Study Guide

J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard Essay - Ballard, J. G. (Short Story Criticism)

Ballard, J. G. (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

J. G. Ballard 1930-

(Born James Graham Ballard) English short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. For further information on Ballard's short fiction, see SSC, Volume 1.

Ballard is respected for his innovative and imaginative science fiction stories. Influenced by surrealist art, he has produced fiction distinguished for its haunting, dreamlike juxtaposition of disturbing symbols, leaving interpretation to the reader. His writing is characterized by a repetitive, obsessive, verbal style, in which narrative line is frequently subordinate to atmosphere and imagery. Ballard's emphasis on inner space as the most relevant frontier to be explored in contemporary science fiction has influenced other authors and helped to revolutionize and deepen a form once marked by a proclivity for outer space, aliens, and interplanetary warfare. The inner space he chronicles lies between the external world of reality and the internal world of the psyche. Ballard's characters interact with an Earth made irrational and bizarre by environmental degradation, media intrusion, and perversity, and they typically appear in the midst of a spiritual quest and strive for an individually defined transcendence.

Biographical Information

Ballard was born on November 15, 1930 in Shanghai, China. His father was an executive with a British textile manufacturer, and Ballard experienced a privileged early childhood. With the advent of World War II, however, the family's life changed drastically: they were interned in a Japanese prison camp from 1942 to 1945. Ballard chronicled the experiences of those war years in the autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. Upon his release, Ballard resumed his studies. He attended the Leys School, Cambridge, from 1946 to 1949, and won the school's annual competition for the best short story, with “The Violent Noon,” which was published in the Varsity. He then studied medicine at King's College, Cambridge, where he considered becoming a psychiatrist. After two years, he left King's College without taking a degree and moved to London University, where he studied English. In 1954 Ballard joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Canada for his training. He married Helen Mary Matthews in 1955 and started work as an editor of technical journals, writing stories for science fiction magazines on the side. His first science fiction was published in the British periodical New Worlds in 1956, beginning Ballard's long association with the avant garde magazine, and its editors, E. W. John Carnell and later Michael Moorcock, who gave Ballard the freedom to experiment with both style and theme. Ballard left the Royal Air Force in 1957 and spent the next six years working on the staff of a science journal. While on holiday, Ballard wrote The Wind from Nowhere (1962), the first of his four science fiction novels classified as catastrophe stories. He followed with The Drowned World (1962) and The Burning World (1964), later edited and reissued as The Drought (1965). Ballard's wife died suddenly in 1964, leaving him with three young children to raise. Two years later, he published The Crystal World, the last of his four catastrophe novels. It was in the 1960s, due to his association with New Worlds and to the distinctive psychological emphasis of his work, that Ballard began to be recognized as one of the leaders of the British New Wave in science fiction. His work was awarded both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Prize in 1984.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Ballard explores in his work the interior landscape of isolated humans in a postmodern world transformed by science and technology. He is recognized for his surrealistic science fiction, including detailed descriptions of geographical catastrophes and apocalyptic landscapes as well as his depictions of the transforming effects of science and technology upon human beings. His primary emphasis has been on inner space and the psychological processes of his characters. His distinctive science fiction has not only won him a loyal following but has influenced and helped shape the development of the genre. The Disaster Area (1967) contains Ballard's well-known story, “The Subliminal Man,” in which alienated citizens of a futuristic metropolis, psychologically enslaved to a system of subliminal advertising, may escape only through catatonia and regression. The title story from the collection The Overloaded Man (1967) illustrates the moral dangers of solipsism in its narrative about a bourgeois intellectual who destroys the earth by fantasizing the landscape outside his window into meaningless cubist designs. In The Voices of Time and Other Stories (1962), Ballard establishes his major, recurring theme of entropy. His theory, derived from the second law of thermodynamics, implies the temporal nature of the universe in its assertion that all matter must eventually degrade from order and energy to a state of chaos and inertia. In the title story of The Terminal Beach and Other Stories (1964), an obsessed ex-bomber pilot wanders an abandoned nuclear testing site in search of a “zone of non-time” where he may speak with the dead of past and future wars and where ontological beliefs are negated by the ultimate reality of the bomb. The Impossible Man and Other Stories (1966), contains “The Drowned Giant,” in which a giant's body is inexplicably washed ashore near a city. The story recalls both Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis in its epigrammatic narrative, which describes the citizenry's initial fear, gradual acceptance, and ultimate denial of the fact of the giant's existence once it has been removed. In The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Ballard describes society's modern immunity to sensational subject matter as “the death of affect,” and in such stories as “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” Ballard examines America's perverse attraction toward and hatred for public and political figures. This work is concerned with the dehumanizing, violent, perversely erotic elements that Ballard sees as intrinsic to the technologies of the late twentieth century. One of the stories from this collection led to the novel Crash (1973). Following its appearance in England, The Atrocity Exhibition attracted controversy due to its presumed pornographic treatment of public figures and immoral subject matter. Despite the support of several prominent critics, the work did not appear in the United States for nearly two years, and The Atrocity Exhibition is noted as one of Ballard's most disputatious works to date. Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories (1976), contains Ballard's acclaimed novella, The Ultimate City, which features a protagonist who rejects the inefficiency of his simple agrarian society and leads his community in restoring technology to a late-twentieth century ghost town. As the city's population grows, however, so do such accompanying problems as pollution, crime, and violence. War Fever (1990), Ballard's most recent volume of new stories, is stylistically diverse. Much of Ballard's short fiction examines the landscapes of technology and the communications industry—illuminating the many paradoxes and underlying debasements of modern life.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Ballard's works has been mixed, ranging from laudatory statements that label him a master of his craft and the finest science fiction writer the postwar has produced, to disapprobation and outright hostility. However, when examined retrospectively his work has gained admiration for its philosophical and intellectual rigor, imaginative language, and singular vision. Despite the disparate critical opinion, Ballard's impact on the genre of science fiction cannot be denied. He is considered a profound influence on such cyberpunk authors as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Moreover, he has been called one of the most demiurgic science fiction writers in modern times. Ballard's fiction has been compared to the work of French novelists Alain Robbe-Grille and Claude Simon and some commentators have urged a wider audience for Ballard's science fiction short stories. Critics note that Ballard's fiction lacks the narrative thread, strong characterization, and dialogue generally associated with the science fiction genre. His characters are flat, their relationships with one another left unexplored, while their place in relation to the universe, time, or technology is examined in depth. As critics observe, his landscapes, both internal and external, become characters themselves, and the humans who inhabit his fiction become one with the topography. Especially in the early works, Ballard's fiction is notably composed of psychic myths, echoing Jungian psychology, with the antagonist a shadow-self of the protagonist. As scholars note, Ballard tells the same story repeatedly, using a vast array of landscapes, with the ultimate destination of his characters always being transcendence achieved through a numinous pursuance. Ballard's prescience regarding society in the last forty years of the twentieth century is considered a hallmark of his work. Long before the trend was noticeable, Ballard discerned the interactions among the cultures of consumption, image-driven power, and the entertainment industry in which the contemporary world is awash. Ballard's literary supporters assert that his singular achievements as a writer fully justify his growing stature among postmodern literary figures.

Principal Works

Billenium and Other Stories 1962

The Voices of Time and Other Stories 1962

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare 1963; also published as The Voices of Time, 1998

Passport to Eternity and Other Stories 1963

Terminal Beach and Other Stories 1964

The Impossible Man and Other Stories 1966

The Day of Forever 1967

The Disaster Area 1967

The Overloaded Man 1967

The Atrocity Exhibition 1970; also published as Love and Napalm: Export U. S. A., 1972

Chronopolis and Other Stories 1971

Vermilion Sands 1971

Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories 1976

The Best of J. G. Ballard 1977; also published as The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard, 1978

The Venus Hunters 1980

Myths of the Near Future 1982

News from the Sun 1982

Memories of the Space Age 1988

War Fever 1990

The Complete Short Stories 2001

The Drowned World (novel) 1962

The Wind from Nowhere (novel) 1962

The Burning World (novel) 1964; also published as The Drought, 1965

The Crystal World (novel) 1966

Crash (novel) 1973

Concrete Island (novel) 1974

High Rise (novel) 1975

The Unlimited Dream Company (novel) 1979

Hello America (novel) 1981

Empire of the Sun (novel) 1984

The Day of Creation (novel) 1987

Running Wild (novel) 1989

The Kindness of Women (novel) 1991

Rushing to Paradise (novel) 1995

Cocaine Nights (novel) 1996

A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews (nonfiction) 1996

Super-Cannes (novel) 2001

Criticism

Peter Brigg (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Brigg, Peter. Introduction to J. G. Ballard, pp. 11-18. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Brigg analyzes Ballard's expressive and intensely symbolic writing style in his short stories.]

The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the deities of the commercial cosmologies.

—J. G. Ballard, 1966

The landscapes of the imaginations of writers flowering since the twin catastrophes of Hiroshima and television are cluttered with pictorial images of death, violence, sex, and gross materialism. The critical...

(The entire section is 2493 words.)

Peter Brigg (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Brigg, Peter. “Early Short Fiction, 1956-1969.” In J. G. Ballard, pp. 19-42. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Brigg surveys the “antecedents” or influences and stylistic forms of Ballard's early short fiction.]

From 1956 to 1969, Ballard published over eighty short stories and four novels. The bulk of the stories first appeared in magazines ranging from Science Fantasy to Encounter, then reappeared in nine general collections plus two thematic volumes: Vermilion Sands (1971) and The Atrocity Exhibition (1970; Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. in its 1972 American version). Predictably...

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Peter Brigg (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Brigg, Peter. “The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) (Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A.—American Title).” In J. G. Ballard, pp. 56-66. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Brigg offers a stylistic and thematic examination of The Atrocity Exhibition.]

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard's most ambitious extended experiment in the techniques of fiction and is a watershed in the development of his work, summing up much of what has gone before and opening the way to much of what is to follow. It is a technically complex book, but its effects are directly arresting and disturbing to the reader. It is also a fiercely...

(The entire section is 3563 words.)

Peter Brigg (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Brigg, Peter. “Recent Short Fiction, 1970-1982.” In J. G. Ballard, pp. 77-95. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House Inc., 1985.

[In the following essay, Brigg discusses “the obsessive quality” of Ballard's later short stories.]

Ballard's recent short fiction consists of twenty-five stories and fragments, most of which have been collected in the volumes Low-Flying Aircraft (1976) and Myths of the Near Future (1982). It is a mixed body of writing: some of it highly experimental and innovative and some of it echoing old themes and styles. Ballard can undoubtedly be charged with repeating himself, but most artists—whether graphic, verbal, or...

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C. Carr (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Carr, C. “J. G. Ballard's Crash Course in Modern Civ.” Village Voice Literary Supplement 45 (May 1986): 7-8.

[In the following essay, Carr emphasizes the role of the body and the notion of inner space, among other themes, in Ballard's work.]

Out there cruising in the endless suburb is a man who could never have been a boy. There is no past. And he can't make sense anymore of the conventional behavior he didn't question yesterday. Suddenly he's exhilarated by a fantasy of traffic deaths. Or obsessed with the genitalia of certain celebrities. Or drawn inexorably back to his apartment block, where he and the neighbors will battle to the death,...

(The entire section is 2822 words.)

Haim Finkelstein (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Finkelstein, Haim. “‘Deserts of Vast Eternity’: J. G. Ballard and Robert Smithson.” Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction 39 (spring 1987): 50-62.

[In the following essay, Finkelstein compares the ethos which animates the science fiction works of J. G. Ballard and Robert Smithson to that which inspires modern and postmodern art.]

The present [essay] has grown out of my conviction that there are areas of modern or postmodern art that have been inspired by a vision or ethos similar to that which animates certain science fiction works. Robert Smithson, a minimal sculptor who was engaged from the late 1960s and until his death in 1973 in the creation of...

(The entire section is 7710 words.)

Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Superhistory.” London Review of Books 12, no. 23 (6 December 1990): 26.

[In the following excerpt, Parrinder comments on the recurring themes in Ballard's fiction, citing as examples the stories in War Fever.]

J. G. Ballard's fiction maps a very different historical frontier. His last collection of short stories was Myths of the Near Future (1982), and in several pieces in this new collection [War Fever] he again takes up his favourite stance as a historian of the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. Ballard's reports from the future include a picture of Europe on the point of being overrun by totalitarian...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Stephenson, Gregory. Introduction to Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 1-12. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Stephenson delineates how Ballard consistently subverts basic assumptions about the nature of reality and identity in his fiction, and provides an overview of Ballard's career and critical discussion of his works.]

The work of J. G. Ballard represents a sustained act of subversion. It is, moreover, subversion of an ultimate character, directed against nothing so trivial as the governmental or economic systems, but aimed instead at overturning the most fundamental...

(The entire section is 4140 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Stephenson, Gregory. “The Dimension of the Disaster: The Early Short Fiction.” In Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 13-40. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Stephenson scrutinizes the metaphysical themes of Ballard's early short stories.]

J. G. Ballard's first published story, “The Violent Noon,”1 appeared in the Varsity (Cambridge) in 1951, sharing the magazine's first prize of ten pounds for its Crime Story Competition. Although it is not, strictly speaking, a piece of juvenilia—the author was twenty-one years old at the time of writing—“The...

(The entire section is 10456 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Stephenson, Gregory. “Technological Tartarus: The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise.” In Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 63-68. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Stephenson regards The Atrocity Exhibition as a diagnosis “of the malady afflicting modern consciousness.”]

The following four books to be discussed in this [essay] may be said to constitute a sort of diagnosis and prognosis of the malady afflicting modern consciousness. The first book is largely concerned with the etiology and the symptoms of the...

(The entire section is 1858 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Stephenson, Gregory. “‘Trapped Aircraft’: The Later Short Fiction.” In Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 85-116. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Stephenson analyzes Ballard's thematic employment of illusion.]

A dominant theme in Ballard's short fiction of the period 1966 to 1989 is that of illusion: the misapprehensions we are content to accept and the self-deceptions we practice with regard to the nature of reality and of our own identity, and the deliberate limitations and restrictions imposed upon our awareness and our consciousness from without for purposes of...

(The entire section is 12158 words.)

Rob Latham (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Latham, Rob. “Confusion of Origins.” American Book Review 14, no. 2 (June-July 1992): 8, 19.

[In the following essay, Latham considers the significance of War Fever in Ballard's short fiction oeuvre.]

War Fever is J. G. Ballard's ninth collection of stories, his first since the superlative Myths of the Near Future in 1982. I think a good case can be made for Ballard as the finest British writer of short fiction in the postwar period; in any case, he is certainly one of the most thematically sophisticated and stylistically diverse. The tales in this new volume range from hilarious satires to chilling parables, gritty science fictions to...

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William M. Schuyler, Jr. (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Schuyler, William M., Jr. “Portrait of the Artist as a Jung Man: Love, Death and Art in J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.The New York Review of Science Fiction, no. 57 (May 1993): 1, 8-11.

[In the following two-part essay, Schuyler attempts to amend David Pringle's pioneering study of Jungian psychological symbols used commonly by Ballard.]

Just as the present holds perils that you did not face in the past, the future will hold threats from which you are for the moment mercifully exempt. Even now, you must speak and act carefully lest you be noticed and thereby elicit some bizarre act of violence. But J. G. Ballard imagines an even more dangerous...

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William M. Schuyler, Jr. (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Schuyler, William M. Jr. “Portrait of the Artist as a Jung Man: Love, Death and Art in J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands Part II of II.” The New York Review of Science Fiction, no. 58 (June 1993): 14-19.

[In the following essay, Schuyler explores the Jungian symbolism of Vermilion Sands.]

THE STORIES

The stage is set in “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D.” The narrator, a Major Parker, is an injured aviator who is no longer able to fly. He comes to Vermilion Sands to recuperate and begins building kites. But the kites develop cockpits; they evolve into gliders. He and his creations are discovered by Nolan and Petit Manuel, an...

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Peter Brigg (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Brigg, Peter. “J. G. Ballard: Time Out of Mind.” Extrapolation 35, no. 1 (spring 1994): 43-59.

[In the following essay, Brigg perceives Ballard's treatment of time and reality as entities apprehended subjectively by the individual.]

… instead of treating time like a sort of glorified scenic railway, I'd like to see it used for what it is, one of the perspectives of the personality, and the elaboration of concepts such as the time zone, deep time and archaeopsychic time.

—J. G. Ballard, “Which Way to Inner Space”

The full implications of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries'...

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Roger Luckhurst (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Luckhurst, Roger. “The Atrocity Exhibition and the Problematic of the Avant-Garde.” In ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 73-117. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Luckhurst discusses both the modernist and postmodernist characteristics of Ballard's work.]

How is one to approach this object, this text or texts? The fifteen sections that make up The Atrocity Exhibition1 appeared singly, across a wide range of journals, both science fiction and non-science fiction; are these short stories, then, separable as such? James Blish sensed a design: ‘pieces of a mosaic,...

(The entire section is 17594 words.)

Roger Luckhurst (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Luckhurst, Roger. “Mediation, Simulation, Recalcitrance: Crash to Hello America, with Detours.” In ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 119-40. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, Luckhurst compares Ballard's short fiction with the novels Crash and Hello America.]

The Atrocity Exhibition intensifies the thematic of the ‘mediated subject’ in Ballard's work. At a pivotal moment, it hinges on whether the mediascape is a screen for the projection of perversities or is a device for the implantation of machinic desires. Surrealist derealization, directed by...

(The entire section is 9653 words.)

Roger Luckhurst (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Luckhurst, Roger. “The Signature of J. G. Ballard.” In ‘The Angle Between Two Walls’: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard, pp. 151-81. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Luckhurst explores stylistic and thematic aspects of Ballard's writing.]

This book [‘The Angle Between Two Walls’: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard] has been concerned with frames and borders throughout, and the strange lapsus in their operations that Ballard's texts produce. Being between science fiction and the ‘mainstream’, modernism and postmodernism, avant-garde (‘high’ texts in advance) and après-garde (‘low’ texts dragging behind),...

(The entire section is 13355 words.)