J. G. Ballard is one of a handful of writers who, after establishing early reputations as science-fiction writers, subsequently achieved a kind of “transcendence” of their genre origins to be accepted by a wider public. In Ballard’s case, this transcendence was completed by the success of Empire of the Sun, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian Prize before being boosted to best-seller status by a film produced by Steven Spielberg. In 1996, maverick film director David Cronenberg turned Ballard’s cult classic Crash into an equally disturbing film noir that quickly found a dedicated audience (the film was released in the United States in 1997).
For a time in the early 1960’s, Ballard seemed to constitute a one-man avant-garde in British science fiction, and his influence was considerable enough for him to become established as the leading figure in the movement that came to be associated with the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. Ballard’s interest in science-fiction themes was always of a special kind; he was essentially a literary surrealist who found the near future a convenient imaginative space. His primary concern was the effect of environment—both “natural” and synthetic—on the psyche, and he therefore found it appropriate to write about gross environmental changes and about the decay and dereliction of the artificial environment; these interests distanced him markedly from other modern science-fiction writers and helped him to become a writer sui generis.
Following the success of Empire of the Sun Ballard became a prominent figure in the British literary landscape, cast by critics and journalists as an eccentric cynic playing a role akin to that of the court jesters of legend, who were supposed to whisper the reminder “Remember that thou art mortal” into the ears if their dictatorial employers. In a democratized modern world “ruled” by the middle class in their capacity as voters, consumers, and complainers, Ballard provided steely reminders not merely of the fragile mortality of everything they hold precious but also of the thinness of the veneer of glamour protecting the delusion that their goods are actually good and their values actually valuable.