J. G. Ballard Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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