the real and the fantastic. Here, as elsewhere in his fiction, scientific language itself becomes part of the new world that confronts an old humanity.
“The Cage of Sand”
The fact that many of his early stories introduce themes and visions that will persistently return in Ballard’s work has led to the existence of strings of Ballard stories treating an overriding theme that is developed over the course of decades. Ballard’s series of stories dealing with the return to Earth of its dead astronauts constitutes such a cycle. Written in 1962, “The Cage of Sand” is the first. It opens in the vicinity of a deserted Cape Canaveral, an area poisoned by the Martian sand that spaceships have brought back as interplanetary ballast. There, two men and a woman have gathered to watch the nightly appearance of one or more of the seven dead astronauts who, still flying in the capsules in which they died, have become a ghastly group of satellites.
Typically the landscape, the living, and the dead form a complex system held together by mutual attraction, for the wounds they have suffered can be traced back to the crisis brought on by humanity’s quest for the stars. Consequently, in “The Cage of Sand,” among the living, Bridgman’s plans for a Martian city are rejected, Travis’s nerves fail during the countdown to his first launch, and Louisa Woodward’s husband is one of the dead.
(The entire section is 2852 words.)