J. G. Ballard 1930–-
(Full name James Graham Ballard) English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Ballard's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 14, and 36.
One of the most innovative and respected contemporary science fiction authors, J. G. Ballard explores in his work the interior landscape of isolated humans in a postmodern world transformed by science and technology. The inner space he chronicles lies between the external world of reality and the internal world of the psyche. His characters interact with an Earth made surreal by environmental degradation, media intrusion, and perversity, and they typically appear in the midst of a quest and strive for an individually defined transcendence. Ballard's best-known works—including The Crystal World (1966), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Hello America (1981), and Empire of the Sun (1984)—illuminate the many paradoxes and underlying debasements of contemporary life.
Ballard's birth and early life in Shanghai, China, profoundly shaped his worldview and fiction. His parents were members of the privileged British colonial class and provided a luxurious home for the young Ballard and his sister. 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 found some aspects of his life in the camp enjoyable despite the atrocities and hardships he endured there; he 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 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. 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. Ballard's work moved into a different phase with the publication of The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), Hello America, and Empire of the Sun, the last of which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize and was nominated for a Booker Prize. Aside from volumes of short stories, essays, and criticism, Ballard's later works have primarily been novels, including The Day of Creation (1987), Running Wild (1988), The Kindness of Women (1991), Rushing to Paradise (1994), and Cocaine Nights (1996).
Ballard's writing embodies his belief that science fiction is the only genuine literature of the twentieth century—that is, the only fiction to have responded imaginatively to the revolution and moral crises wrought by advances in science and technology. In terms of the internal and external landscapes examined, his work is composed of three phases. Phase I contains descriptions of imaginary places inspired by the Surrealist painters and ends with The Crystal World. Phase II begins with The Impossible Man and Other Stories (1966) and examines landscapes of technology and the communications industry. Phase III contains fiction set in actual geographic locations, beginning with The Unlimited Dream Company. Ballard's first four novels introduce symbols that reappear throughout his work: water signifies the past; sand, the future; concrete, the present; and crystal, eternity. Tornadic winds in The Wind from Nowhere, melting ice caps in The Drowned World, desertification in The Burning World, and a strange, malignant mutation in The Crystal World depict the destruction of known civilization and the retreat of small bands of survivors to the few areas left on Earth that can support “normal” life. In each work, however, a single character turns away from survival and toward a transcendent union with the destructive element.
The second phase of Ballard's fiction comes to full flower in the short stories of The Atrocity Exhibition. 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. The characters in Crash pursue sexual satisfaction, mutilation, and violent death by planning and taking part in ever more devastating automobile wrecks. They exemplify the dysfunctional yet enticing relationship people share with the technology that surrounds them. The influence of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is apparent in the character of Maitland in Concrete Island (1974). His car crashes through a barrier on a freeway and tumbles down an embankment, a desolate, solitary area apart from the world. For a while he shares the space with two people already there, a hobo and a prostitute, but eventually he is left alone. Rather than attempting to escape his dismal surroundings, he adapts to his changed circumstances. High-Rise (1975) is set in an expensive, self-contained residential building replete with recreational facilities, shopping malls, and a stratified society that echo the external world. Feuds break out between floors, and the inhabitants eventually revert to savagery. The novel ends eerily with the sight of a nearby apartment block tower going dark, with the residents presumably heading down the same anarchic path.
The third phase of Ballard's work begins with The Unlimited Dream Company, set in his own English suburb of Shepperton. In this novel the narrator drowns in a plane crash but survives in another form and haunts the residents of his former home with dreams. Hello America is also concerned with a dream: the enduring dream of the promise of America. It projects into the near future, envisioning a United States without people. Most have migrated to Europe or Asia because of the depletion of energy resources and ecological change. Las Vegas is the one place where people are still living, but life there is directed by a psychopath and consists primarily of various sophisticated technologies employed in the service of entertainment, mass media, and celebrity images from the twentieth century. In Empire of the Sun, Jim, the autobiographic protagonist, acts heroically on many occasions, but accepts his incarceration as part of his struggle to survive. He correctly identifies the atomic blast he sees from a distance as a harbinger of death, symbolic of the brutality and senselessness he has observed throughout the majority of his childhood in war-torn Asia. In Running Wild, on the other hand, the children from Pangbourne Village are watched and protected so relentlessly that they rebel against their parents and other adults and slay them. Ballard briefly revisits 1930s Shanghai in The Kindness of Women, another autobiographic novel in which the author moves selectively forward through nearly fifty years, recording the obsessions and experiences that have informed and influenced his best fiction. Rushing to Paradise examines self-deception carried to a violent extreme with the introduction of a program of eugenics designed to eliminate reproductive males. In Cocaine Nights, which begins like a mystery, Ballard presents a leisure class so bored that people in the community become complicit in acts of violent and illicit behavior.
Initial critical response to Ballard's work, particularly the extremes of his second phase, was mixed, but examined retrospectively his work has gained admiration for its philosophical and intellectual rigor, powerfully imaginative language, and singular vision. His four catastrophe novels, of which The Crystal World is generally regarded as the best, received favorable comment from both Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. While The Atrocity Exhibition is noted as one of Ballard's most controversial works, Empire of the Sun is considered his most accessible, particularly as popularized by Steven Spielberg's movie version. Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise positioned Ballard in the forefront of the British New Wave school of science fiction. They also earned him a cult following and a literary tie to William S. Burroughs, whose work has exerted a noticeable influence on Ballard's. The surreal nature of Ballard's literature is also compared to the paintings of Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali. 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 commentators 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 commentators 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 spiritual quest. Even if they are seen moving toward certain death, they go resignedly, even happily, because they completely understand the altered reality of their circumstances. In contrast to William Golding and Joseph Conrad, Ballard believes that civilization can never triumph over nature and that such a struggle is doomed. Like Jim in Empire of the Sun, Ballard's characters understand that survival requires complete surrender to the demands of power. 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.