J. G. Ballard

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Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) 1930–

An English novelist and short story writer born and reared in Shanghai, Ballard, according to Brian Aldiss, represents "one of the few stimulating forces in contemporary sf." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Martin Levin

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Mr. Ballard plays two themes in ["Concrete Island"]. The external theme is the Robinson Crusoe gambit—a foolproof narrative ignition. (How can a maimed motorist survive for days on a devil's island rimmed by traffic?) The internal theme is the search-for-self motif. (What is Robert Maitland really like?) Mr. Ballard fades in the second when he introduces a couple of surprise tenants of the concrete island: Proctor, a brain-damaged acrobat, and Jane, a social dropout. With these two Beggar's Opera types as companions, the architect's tenure takes on a surrealistic air. What do they want? What does Maitland want—besides Out? Mr. Ballard raises some tantalizing questions, even if he doesn't answer them satisfactorily.

Martin Levin, "Fiction: 'Concrete Island'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 1, 1974, p. 78.

Nick Totton

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The stories collected in Low-Flying Aircraft are as stylish as anything [Ballard] has done, and told with that meticulously apocalyptic sobriety which is scarcely to be characterised as whimsical or sentimental. But Dr Ballard has kissed the Blarney Stone. He is whimsical—though admittedly he has a whim of iron; and he has perfected an idiosyncratic literary form which, while not precisely sentimental, might be called the Art of the Neurasthenic. He is a sick man who fondles and caresses his illness into performing the most amazing tricks—but, awkwardly, one of Dr Ballard's major symptoms is repetition compulsion. Like so many of his characters, he endlessly permutates the arid fragments of disaster in an empty gesture of making whole. Buckmaster in 'The Ultimate City,' the longest piece here, creates monuments to vanished high technology in complex pyramids of televisions or automobiles; Dr Ballard shuffles his Tarot pack of hallucinatory images into new patterns, seeking the lost gestalt that could reverse the fragmentation process. But this, too, is only a monument, fragments shored uselessly against our ruin; as Dr Ballard fully realises.

A more direct way of putting it is that for some years Dr Ballard has been writing the same stories over and over again. Unable or unwilling to do otherwise, he has made a minor virtue of necessity: he now tells his stories very well indeed. He knows his instrument inside out, and can plumb its every resonance as he repeats the same handful of tunes. He has also extended his research a good deal:… he is a synthesist—but one who never attains true synthesis, only suggestive juxtapositions of concepts he cannot fuse.

Nick Totton, "Gems and Ruins," in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 237, No. 7745, December 4, 1976, p. 26.∗

Michael Wood

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There was a time, some ten or fifteen years ago, when the notion of "inner space," usually associated with the writings of J. G. Ballard, threatened to change the direction of science fiction. The mind, it was suggested, was the genre's true subject. Down here in the human head, away from the galaxies, was virgin land, Freud's new frontier….

Science fiction soon settled back into its old tracks and took to the stars again, but fantasy and dream, long outlawed by the more earnest practitioners, had found their way back into the form—at least in some of their more clinical aspects. The word terminal , for example, echoes mournfully through Ballard's stories and novels. Visions of endings are everywhere: a world winding...

(This entire section contains 582 words.)

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down, its inhabitants dropping off one by one into a collective final sleep; an all but abandoned earth, its oceans bleached dry, its surface a desert of sand and salt; a group of dead astronauts circling the planet like satellites, doomed to orbit for decades until their capsules cave in; Eniwetok, a cluster of disused concrete bunkers and runways and weapons ranges, littered with broken B-29s and Superfortresses, natural home of a missed apocalypse, "an ontological Garden of Eden," as one of Ballard's characters ironically says.

It is difficult, in these scenes, to separate the private terror from the public possibility, the personal nightmare from the nightmares of history. In all the stories the stress clearly falls on the mental conditions being shown, the inner spaces of psychosis and the approaches to psychosis. The historical places and imaginable historical disasters are figures; they are shapes and traces the psyche has found for the making of its own portrait….

Ballard is a master of conventional science fiction, and [in The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard] shares its cherished worries about crowded city life, the domination of time, the encroachments of technology, and the ravening consumer society….

But in spite of the skill and the invention that go into these pieces, Ballard's heart, or his head, is elsewhere. He is not primarily interested in the narrative line of his stories, or in the people caught up in the situations he has devised for them. He is interested mainly in images of the kind I have mentioned, an abandoned Eniwetok, an earth without oceans, a universe of sand or coral or salt or concrete. He hints, in two stories, at the horrors of life without sleep—operations are performed to allow men to stay awake all the time. He has characters collect, again in two different stories, what he calls "terminal documents": Beethoven's final quartets, a transcript of the Nuremberg Trials, the fusing sequences for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs….

[This] is writing which is often obsessive, and frequently in energetic bad taste. It evokes a mind, or a series of minds, haunted by dreams of emptiness and annihilation. We may not share these dreams at all—I don't—but the best of Ballard's remarkable stories—"The Voices of Time," "The Cage of Sand," "The Terminal Beach," "The Atrocity Exhibition"—confront us with landscapes we can neither disown nor forget. Even the most cheerful and least speculative of us will remember moments when this burned and ending world might have been ours. (p. 28)

Michael Wood, "This Is Not the End of the World," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, Nos. 21 & 22, January 25, 1979, pp. 28-31.∗

Hermione Lee

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J. G. Ballard is well established as a remarkable fantasist, and 'The Unlimited Dream Company,' a rich, seductive and challenging work, confirms his mastery of a very particular idiom….

The emergence [in the novel of a] pagan paradise from the world of motorways and supermarkets (always potent settings for Ballard) is as much a play on wish-fulfilment as an allegory of salvation. The tropical landscape [the protagonist] Blake 'dreams up' enacts Freud's analogy between fantasy and 'nature reservations,' and the novel mysteriously but alluringly describes what might happen if archetypal dreams of eroticism and ambition were to 'come true' in the real world. There's too much decoding to do—every detail needs interpreting, and the hero's name is an irritant—but this nagging potential, common to allegory, is diverted by Ballard's almost Melvillean eloquence ('Already I saw us rising into the air, fathers, mothers, and their children, our ascending flight swaying across the surface of the earth, benign tornadoes hanging from the canopy of the universe'), as lush as the flowering vines he hangs from his multi-storey garages.

Hermione Lee, "The Stuff of Dreams," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9817, October 21, 1979, p. 39.∗

Malcolm Bradbury

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[More and more J. G. Ballard] looks like a leading figure in a very rich and developing field. His earlier work was usually cast as science fiction, but he has long since worked loose from that pocket. Like many excellent contemporary writers, from Italo Calvino to Thomas Pynchon, he draws on science-fiction methods to create a magical modern fantasy. A writer of enormous inventive powers, an explorer of the displacements produced in modern consciousness by the blank ecology of stark architecture, bare high-rises, dead superhighways and featureless technology, he has, like Calvino, a remarkable gift for filling the empty, deprived spaces of modern life with the invisible cities and the wonder worlds of the imagination.

"The Unlimited Dream Company" is a book of this kind, a remarkable piece of invention, a flight from the world of the familiar and the real into the exotic universe of dream and desire. Indeed, the image of flight dominates the book. (p. 14)

Blake's name, presumably, is no accident. He opens the doors of alternative perception and evokes apocalyptic mirages of heaven and hell. Mr. Ballard invents a superabundant world for him to perform in…. It is heady stuff, a dreamy pastoral, but Mr. Ballard sustains it from a well-funded imagination, a prolix style and a great mythical sense. At times, but only at times, the metaphors grow a little too thick, and the pastoral too innocent. But this is above all a book about the fertility of the imagination. It is dense and erotic and magical, a pleasure to read. And it leaves me with no doubt that Mr. Ballard is a very important fantasist. (p. 16)

Malcolm Bradbury, "Fly Away," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1979, pp. 14, 16.

David Pringle

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"The Violent Noon" [Ballard's first published story] is a story about terrorism and military reprisals, set in Malaya during the Emergency. Although it is not SF, it prefigures many of the concerns of Ballard's writing, with its jungle setting, its element of violence, and, above all, a plot which hinges on a psychological paradox…. Ballard needed science fiction: the pressure of his imagination demanded a freer outlet than could be provided by conventional short stories in the mode of Conrad or Somerset Maugham. (p. 5)

Yet the main influences on Ballard's writing were to come from outside the SF field. Romanticism, Symbolism, Surrealism, and the whole "modern movement" in literature and the visual arts have left their marks on Ballard. (p. 6)

[Ballard is] one of the few contemporary writers (in or out of the limited field of science fiction) who has a voice authentically his own. Ballard is an Original but he is not a Sport, which is to say he has his own voice but it is a voice which echoes certain earlier voices, and it is a voice which has much to say to modern readers. Ballard's fiction connects with the world of today; it draws strength from a literary and artistic tradition, but it also reflects and comments upon the nonliterary reality which surrounds us all. This amounts to a definition of "originality," in the best sense. There is no other living writer associated with the SF field who is original in quite the same way, or to quite the same extent, as Ballard…. He is a writer whose subject matter and imagery are always unerringly relevant to the concerns of the contemporary world. It is his ability to choose the correct subjects (and the appropriate images to embody those subjects) which gives him his "charismatic" quality as a writer. From the atom bomb to the automobile, from the prison-camps of World War II to the high-rise blocks of today, he has filled his fiction with images of our world, our times. As Ballard said in his essay on William Burroughs in 1964, "science fiction … is now failing in precisely those areas where the future has already become the past." His own work has been an impressively consistent attempt to mitigate that failure (and the failure, as he sees it, of the traditional social novel)—in short, to deal with our present environments, both "inner" and "outer," in their own terms. (pp. 7-8)

[His] body of work can be divided into two major "periods," with a third just beginning. The first period, 1956–1965, saw the publication of four novels—The Wind from Nowhere …, The Drowned World …, The Drought …, and The Crystal World …—and fifty short stories. This was Ballard's early, "romantic" period, a time when he concentrated on inner landscapes rather than outer…. The second period, 1966–1975, saw the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition, a collection of closely-linked stories and pieces, and three novels—Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975)—as well as some twenty unconnected short stories. This was Ballard's middle, "dark" period, a time when he shifted his interest to outer landscapes, eschewed most of the SF conventions, and brought his fiction closer to the present day…. There are signs (although they can only be read tentatively) that Ballard is entering a [third and] mellower phase; his stories are tending towards the fantastic again, back to the inner landscapes. (p. 8)

During his first period, Ballard was recognizably an SF writer. His favorite device was the biospheric disaster…. [Two stories from this first period] are demonstrations of Ballard's technical mastery of conventional SF forms. "Billennium" is a vivid and blackly humorous treatment of the overpopulation theme, while "The Subliminal Man" is an equally accomplished cautionary tale about the future of advertising and the consumer society. (pp. 8-9)

But in this period Ballard also wrote a large number of psychological horror stories…. ["The Drowned Giant" (1964)] is perhaps Ballard's most "perfect" short story—melancholy, ironic, and extraordinarily resonant.

Other excellent stories which belong to this period are the humorous fantasies [set in a luxury resort known as Vermilion Sands.]… They are marvellously inventive tales, told with a lightness of touch that is not always characteristic of Ballard's writing…. Although they have an amusing surface and are filled with throwaway invention, the Vermilion Sands stories are fundamentally serious in that they deal with the problem of leisure in a rich, highly-automated society. (pp. 9-10)

[The] bulk of Ballard's fiction during [the second] period was present-oriented, and involved little or no scientific extrapolation. It did, however, continue to be a fiction concerned with human beings and their environments—most especially technological environments—and hence it could be claimed as SF of a sort. (p. 10)

[In The Atrocity Exhibition, stories of this second period,] Ballard used a new form as well as a new subject matter. The narratives are non-linear—that is to say, the elements of the plots are shuffled in order to achieve an associative rather than a sequential relationship…. The images are sharp, the language spare. The result is a kind of hard prose poetry—"hard," because so much of the imagery is technical, medical, architectural, or cinematic. The narratives appear to move on a number of different levels, reflecting the actual media landscapes of our present society. An objective, outer environment of motorways, TV screens, advertising hoardings, hospitals, and car-parks becomes "internalized"—a terrain of codes and latent meanings, like that of a dream. (p. 11)

Many regard [Crash] as his masterpiece; others see it as an unfortunate aberration. In our synoptic view of Ballard's career, it can be seen as the climax of his central, dark period—a book which deals uncompromisingly with the psychopathology of the everyday environment in a contemporary large city…. (p. 12)

In his nascent third period, Ballard has returned to shorter forms. The major work published so far is the novella "The Ultimate City" (in the collection Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories, 1976). Here Ballard is once more writing SF: set several decades in the future, the story describes a post-technological society and the attempt of one young man to recapture our own high-technology era. It is a relaxed work with a decidedly "romantic" feel (in contrast to the four harsh books which preceded it). (pp. 12-13)

[Ballard] is not a writer to be judged on his novels alone. He is very much at home in shorter lengths, and his talents are often displayed to the full within the compass of, say, 10,000 words. Ballard tends to compression; at one extreme this leads to the remarkable density of the Atrocity Exhibition pieces…. (p. 13)

Ballard has a painter's eye rather than a poet's tongue, and this goes some way towards mitigating [the charge] … that his prose is lacking in elegance. Ballard's is a heavily metaphorical style, dense with subordinate clauses, qualifications, and asides. He prefers the simile and the metaphor to the euphonious phrase, and the result is an often deliberate harshness, a jangling of imagery and idioms which is highly reminiscent of the usages of the Surrealist writers. His passages of description often work by presenting several discrete images in swift succession, each modifying the whole, sometimes to the point of apparent contradiction…. Although he has been accused—sometimes justly—of verbal clumsiness and poor syntax, Ballard is in fact a master of his own brand of dense descriptive prose, sown with well-turned throwaway phrases and haunting parentheses…. If it is true that he has made his own language [as one critic claimed], then it is hardly surprising that we should experience occasional difficulty in reading it. At its most dense and evocative, Ballard's prose requires the reader to work—a demand which is certain to make its author unpopular with some. (pp. 14-15)

Ballard's novels and stories are full of "things seen"—landscapes, objects, creatures. He is an intensely visual writer who deals in images and "properties." For anyone who has read more than a few of Ballard's stories these landscapes and properties are instantly recognizable. They may belong in fact to the everyday world, they may sometimes be used by other writers, but once seen through Ballard's eyes they become unforgettably "Ballardian." (p. 15)

It is my belief that Ballard's use of symbolism has, on the whole, been more conscious, more intelligent, and more innovative than that of any other contemporary SF or fantasy writer (which is not to say that Ballard has "placed" every symbol, with a devious cunning, so that the whole can be unravelled like an explicit code; there may be deep meanings in Ballard's fiction, but there are no Hidden Messages). He has sometimes maintained and sometimes altered the traditional symbolic patterns in order to suit his own sensibility, and in order to mirror the dilemmas and perspectives of the modern mind. Throughout his novels and stories he has built up a structure of symbols which is very much his own, and which is recognizably "contemporary" (reflecting all the angst of the post-nuclear period), and yet which can at the same time be approached as a variation on the ancient fourfold pattern of Heaven and Hell, the Garden of Eden and the Fallen World. There are even four "elements" which dominate the landscapes in Ballard's fiction, four primary substances which set the tone of his stories. They are Water, Sand, Concrete, and Crystal.

Water and sand, concrete and crystal are to be found somewhere in virtually all of Ballard's fictions, and each is in fact a symbol with an aggregate of meanings, overtones, associations. Secondary symbols group themselves around these four major ones, and in different stories they combine in different ways. Ballard's work must above all be taken as a whole rather than as a number of discrete tales. Viewed as a whole, it will be seen to have a quite profound significance. (pp. 17-18)

Ballard's heroes may be worldly-wise, but they are scarcely men of action (although there is usually a certain amount of "action" required of them: dodging bullets, driving cars, piloting aircraft, or simply being able to endure hostile environments). They are usually haunted by a sense of failure (often the failure of a marriage, or of a career) and are driven by obsessions. Frequently, they are semi-recluses, choosing to strand themselves in some bizarre terrain which reflects their states of mind…. In short, Ballard's heroes constitute a typical Ballardian paradox: they are strong men, chiefly notable for their weaknesses. (p. 38)

The other characters in Ballard's stories are usually vividly portrayed, and yet they have an air of unreality about them. The descriptions are normally brief, limited to clothing accouterments, and facial expressions. It does not take us long to realize that these other characters conform to set types, and that these types form a consistent pattern throughout Ballard's fiction. They are, to a certain degree, emblematic—perhaps even figments of the protagonist's imagination…. (p. 39)

The "death of affect"—the growth of a ruthlessly emotionless and guiltless form of individualism—is one of the great themes of Ballard's fiction. (p. 41)

Ballard, it would appear, is motivated by a death-wish: he can imagine no fate for the human race other than the negatively apocalyptic. (p. 51)

[There] are a number of other themes—or existential situations—which are commonly delineated in his fiction. For the purposes of this discussion we can limit these to four, divisible into balanced pairs, and call them the themes of Imprisonment and Flight, Time Must Have a Stop and Superannuation. The terminology is not Ballard's, nor are these themes the only ones which can be "extracted" from his work. It is a testament to the thematic richness and variety of Ballard's fiction that it can be placed profitably in many contexts and seen from numerous different angles. (p. 53)

Clearly, these four themes are not all "pessimistic." They seem to balance each other in emotional tone—the apparently gloomy and perverse (imprisonment or self-incarceration) offset by the hopeful and transcendent (flight and "the open transits of the sky"—a phrase from "The Ultimate City"). Yet all four can be seen as aspects of the same basic concern—an exploration of the emotional significance of change, decay, entropy, death…. [Death] may be his deeplying theme, but he deals with death as a fact of life: a human fact. His fiction represents a coming to terms with, rather than a revelling in or a flight from, death. (p. 57)

In a society which is human-created but largely out of individual human control, a society which presents us with a myriad technological extensions of our own unconscious impulses …, Ballard is one of the last champions of the solitary, rational awareness. One senses that much of Ballard's fiction is about the preservation (and surrender) of individuality in the face of encroaching technological and social change. To this extent, he is a representative of the humanist and liberal tradition, and his purpose is a positive one: by making us more aware of our "desires" he is helping to free us. Like Freud, he strives to bring the unconscious into the open. His stories explore the collective unconscious, the externalized psyche, which is plainly visible around us and which belongs to us all. This is achieved through the manipulation of symbols and themes which are both personal (to Ballard) and highly contemporary. Ballard's world is his own, but it is also recognizably ours: the alien planet Earth. (p. 60)

David Pringle, in his Earth Is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard's Four-Dimensional Nightmare (copyright © 1979 by David Pringle), The Borgo Press, 1979, 63 p.

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