J. G. Ballard Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 3) - Essay

Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) 1930–

Ballard is a Chinese-born English novelist and short story writer whose principal genre is science fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

"The Subliminal Man" is an unusual story for Ballard…. Ballard is a poet of death whose most typical fictions are apocalyptic imaginings, beautiful and ghastly visions of decay, death, despair. His early novels show the conscious origins of this desperate imagination (whereas "The Subliminal Man" … analyzes these sources with more precision). The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962) are science fictions of the wasteland. In one, London looks like "a city of hell"; in the other, it appears "like some imaginary city of hell." On the literal level, both books ascribe the destruction of the human world to a cosmological freak of nature. In the first, a global wind tears down all human buildings and tears apart almost all human relationships, converting the opening scenes of normal sexual alienation and sterility into a dry and dusty inferno. In the other, solar storms have caused the loss of part of the ionosphere, and the sun, burning through the thinner envelope, has converted the world into a steaming swamp, where human buildings lie drowned and human relationships melt back into a primeval and preconscious world dominated by reptiles. Ballard, however, clearly sees his own imaginings as only ostensibly caused by an unnatural quirk of nature….

In "The Subliminal Man," Ballard goes to the actual sources of his own decadent imaginings of transfiguring death—his own society. It is not nature conquering man but man's own creations, his own productivity, attaining the dumb, senseless, uncontrolled power of primeval nature over him. Here Ballard explores the basic contradiction of decadent capitalism. The economic system, with its fantastic productivity and preposterous inability to satisfy real human needs, has become so completely irrational that it can survive only by enslaving the unconscious to its own most grotesque needs. Man himself must be reduced to a consuming animal below the threshold of conscious thought; he must become subliminal, literally "under the threshold," less than man.

H. Bruce Franklin, "'Foreword' to J. G. Ballard's 'The Subliminal Man'," in The Mirror of Infinity, edited by Robert Silverberg (copyright © by Robert Silverberg; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1970, pp. 239-42.

The young English sf writer J. G. Ballard is preoccupied with time, and his novels and stories give us a new slant on it. For Ballard time assumes grotesque, dreamlike forms. Human consciousness alters the conventional notion of chronology. The paintings of Francis Bacon—whom Ballard admires—provide a visual sense of the author's preoccupation with the psychic states that may be more "real" than any objective notion of time or history.

One Ballard story, "The Day of Forever," describes a "time" when the earth ceases to rotate on its axis. In another, "Time of Passage," a man lives his life from death to birth. Throughout Ballard's work there is a constant interplay, a switching back and forth of cause and effect, between a fault in natural time and a distortion in consciousness. Time becomes subjective, frightening, something to be escaped or by which to be absorbed.

In his Vermilion Sands stories, Ballard's characters are subjected to a totally leisure-time existence—hours filled with boredom, insanity, fear of death. Time has stopped. There is nothing beyond the pointless games that are played to relieve the pressure of boredom. Whenever one seeks to obtain one's bearings, some trick is played, as though human perception were distorted, in Ballard's words, by "some faulty junction of time and space."…

Ballard seems to have found his way into the depths of the great collective unconscious, only to remain stuck there, trapped among the primordial images … sitting, unable to take the next step. And if there is a suggestion here of escape into the ahistorical vision of an Eastern philosophy, the setting remains nevertheless unalterably Western.

In spite of our criticisms of his visions, Ballard remains for us one of the most powerful voices of contemporary science fiction. Indeed, there is real validity in symbolically stopping time so that we can momentarily cease our seemingly headlong rush into the future and take a good long look at where we are right now.

Lois and Stephen Rose, in their The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (© 1970 by M. E. Bratcher; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox Press, 1970, pp. 100-04.

Terminal Beach is a much better collection than we have any right to expect in this wicked world. Not only have the stories virtue in their own right; they show Ballard developing in a way that did not seem likely from his earlier writing.

Ballard's first (English) volume, Four Dimensional Nightmare, showed him limited as to subject. There were too many stories about time, more particularly about the stoppage of time. In the new volume, he remains limited as regards theme, but the limitation represents an absorbed concentration and the theme pours forth its rewards. And that in fact is his theme: that limits whether voluntary or imposed bring ample compensation by deflecting attention to occurrences and states of mind not available to the 'normal' world-possessed man….

Some of the best stories in the Terminal Beach collection hover—as all good sf should—on the verge of being something other than sf. "The Drowned Giant", for instance, is an apparently straightforward eyewitness account of the dismemberment of a gigantic, though otherwise human, body cast up on an unspecified shore. The manner of telling recalls such stories of Kafka's as "Metamorphosis" or "The Giant Mole". It begins with this sentence: 'On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned giant was washed ashore on the beach five miles to the north-west of the city.' The important thing, the narrator tells us, is to remember where the giant appeared, not the fact that he was a giant; to be amazed would be impolite. And by describing the dismemberment of the giant corpse, Ballard weans us of our desire to know where he came from. He concentrates on the important things, and by so doing makes the ends pursued by most sf seem trivial ones. In the hands of the first fifty sf writers you care to name, this story would end with other giants coming down from Akkapulko XIV to rescue him, and the shooting beginning. By eschewing sensationalism, Ballard makes us realize how much sf is given over to sensationalism….

[Ballard] replaces sensationalism with wit. The critics have not noticed how witty Ballard is, yet a unifying wit is his dominant characteristic. Fandom seems to have decided he is the prophet of despondence and let it go at that. Ballard is seldom discussed in fanzines (nor for that matter is anyone but Heinlein), but the occasional reference tends to be disparaging. Thus a correspondent in Vector calls Ballard a 'melancholy johnnie'….

Ballard's wit lies chiefly in imagery that, like the imagery of such metaphysical poets as Carew or Donne, can surprise and delight by its juxtaposition of hitherto separate ideas. In "The Drought", such imagery is, perhaps appropriately, more dessicated, more of the order of Ransome's remark to Catherine: "I've always thought of the whole of life as a kind of disaster area." Such juxtapositional imagery abounds in "The Terminal Beach". Here is a sample from the eponymous story: 'The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, micro-seconds in duration, of thermo-nuclear time.' Paradox is closely allied to this form of wit and in fact this passage continues, 'Typically the island inverted the geologist's maxim. The key to the past lies in the present. Here the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouse illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton'….

Humour is not Ballard's forte, however much wit is. The most serious flaw in the best Ballard novel, The Drowned World, is the villainous Strangman who, with his alligators, his 'handsome saturnine face', his 'crisp white suit, the silk-like surface of which reflected the gilt plate of his high-backed Renaissance throne', and his henchman, 'a huge hunchbacked Negro in a pair of green cotton shorts … a giant grotesque parody of a human being' reminds one irresistably of the prewar villains in Boy's Own Paper or Modern Boy. Modern Boy's sf hero, Captain Justice, with his 'cigar in mouth, cap tilted jauntily over one eye', is characterised about as subtilely as Strangman. One laughs at the latter chiefly, I think, because the author does not; indeed, Strangman is designed as some sort of apocalyptic figure with great significance in the plot. He buckles under the weight of the author's intentions and is forgotten as soon as he disappears, leaving Kerans to his love-hate relationship with the smouldering submerged world about him.

As I say, one laughs; yet it is a mistake to underestimate Ballard. And it may even be that on a deeper level Strangman is intended as parody. There are frequent signs in Ballard's work that he is parodying or mocking or at least remembering all the bad things of the medium in which he has chosen to write (often it is difficult for the intelligent sf writer to do otherwise)….

Ballard's attitude is such that we are often reminded of sf by the very things he is ostentatiously not doing. Ballard likes to regard himself as something of an outcast among the sf fraternity. He avoids most other authors, he believes—in sharp distinction to adulation expressed by other writers—that 'H. G. Wells has had a disastrous influence on the subsequent course of science fiction', he seems to regard William Burroughs as the greatest of sf writers, and of course he is the apostle of "Inner Space"….

Despite his care to keep within the science fiction framework, Ballard is often careless with his facts. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he is rather lordly about his material, just as he is about his readers. At the beginning of "The Drowned World", the identity of the submerged city is left vague: 'Had it once been Berlin, Paris, or London? Kerans asked himself'. Ballard seems to put his own thought into Kerans' head when he says, a few pages later, 'despite the potent magic of the lagoon worlds and the drowned cities, he had never felt any interest in their contents, and never bothered to identify in which of the cities he was stationed'. But you'd think someone would know; the navigator, perhaps….

His witty and nervous worlds, littered with twitching nerves and crashed space stations, carry their own conviction that will eventually win him popular support. For his characters, the worst blow is always over, they are past their nemesis and consequently free. One can only hope that for Ballard too the worst misunderstanding is over, so that he will be free to create in a more intelligent atmosphere. Despite some shortcomings, his stories represent one of the few stimulating forces in contemporary sf.

Brian Aldiss, "The Wounded Land: J. G. Ballard," in SF: The Other Side of Realism—Essays on Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971, pp. 116-29.

[Ballard's] Love & Napalm is not a masterpiece in the way that, say, The Great Gatsby and Miss Lonelyhearts are masterpieces, but it is a brilliant and useful book. Like the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which it resembles in some of its concerns and in the mock erudition and dryness of its prose, it might well be considered a long poem on metaphysical themes. That is the difficult part; the horrifying part is that this philosophic investigation is conducted in terms of violent death and perverse sexuality….

After the nine stories that chronicle Dr. Travers' despairing search for new kinds of union, there are six pieces less closely related to one another also concerned with sexuality and violent death. Several of these read like abstracts of the results of market research intended to design a nightmare. Ballard's fiction has always been described as gloomy, and he regrets that nobody seems to notice the irony that runs through the book; he uses the language of behavioral science for ironic effect as Borges uses the language of literary erudition.

In various interviews Ballard has said he is not much of a reader, at least in the sense of keeping up with contemporary writing, and he told me he feels closer to the visual arts than to most modern literature. There is little dialogue in Love & Napalm, and the nine sections concerned with Dr. Travers are heavily weighted toward visual description.

The events of the story include exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, conceptual art, and intermedia works. At one point Ed Kienholz's construction "Dodge '38" appears on a road near London. Max Ernst's name is mentioned continually. Dali, Bellmer, and Tanguy also pop up. Dali is quoted as having said that mind is a state of landscape, and this idea is one of the keys to understanding Ballard.

Jerome Tarshis, "Krafft-Ebing Visits Dealey Plaza: The Recent Fiction of J. G. Ballard," in Evergreen Review, Spring, 1973, pp. 137-48.

"Crash" is, hands down, the most repulsive book I've yet to come across. Sports Illustrated coverage of the Round-Robin eliminations at Ravensbrück would be somewhat less freakish. And as reader, I promise you, only a virtuoso foulness can turn my stomach. (As person, I faint when someone serves medium rare London broil.) J. G. Ballard choreographs a crazed, morbid roundelay of dismemberment and sexual perversion. "Crash" is well written; credit given where due. But I could not, in conscience, recommend it. Indeed, I most cordially advise against. Believe me, no one needs this sort of protracted and gratuitous anguish; except perhaps those who think quadruple amputees are chic….

J. G. Ballard intends to create a rite in metal, effacing humanness. The liturgy exasperates when, by reiteration, it no longer sickens.

D. Keith Mano, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 23, 1973, p. 7.

J. G. Ballard, along with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and younger Americans like Thomas Disch, once seemed capable of rescuing the genre [science fiction] from the mountain of fifth-rate hackwork it had become. In the earlier part of his career Ballard produced a well-written, dissonant series of novels and stories chiefly built about a single theme: the slow, terrible drift of the earth toward an apocalypse of inanition. Everything slowed and stilled and froze solid: it was a slender column to support a stack of books, but the nerviness of the language and the density of the imagination creating the disasters made the early Ballard novels readable and engrossing beyond the tight, fanatical world of the adepts. Then Ballard changed his manner and became altogether more inventive and modernist.

In Vermilion Sands, however, he is back in the old harness, and for all his attempts to make these nine stories widely significant, they fail even to come up to his early novels—again, he is coasting along on the strength of one idea, twisting all his material into one repetitive pattern, and the slickness and indulgence of the stories make them difficult to remember an hour after the book's been closed. The writing is creamy and precise, almost always delightful, but it cannot carry its load of inconsequential and lazy plot….

What Ballard attempts in these stories is the creation of an original and grotesque world, to be revealed in an unspectacular, off-hand way. But the conventional analogy between short stories and poetry contains a good deal of truth; any false step or slackness becomes cruelly evident. The limpness of the stories in Vermilion Sands is that of a poet going lax and complacent….

Peter Straub, in New Statesman, December 7, 1973, pp. 874-75.

J. G. Ballard is one of England's best and most imaginative science-fiction writers, and he has created some masterly tales and novels. He is also one of the few contemporary s-f authors I've come across whose work rises above comic-book fantasy and style. But for several years now he has been producing pretentious futuristic pieces and, because of their inventive, experimental appearance, winning acceptance in "serious" literary circles. His admirers can't seem to realize that although he is an accomplished technician and dreamer, he doesn't have any terribly new or significant observations concerning the future. His "serious" work is filled with stunning but pointless effects. Crash, which his American publisher foolishly compares [with] A Clockwork Orange, is all effect, a superficial nightmare vision of a car-and-sex-oriented society. The narrator and his acquaintances are adult car crash freaks who explore, with maniacal seriousness, the eroticism of destruction. When they are not creating havoc on the highways or smacking their lips over mutilations, then they are grasping for chrome and genitalia. What they would have done in, to and with our Edsel simply staggers the imagination. If the fantasies in Crash reflect Ballard's state of mind when he's behind the wheel, then his driver's license should be revoked immediately. The man is a potential menace.

Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 782-83.