J. G. Ballard

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Christopher Priest (review date 11 September 1987)

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SOURCE: “Return to the Source,” in New Statesman & Society, September 11, 1987, p. 26.

[In the following review, Priest offers praise for The Day of Creation.]

One of the familiar smaller pleasures of a J. G. Ballard novel is the way in which the chapters are named, a surreal blend of fanciful Freud and boys' action/adventure stuff. For example, five consecutive chapters in The Day of Creation are called ‘Piracy’, ‘Out of the Night and Into the Dream’, ‘The Naming of New Things’, ‘The Helicopter Attack’ and ‘Escape’. Readers who discovered Ballard's work through his 1984 novel Empire of the Sun might have been slightly disconcerted there by the same kind of thing (‘The Refrigerator in the Sky’ and ‘The Bandits’), but Ballard veterans usually turn to the Contents page first for a quick preview of the happy and fruitful madness to come.

Empire of the Sun was the anomaly in Ballard's career. Because it had autobiographical content it seemed to reveal the source of practically everything else the author had written, but Empire was of familiar type and was thus enjoyed by more people, probably, than had read all his other books put together. It was a WWII novel, perhaps the last great one to be written by a participant in the war. But it was not like his other novels (which I preferred): Crash,The Unlimited Dream Company and so on. The new novel returns to this mainstream of Ballard's work.

It has no plot in the conventional sense, but then Ballard novels rarely do. Plenty of events, though … in fact, the pace of things happening hardly slackens from beginning to end. The story opens with the narrator being clubbed with a rifle barrel and from this moment, the action is thick and fast, acted out by a cast of oddly named Ballardian henchmen: two separate bandit groups (one of them lead by a General Harare), a television documentary filmmaker (Sanger) and his associate (Mr Pal), a Japanese photographer (Miss Matsuoka), a boatload of whores (led by a widow named Mrs Warrender), a child-woman called Noon who communicates by tapping her teeth. The narrator is a doctor called Mallory who works for the WHO, but the central character (arguably) is a river called Mallory, which comes into miraculous existence, witnessed by the doctor, named after the doctor by the TV man (the National Geographical Society registers it as such) and purchased by the doctor from the police captain for a thousand of the WHO's dollars. The doctor now sets off up-river in a stolen car ferry, pursued by bandits (the police captain's can is strapped to the deck). I hope this makes sense so far.

All of Ballard's best novels contain an obsessive quest. In this one the doctor is searching for the source of the new river, but for reasons which are not altogether clear: certainly not to the reader, and perhaps not even to himself. Sometimes Dr Mallory wishes to revive the weakening flow of water so that the desert may be irrigated, at other times he seeks to strangle it at source. Both impulses merge. The two competing guerrilla groups are in hot pursuit, the whores trail behind, the filmmaker provides a topographical commentary, the child-woman takes refuge inside the police captain's Mercedes, endlessly playing tapes of marxist travelogues—and from time to time a helicopter zooms in to attack. Everyone is ill, wounded, dying or insane. Every physical object, no matter whose it is or what it is being used for, is decrepit. The new river, after a few days in existence,...

(This entire section contains 812 words.)

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is littered with beer coolers, air conditioners and condoms.

But, for all this superficial detail, and for all the explanations and incidents and the ceaseless narrative tone of the writing, the novel is virtually static in form. The real journey described in the book is an inward one. This is not Heart of Darkness at all; Aguirre, Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo would be closer. Werner Herzog once described himself as someone who shouldn't be allowed to make films, presumably because he endangered other people's lives; novelists endanger only themselves, but perhaps J. G. Ballard feels the same way about himself.

He is a unique writer with a distinctive vision unmatched by any other living novelist and, in The Day of Creation, Ballard is at the height of his powers. Like those of surrealist paintings, the images are not only appalling, and sometimes beautiful, but their juxtapositions are frequently comic and are drawn with great technical skill. The book is original throughout and induces a feeling of crazed credulity. It will undoubtedly sell as well as Empire of the Sun, but it is not at all the same kind of thing. To those of us who have been feeling psychically endangered by Ballard's writing since the early 1960s, this feels like a triumphant return to form.


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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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Jenny Diski (review date 9 November 1990)

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SOURCE: “Stranger than Fiction,” in New Statesman & Society, November 9, 1990, p. 38.

[In the following review of War Fever, Diski finds Ballard's stories “stiff” and unimaginative in light of more extraordinary events precipitating the end of the Cold War.]

Last December, I was on a plane to New York. Halfway through the flight, the man sitting next to me explained that he had been on a geographical survey in the Hindu Kush for the previous three months without access to news, and wanted to know if anything had happened recently. Well, yes, it had, as a matter of fact; the Berlin Wall had become nothing more than a slab of soon-to-be demolished concrete, and in the 12 weeks he had been analysing minerals up his mountain, the central political reality of the second half of the twentieth century had been blown away.

The geologist stared at me for a moment and decided to go to sleep. I suppose he thought that if all that could happen in three months, maybe everything would be back to normal by the time we touched down at Kennedy. Which is to say that if science fiction is to hijack our imaginations, it's got to do something more than play with predictions or offer weird scenarios of what might be. The present, thank you very much, is quite strange enough already.

In this collection of stories [War Fever], J G Ballard is more concerned with inner space and internal realities, though there are a few Orwellian exercises in social prediction. “Love in a Colder Climate” is a tale of sexual conscription in a post-Aids world where people have chosen to abstain from sex entirely, so that the birth rate has fallen to a dangerously low level. Two conscripts meet, fall in love, and refuse to contaminate their relationship with cold copulation. Celibate love rears its head, but the government has a surgical solution for draft-dodgers.

Another story along these lines, “The Largest Theme Park in the World,” turns the entire population of a federal Europe into beach bums. A new nation emerges for a while, inhabiting a shoreline “country” 3,000 miles long and 300 metres wide. Naturally, it's not long before these hyper-fit, ultra-tanned hordes divide into national groups according to their preferred beach resorts and reinvent frontiers and fiscal barriers.

The more intriguing interior stories deal with damaged minds and distorted visions of reality. Ballard has several variations on a theme of madness, where bounded spaces—rooms in a house, a deserted satellite station—enlarge to encompass the infinite. His characters live in a solipsistic nightmare, but find a terrible kind of peace as they become irretrievably withdrawn.

These stories get close to drawing you into the terror of isolation. Yet there is something stiff about them, as if the requirements of the genre keep you at arm's length. It is a little like reading accounts of acid trips you haven't taken, or hearing the story of a movie that will never get made. You ought to feel pity for the protagonist, but you never get closer than feeling creepy.

In some ways, the most effective stories are those that are not narrated at all. A hundred answers, to a questionnaire we don't see, create a ghost far more palpable than the first-person narratives, as does the story which consists only of an 18-word title and annotations on each of those words.

This collection fails to satisfy, not just because the events of the last year have been more extraordinary than any writer might have imagined, but because even the best of the bunch smack of sociology and psychology, rather than enticing us into their words through individuals whose heartbeat we can feel.

Principal Works

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Billennium (short stories) 1962

The Drowned World (novel) 1962

The Voices of Time and Other Stories (short stories) 1962

The Wind from Nowhere (novel) 1962

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (short stories) 1963

Passport to Eternity (short stories) 1963

The Burning World [expanded and published as The Drought, 1965] (novel) 1964

The Terminal Beach (short stories) 1964

The Crystal World (novel) 1966

The Impossible Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1966

The Day of Forever (short stories) 1967

The Disaster Area (short stories) 1967

The Overloaded Man (short stories) 1967

Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (short stories) 1968

The Atrocity Exhibition [published as Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A., 1972] (short stories) 1970

Chronopolis and Other Stories (short stories) 1971

Vermilion Sands (short stories) 1971

Crash (novel) 1973

Concrete Island (novel) 1974

High-Rise (novel) 1975

Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories (short stories) 1976

The Unlimited Dream Company (novel) 1979

The Venus Hunters (short stories) 1980

Hello America (novel) 1981

Myths of the Near Future (short stories) 1982

News from the Sun (short stories) 1982

Empire of the Sun (novel) 1984

The Day of Creation (novel) 1987

Memories of the Space Age (short stories) 1988

Running Wild (novel) 1988

War Fever (short stories) 1990

The Kindness of Women (novel) 1991

Rushing to Paradise (novel) 1994

Cocaine Nights (novel) 1996

A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews (essays and criticism) 1996

J. G. Ballard with Jeremy Lewis (interview date 1991)

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SOURCE: “An Interview with J. G. Ballard,” in Mississippi Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 1–2, 1991, pp. 27–40.

[In the following interview, Ballard discusses the negative impact of technology, violence, and mass culture in Western society; comments on science fiction, literary realism, and his own writing; and shares his feelings about the landscape and livability of various cities in Europe and the United States.]

J. G. Ballard's fiction stands at the forefront of postmodern aesthetics. His surreal journeys into the hi-tech, televisual and concrete environments that constitute a present time for us stand as some of the most provocative and imaginative works of the past thirty years.

Ballard's writing career began in a number of science fiction magazines in the late 1950s. Most notable were his contributions to Michael Moorcock's landmark New Worlds, a magazine which helped define a new science fiction sensibility for readers and writers on both sides of the Atlantic. After moving from the overtly sci-fi nature of his early works, Ballard, in the early 1970s, wrote a series of novels that stand as some of the most pertinent insights into our contemporary media-drenched, imagistic epoch.

Crash,Concrete Island, and especially The Atrocity Exhibition are perfect examples of Ballard's vision—highly technical and affectless worlds ruled by the interconnectedness of science and pornography—the two disciplines, as Ballard keenly stresses, “moving together on a curious collision course.” The author's surreal and cut-up experiments with narrative, which he perfectly demonstrates in The Atrocity Exhibition, gained him a cult reputation as something of an English equivalent to William S. Burroughs, and it was not until Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Ballard's novel Empire of the Sun in 1984 that the author achieved a more widespread recognition.

He has lived in England since moving there from Shanghai when he was fifteen, and has lived at his present home in Shepperton, an anonymous backwater of London lying under the shadow of Heathrow Airport, for the past thirty years.

It was at his home that I met J. G. Ballard on a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1990.

[Lewis:] I find The Atrocity Exhibition requires an entirely new approach to reading.

[Ballard:] What you have got to do is not read more than a chapter at a time, and don't try to read it as if you are trying to read a conventional short story, or a conventional narrative. The dramatic connections between the characters and events are all very important and all have a strong story, oddly enough.

The Atrocity Exhibition has a different title in the States. What was the background of that?

It was first published as The Atrocity Exhibition in I think 1970 by Doubleday, but they pulped the entire edition three weeks before publication. I'm told that one of the senior members of the Doubleday firm, Nelson Doubleday, actually opened a copy and saw the Ronald Reagan story and he just sent the order out to destroy the entire edition. Only about six copies survived, of which I'm glad to say I have one, and then one or two other firms thought of publishing it and then finally Grove Press (which had a checkered publishing career) published it in something like 1972 or '73.

They re-titled it Love and Napalm: Export U.S.A. for some reason—against my wishes. They wanted to cash in on the Vietnam War, but I didn't really have much choice in the matter. I protested strongly that was the wrong title, totally wrong. That edition, of course, has been out of print for years.

But I think over the years that the British paperback editions of my books have been available in the States. In fact I was amazed during my book tour in 1988, to find the British editions which shouldn't be there by rights. It doesn't worry me, I'm only too glad.

You've referred in the past to the connections between science and pornography—what you have termed “the science of pornography.” This connection is central to your fiction, and especially Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition where you attempt to interpret such an affect on your characters.

I like to think of Crash as the first pornographic novel based on technology. By technology one means science in its practical applications to everyday life. In the case of Crash that has to do with the technology of, literally, the vehicle, for the pornographic imagination. But on another level there is a sense in which science and pornography are moving together on a curious collision course. Science is now more and more taking its subject matter not from nature as in the traditional physical sciences, but from the obsessions of its own practitioners—particularly in the soft sciences, psychology above all. This would be true of the last fifty years, but it's much more advanced now. Psychologists decide to develop a form of hypothesis for everything! Let's say, there's one in vogue here right now that says watching television dulls the emotional life, or watching images of violence dulls the emotional life. So they set up an experiment in which subjects are exposed to endless images of violence and then they submit them to tests which—surprise surprise!—reveal that their human responses have been dulled by exposure to images of violence!

The same thing is being done by researchers in all sorts of other human fields. The very famous case about ten years ago in which some American psychologist set up a kind of mock experiment in which groups of students were asked to interrogate other groups of students and were given permission to inflict small doses of pain on these students, if they weren't telling the truth. This experiment was designed to test the core of human compassion. Of course it revealed that gripped by the power of the pain button, young students will lose their heads and become Gestapo-like tormentors.

Now, it seemed to me in all these examples (there are thousands of them) science is moving into an area where its obsessions begin to isolate completely its subject under the lens of its microscope, away from its links with the rest of nature. This is always the risk with science as a whole. The pornographic imagination detaches certain parts of the human anatomy from the human being and becomes obsessively focussed on the breast or the genitalia, or what have you. That sort of obsession with what I call quantified functions is what lies at the core of science; there is a shedding of all responsibility by the scientist who is just looking at a particular subject with a tendency to ignore the contingent links.

It's an isolation of certain functions outside of time and space …

Yes, outside of time and space, and outside the social and human—effective links that normally constrain our behavior and imaginations.

How can people learn to deal with this, which seems to be everywhere around us, and retain any individual humanist elements?

Scientists are always running the risk of becoming dehumanized. Doctors don't see their patients' faces, they are only concerned with treating the complaint at all cost. I'm told that people who work with laboratory animals admit that, however kindly they may try to feel towards the animals, the time comes where they start to get impatient with the rabbits or guinea pigs or whatever it may be and cross the borderline between sensitivity and insensitivity. That's inevitable.

On a larger field, one sees that tendency underpinning almost the whole of western life today. The various ecological and green movements are in part a reaction against that. People want to save the whale and the seal because they know that sooner or later the human being is probably going to be next on the list.

The vast commercial, industrial, bureaucratic organizations of the world that virtually run this planet and define everyday reality have no time for the individual, which is inevitable. It isn't necessarily a deliberate callousness. If you design a hundred story office block, whatever it is—the World Trade Center for example—you put in the best possible ventilation system. But if the damn ventilation system konks out, about twenty thousand people are going to be suffocated. I won't say that this becomes an “acceptable risk”; it's rather like the casualties on our roads. There is a built-in tolerance that is the effect of these systems.

About twenty thousand people a year are killed on the roads in America. Of course, every death is deplored, but collectively it's manslaughter on a gigantic scale; and it's tolerated as part of the price to be paid. Similar tolerances (acceptable casualties) run through the whole of life. There is a sort of built-in deadening of human feeling that is inseparable from the sort of lives we've opted for in the late twentieth century.

You've got to remember to some extent that the communication/media landscape sets the agenda: a media landscape dominated by TV that thrives on sensation. This itself has a numbing effect. One saw this very much during the Vietnam War. And whenever there is a major tragedy—something like the Lockerbie plane crash or famine in Ethiopia—one sees that these images exhaust their own potential to evoke pity in a very short space of time. With repetition the audience of course becomes bored. The whole thing has a numbing effect.

One also gets the hidden agendas beginning to emerge—the sub-texts that begin to write themselves into the script. Inevitably you see images of an actress making love followed by an injured child being carried from a crashed car, followed by some African prime minister being shot down, followed by an advertisement for a martini. On the unconscious plain, what sort of scenarios are we stitching together out of these events?

These are the hidden agendas that The Atrocity Exhibition is about. Just as the sleeping mind extemporizes a narrative form of the random memories veering through the cortical night, so our waking imaginations are stitching together a set of narratives to give meaning to the random events that swerve through our conscious lives. A roadside billboard advertising something or other, to TV programmes or news magazines or the radio or in-flight movies, or what have you.

We are bombarded by this absolute deluge of fictional material of every conceivable kind and all this has the affect of …

Killing affect?

Yes. And of preempting our own original response to anything. All these events are presented to us with their pre-packaged emotions already in place, so if you are shown an earthquake or airliner crash you are told what to think.

So again how does one become “objective” or more “individualized”? In your fiction you draw upon the concept of inner space consistently.

One has to foster one's own imagination to a very intense degree, far more than most people realize. Most people have a huge capacity for imaginative response to the world that is scarcely tapped.

I'm not stressing that we should become a nation of short story writers, novelists, painters and filmmakers, but it may be that the information technologies of the near future are going to make possible the tapping of the individual imagination in a way that highly complex, craft-demands of home video systems and home cine-cameras have never allowed the individual before. I remember my parents had a cine-camera back in the thirties, but they hardly ever used it. Even the technology of that was too complicated for convenient use.

Video cameras are remarkably commonplace now. This may be only a further step along that road, and I hope they will become even more commonplace because people will really need to look inward far more. One will not be able to trust the external environment to provide all the necessary cues for a rich and fulfilling life. This has already happened. One sees the way people these days have retreated far more into their own homes, because much less depends on public forms of entertainment, and so on.

The retreat is not just necessarily their own homes, but a retreat into their private lives far more than they used to, say in the forties and fifties, when the home was a place where one slept and serviced one's body, while generally speaking one went out to find paid entertainment. You went to the movies or visited a theme park or went on a package tour to somewhere. People are now pulling back from that sort of thing. They want something that expresses their own taste more, and the range of diversity of hobbies and leisure activities is just fantastic. There are huge industries that are satisfying every conceivable whim.

If people are going to survive they will need to do this on the plane of the imagination much more than they have done. Otherwise, they'll simply become a mark on some consumer chart. This has already happened.

The biological function of sex has been changed to become, like everything else, a function of power, money, domination. So sex becomes a reflection of the external landscape.

This is something I cover in The Atrocity Exhibition. I point out there in my marginal annotations that the landscape we live in is absolutely saturated with sexual imagery of every conceivable kind. There's a sense in which we are all taking part in sexual activity, whether we want to or not, and whether we are aware of it or not. We are constantly bombarded by films and TV commercials, magazine advertising, etcetera.

Sex has become a sort of communal activity. It's an explicit element in all sorts of other activities—advertising, publicity, sales promotion as well as in film and TV, every conceivable thing you can think of. Elements of sexual imagery are constantly being jolted into the psychological space we inhabit. One has to be aware of these things and the unconscious role they play.

Such excessive imagery that stimulates a character like Vaughan in Crash?

Vaughan represents the nth point or terminal destination in the process. It's very important to realize that there is a normalization of psychopathology taking place. Elements of psychopathic behavior are tolerated and are annexed into normal life in a way that we are scarcely aware of. I don't mean this in a complicated sense: if you go to a motor racing track, or a boxing match, or any physical contact sport, or things like demolition derbies and so forth, you take for granted a very high level of violence that would be genuinely shocking if it occurred outside those particular arenas.

But in Europe and in the States one sees in film and television a range of violent and sexual imagery being tolerated that would have been inconceivable thirty years ago. On the continent (not so much in this country where it is heavily censored) you have hard-core porn films, books and magazines more or less freely available and being distributed to the population at large.

The general effect of all this is to normalize the deviant and perverse. We should accept this and not try and fight against this particular tide; instead, to quote Conrad's phrase, we should to some extent immerse ourselves in this destructive element ourselves. This is the environment in which we are immersed, and we might as well keep our eyes open, and try to swim through all this so we get to the other end of the pool, maybe some way will be found of moderating these strains that are present.

You certainly trace this idea of exercising the perverse and deviant in the imagination in all your fiction. This leads to a Nietzschean sense of a new morality and a sense of freedom. The people you've cited as influences—Celine, Burroughs and Genet—were doing the same thing.

That's true. There is a sense in which a “new morality” (if you would like to call it that) has already started to emerge. People accept moral discontinuities in their lives in a way that older generations would not have done.

Before the Second World War, one felt a continuous spectrum of moral responsibilities ruling one's life in a way that isn't true anymore. People are capable of the highest morality in certain areas of their lives, but of complete blanks in others. To some extent this is encouraged by the media landscape. This has always happened—a thoroughly upright parson can deliver a sermon on Sunday morning and then go out on Sunday afternoon and shoot fifty pheasants out of the sky without a moment's thought.

All of us who eat beef steak know damn well what goes on in the slaughterhouse; the sort of people that are horrified by the bullfight (at least the bull has a chance), think nothing of millions of cattle going to their deaths in grim circumstances. That's always been the case, but I can see the same sort of moral discontinuities coming in peoples' lives more and more in the future, producing a rather unsettling world where one will need educated feet to be able to make the crossovers from one moral plane to the next. One already sees.

This radical increase of freedom also makes us all capable of doing anything at any point, exemplified in the cases of mass murderers wreaking havoc on crowded places.

The functional freedom that anybody can buy a gun and go out and murder a lot of people at a McDonald's is prevalent, yes. But through the effects of TV and interactive video systems and so forth, we'll also have the freedom to pretend to be a mass murderer for the evening. I've seen descriptions of advanced TV systems in which a simulation of reality is computer controlled—the TV viewer of the future will wear a special helmet. These sorts of virtual reality projects are obviously going to overpower the viewer. You'll no longer be an external spectator to fiction created by others, but an active participant in your own fantasies/dramas. Obviously these things could lead to all sorts of (one can imagine) nightmarish outcomes, but one might as well be aware of them and not try to fight against them, maybe do something positive with them.

All this strikes me as being very appealing and at the same time very alienating.

Absolutely. Which is a pretty good summary of the late twentieth century, isn't it?

That's why “educated feet” help a lot.

Yes, they're essential. These are not just abstract academic matters. People/parents are worried about the way their kids are no longer literate, no longer reading, and just living for a diet of the transient. They're interested in pop music and fashion, not interested in vocational training. They're living in an endless present of clothes, fashions and pleasant sensations. Waiting for a rude awakening.

There is also no doubt that the levels of urban violence have risen enormously. This isn't just a matter of violence being over-reported. There are huge underclasses who have nothing to lose. Big cities, or specifically their restricted areas, have always been violent; but now you can be mugged walking down Picadilly in broad daylight. There have been horrendous cases recently in London. A young woman was actually raped on a tube train at four o'clock in the afternoon with other passengers present near Hammersmith. I was concerned because my woman friend lives in Hammersmith and a daughter of mine lives in Chiswick, not far away.

What's the fiction scene like in Britain these days? Is it still dead here?

Of course it's dead. With a few exceptions.

Not as many as in the States?

I'm not sure if there are any exceptions there either.

What are you reading these days?

I'll admit I don't read much fiction. I read pretty widely. I read marginally in the sciences, political history, a fair amount of psychology and biography. But it's a pretty scattered gun. Let's see what I've got here, we'll do a spot test!—The Science of Art; Robert Graves' White Goddess (a classic); Primitive Art in Civilized Places; and a book on the history of wine! That gives you an idea.

Do you see yourself as a “science fiction” writer?

Not really. The scientific imagination is obviously very, very important in my fiction, which tends to suggest that I am an SF writer. The problem is that SF exists, out there, and has changed enormously since I first began writing. It's pretty hard to escape these labels, but they are rather misleading in a way. I certainly don't think of myself as a science fiction writer anymore. Back in the late fifties and sixties, I was writing a fair amount of science fiction, most of which was published in SF magazines. I've never regretted that. My early novels, like The Drowned World and The Crystal World and the short stories I wrote at that time, (my early collections) were pretty close to SF, even by the most stringent definitions of what SF is. But they could also be read outside the SF field.

But by the time I got to The Atrocity Exhibition in the late sixties, and then went on to Crash,Concrete Island and High Rise, and then at the end of the seventies, The Unlimited Dream Company, I had left behind science fiction completely. Nobody, in fact, ever called Empire of the Sun a science fiction novel, but other novels of mine that were not are termed SF (Crash is still referred to as a science fiction novel—which is silly, of course).

If you think of the mainstream novel, say, of the last hundred years from Henry James onwards, it has been dominated by realism and various offshoots of realism—the naturalistic consensus sustained the novel throughout the modern movement.

You've obviously been working outside that tradition. Your work has more in common with another lineage—people like Burroughs, Genet and Kafka.

Yes. Parallel with the modern movement and threading its way through the modern movement, of course, have been a few mavericks who've been drawing their inspiration from the imaginative fiction of the past three or four centuries. I don't know if Burroughs is the last of the writers of the modern movement or the first of the next postmodern epoch. But Burroughs has more in common with, say, Dean Swift, than he has with the naturalistic writers of the nineteenth or twentieth century.

A few of these mavericks have tended to parallel the main naturalistic movement of the last hundred years. Naturalism itself began to break up about twenty or thirty years ago because it just wasn't adequate to come to grips with the realities of either the Second World War or the post-war world. Today naturalism has completely faltered. You only find it in middle-brow fiction. Magic-realism gave a whole new lease of life to the novel: other inputs have come from classic surrealism and film, pop art, Andy Warhol and so on.

But the most important novelists are not working within naturalism anymore—you think of people like Burroughs, or novels like Catch 22, A Confederacy of Dunces. What else is happening? That's the problem. My mind tends to go blank when I think of other writers. Pynchon. None of these writers are working in the sort of classic naturalistic space, and quite rightly so. I like to think that I am in with those.

In the past, writers would go to certain cities—Paris, New York, Rome—and find a sense of community. It's not like that anymore.

The obvious cities to go to are now almost unlivable. A lot of American writers seem to be based around New York, but I can't imagine working in New York. It's too oppressive. I think it would be impossible.

One could work in low-rise cities. Something about the horizon, the literal horizon that greets the eye as you look out the window; the horizon is generally visible, down at the end of streets in low-rise cities, according in some way with the larger horizons of the imagination. A high-rise city like New York (I know it is said there that you can see the horizon at the end of every vast canyon, but actually, you can't), exhilarating though it was, I found very oppressive. The physical mass of the buildings and the discontinuity between street life that existed—the two dimensions of the plane on the city floor and the hidden, concealed life going half way up to the sky is very constraining.

I would imagine you feel much less of this in Los Angeles.

I loved Los Angeles. I really felt at home there. I regret that I did not make a life for myself in Los Angeles thirty years ago, when I might have done so. It's an infinitely mysterious city, right on the edge of the Third World really, almost bisecting it, practically the capital city of the Third World.

Driving around there I felt that the Mexican/American border, roughly speaking, ran along Wilshire Blvd. That's not an exaggeration. White Los Angeles or Anglo-Saxon Los Angeles (whatever you'd want to call it) lies north of Wilshire Blvd., and Hispanic and black Los Angeles lies to the south. And it is a low-rise city, of course.

Why have you never moved from here?

To be quite honest, until I wrote Empire of the Sun in 1984, I'd found that, although I'd made a reasonable living, my income wouldn't adequately furnish such a move. I was bringing up three children you see. I set out originally to be a doctor. Oddly enough, my career and income have more or less matched that of the English GP (until 1984,) and English doctors are not that well paid. I could get by and send my children to private schools and through universities, but I didn't have anything left over after that. If I had taken them to Malaga or L.A., it would have handicapped them, they wouldn't have received much of an education. So I just couldn't re-locate.

Since Empire of the Sun, I've had the financial freedom to go and live anywhere, and I have been seriously thinking about it. I may well head for the Mediterranean, but I'm too old to go and live in the States now; I'd have no friends there, I wouldn't know anybody. I'd step off the plane into a completely alien city and the few contacts I have in the film world wouldn't sustain any sort of social life. But the Mediterranean is very attractive.

My own sense is that five or six years in southern California is enough.

Doesn't one get a sort of beach fatigue setting in? It's a slight mental numbing which you notice among British ex-pats living on the Mediterranean. They are marooned in a curious way.

You maroon yourself into a form of found utopia.

One's wits are not sharpened or honed on any kind of whetstone, that's the danger. The danger of living in places like that—at least for someone of your age, rather than mine—is finding the material that can be turned into fiction. Whether you can find something to write about in the Algarve is anyone's guess. You might, who knows?

A lot of your fiction, particularly that written in the '70s and onwards (like Crashand High Rise), seems to have been inspired by the Shepperton area.

Crash is set not in Shepperton but in the area around London airport which I see as a paradigmatic landscape of the late twentieth century. Wherever you go in the world, the road from the airport is always the same, and that's very peculiar. It doesn't matter whether you are driving away from Madrid airport, or any airport anywhere in the world, what you find is constituted by certain well-defined means: the same facilities, slip roads, architecture, three-storied office blocks, all the support services—you name it. They go on for miles and create the same sort of communities around them, composed of dormitory areas for the airport staff and the same transient world of people working in airport catering services, etcetera, etcetera.

My novel The Unlimited Dream Company is set here. I've spent a lot of time in Shepperton which in a way is a paradigm for the late twentieth-century suburban life. Shepperton isn't anywhere, you see. It exists to some extent in the shadow of Heathrow Airport (a lot of people here work there) and also in the shadow of the film studios. So it's interesting from that point of view.

It's a sort of in-between world. In that sense, it's very like southern California. You don't feel, as in England, that you are really connected to history and its so-called culture. At the same time, this sense makes you feel lost in some ways.

Yes. In the spring of 1988 I did a classic six city American book tour, promoting my novel The Day of Creation. Fascinating, in fact. It wasn't the first time I had been in the States, but it was the first time I had visited cities I had never been to previously—Miami, Chicago, Seattle. I was tremendously impressed by the strength and variety of the whole country. At the same time, there were one or two moments when I stood in those vast shopping malls in suburban Chicago and Seattle and the sense of planetary loneliness came over me, and you realize that this just goes on forever, unchallenging, across a continent. It sends a small chill through the heart. But that may just be a European's observation.

But don't you think this sort of thing is being reproduced in Europe as well?

It's coming. But, of course, Europe is so balkanized, made up of so many small nations with very strong local traditions, that you have a sense of historical past inert in the present. But I have no doubt that it is coming here as well. A large part of my writing is about just that—about the superimposition of our auto-route, motorway, airport, hyper-market, suburban shopping mall culture on everything else. Also TV landscapes, which are terribly important to me.

Europe seems to be evolving into a totally homogenized culture. I get the impression that Europe will become a united Europe in a sense of the States.

That will happen, but it will take infinitely longer to iron out. I doubt that it will ever become a wholly homogenized culture like the United States. Superficially it will be. Flying into Athens airport (I'm looking ahead thirty or forty years) you will see a landscape, superficially, indistinguishable from flying into the one at Barcelona airport. But once you get below the superficial, you'll find national identities—because of the languages, as these are immensely ancient countries with long-standing traditions. There will be a new two-tiered reality here: the old core nations with their languages and cultures superimposed onto this second tier, which will be this homogenized, internationalized, TV, airport culture. It's already come to some extent.

Have you read Baudrillard's America? It's a wonderful book.

Yes, a wonderful book, yes. A lot of Baudrillard that I've tried to read, I've found rather heavy going. He actually wrote a very complimentary essay on Crash. I found what he said incomprehensible, and I wrote the book!

But I thought America was brilliant. I don't think I've ever read such concentrated brilliance, anywhere! The only rival is something like Swift's Gulliver's Travels in terms of brilliance. Every sentence, and if not, every paragraph. I've read it about three times, and each time it gets better. America, I thought, was tremendous. I don't know what Americans make of it, because of course, what is absent from the book is, and I imagine this is rather irritating to Americans themselves, is a single American.

I have some American friends who felt he was taking too critical an outlook on the country.

I didn't see too many criticisms. I thought it was a wonderful celebration of the United States and its great strengths. Some of his ideas were brilliantly original—his notion that the United States is the only primitive society on earth in the sense that is the only primitive forerunner of the advanced societies of the future. Everywhere else today is irrelevant, but at least the United States represents the early foundation of a stage of the future.

It's very difficult to put one's finger on what the successful formulas of American life are, but it certainly is based upon a whole cascade of successful formulas that together place the United States really on a superior plane to anywhere else. Much as I love France and Italy, there is no question that they, or even West Germany (which in a way is the most American of all European countries,) are nowhere near the United States.

Size has something to do with the creation of modern America, but it isn't just size. New York would not be the extraordinary city it is if it were not also the commercial capital of a continent. On the other hand, Seattle is a pretty remarkable city too, and so is San Francisco. There is something about the States that does represent a quantum leap forward.

W. Warren Wagar (essay date March 1991)

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SOURCE: “J. G. Ballard and the Transformation of Utopia,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 53–70.

[In the following essay, Wagar discerns underlying elements of idealism and a longing for psychic transformation and transcendence in Ballard's fiction. According to Wagar, Ballard's work, despite its dark glorifications of nihilistic or amoral behavior, embodies a positive contribution to anti-capitalist utopian aspirations.]


As the work of J. G. Ballard unfolds, it becomes more and more evident that his fictions are fundamentally topographic: explorations of landscape, both external and internal. In 1974, speaking to Robert Louit, Ballard divided his work, down to that time, into two halves. In the first half, through The Crystal World (1966), he had offered descriptions of “imaginary places,” under the direct inspiration of the surrealist painters; in the second half, beginning with The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), his attention shifted to “the landscape of technology and the communications industry.” He found a whole new stock of visual stimuli in photography, the cinema, and television (“Some Words” 52).1

At a still later date, the landscape of technology lost some of its fascination for Ballard, and he began writing novels more strictly geographical, set in “real” places, whether in America, England, Africa, or China. But the power of landscapes over his literary imagination has never relented. In this paper, I have made it my task to investigate Ballard's relationship to his landscapes, and, in particular, to argue that Ballard's topographic fictions are also utopographic.

Of course Ballard does not deal with landscapes in the manner of a contributor to The National Geographic Magazine. He is not a travel writer or a tour guide. The places he describes so bewitchingly are always, for Ballard, metaphors for states of mind and soul, “psychic” or “spinal” landscapes, as in the canvasses of Max Ernst. To know them, to examine them in meticulous detail, is to know the human spirit in all its mad convoluted joy.

There is more. Not only do the landscapes mirror the soul; they help to shape and organize it. Following Martin Bax, one of Ballard's editors and close friends, the whole point of his writing is to investigate how the “hardware” of objects and environments affects the “software” of human psyches (36). The action is, in fact, an interaction. The external world conditions us, but we in turn must engage and provoke the external world; there is, for Ballard, no way out of ourselves, no path to nirvana or transcendence or utopia, except by running the gauntlet of the world.

What, clearly, does not interest Ballard more than fleetingly is the push and pull of interpersonal relations and the myriad nuances of character analyzed by a typical “modern” writer like Henry James. His literary equation is always self and world, not self and other selves. Colin Greenland notes that the people in a Ballard story are “flat and functional, their humanity subordinated to their values as roles or signs” (99). Ballard's characters, says Brian Aldiss, are “interchangeable” (301). Or, to cite David Samuelson in his review of The Crystal World, they are all (except for the central figure in that book) “puppets,” without “any real existence,” not “solid” (352, 353–54).

So be it. The notion that high literature consists only of detailed portraits of richly individualized characters in conflict with other richly individualized characters is a conceit of modernism, a fashion long unfashionable in postmodern letters. Ballard will have none of it. As David Pringle sums up his mission:

[Ballard] is concerned with the individual's relationship with his own mind and impulses; with the relations between the solitary awareness and various environments and technologies; ultimately, with the relationship between humanity and time, the fact of death, the ‘phenomenology of the universe.’


One must carry the analogy a step further. Ballard's interest in minds and landscapes and the universe is nothing random or miscellaneous. Despite his reputation as a cold-blooded anatomist of disaster and violence, he is in fact a visionary, a postmodern utopographer. His landscapes are heavens; or, rather, liminal worlds through which discerning individuals—and in some Ballardian scenarios, all humanity—must pass to earn salvation. In a moral cosmos, thanks to the postmodern sensibility—where good and evil no longer exist, where life and death are the same, where the past and all its prescriptions are dust—the pilgrim cannot pick and choose among his delights. Everything becomes delightful, without exception. Pain is pleasure, and pleasure pain. Escaping to a higher consciousness demands immersion in all being. Hence, in Ballard's transvaluation of the traditional Western wisdom, even dystopias are utopian.

But Ballard is not the complete postmodern. He rejects absolute relativism in favor of a thinly veiled pantheist or mystical world-view that permits, and indeed requires, belief in a summum bonum above all conventional goods and evils. From Kerans in The Drowned World (1962) to Mallory in The Day of Creation (1987), most of his central characters, and many of the peripheral figures in his loosely structured pilgrim bands, reach (or at least glimpse) that highest point accessible to consciousness. If “utopia” is a place where all is well, a place of joy and perfection, then the psycho-physical landscapes of Ballard's fictions are manifestly such places. The disreputable surrealist of Shanghai and Shepperton qualifies for full membership in that blessed company of seers, from Lao Tzu and Plato to Sir Thomas More, Charles Fourier, and H. G. Wells, who have taken us on tours of utopia.

Various critics of Ballard have pointed us in this direction before. Following hints in Ballard's own commentaries, David Pringle finds a fourfold symbolism in his fictions, in which water represents the past, sand the future, concrete the present, and crystal (highest of the four) eternity. The Crystal World, by this reckoning, is Ballard's vision of the City of God. In other stories and novels, the imagery of the crystal makes a brief but meaningful appearance, as if to disclose the eternity shining in all things from behind the mask of time. Pringle is particularly captivated by Ballard's early short story “The Waiting Grounds” (1959), with is anticipation of the metamorphosis of matter into timeless spirit (17–19).3

More recently, in Terminal Visions, I have interpreted Ballard's eschatological fiction as a literature of world-renewal in the best traditions of biblical apocalyptic (81–84, 175–77, 199–203), and Gregory Stephenson has linked the earlier disaster tales with The Unlimited Dream Company as part of a common “quest for an ontological Eden.” Stephenson steers clear of most of Ballard's work in the 1970s, but the quintessential Ballard, the author of The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), is a seeker of transcendence. His writing “represents, not a negation of human values and goals, but an affirmation of the highest humanistic and metaphysical ideal: the repossession of man of authentic and absolute being” (38).

My only quarrel with these critical revisions is that they do not go far enough. Ballard is not a utopographer only when he makes use of the image of crystal, nor only in such explicit texts as The Unlimited Dream Company. It is true, as Judith B. Kerman writes, that Ballard “experiments” with many formulas for understanding time in lieu of the outmoded belief in linear progress—formulas ranging from ideas of devolution and cyclical return to ideas of timelessness (140–41). He does not choose among them, in the sense that he marks out a single approved path to salvation.

But through the plurality of options furnished to his readers there runs a common theme, of which Ballard has made no secret. In effect he tells the same story over and over again, with a dazzling variety of landscapes, reaching the same ambiguous destination in each pilgrimage: the fulfillment of a spiritual quest. Whether the way taken is meditation or suicide, lust or death, messianic love or psychotic murder, flying to the sun or melting in its unbearable heat, the end is the same, and the place of the transforming moment is a utopia, a heaven out of time.

In interviews, especially one given in 1983 to Graeme Revell, Ballard advises his readers what to look for, with as little teasing as he can manage. Few have noticed, he says, the “great thread of idealism running through most of my fiction.” The heroes even of the most extreme adventures, such as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash (1973), “are driven by a dream of a perfectible world—a better world, in a moral sense—where everything will make sense.” The thesis that the universe is random and meaningless is entirely tenable, but Ballard claims not to have chosen “that particular exit door from reality. … Quite the contrary. I feel (just as my heroes did in The Atrocity Exhibition,Crash, and in High-Rise) that there is some sort of truth to be found” (Ballard to Revell 45).

The nature of that truth, which may be the mystic's truth of an ultimate oneness with being, is nowhere precisely defined in Ballard's oeuvre, as befits things ineffable and transcendent. But in other interviews, he has described its attainment as psychic “transformation” or “fulfillment.” His so-called disaster novels—both the earlier ones and those with present-day urban settings—are “stories of huge psychic transformations. … I use this external transformation of the landscape to reflect and marry with the internal transformation, of the characters.” Even in a work like The Drowned World, where in the last pages the hero limps to his death in the annihilating heat of the neo-Triassic jungle, the ending is a happy one, a triumph of self-transcendence (Ballard to Goddard & Pringle 24–26).4 Or, as Ballard told Catherine Bresson in 1983, “I think that all my fiction is optimistic because it's a fiction of psychic fulfillment … an attempt to get beyond Time into a different Realm—I don't know what” (Ballard to Bresson 161, 163).

Are we also justified in branding Ballard a utopographer? A reigning Ballard authority, David Pringle, thinks not. “Ballard is no utopian writer: he cannot be said to offer any obvious ‘ways forward’ for the human race” (52). Given one traditional notion of utopia, Pringle is probably right. If utopias are blueprints of an ideal rational society attainable in real time here on Earth through political action, or at least accessible, in all its essentials, to human thought, Ballard is “no utopian writer.”

But Pringle takes too narrow a view of utopia. At least two great rivers of utopian dreaming flow through the history of ideas, corresponding to the two great families of world-views, the naturalist and the idealist, which have contended with one another for thousands of years in every philosophical arena in the world.5 Since the 17th century, most blueprints for good societies have emanated from the naturalist family, as represented by the classic texts of Bacon, Condorcet, Comte, Cabet, Marx, Bellamy, Wells, and Skinner.

But not all. Many utopian visions are grounded in such members of the idealist family of world-views as Platonism, mysticism, orthodox religious piety, and modern and postmodern irrationalism. A vast utopian underground has flourished since Nietzsche, illustrated by the equally “classic” texts of Nietzsche himself, and of Morris, Shaw, Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin, C. S. Lewis, William Burroughs, and Doris Lessing, texts in which utopia is not a bustling city registering worldly progress but a community of spirits earning grace.

Ballard, despite his use of urban imagery, belongs quite manifestly to the utopographic counter-culture. As in Thus Spake Zarathrustra, the goal of human striving for Ballard is self-overcoming in perilous confrontation with the world, not the erection of a secular cosmopolis. Yet the destination remains utopia. Striving conveys those who are worthy to the idealist version of utopia, a place where everything works out for the best, a place attainable, like Bunyan's Celestial City, to all pilgrims of steadfast faith.

To define by example, the distinction between mainstream and counter-cultural utopias in Western literature is epitomized in the distinction between two short stories by Wells and Ballard, “The Door in the Wall” and “Now Wakes the Sea.”

Wells, who wrote a dozen or more technocratic utopias in his long career, also turned his hand on occasion to parables of the fatal lure of the irrational. In “The Door in the Wall” (1906), a British cabinet minister reminisces to a friend about a green door, set in a wall, that he entered when he was only five years old. Once inside he found an enchanted garden-world, populated by kindly folk and tame panthers. Now a grown man, engaged in urgent affairs, he yearns to open the door again. He comes on it mysteriously several times, but is always too busy to try his luck. Finally, one night, he yields to his vision and is later found dead, at the bottom of an excavation shaft near an underground railroad station. He had entered through his “door in the wall,” in reality a rough hoarding set up to protect passers-by. Instead of admission to paradise, the minister is rewarded for his faithfulness to dreamland with a broken neck.

The narrator wonders if his friend saw it that way, and the story ends on a faint note of interrogation; but it is only one of many told by Wells, from “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894) to The Sea Lady (1902) and “The Beautiful Suit” (1909), in which obsessive passions lead men to disaster. The proper Wellsian utopia is built of bricks, not moonshine.

For Ballard, of course, moonshine is of the essence. Danger is of the essence. His protagonist Mason in “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963) suffers from nightly hallucinations, in which a dark sea slowly advances toward his house. A white-haired woman in a black robe appears at the edge of a cliff, above the sea. In the final apparition, the woman turns toward him and Mason sees only her skeleton. There is a scream. He stumbles backward and falls into a palæontologist's excavation shaft.

Later, at the bottom of the shaft, the palæontologist finds two human skeletons, a man's and a woman's, just as police had found the fractured body of the cabinet minister in Wells's story. But with a difference. The skeletons in “Now Wakes the Sea” are recovered from a stratum of chalk 200 million years old. Ballard's hero has met a higher destiny in archæopsychic time.


Mason's journey into the past illustrates what may be called the kairotic moment, the opportune and decisive point in time when psychic transformation occurs in almost every story that J. G. Ballard has written. Usually the kairotic moment is a disaster, or the free choice of a hazardous alternative, the resolve to “live dangerously.” In such a moment, the hero (or rarely, heroine) becomes Nietzsche's Overman, the self-vanquisher, and is reborn.

All that distinguishes one Ballard story from another, in this sense, is whether the kairotic moment is followed by a lengthy psychic adventure in which the transforming power awakened at the kairos is more fully revealed or else the action ends abruptly, as in “Now Wakes the Sea.” A few tales, like “The Waiting Grounds” or “The Venus Hunters” (1963), only anticipate the kairos, creating a climate of expectation for its arrival. In overtly Nietzschean and postmodern parables such as “The Drowned Giant” (1965) and “The Life and Death of God” (1976), we encounter spiritual voids—the extinction of faith in absolutes—which only clear the way for future kairoi. But most of the major works are epics of transformation.

Of those that continue well beyond the kairotic moment, chiefly novels, most turn into counter-cultural utopias, exhibiting the irreducible minima of utopian speculation: the achievement of a radically better world, a transformed landscape in which a higher social order may flower. But the phrase “a higher social order” in the Ballardian context means something quite different from what a social engineer or political scientist might imagine. In Ballard's transvaluation of utopian values, as in Nietzsche's, it denotes a community of the reborn, a secularized Civitas Dei, consisting of one or several or many individuals who have passed successfully through the kairotic moment. The higher social order has no discernible political, economic, or social structure. It is not a kingdom of this world at all. Its laws are the laws of spirit, of psychic transcendence, wholly above and beyond ordinary waking reason.

Far removed as such a social order may be from those envisioned by Bellamy, Wells, or Skinner, Ballard's utopian fictions are not as solipsistic as they appear. To be sure, they all feature a central character, typically a white professional English male in early middle age, with a quite ordinary English name, like Maitland or Sanders or Mallory. But he is not alone. In the novels and longer stories he is surrounded by a full cast of characters, some of whom share his obsessions and pass through kairotic moments of their own. Only the hero is viewed in sharp focus; Ballard takes little interest in what happens between his characters. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast enjoys an independent existence, and selected members of it experience the same utopian transformation as the hero. In several important works, the transformation becomes universal.

How far the process extends does not really matter. From story to story, the reader receives the clear impression that although the author claims intimate knowledge of one person only (his broadly autobiographical hero), what happens to the hero could happen to anyone or could flow from him to anyone. The rarity of the Overman proclaimed by Nietzsche is not part of Ballard's world-view. In this sense his heroes are more like Everyman or the character of Bérenger in the plays of Eugène Ionesco. They may be rare at any given time; but as Ballard proclaims in “The Waiting Grounds,” the great transformations in store are not designed for a privileged élite. Like the magical river in The Day of Creation, they have the capacity to change everything and make the desert bloom.

Indeed, what usually takes place in the more extended works of Ballard is the emergence of a utopian cell, a pilgrim band of the reborn, who explore the topography of their transformed world together. In The Crystal World, the utopian landscape is the enchanted crystallizing forest, where men and women escape from the clutches of time. The hero, Sanders, has not yet escaped when the novel ends, but his wife Suzanne and the army doctor Radek and a group of lepers have. As Sanders heads up river, back into the forest, we know he will be next. Sanders, Suzanne, Radek, and the others comprise a utopian cell, the shock troops of a psychic revolution destined to sweep the world.

Most of Ballard's other novels follow this pattern closely. In The Drowned World, attention centers on the hero Kerans, but Kerans's elderly assistant Bodkin and exotic woman friend Beatrice Dahl join him in the first part of his adventure, sharing his obsessions and collaborating when the occasion demands it. Moreover, the first to experience the full force of the kairos and pass through it successfully to the other side is the officer, Hardman. In Hardman's company Kerans takes his last fatal plunge southward into “the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun” (§15:158).

The Drought (1965) features a large cast borrowed from The Tempest, magicians and witches pursuing all sorts of private obsessions, from the pyromaniac Lomax and the misanthropic Whitman to the mysterious amazon Catherine Austin, who disappears into the dunes of the post-apocalyptic landscape with lions at her side. The reader's attention is drawn repeatedly to the hero, Ransom; but the novel is a tale of multiple transformations in which the conspiracies of the various characters, their couplings and uncouplings, play a decisive part. Comparisons are in order with Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time (1972–76), tales of a similar, if less disagreeable, utopian band.

The later novels and novellas continue the pattern. Crash is about a television writer, also named Ballard, but the hero takes his dark inspiration from the “hoodlum scientist” Vaughan, and his obsessions with car crashes are shared in various ways by his wife Catherine, two other female companions, and the stunt driver Seagrave. Both Seagrave and Vaughan precede him to their inevitable deaths in car crashes.

The utopian cell in Concrete Island (1974), a re-telling of Robinson Crusoe, consists of just three people, of whom only one lasts the course; but in the next novel, High-Rise (1975), the entire population of a 40-story apartment building undergoes transformation. As the novel winds to a close, the utopian virus has already spread to an adjacent building.

Ballard's novella The Ultimate City (1976), his first sustained effort after High-Rise, is reminiscent of The Drought, with a similar array of deranged sorcerers complementing the role of the young hero, Halloway. In The Unlimited Dream Company, the central figure is the messianic drifter, Blake, who eventually transforms a whole town in collusion with the “renegade priest” Wingate and his magical mate, Miriam St Cloud. Hello America (1981) brings together a utopian cell consisting of the hero-stowaway Wayne, Captain Steiner, the seductive physicist Anne Summers, and three others. They cross the deserts of a post-apocalyptic America, meeting Wayne's scientist-father in Las Vegas, where they defeat the forces of a lunatic self-proclaimed President and usher in the new, utopian America of “the Sunlight Fliers.”

Utopian cells appear as well in the recent novelettes “News from the Sun” (1981) and “Myths of the Near Future” (1982), in “The Dead Time” (1987; here the hero's accomplices are all corpses), in the novella Running Wild (1988), and in The Day of Creation.

The Day of Creation is one of the most obviously topographic novels in Ballard's oeuvre, the story of a physician's journey to the source of a new river that sprang (or so he believes) from his imagination. In this instance the utopian cell is quite small, consisting chiefly of the hero, Mallory, and his shadowy female companion Noon, with occasional aid from an old flame, Nora Warrender, and the all-female crew of her brothel-boat, the Diana. Another major character, Sanger, a false Prospero, exploits Mallory's visions by trying to make a documentary file of the voyage; but he is not an integral part of the quest.

Which leaves us with The Empire of the Sun (1984), Ballard's one entirely “conventional” novel, the story of his own boyhood in a Japanese internment camp for enemy aliens at Lunghua, just outside Shanghai, during World War II. Ostensibly, this is not a work of SF or utopian fiction. There is no clearly kairotic moment. But the novel is not without a certain utopian savor. Jim Graham, the adolescent hero, is obsessed with the bright transforming violence of air war and fantasies of resurrection. Little by little, the prisoners of Lunghua Camp form a post-disaster utopia of mutual aid and support. The year 1943, we are told, was “the happiest … of Jim's life” (§22:140). Near the end of hostilities, after the Japanese guards have left the camp and Jim sees several former prisoners trying to return, he waves to his old comrades.

After three years of trying to leave the camp they were now back at its gates, ready to take up their stations for World War III. At long last they were beginning to realize the simple truth that Jim had always known, that inside Lunghua they were free.


He even fantasizes about returning voluntarily with his parents to its perilous freedom after the war, and realizes he would miss the Japanese guards (§35:229)

Ballardians know what Jim means. The freedom of the camp was the freedom to live dangerously, to be bombed, to be starved, to live outside the norms and constraints of ordinary bourgeois existence and dare to face the kairotic moment. The Empire of the Sun is not so much a utopia as a kit of building materials for the construction of future utopias.


I have spoken of the kairotic moment, the time of passage from the enserfed life of everyday to self-mastery and transcendence. In the utopian fictions of J. G. Ballard, the events of the kairos take many forms, and appear more often than not as something terrifying, sordid, or even criminal. Nearly all the characters in his utopian cells are experimentalists, eager to travel wherever their obsessions lead them, at no matter what cost. In this respect, Ballard belongs to the tradition of immoral moralists that begins in Western literature with Machiavelli and de Sade, and continues through Céline, Genet, Camus (in The Killer), and Burgess (in A Clockwork Orange), to William Burroughs.

In any case the transforming event always transforms. It is sought never for its own sake, but to enable the character to step through into a higher order of being. We have sampled a few kairotic moments in Ballard's fiction. The kairoi devised by Ballard are often so difficult to recognize that it may be helpful to sample more widely.

Consider the events in Crash. The novel is strong medicine. The reader is asked to work up a sympathetic interest in world-weary thrill-seeking London bourgeois who revel in the interplay of sex and violence. They find intense erotic satisfaction in devising and staging car crashes, and contemplating the scene afterwards. Their sex-lives are brutal, perverse, and irresponsible.

The evil genius of the novel, Vaughan, dreams of a global “autogeddon”: “In his mind Vaughan saw the whole world dying in a simultaneous automobile disaster, millions of vehicles hurled together in a terminal congress of spurting loins and engine coolant” (§1:16). When one character, the stunt driver Seagrave, dressed to look like Elizabeth Taylor for a television commercial, crashes his sports car, Vaughan and the hero hurry to the site of the accident. They gaze at the crushed corpse. “Seagrave's slim and exhausted face was covered with shattered safety glass, as if his body were already crystallizing, at last escaping out of this uneasy set of dimensions into a more beautiful existence” (§20:185).

In due course Vaughan meets his own death. He steals the hero's car, tries to crash it into the limousine of the real Elizabeth Taylor, misses the limousine, jumps the rails of a flyover, and lands on the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. He had been “travelling along the open deck of the flyover at the car's maximum speed, trying to launch himself into the sky.” At the scene of the disaster, thousands of spectators gather, “drawn there by the logic and beauty of Vaughan's death” (§24:222).

When the hero and his wife visit the police pound to recover Vaughan's car, they have intercourse in the rear seat. The hero recovers some of his semen, as it oozes from his wife's vagina, and smears it over the instrument panel, seats, and broken steering column of the wreckage of his own car, the one driven by Vaughan. He thinks of the crash that he, too, will soon have, as together they watch “these faint points of liquid glisten in the darkness, the first constellation in the new zodiac of our minds” (§24:224).

Unpromising material for mystical transport? Perhaps. A London publisher who read the manuscript remarked that its author was beyond psychiatric help. But Ballard's intent is clear. The image of autogeddon, where all humanity will fuse in a final Liebestod; the crystallizing face of Seagrave, passing into a more beautiful universe; Vaughan's heroic attempt to fly; the respectful onlookers, awed by the logic and beauty of his death; and the dabs of semen forming a constellation in the new zodiac of the lovers' minds—all these are metaphors of transcendence, of a rapture beyond words, no different from the fatal southward journey of Hardman and Kerans in The Drowned World, or the escape into the timeless forests of The Crystal World or the dunes of The Drought.

Or consider the macabre events in “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977), a micro utopia only 11 pages long. A happy family of the future, as the story opens, has no problems. Each family member lives in his or her own quarters, communicating by interactive television with the others. Physical contact is unknown, impregnation is by AID, and all is blissful.

Then the husband and wife spoil everything by arranging an illicit meeting of the whole family in the flesh. As soon as the spouses and their two young children find themselves together face to face in the husband's sitting-room, no longer mediated by the ghastly glow of the cathode-ray tube, the slaughter begins. Moved by impulses they do not really understand, husband and wife attack one another, father slaps son, son stabs father with scissors, daughter prepares to kill mother, and father looks forward to taking on whoever survives their confrontation. “Smiling at them affectionately,” the father confesses, “rage thickening the blood in my throat, I am only aware of my feelings of unbounded love” (205).

Such a story may be read as a simple horror tale, as a Freudian psychodrama, or as a savage critique of our media-whipped society, which reduces family life to the vicarious thrills of television. It can even be read as a misanthropic assault on the nuclear family itself. But “The Intensive Care Unit” is the work of J. G. Ballard, in real life a loving family man who raised his three small children by himself after the untimely death of his wife in 1964. At the deepest level, seen in the context of Ballard's other writings, it is yet another metaphor of psychic transformation.

As portrayed in the story, the happy electronic family life of tomorrow, much like the happy electronic life of the suburban present depicted in Running Wild, stands for inauthenticity, for a sapless, commodified imitation of life; and the kairos occurs when the four human beings finally meet in the flesh. Given their conditioning, their only response is to tear at one another like animals. But what matters is that they have begun finally to live. The feral world of the sitting-room is at least a real world, as opposed to the cathode-ray world in which they once vegetated. Through its trials and torments they may achieve a higher order of spiritual existence, signified by the last two words of the story: “unbounded love.”

“The Intensive Care Unit” is an extreme case, but Ballard prefers extreme cases. A systematic inventory of the various paths to utopia in his fiction would yield few metaphors appreciably less violent than those in Crash and “The Intensive Care Unit.” Characters are roasted, crystallized, blinded, drawn into deep comas, drowned, murdered, and cannibalized.

Another familiar image, especially in the more recent writings, is death and resurrection. The kairotic moment for Blake in The Unlimited Dream Company is his death in an air crash near the beginning of the novel, after which he is miraculously restored to life. He turns an English town into a Utopia and then begins eating all the inhabitants, as the prelude to a magical flight in which all humankind will join and merge “with the whole of the mineral world, happily dissolving ourselves in the sea of light that formed the universe” (§42:238).

Blake's prototype is the young hero of “The Dead Time,” who brings 50 corpses in his charge back to life and feeds a child with the flesh of his own arm. Or there is Sheppard, the hero of “Myths of the Near Future,” who nearly kills a woman friend “in a confused attempt to release her past and future selves from their prison … to free her from that transient, time-locked flesh he had caressed so affectionately” (35). As the story ends, he gives life and youth to his dying wife, and plans to journey southward, rousing the “dreaming mothers and fathers embalmed in their homes, waiting to be woken from the present into the infinite realm of their time-filled selves” (43).

The images multiply, culminating—thus far—in the mesmeric tale of Mallory in The Day of Creation, who conjures up his own great river in the heart of Africa. Starving and feverish, he discovers its headspring in a “world without time.” These later myths of resurrection and creation are, to some degree, less violent than the metaphors chosen by Ballard in the period from The Atrocity Exhibition to High-Rise. But they signify paths to the same utopia.

Throughout, Ballard's purpose has been, as he says in one of his many interviews, “to break the conventional enamel that encases everything,” to transcend the world by engaging it directly and without fear. Deviant and perverse ideas may have more power to lead us to “some sort of moral truth” than ideas borrowed from conventional morality (Ballard to Revell 46). One is reminded of the infamous Dr Nathan in The Atrocity Exhibition: “Given that we can only make contact with each through the new alphabet of sensation and violence, the death of a child or, on a larger scale, the war in Vietnam, should be regarded as for the public good” (§8:97). Or, as Father Wingate tells the protagonist of The Unlimited Dream Company: “For all we know, vices in this world may well be metaphors for virtues in the next” (§13:78).

Wingate's epigram illuminates some of Ballard's more far-fetched whimsies, purveyed in his interviews, such as the desire for a cruise missile in his backyard, replete with three American technical sergeants smoking Lucky Strikes and eating hamburgers (Ballard to Vale & Juno 27), or for Margaret Thatcher (“I'm in love with Margaret Thatcher—I want her to be my mistress!”) (Ballard to Revell 41), or for the bourgeois life, deliberately chosen and lived down to the last stultifying sartorial detail “without ever smiling … without ever winking” (Ballard to Vale & Juno 9).6

The point, again, is simply to transcend reality, including the technological landscape of the late 20th century, by passing through it rather than around it. Ballard's way out of the world is through the world, through all its muck and madness, as in the lives of many saints in Christian hagiography. Comparable ways are found by Hermann Hesse in Steppenwolf (1927), by Doris Lessing in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1975), and in SF by Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood's End (1953), Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and Greg Bear in Blood Music (1985). Each of these novels, one cannot fail to notice, also envisions a transcendental utopia.

What confuses the issue for the unwary is Ballard's no less tenacious claim that he does not moralize, does not choose among alternatives, but merely conducts experiments like a scientist. As he told Graeme Revell in 1983: “In a sense, I'm assembling the materials of an autopsy, and I'm treating reality—the reality we inhabit—as if it were a cadaver, or, let's say, the contents of a special kind of forensic inquisition” (42). Later in the same interview he noted, “My fiction really is investigative, exploratory, and comes to no moral conclusions whatever. Crash is a clear case of that; so is Atrocity Exhibition” (ibid.).7

Ballard no doubt believes all this, up to a point. He has embraced the realistic novelist's love of minute detail—to the extent, for example, of using an encyclopedic technical manual on automotive crash injuries in his research for Crash. Emile Zola himself would have approved. Moreover, Ballard does maintain value-neutrality with respect to specific behaviors. He does not condemn rape, murder, and suicide, as such. He is, at best, ambivalent regarding technology, cities, the lurid cosmos of the media. On such issues, he does not pontificate.

But the same can be said of most “immoral moralists” and, for that matter, Ballard's favorite graphic artists, the surrealists. Artists such as Dali, Ernst, and Magritte are also masters of physical detail, superb technicians who immerse themselves in the phenomenal world in order to penetrate and transcend it. Peter Brigg says it well: “Just as surrealism externalizes the inner landscape of the psyche, Ballard seeks to use the language of science to isolate and demonstrate the meaning of modern reality” (40).

Nor is Ballard, as he himself freely admits, “cool, cynical, and detached.” In a century of nuclear weapons, Nazi death camps, and mass psychosis,

I think that one can no longer be objective. One can no longer pretend to an objective view of the world, one must be subjective. One's entering into a paradoxical realm where the psychopath is the only person who can imagine—who is capable of imagining—sanity, of conceiving what sanity is.

(Ballard to Revell: 44).

Confronting the paradox, Ballard concedes that his work is a kind of “morality in progress,” a set of experiments not only in perception but also in rescuing humankind from itself. He is the most reluctant of messiahs, perhaps, but a messiah nevertheless. Who else could have invented a Sheppard, a Blake, or a Mallory?


Critics on the left are not happy with messiahs such as Ballard. While applauding his satirical jabs at modern bourgeois existence, they cannot take satisfaction in his evident lack of sympathy for, or interest in, working people. His failure to develop a political line, to speculate about social and economic structures, to see the possibility of anything but inward, psychic transformations, leaves them understandably cold. As Roland Barthes has written of the French avant-garde, “The avant-garde is always a way of celebrating the death of the bourgeoisie; for its own death still belongs to the bourgeoisie; but further than this the avant-garde cannot go” (quoted in Fitting: 67).

Thus, H. Bruce Franklin, in his much-cited article “What Are We to Make of J. G. Ballard's Apocalypse?,” views Ballard's solipsistic decadence as the logical terminus of late capitalism, the fag end of a process that began with Promethean tycoonism and now closes in self-absorbed resignation or despair. The most revealing clue to Ballard's mentality, for Franklin, may be found in stories such as The Crystal World or “The Garden of Time” (1962), where the decadent heroes manage to hold off movements of mass liberation by escaping from time. He misses the point of “The Killing Ground” (1969) and does not comment on “Theatre of War” (1977) or “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969), stories in which Ballard's sympathies lie clearly with the armies of liberation. But as far as he stretches, Franklin makes a powerful case.

So does Peter Fitting in a perceptive essay on “utopian longing and capitalist cooptation” in modern SF. Fitting traces the flow of utopian longing through SF from its early days of buoyant technological optimism (Campbell, Wyndham), the counter-cultural mystifications of the 1960s (Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land), and ecological fictions (Herbert, Brunner), to authentic anti-capitalist struggle as embodied in the writings of Dick, Delany, Russ, and Le Guin. In this schema, Ballard's writings belong to the mystifications of the 1960s, but in a primarily æsthetic variant that sees the crisis of our time as a natural—rather than human-made or historical—destiny, and proposes to solve human problems “not through resistance, but through an acceptance of the æsthetic and reconciliatory dimensions of the cataclysm” (67).

Again the point is well taken. Ballard does not preach resistance, if by resistance one means fighting in the arena of politics and economics to overthrow the capitalist system or the warfare state or neo-colonialism or sexism and racism. In several of his stories and novels, characters are inserted who represent the vanity of such efforts, would-be world-betterers tilting at the windmills of established power who accomplish nothing. Ballard told interviewers in 1975 that the central characters in his fictions, whom Brian Aldiss had accused of not pursuing a purposeful course of action, were the only ones pursuing such a course. In a story such as The Drowned World:

The behavior of the other people, which superficially appears to be meaningful—getting the hell out, or draining the lagoons—is totally meaningless. The book is about the discovery by the hero of his true compass bearings, both mentally and literally. It's the same in the other [stories].

(Ballard to Goddard & Pringle: 33)

The Drowned World is a particularly good case in point. The cheerfully extravagant Col. Riggs, who might have been the hero in a Campbellian utopia, becomes in Ballard's transvaluation an almost ridiculous figure. The piratical Strangman, a caricature of Western imperialism, is still worse. In The Day of Creation, Strangman is twice reincarnated as two African adventurers, Capt. Kagwa and Gen. Harare, who vie to establish empires in the fertile valley of the River Mallory. Their pathetic efforts convert the new Eden into a fetid Hell. In “A Place and a Time to Die,” the vigilantes who plot to halt the advance of the magical Chinese army achieve nothing and are brushed aside contemptuously as the human tide rolls through their town.

But we learn more about Ballard's indifference to political solutions from what he leaves out of his fictions than from what he puts in. Even the occasional sly dig at Marxism—the best recent example is the canting messages on the cassette tapes used to teach English to Africans in The Day of Creation—tells us little about Ballard's political philosophy—or lack of one. We must take him at his word, however, when he tells Graeme Revell:

Revolutions in æsthetic sensibility may be the only way in which radical change can be brought about in the future. The economic systems of the world are now locked into one huge coalescing world banking system, controlled by governments who sit on the back of this enormous elephant, trying to steer it in one direction or the other. … I think [radical change] can come only from the confines of the skull—by imaginative means, whatever the route may be.


So, what are we to make of J. G. Ballard's apocalypse? Is he just another bourgeois mystagogue overwhelmed by Weltschmerz, peddling another useless line of new mythologies? Or is he a revolutionist?

Actually it matters very little what J. G. Ballard believes or does not believe about himself and his work, or what we ourselves believe or do not believe about Ballard and his work. The only serious question for critics on the left is whether his writings do and can make a positive contribution to social transformation. So far, from all the available hard evidence, they have not made much. His writings are not perceived, generally, as tracts for world revolution.

But perhaps they deserve to be. Perhaps, like the works of de Sade, Nietzsche, and Kafka, they will exert their greatest influence long after Ballard is no longer with us. I would like to think so.

In three ways, surely, they can serve the ideals of the political left. First, they are perceptive analyses of the collapsing moral world of late capital. As Sartre suggested in his study of Flaubert, a sharp-eyed bourgeois observer of bourgeois society can teach us more than any number of raving ideologues content to bash the bourgeoisie over the head with blunt instruments.

Second, much of Ballard's output consists of utopian fictions, images of a radically higher order of reality that clash fiercely with contemporary middle-class existence and drain it of all justification. As Fitting argues, quoting Fredric Jameson, a dialectical reversal has occurred since Marx and Engels criticized utopian socialism. Today, it is the utopian imagination that liberates, and “practical” thinking that stifles revolutionary aspiration and serves established power (59). Although Ballard's utopias, one may contend, are mystagogic and escapist and even decadent, they are utopias, and utopias of a post-capitalist landscape in which technocrats and tycoons alike would be out of work.

Finally, in keeping with the time-honored rhetorical tradition that saves the best point for last, I would observe that Ballard's obsession with psychic transformation need not be a dead loss. Leftists know, or at least believe, that no changes can occur in minds until and unless more fundamental changes occur in the material substrata of human life. But as the material changes do begin to occur, not always observed at once by human investigators or initiated deliberately by human actors, changes in consciousness and culture inexorably follow and help to push them along further. A more just, humane, and peaceful world is unthinkable without radical changes in the psychic health of our species.

Moreover, such radical changes in psychic health demand a whole new armory of radical metaphors. In our Freudian epoch, we are trained to reduce social values to personal ones, and interpret personal values with tales from the nasty nursery of childhood. The bejewelled forests of The Crystal World are “obviously” metaphors for hidden recesses of the psyche, the amniotic seas in The Drowned World are “obviously” wombs, and the colliding automobiles of Crash are “obviously” squirting penises.

Yes, but … ! As the mildly funny joke about Freud would have it, why can't a penis be a symbol for a cigar? Even more, if catastrophes in nature and history must be seen as metaphors of psychic transformation, why can't we also read them backwards? Why are moments of psychic rapture in imaginative fiction not equally serviceable as metaphors of social transformation?

The interplay of the two does not escape Ballard himself. In the same interview by Revell in which Ballard dismisses the possibility of political revolution, he speculates that æsthetic change may become “the main engine of revolution, even within a Marxist interpretation.” What happened in the mid-1960s, he goes on to say, was “a seismic shift in æsthetic sensibility” that actually did, temporarily, alter the fabric of Western society (52). In other words, even for Ballard, psychic transformation may be legitimately viewed as a means to a social end. Plainly, he is not referring to the kind of freedom cherished in a regimented or totalitarian society by æsthetes who outwardly obey but never surrender their souls: he speaks of concrete, real, world-historical transformation, mediated by “seismic shifts” in consciousness.

For such reasons, and no doubt others, it is possible to foresee a future for J. G. Ballard as the literary herald of a new, liberated world society. His landscapes of the soul are also landscapes of justice.


  1. The passages cited are from an interview of Ballard by Robert Louit, originally published in Magazine Littéraire, #87 (Apr. 1974).

  2. See also Ballard's essay “Fictions of Every Kind,” where he argues that “the compassion, imagination, lucidity and vision of H. G. Wells and his successors, and above all their grasp of the real identity of the 20th century, dwarf the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the so-called Modernist Movement, a 19th century offshoot of bourgeois rejection.” By engaging the world of present and future possibility, SF is a fiction for today, whereas most mainstream writers are still mired in Victorian conventions. “The social novel,” he adds, “is reaching fewer and fewer readers, for the clear reason that social relationships are no longer as important as the individual's relationship with the technological landscape of the late 20th century” (11).

  3. In 1972 Ballard had suggested a threefold symbolism (water, sand, crystal), in an interview in The Transatlantic Review (Ballard to Hennessy 62). There, too, crystal was the symbol of timelessness.

  4. In the same interview, Ballard tells the amusing story of how the American publisher of The Drowned World pleaded for a “happy” ending that would allow the hero to escape northward, to the safety of the Arctic Circle (Ballard to Goddard & Pringle 24).

  5. For a further discussion, see my World Views: A Study in Comparative History (Hinsdale, IL, 1977) 32.

  6. In a sense, Ballard has actually lived his fantasy of the bourgeois life, by spending the last 30-odd years of his life in a modest suburban house in Shepperton.

  7. See also the similar observations in the interview by Vale & Juno (20).

Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove. The Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London, 1986.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. St. Albans, UK: Triad Panther, 1979.

———. Chronopolis. NY: Berkley, 1972.

———. Concrete Island. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974.

———. Crash. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

———. The Crystal World. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966.

———. The Day of Creation. London: Victor Gollancz, 1987.

———. “The Dead Time” (1977). Myths of the Near Future. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982. 141–63.

———. The Drought. London: Jonathan Cape, 1965.

———. “The Drowned Giant” (1965). Chronopolis 47–58.

———. The Drowned World. NY: Berkley, 1962.

Ballard, J. G. The Empire of the Sun. London: Victor Gollancz, 1984.

———. “Fictions of Every Kind.” Books and Bookmen Feb. 1971: 11, 64.

———. “The Garden of Time” (1962). Chronopolis 241–50.

———. Hello America. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

———. High-Rise. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.

———. “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977). Myths of the Near Future 195–205.

———. “The Killing Ground” (1969). Best SF Stories from New Worlds 6. Ed. Michael Moorcock. London: Panther, 1970. 11–19.

———. “The Life and Death of God.” Low-Flying Aircraft 136–47.

———. Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories. London: Jonathan Cape, 1976.

———. Myths of the Near Future. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.

———. “Myths of the Near Future.” Myths of the Near Future 7–43.

———. “News from the Sun.” Myths of the Near Future 76–117.

———. “Now Wakes the Sea” (1963). Chronopolis 309–20.

———. “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969). Low-Flying Aircraft 155–64.

———. Running Wild. London: Hutchinson, 1988.

———. “Some Words about Crash!” Foundation #9 (Nov. 1975): 49–54.

———. “Theatre of War” (1977). Myths of the Near Future 118–40.

———. The Unlimited Dream Company. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979.

———. “The Ultimate City.” Low-Flying Aircraft 7–87.

———. “The Venus Hunters” (1963). Terminal Beach. NY: Berkley, 1964. 85–115.

———. “The Waiting Grounds” (1959). The Voices of Time. NY: Berkley, 1962, 121–47.

Bax, Martin. Interview by Vale. Juno & Vale 36–41.

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Fitting, Peter. “The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Cooptation.” SFS #17, 6 (1979): 59–76.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “What Are We to Make of J. G. Ballard's Apocalypse?” Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, II. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson. Bowling Green, OH, 1979). 82–105.

Goddard, James, and David Pringle. J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years. Hayes, UK: Bran's Head Books, 1976.

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British “New Wave” in Science Fiction. London, 1983.

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Juno, Andrea, & [V.] Vale, eds. Re/Search: J. G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984.

Kerman, Judith B. “J. G. Ballard: We Are the Survivors.” Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World. Ed. Carl B. Yoke. Westport, CT, 1987. 133–44.

Moorcock, Michael. Dancer at the End of Time. 3 vols. (An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands, The End of All Songs). NY: Harper & Row, 1972–76.

Pringle, David. Earth Is the Alien Planet: J. G. Ballard's Four-Dimensional Nightmare. San Bernardino, CA, 1979.

Revell, Graeme. Interview of JGB. Juno & Vale 42–52.

Samuelson, David. Visions of Tomorrow. NY, 1975.

Stephenson, Gregory. “J. G. Ballard: The Quest for an Ontological Eden.” Foundation #35 (Winter 1985–86): 38–47.

Wagar, W. Warren. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington, IN, 1982.

Wells, H.G. “The Door in the Wall” (1906). The Short Stories of H.G. Wells. London: Ernest Benn, 1927. 144–61. Later editions as The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells.

Further Reading

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Greenland, Colin. “The Works of J. G. Ballard.” In The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in Science Fiction, pp. 92–120. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

Provides an overview of the central themes and stylistic devices in Ballard's fiction and discusses the influence of Surrealism on Ballard's evocation of time and consciousness.

Hultkrans, Andrew. “Body Work.” Artforum 35, No. 7 (March 1997): 76–81, 118.

Ballard and David Cronenberg, director of the film version of Crash, discuss their respective works, formative experiences, and the intersection of contemporary culture and technology as portrayed in Crash.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Review of War Fever, by J. G. Ballard. New York Times Book Review (21 April 1991): 9.

A review of War Fever.

Luckhurst, Roger. “The Angle between Two Walls”: The Fiction of J. G. Ballard. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.

A book-length study of Ballard's stylistic techniques, recurring preoccupations and motifs, and a critique of contemporary mass culture in his novels.

Marcus, James. Review of Running Wild, by J. G. Ballard. New York Times Book Review (7 December 1989): 19.

A review of Running Wild.

Scott, A. O. “Pinter on the Beach.” New York Times Book Review (12 July 1998): 16.

A review of Cocaine Nights.

Slavitt, David R. Review of The Kindness of Women, by J. G. Ballard. New York Times Book Review (10 November 1991): 22.

A review of The Kindness of Women.

Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and Into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

A book-length analysis of the major themes and recurring motifs in Ballard's novels and short fiction.

Towers, Robert. “Believe It or Not.” New York Review of Books (24 October 1991): 37–8.

A review of The Kindness of Women.

Additional coverage of Ballard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5–8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 15, 39, 65; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, 207; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Something about the Author, Vol. 93; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1.

Nick Kimberley (review date 27 September 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Sage of Shepperton,” in New Statesman & Society, September 27, 1991, p. 52.

[In the following review, Kimberley offers a positive assessment of The Kindness of Women.]

There is only one rule in literature: beware of sequels and autobiographies. The Kindness of Women appears to be both, and yet manages to be stimulating and substantial. JG Ballard never was one to abide by the rules.

Ever since he published Empire of the Sun in 1984, Ballard has enjoyed status and esteem within the somewhat circumscribed world of English literary culture. It is as if that novel, with its themes of boyhood, war, the end of Empire, had tapped into the mainstream, thereby allowing us to forget the aberrant imagination that had produced Ballard's work until that point.

Yet, although Empire of the Sun did embrace themes that could be labelled Bookerish, their imaginative transformation was quite in line with every novel Ballard had written. Shanghai in the second world war might have been twinned with the Shepperton of Ballard's Low-Flying Aircraft (1978). The narrator Jim was simply a younger brother of the haunted figures who wander through all his fiction. And the Japanese soldiers were no more or less alien than the haunted Man Fridays who shadow Ballard's Crusoes in every novel.

Empire of the Sun gave Ballard access to the full trappings of literary success: reviews, TV profiles, large royalty cheques, even a Hollywood film. But the man still seems to be playing hide-and-seek with the literary establishment. His position is exemplified by his hometown: Shepperton, suburbia at its most nondescript. Even Ballard, who has lived there for 30 years, describes it as “a suburb, not of London, but of London Airport”. And yet this apparently featureless little town has, thanks to Ballard, repeatedly taken on the appearance of an infernal paradise, an alien island adrift in the watery landscape around it.

Ballard's greatest gift is to make strange the most familiar scenery. He calls himself “a frustrated surrealist painter”. Yet his language has none of the furious vigour of the surrealists. His prose is stripped of ostentation, except in the matter of simile and metaphor, which are encrusted on almost every sentence, glittering like the jewels in a Ballard landscape. Simile and metaphor forge a link between things and what they are not, and the main thrust of Ballard's writing is to weld us, his characters, to what we are not—the world we live in.

So it is with The Kindness of Women, which begins at a point in Ballard's life just before the opening of Empire of the Sun and proceeds, selectively, through the next half century. The book's biographical blurb is careful to describe his life in terms that make it clear that we are, indeed, reading an autobiography: internment in a Japanese prison camp; arrival in England; reading medicine at Cambridge; the RAF and so on.

Several pre-publication interviews have already pointed out that, for example, the description of the death of Jim's wife in the novel/autobiography is different from the death of Ballard's real wife, and he has felt constrained to insist that the emotional facts are true. I'm sure they are, but it hardly seems relevant. The point of The Kindness of Women is not diaristic but imaginative. Jim proceeds from childhood to middle-age furiously reshaping the world in the image of his own mental processes. Whether performing an autopsy at medical school or caressing the women who are the incomprehensible bulwarks of his life, his involvement with the body is simultaneously physical—a Ballard sex scene is like nobody else's—and oddly detached, as if he is probing for the real body beneath the undulating surfaces. He says at one point, “Gray's Anatomy is a far greater novel than Ulysses.

For a writer whose inventiveness is so firmly anchored in 20th century-icons—the bombs he sees exploding over Nagasaki, the deaths of Kennedy and Monroe, the excesses of automobile culture—Ballard remains firmly ambivalent about our image-led culture. His whole work is a celebration and an excoriation of “the media landscape”, and The Kindness of Women comes face to face with the contradictions. When Steven Spielberg films Empire of the Sun, Ballard gets a bit-part. The film is made just minutes away from Shepperton, where Home Counties suburbia stands in for wartime Shanghai, which in turn the Brits had attempted to fashion in the image of Home Counties suburbia. Ballard's life has finally become the movie which, for him, it always was—and his walk-on part is edited out of the final cut.

Is Ballard our best novelist? Perhaps. He's certainly the most interesting, the one whose account of the last half of this century has the most to tell us. The Kindness of Women is too tied to chronology to be his greatest work, but it is a moving book, another chapter in Ballard's anthology of myths of the near future.

David Montrose (review date 28 September 1991)

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SOURCE: “After the Sun Had Set,” in The Spectator, September 28, 1991, pp. 41–2.

[In the following review of The Kindness of Women, Montrose finds shortcomings in Ballard's “lacklustre” autobiographical novel.]

In the final chapter of The Kindness of Women, JG Ballard's alter ego, Jim, has flown to Los Angeles for the première of what, in autobiography, would be Empire of the Sun (director S. Spielberg), but here, this being autobiographical fiction, is the film (director anonymous) of an unnamed book. He has been sought out by Olga Ullanova, his governess in Shanghai 50 years earlier, who urges him to write another novel about the city. She greets his response doubtfully:

England? … Is it so interesting? …

The question goes unanswered, but Ballard presumably thought so: at any rate, the sequel now appears. Olga's misgivings are understandable: Empire of the Sun's subject matter conferred an enormous advantage. That its successor represents a distinct flop is due not to any shortage of exploitable material, however, but to authorial selection and treatment.

The opening chapters are set in Shanghai before, during and after the war. Many details are different this second time around, though not for any obvious reason other than to facilitate the main business: introducing, besides Olga, Jim's lifelong friends, David Hunter and Peggy Gardner, and showing the traumatic foundations of the boy's adult obsessions.

Afterwards, instead of the blurb-promised ‘portrait of the postwar world,’ comes a lightning tour which alights at isolated spots in the Fifties, slows to take in assorted colourful sights of the Sixties, and accelerates through the concluding decade and a half.

In 1950, Jim is (like Peggy) a medical student at Cambridge, where he meets his future wife, Miriam, and Dick Sutherland, a rising psychology don. But Jim cannot shake off memories of China and apocalyptic fantasies. The next chapter finds him, three years on, medicine abandoned, in Canada (accompanied by David), a trainee RAF pilot with ‘a ringside seat at World War III.’ Soon, however, the ‘realm of violence’ palls: ‘I wanted to forget Shanghai … and the flash of the Nagasaki bomb …’ Time jumps again: married with three young children, working for a scientific journal, Jim lives in Shepperton, ‘in an endless present that owed nothing to the past’. Unfortunately, domesticity and contentment do not survive the Sixties. After Miriam's accidental death, Jim, now a published writer, rebounds from his ‘marooned suburb’ into the decade's avant-garde/media/sex and drugs circus. Only here does Ballard convey any real sense of period and even this is diluted by the approach that impairs the book throughout. Relying heavily on summary and narrative, he seems less a novelist than an autobiographer, and a lacklustre one at that. Empire of the Sun's dramatic immediacy is seldom recaptured.

Revisiting the Sixties, Ballard (who once offered a prize for drug-influenced writing) comes across as one looking back over a discredited decade through jaundice-tinted spectacles. Its representative figure, Sally Mumford, is portrayed as a victim of cynical or misguided gurus; she winds up an institutionalised junkie, but not before partnering David in a folie à deux, based on automotive SM, that magnifies his chronic instability into full-blown madness. Dick alone, having become a bandwagon-conscious ‘media academic,’ negotiates the period unscathed. It was a time of false hopes, and charlatanism, certainly, but Ballard's hindsight-dominated angle understates the excitement of being there. Moreover, his arbitrary canvas means that while political headlines—Vietnam, the Prague Spring, les événements of Paris—are mentioned cursorily or not at all, a chapter is devoted to a film festival in Rio on the grounds, apparently, that it somehow constituted a preview of the future (pretension, this, worthy of a Baudrillard).

Sixties over, the threads of plot are briskly tied or snipped. Sally and David recover and find (separate) peace; Dick dies of cancer; Jim undergoes a profound catharsis, the remnants of his fixation on the past purged by exposure to the unnamed film of his unnamed book. This may not entirely be a Good Thing. The most interesting aspect of The Kindness of Women is that it demonstrates how strongly Ballard's preoccupations and experiences conditioned his finest, and strangest, fiction. Unfortunately, these case notes are far less rewarding than those symptoms.

Nicholas Ruddick (essay date November 1992)

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SOURCE: “Ballard/Crash/Baudrillard,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, November, 1992, pp. 354–60.

[In the following essay, Ruddick examines Jean Baudrillard's commentary on Crash—which Ruddick contends is a misreading of Ballard's work—and Ballard's misdirected attack on postmodern criticism in response to Baudrillard's essay.]

Ballard's novel Crash (1973), in its author's words the “first pornographic novel based on technology” (“Some Words” 49), is an extreme fiction.1 Ballard tells a prepublication anecdote about it that is both credible and revealing:

One of the publisher's readers was either a psychiatrist or the wife of a psychiatrist, and she wrote the most damning and vituperative reader's report [the publisher] ever received. It included the statement: “The author is beyond psychiatric help.”

(Burns 22)

This reader's reaction, based on a confusion between fiction and reality—between the narrator and the author—might be dismissed as naive, were it not for the fact that Ballard invites such confusion. The narrator-protagonist of Crash is named “James Ballard,” although this is not finally confirmed until the beginning of Chapter 8. This investiture of the narrator with the authority of the author through the name of the author strongly suggests that Crash is autobiographical—a personal statement that from the point of view of an unsympathetic critic may be read as an indulgence in an unfortunate and grotesque sexual fetishism, perhaps (given that Crash originates in Ballard's earlier controversial fiction, The Atrocity Exhibition [1970]), as a piece of atrocious exhibitionism.

Jean Baudrillard's essay, “Ballard's Crash,” was first published in 1976, first summarized in English by Jonathan Benison in the November 1984 issue of Foundation, and recently reproduced in translation in SFS's special issue on “Science Fiction and Postmodernism” (#55, November 1991). It is upon Baudrillard's essay, together with the critical responses to it by Ballard and others in SFS, that I wish to focus. For what we have here between Baudrillard and Ballard is, if not a head-on collision over Crash, then at least an awkward fender-bender. This is unexpected because we probably assumed that the critic and the novelist, whose sympathy for one another's work is well known, were traveling harmoniously in the same direction.

The special issue of SFS begins with an editorial introduction entitled “Postmodernism's SF/SF's Postmodernism” by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. This is followed by two essays by Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Science Fiction” (1980) and “Ballard's Crash” (1976).2 Baudrillard's pieces are followed by five short essays, under the combined heading “In Response to Jean Baudrillard,” by N. Katherine Hayles, David Porush, Brooks Landon, Vivian Sobchack, and Ballard himself. Ballard's piece, the shortest, consists of one paragraph entitled “A Response to the Invitation to Respond.”

In his piece, Ballard is absolutely scathing about postmodernist criticism of science fiction. He believes that an “over-professionalized academia” has turned its capacity for theorizing onto “an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone” (“A Response” 329). This leads to what he calls “the apotheosis of the hamburger” (329). However, Ballard claims that he “totally exclude[s] Baudrillard” from his attack (329). In an interview published earlier in Science Fiction Eye, Ballard spoke favorably of Baudrillard's America (Di Filippo 72). Now Ballard speaks of the same work as “an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift … an intellectual Aladdin's cave” (“A Response” 329). As for Baudrillard's essay on Crash, however, which is presumably the specific text to which he is currently responding, Ballard claims enigmatically that “I have not really wanted to understand [it]” (329).3

So what is it, then, that Ballard is objecting to? It cannot be Csicsery-Ronay's introduction, because this was clearly written after Ballard's response was received. In it, Csicsery-Ronay expresses bewilderment at Ballard's attack, but he rationalizes it as the novelist's defense of territory: Ballard's “tirade against academic criticism and the concept of postmodernism is, I believe, an attempt to protect a border: not between SF and mainstream fiction, but between the fields of art and the locusts of rationalistic analysis” (307).

It might appear that Ballard is objecting to the other four responses by academics to Baudrillard's article (but see Note 3 below). Hayles's piece, “The Borders of Madness,” attacks Baudrillard for having missed the desire for transcendence she reads in Crash, and chastises him for nihilistically ignoring the “moral point” (323) that Ballard has explicitly stated as his intention in the novel. Porush's piece, “The Architextuality of Transcendence,” doesn't mention Ballard at all, but attacks the Baudrillard of “Simulacra and Science Fiction” as a high priest of the temple of the text who can only bemoan his dispossession. Brooks Landon's “Responding to the Killer B's” is a celebration of the power of Crash and an expression of pleasure that Baudrillard, “our first master of digital criticism,” seems to have matched Ballard as one of the masters of “digital narrative” (327). Vivian Sobchack in “Baudrillard's Obscenity” returns us to Hayles's idea that Baudrillard has dangerously missed the moral point of Crash—which is not, however, Hayles's transcendence but the literal “dead end” that the “techno-body” of postmodern culture is driving us toward (328).

It is very hard to see what in these four short academic responses Ballard might find objectionable. Three out of four unreservedly celebrate Crash as a major work. Two out of four elevate Ballard above Baudrillard himself, claiming the critic has misread the novelist. One ignores Ballard, concentrating on the weaknesses of Baudrillard. There seems little evidence here that postmodern critics tend in Ballard's case to, say, elevate a fashionable theorist over the creative artist. Surely Ballard cannot be suggesting that his own fiction is “innocent and naive” (“A Response” 329), and not worth serious critical examination? Was there ever a work of fiction that is less “innocent and naive” than Crash? What, then, is motivating Ballard's anger in his “Response”?

I think that Ballard's anger is directed not so much against postmodernist criticism in general, but specifically against Baudrillard's piece on Crash. I view Baudrillard's essay as a serious misreading, possibly even a shameless distortion, of Crash's themes. In this I am in agreement with two of the SFS responders, although not necessarily for the same reasons. I do not know for certain why Ballard directs his anger against postmodernist criticism rather than against Baudrillard, who is in my view the real object of his attack. I will speculate, however, about this in my conclusion. But first I will deal with what I see as Baudrillard's misinterpretation of Crash.

Baudrillard's reading of Crash is summarized in the following passage in the penultimate paragraph of his article:

In Crash, there is neither fiction nor reality—a kind of hyper-reality has abolished both. Even critical regression is no longer possible. This mutating and commutating world of simulation and death, this violently sexualized world totally lacking in desire, full of violent and violated bodies but curiously neutered, this chromatic and intensely metallic world empty of the sensorial, a world of hypertechnology without finality—is it good or bad? We can't say. It is simply fascinating, without this fascination implying any kind of value judgment whatsoever. And this is the miracle of Crash. The moral gaze—the critical judgmentalism that is still a part of the old world's functionality—cannot touch it. Crash is hypercritical, in the sense of being beyond the critical.

(“Ballard's Crash” 319)

Baudrillard goes on to note that the text is actually beyond the reach of its author, who in his introduction to the French edition speaks of Crash as a cautionary work. Baudrillard also praises the novel for achieving a “level of absence of all finality and critical negativity” unmatched save in Nashville and A Clockwork Orange (319).4

This is not exactly a naive reading, but it is a highly impressionistic one. Ballard's intention vis-à-vis Crash has been clearly, frequently, and lengthily expressed. He has stated, for example, that the novel was a logical outgrowth of his ongoing project to expose the internal nature of catastrophe at both the cultural and individual level:

Crash! [sic] takes up its position as a cataclysmic novel of the present-day in line with my previous novels of world cataclysm set in the near or immediate future—The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World.

Crash!, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm institutionalised in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology?

(“Some Words” 49)

The genealogy of the novel implied here is supported by Ballard's own oeuvre. The novel has its seed in the chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition called “Crash!” (with an exclamation point) (121–25). This short fiction offers itself as a meditation on “the latent sexual content of the automobile crash” (121). The story concludes that for crash victims, “the car crash is seen as a fertilizing rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido” (125). In Ballard's recent novel, The Kindness of Women (1991), the section called “The Exhibition” clarifies the significance of what has long been an important motif in Ballard's fiction (208–29).

Baudrillard's strategy is to suggest that the text has escaped its author's intention. There is certainly nothing theoretically wrong with dismissing the author's stated intentions, even when these are clearly stated, as in the case of Ballard's comments on Crash. But such a dismissal ought to be supported by evidence derived from analysis of the text, context, and intertext, and this has been where Baudrillard's reading has been lacking.

For Baudrillard, Crash seems to confirm his own insights into the supersession of the real by the hyperreal (I am using Baudrillard's definition of hyperreality from his “The Precession of Simulacra”).5 But though the concept of the real is at stake in Crash, it is not in my view at stake in the way Baudrillard imagines. In Crash, as everywhere in Ballard's so-called disaster fiction from The Drowned World (1962) to High-Rise (1976), the real has not been nor is it in the process of being abolished. Far from it: the catastrophe, whatever form it takes, actually signifies the liberation of a “deep” real (associated with the unconscious), that has been until then latent in a “shallow” manifest reality (held in place by mechanisms of repression).

“Ballard,” the narrator of Crash, is involved in a car crash that has the consequence of transforming his awareness about his own real desires. These are congruent with the desires of the late 20th-century technological culture that he embodies. The car “accident” is no accident, but the product of a psychopathology operating at the cultural level that is worked out according to a post-Freudian logic. Sexuality is, as Baudrillard himself notes, “no more than the rarefaction of a drive called desire” (“Ballard's Crash” 316). Baudrillard reads the “violently sexualized world” in Crash as one at the same time “totally lacking in desire,” sexuality having become absorbed by the “universe of simulation” (319). However, the sexualization of the automobile for the narrator after his crash surely functions as a metaphor of revelation of the real object of his desire, namely death and reunification with the organic realm. Far from being abolished, this is desire intensified and freed; but it is a desire beyond the pleasure principle, absolutely unamenable to reason and hostile to consciousness. The violent, perverse, graphically-depicted death-oriented sexuality in Crash is an extended metaphor for this insatiable cultural death-lust.6

In spite of this, there are two aspects of Crash that seem strongly to support Baudrillard's reading of the text. The first is the way in which the name of the protagonist seems to obliterate the gap between the fictional and the real worlds, so that a new hyperreal synthesis emerges. The second is the way in which the protagonist's perceptions of the totally artificial, totally mediated landscape of Crash are rendered in a manner that makes them seem to partake of a Baudrillardian hyperreality—as in this passage, for example:

The flashing lances of afternoon light deflected from the chromium panel tore at my skin. The hard jazz of radiator grilles, the motion of cars moving towards London Airport along the sunlit oncoming lanes, the street furniture and route indicators—all these seemed threatening and super-real, as exciting as the accelerating pintables of a sinister amusement arcade released onto these highways.


As far as the first aspect is concerned, both author and text provide clear evidence that the primary function of the protagonist's name is not to confuse fiction and fact, nor to hyperrealize the real. When asked in an interview, for example, whether he finds the scarring in Crash sexually arousing, Ballard replied: “Me personally, or the writer? Well the man Ballard doesn't find them a turn-on at all. If I see someone deeply mutilated or scarred, I don't feel aroused in any way” (Vale 48). In the text, the narrator is not a science-fiction writer and the West London landscape is depicted with a heightened realism found frequently in the ominous near-future landscapes of Ballard's fiction of the 1970s.7

Crash exists in a textual vacuum only for the naive reader, such as the publisher's reader mentioned earlier. For those aware of Crash's intertextual relation with Ballard's other fiction, the author's superimposition of his name upon his protagonist is metaphorical, offering a provocative analogy with the way that latent reality, freed of repression, superimposes itself upon manifest reality in the fictional world of the text. It does not have to do with Baudrillard's idea that the closure of the gap between fiction and fact at the textual level is an analogue of the hyperrealization of empirical or social reality.

As for the hyperrealization of the protagonist's perception, this too has little to do with Baudrillardian hyperreality. The post-traumatic narrator glimpses here not a Baudrillardian universe of simulation but a manifest world tinged with latent desire, a conscious world into which the unconscious is leaking, rendering it dreamlike, but at the same time paradoxically more real. Baudrillard finds the novel “truly saturated with an intense initiatory power” (319), ushering in a world beyond the reach of the moral gaze. But surely Crash's vision of incipient “autogeddon” (106) is threatening and admonitory? Any urge to transcend the moral—or the real—falters (to quote the paragraph preceding the one above) “before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and unswerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons” (49).

A passage from a 1983 interview clarifies the quite differing agendas of Ballard the novelist and Baudrillard the sociologist:

[Re/Search]: Baudrillard said that in modern society, the only way man can approximate the idea of sacrifice, or a social will rather than a privatized life, is in the idea of the violent or accidental death; for example, the car crash. Do you see your treatment of violence in that sense?

JGB: Maybe I'm at heart rather anti-social. Or rather, let's say, an extreme solitary—I think that's probably true. The social dimension isn't really what I'm interested in.

(Vale 47)

In the rest of his long answer, Ballard goes on to speak of his interest in the “liberating effect” of trauma, while at the same time insisting that he has no “sentimental delusion about violence” (47). In essence, Ballard's interest in car crashes is psychological, with the idea that there is a direct connection between the individual unconscious and apparently external sociological phenomena. Ballard uses individual character to represent aspects of human desire, the expression of which is the external landscape, and the power of which is attested to by the fact that in the late twentieth century the landscape which Western civilization inhabits is increasingly artificial. As desire has both conscious and unconscious levels, so does the landscape. The catastrophic interactions between individual and landscape in Ballard's fiction are expressions of the disjunctions between conscious and unconscious desire at the psychic level. The unconscious level represents real desire, the intractable ground of being, and it is Ballard's project to make this reality manifest, with the very Freudian—and ultimately moral—idea of bringing to light what is dark.

As he gazes at the contemporary scene, Baudrillard notices the same cultural symptoms that Ballard does—affectlessness, apparently meaningless circulation, the sense of impending catastrophe. It is no wonder that Ballard celebrates Baudrillard's brilliant reading of American culture in America (1986). But whereas Baudrillard celebrates—even if ironically—the “marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts” on American roads (America 5), or America's orgiastic and ecstatic indifference as a “radical modernity” attained (96–97), for Ballard there remains the project of exposing the real (unconscious) desire beneath the debauch of fiction. Baudrillard the hyperrealist is at his best consciously a poet of the surface of things. In this he is a postmodernist par excellence, and this is, it seems to me, why Ballard, for whom such surfaces are equally fascinating but also terrifying for what they conceal, is so ambivalent toward him. It is surely this ambivalence that causes Ballard to attack, in his “Response to the Invitation to Respond” to Baudrillard's essays, not Baudrillard, but postmodernism itself.


  1. Atrocity Exhibition and Crash!, in which I equate the crash with sexuality, were both extreme hypotheses, extreme metaphors to describe an extreme situation” (Burns 22).

  2. No indication is given in SFS of when the essays were first published. This did not affect Ballard's response, however, as he makes it clear that he had read Baudrillard on Crash “some years ago” (“A Response” 329).

  3. Since concluding this essay, I have learned that Ballard's piece is a transcript of a letter dated 19 April 1991 from Ballard to Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., in response to Csicsery-Ronay's request for Ballard's reaction to Baudrillard's essays. Ballard had not read the other critics' responses when he replied, though he knew the identities of some of them. I am grateful to the editors of SFS for making this correspondence available to me.

  4. It is not clear in the latter case whether he means the movie or the novel.

  5. “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (“The Precession of Simulacra” 2).

  6. Freud, in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), seems to me to have already diagnosed the problem with Crash's narrator. “The mechanical violence of the trauma would liberate a quantity of sexual excitation which, owing to the lack of preparation for anxiety, would have a traumatic effect” (33).

  7. As in the very similar West London-based landscapes in Concrete Island (1976) and High-Rise (1976), and the Shepperton studios in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979).

Works Cited

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1970. London: Triad/Panther, 1979.

———. Crash. 1973. New York: Pinnacle, 1974.

———. “Some Words About Crash!Foundation 9:45–54, Nov 1975.

———. The Kindness of Women. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991.

———. “A Response to the Invitation to Respond.” SFS 18:329, #55, Nov 1991.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Ballard's Crash.” 1976. Trans. Arthur B. Evans. SFS 18:313–20, #55, Nov 1991.

———. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulations. By Baudrillard. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. NY: Semiotext(e), 1983. 1–79.

———. America. 1986. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1989.

Benison, Jonathan. “Jean Baudrillard on the Current State of SF.” Foundation 32:25–42, Nov 1984.

Burns, Alan, & Charles Sugnet. “[Interview with] J. G. Ballard.” The Imagination on Trial: British and American Writers Discuss Their Working Methods. Eds. Burns & Sugnet. London: Allison, 1981. 15–30.

Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Istvan. [Editorial Introduction:] “Postmodernism's SF/SF's Postmodernism.” SFS 18:305–08, #55, Nov 1991.

Di Filippo, Paul. “Ballard's Anatomy: An Interview.” Science Fiction Eye 8:66–75, Winter 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” 1920. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XVIII (1920–1922). Ed. & trans. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth, 1955. 7–64.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Borders of Madness.” SFS 18:321–23, #55, Nov 1991.

Landon, Brooks. “Responding to the Killer B's.” SFS 18:326–27, #55, Nov 1991.

Sobchack, Vivian. “Baudrillard's Obscenity.” SFS 18:327–29, #55, Nov 1991.

Vale & Andrea Juno, ed. Re/Search: J. G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1984.

Dennis A. Foster (essay date May 1993)

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SOURCE: “J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Senses: Perversion and the Failure of Authority,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 108, No. 3, May, 1993, pp. 519–32.

[In the following essay, Foster, an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University, contends that Ballard's presentation of extreme perversity and violence—particularly as found in Running Wild, The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and Empire of the Sun—represents a stark critique of modern consumer and technological society which illustrates the objectification of the human body as an instrument of sexual pleasure and destruction.]

When Charles Manson invited America's youth to kill their parents, he was less interested in resisting authority than in removing the figures of an authority that was already dead. The fathers had died, but they did not know it, as one of Freud's patients dreamed.1 In The Dead Father, by Donald Barthelme, the Dead Father continues to burden the roving band of children long after he has ceased to function as leader, protector, or wise man, because he does not yet know he is dead: “Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead” (3). In the end, normally, the fathers die, fatherhood goes on, and the satisfactions the children had to put off while awaiting maturity are once more delayed, held in reserve for the next generation. Manson, however, chose to deny the parental law itself and the deferral of pleasure it implies, as if to say that there was never a reason to wait, that pleasure is real and present.

In Running Wild, a novel published in 1989, J. G. Ballard frequently invokes Manson, an American type (like Mark Chapman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and other spectacular killers from this land2), to inform a story of a mass parricide. Although the story is set in Britain, Ballard's vision of the world has a distinctly American cast, ruled by icons of Hollywood film (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor), of political power (John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan), and of car crashes (James Dean) that have defined much of America's national and international image. Behind this image, displayed especially starkly in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) and Crash (1973), Ballard sees an affective flaw in the heart of the late capitalist machine age: as in much writing by William S. Burroughs, one of Ballard's most powerful influences, feeling, when it is still possible to evoke it, is tied to a perversion in entertainment, advertising, and technology, a displacement of human relationships into consumer culture and mechanical images. Familiar adult emotions appear in his books only in characters such as the police psychiatrist in Running Wild, observers whose understanding is simplistic, reductive, and judgmental. The few adults who retain a “normal” manner in Empire of the Sun (1985) likewise seem simple, even if kind, beside the American prisoners, who are affectless by comparison, and the character of Jim. The satisfactions of a world that one still tends to think of as reasonable begin to fail in Ballard's books, and what in Poe might appear a wild aberration, a violent exercise of the death drive in the pursuit of enjoyment, becomes a way of life.

What Ballard describes is a world motivated not by the interests of symbolic compensations but by perverse pleasure, in which characters find enjoyment only in submission to the demands of others' desires.3 In the largest sense, these demands are the product of the Enlightenment and of financial capital, which announce that clarity, progress, and bounty can be had if one sets aside passion. Let go of your certainty that the devil rules your neighbor; do not spend every penny on one wild night, but save something to invest. A countable world is a world controlled, where every lost love will be refunded. But as the filmmaker Atom Egoyan's brilliant examination of domestic calculations, The Adjuster, shows, the processes themselves produce surplus pleasure, available to anyone who submits to them. An insurance adjuster properly motivated finds enjoyment playing a part in a victim's loss and compensation. Censors must watch pornography. And only the agreement that everyone is merely counting, classifying, adjusting allows them all to continue. Ballard finds alibis like this one at work in his empire, and this paper explores how they insert perversion into every aspect of an enlightened world.

Compared with Ballard's works of the early 1970s, which offer the starkest examples of his vision, his later books appear as attempts to explain it away. Empire of the Sun and Running Wild both depict worlds of privileged childhood, interrupted in the first work by the sensuality of war and in the second when the mostly teenage children kill their parents (and maids, butlers, drivers, and guards). In both books, the parents' function has been rejected by the children, who see that the adults are bound to betray them, to leave them without the possibility of extending the pleasures of childhood into an imagined parenthood.

At the opening of Running Wild, all the adults in Pangbourne Village have been murdered, and the children have vanished, presumed kidnapped. Pangbourne Village is a wealthy condominium development, a dozen or so houses fenced in, electronically monitored, professionally maintained by a small army of keepers. The children had been provided every opportunity to succeed, attended with kindness and consideration, and kept under nearly constant surveillance, in a pleasant, suburban version of Foucault's panopticon (Discipline 195–228). The narrator, a psychiatrist hired by the police, solves the small mystery of the book: the children themselves killed the adults and fled.

In a sense the children in Running Wild had ceased to live before they committed the murders. The narrator speaks of the children as having been “suffocated” by the care and attention to which they were subjected (83). There is a problem, Ballard suggests, with a life of “unlimited tolerance and understanding” because, according to the narrator's analysis, such a world “erased all freedom and all trace of emotion—for emotion was never needed” (82).

This interpretation has a romantic element that avoids a more unsettling, and more common, response to a pervasive, even if benign, gaze of authority. The narrator sees the problem as the lack of freedom, claiming that the children were cut off by “overcivilization” from some engagement with the real world. The children's sexual fantasies, for example, he sees as an “escape into a more brutal and more real world of the senses” (69). The killings themselves were “no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world” (81), where all meaning, he suggests, including that of life itself, had ceased to exist. The narrator's fantasy of regained freedom is belied, however, by his postscript, which describes the reemergence of the children five years later as a sort of Baader-Meinhof gang (58) whose targets are public parental figures. Far from withdrawing from the external world of authority and power, the children continue to live through denial of the law, restaging the scene that tied them most firmly to the social structure.

Foucault's analysis of the panopticon may provide one entrance to the problem posed by Pangbourne Village. The efficacy of the panopticon has less to do with the restraint of the body than with the formation of a subject. The prisoners in a panoptic structure are under constant watch, visible, if not always seen, in separate rooms that emphasize the individual particularity of each, dividing each from fellow inmates while binding them all to the watcher who knows them.4 The children, of course, were allowed to interact with others, and they were cared for, treated with respect and kindness, but they were relentlessly observed, meticulously known by their parents. The wonderful and insidious effect of such surveillance is that its subjects eventually do not have to be watched, because they finally become only what is known, find themselves nowhere but in the eyes of the watcher, identifying with the mirrored image there.

The process that Foucault describes may resemble the formation of a superego, but what is disturbing about his vision is that it makes the subject's interior redundant. The Freudian conscience arises through the internalization of the parental law, which watches over not only the actions but the very wishes of the child, punishing through guilt. The conscience knows thoughts just as thoroughly as the warden knows the occupants of the panopticon, but whereas a superego implies an internalized voice, the Pangbourne Village children are superficially mapped, every detail of their visible life is recorded, so that nothing but the representable counts. The individual prisoner—or patient, student, soldier, worshiper, or lover—becomes little more than what observation articulates. Pollsters and marketers understand that they can predict politics and consumption in the long run by treating Americans as panopticon subjects. A canny loan officer knows you well enough from a report by TRW (the company whose national surveillance haunts your every use of credit) to decide whether to trust you with $100,000 and does not need to explore your inimitable sense of humor or taste in film. J. Crew is not wasting money when it sends five catalogs in a summer. And yet something is left over, left out, when the whole landscape of the subject is mapped.

“[A] tyranny of love and care”; “choking on the nonstop diet of love and understanding” (59, 65). The narrator's claims that excessive benevolence produced a community of parricides make sense only because the book defines this parental attention and love to be a matter of watch and ward, mediated at every point by vigilant devices. In such a situation, a child's every virtue and failing are evident, open to reward or punishment, approval or neglect. But a child's need for love is never limited to what the child demands or deserves. You might expect anyone, any stranger, to love you for your virtues. You want to be loved beyond your deserts, for what is “in-you-more-than-you,” to use Lacan's phrase.5 You articulate this need when you ask vaguely to be loved “for yourself,” as if your true self were hidden behind some superfluous excreta, some false self. Lacan indicates something more specific, if no more readily graspable: that is, when you come into social life, take your symbolic place in the larger world, some part of you is excluded and is, therefore, lacking in the subject you become. You as subject are not all of you. Since you seek to find in others what you lack in yourself, you find not the others' truths but some representation of your own lack. Parenthood entails letting children believe for a time that they are loved beyond themselves, loved for what they can never hope to make manifest, never represent. The Pangbourne Village children learned they were nothing more than the representable, nothing beyond the image.

The Pangbourne youth knew all about representation. They were, as I have said, constantly visible to the surveillance cameras outside the homes, whose images were delivered on cable television to every home. But the monitoring took more intrusive forms. The computers on which children did homework were linked with those of the parents, who then could follow and salute each child's performance: “Well done, Jeremy!” The village was to have been the subject of a television documentary; nearly all the residents appeared in Who's Who; doctors vigilantly recorded the community members' mental and physical health. Playboy was supplied to adolescent boys so that even their sexual fantasies might be available for inspection. “[S]urveillance of the heart,” one policeman calls it (38), thinking of the intrusion's cruelty more than of the way these methods create a heart suited to surveillance. Like the souls generated by all acts of confession, according to Foucault (Introduction 58–63), the truth of the Pangbourne Village children was defined—for them as well as for the adults—by the aspects of life that could be made visible. The problem with a heart molded this way is that it is not connected to a world beyond representation.

When the children first resisted the thorough mediation of their lives, they attempted not to avoid it but to exploit it, parodying its forms while removing the overlay of meaning that justified the adults' use of media. The effect was a kind of counterhegemony, not an escape from the structures of discourse and ideology but a turning and multiplying of them. For example, in journals the children secretly constructed alternative histories of family life that redefined relationships in pornographic terms of power: daughters serve as polymorphously perverse prostitutes to the rest of the family (69). One child published a tabloid-style newspaper specializing “only in boring news” (“Egg boils in three minutes”) (70), which emphasized the power of media to translate all life into their own forms. Radio Free Pangbourne broadcast silence intercut with a few random sounds and breathing. A parodic documentary “adopts the style of a real-estate developer's promotional video” to record the minutiae of daily life, interspersing them with television scenes of car crashes, executions, and concentration camps. There was nothing in the children's world, from the most mundane to the ecstatic limits of sex and death, that did not take a form in the media: “It's as if the film came first for them,” the narrator's police accomplice comments (72), apparently finding such an ordering unusual.

Reality, to use Baudrillard's formulation, had been preempted by the “hyperreal.”6 On a perceptual level, of course, reality always involves some degree of representation: you only comprehend what you have encountered in some form before. Unique events inevitably appear unreal, supernatural—if they are powerful enough to enter perception at all. Most unique events are mere oddities to the conscious mind, literally insignificant and therefore invisible. Only by virtue of repetition or representation does a first appearance emerge in a nachträglich ‘deferred’ construction from an unconscious past: “Ah, now I remember that pause, and it meant he was betraying me.” The insidious thing about the hyperreal is that the most important first events, the “originals” from which later events will take their meanings, already have the form of representations.7 Baudrillard sees Disneyland, for example, as a site for children against which they later experience cities. Pictures of smart bombs destroying cities in the Persian Gulf War refer inevitably to Nintendo imagery and technology. Pleasure seems hardly conceivable unless it follows forms in advertising and pornography. So Ballard's teen murderers would hardly be unique if for them “film came first.” This condition is much of the contemporary state of being.

The role of film and video in postmodern culture does have a comforting aspect: when limited to the already represented, reality remains representable and hence understandable, subject to control. Hyperreality implies a total correspondence between the real and the knowable and therefore denies anything that might exceed or evade representation. As pubescent teenagers, however, the Pangbourne Village children were becoming aware of some unknowable excess through the experience of their sexualized bodies—new, alien bodies suddenly bereft of the compact forms and the pleasures of childhood. The children looked for the parental guarantee that maturity would compensate them for what they had lost. But for all their parents' wealth and health, the guarantee was empty, the law missing. Jim, the hero of Empire of the Sun, says he knew his well-exercised father's strength came from playing tennis and so would fail before the Japanese soldiers, whose strength came from death. The Pangbourne Village parents could not be “supposed to know”—of pleasure, death, reality and its compensations. The narrator says of the murders. “[F]or such killing to take place at all, the deaths of [the] victims must be without any meaning” (81), an observation I take to mean that the adults' lives were without meaning, without any reference to the in-you-more-than-you, but limited by the boundaries of the representable, the hyperreal.

The narrator's idea, however, that the children were escaping from their enclosed world into something more real, a realm of the senses, of the imperfect, is not convincing. One child, the youngest, escapes the group, in “a desperate attempt to return to her childhood world” (73), the narrator supposes. The girl, eight years old, has not yet had to face having a sexual body, with its mark of internal, essential inadequacy, of death. Her parents had probably not revealed themselves incapable of guaranteeing future pleasures, since she has not yet found her needs to exceed her demands. And so, as the narrator speculates, she might want to return to her childhood and to the supposition that her parents are able to know her to the bone. For the other, postpubescent children, such a direct return is blocked by knowledge of the adults' impotence, and so the children can return (and why should they not want to?) only by restaging the past enjoyment independent of parental law. The children must now be “far beyond the point where questions of guilt and responsibility have any meaning for them,” says the narrator (79), who might just as well say they are at a point before the paternal function is implanted, outside the symbolic order formed by the subjugating law. The “family” formed by the children is without a leader, without a father figure to whom responsibility and guilt are owed for individual actions. In place of the panopticon subjectivities—individualized, separated, penetrated—the children acquire the nonindividualized identity of the group, a group apparently without an inner life.

The group members achieve “unity,” according to the narrator, as a result of their belief in “the rightness of their cause” (80), as if they have substituted a higher law for the one they have denied. The “cause” itself, however, never takes on a positive form but remains denial: they attempt to assassinate “a former British prime minister,” evidently Margaret Thatcher, the phallic “Mother of her Nation” (104). Although a failure, the attack has the effect of moving the Pangbourne children back into the media. Unlike terrorists of a colonized country who resort to violence as their only hope of ejecting the dominating power, the internal terrorists in the West—the Red Brigade, the Weathermen, the Baader-Meinhof gang—constitute their identities and produce their effects largely with the help of the media. The Pangbourne Village children, then, find a way to reproduce the situation of surveillance in which they came to consciousness. In being observed, they stand again on the stage, objects of a fearfully desiring public gaze.

Reviewers were generally not enthusiastic about Running Wild. James Marcus writes, “The assumptions Running Wild is supposed to challenge, such as the fairy-tale version of family happiness, haven't been widely accepted for decades.” Of course, no one is surprised to read that the children of privilege kill themselves or others, that they rape their dates, defraud their banks, and ruin lives, but such failures at happiness are seen as confined to mass media reports. Middle-class parents continue to expect lives of simple contentment and success for their own progeny and their friends'. On television everyone sees “upheavals, disasters, cataclysmic events of all sorts” but—as Luc Sante, commenting on Ballard's writing, points out—registers them “only as momentary images that are quickly forgotten.” Despite the cynical knowledge conveyed by popular media, a “fairy-tale version of family happiness” remains a model for domestic life. The inability of Running Wild's narrator to produce a convincing analysis of the story he tells may reflect a limitation in Ballard's willingness to understand what the narrator has seen, but the image of damaged children still fascinates and disturbs.8

Crash offers a version of the insight Ballard begins to conceal in the later book. Ballard claims that Crash, often suggestive of Jean Genet, is “the first pornographic novel based on technology” (6). The book is hard to take at times, with its insistent return to explicit conjunctions of sexual bodies and automobiles (the mingled smells of semen and engine coolant, for example, are noted frequently). Children are wholly absent, but the erotic fixations have a quality that it is tempting to call childish, or at least adolescent, for their refusal to move beyond the most elemental physical body. If the characters of this novel previously reached a mature level of bodily abstraction, the “genital reduction” that characterizes normative adult sexuality, then something happened to take them back to polymorphous perversity.

The bodies of all the main characters except James Ballard's wife, Catherine (I refer to her husband, who is named after his creator, as “James” to prevent confusion), have been marked by cars, scarred in ways that James insists are completely distinct for each accident, each vehicle, each particular body. Specific knobs, steering wheels, hand brakes, rearview mirrors, and windows leave their unique inscriptions on knees, faces, and chests. The way a crashing car flips and collapses determines how it will crush and cut a body, juxtapose car parts and body parts, or mix machine fluids with a body's flows. The wounds are horrible and fascinating in their details (Ballard used a richly illustrated book, Crash Injuries, by Jacob Kulowski, to give the descriptions in the novel a disturbing precision), providing a vision of the body as composed of removable, alterable parts. The body and self do not form an organic whole in this vision. The body as a symbol, as a representation of the self, reveals itself under violence to be the uncanny body, the one that surprises in hotel mirrors and in old photos of one's parents in their youth. It is the body of the helpless infant tended by the practical hands of a parent or nurse, the wild body “sunk in motor incapacity and nursling dependence” that Lacan describes flailing before a mirror (Ecrits 2). That lost body returns through the accident, made present in the changes wrought by the specific technology of a modern industry.

James's initiation into the realm of crash eroticism follows his own head-on collision with the car of Helen Remington and her husband, who is killed in the smashup. James and Helen are pinned facing each other, the crushed cars and bleeding body of her husband between them. In this situation they are photographed by Vaughan, a highway angel whose life is devoted to the capture of the crash image or, more specifically, of the way the automobile mediates human relationships (101). Vaughan's images transform the suffering and horror associated with traumatic injury into a scene of erotic enjoyment.

Robert L. Caserio's excellent essay on masochism sees that the power of experiences of immobility lies in their recollection of a “binding moment” of childhood, a primal scene in which an intense pleasure holds the child passive. In childhood, this pleasure serves the “vital order”: what keeps you alive gives you pleasure. Later, it is the joining again of the passive position to intense stimulation that informs suffering with eroticism. Caserio considers this transformation creative and restorative because it can shock one “back to where one began, at the verge of the vital order, remembering unambiguous vital functions” (308). In Crash, then, “Vaughan has made himself the delegate of Eros to convince highway victims that the roadside slaughter really represents death's binding and defeat by love” (302). In recalling the life forces felt in childhood, one again experiences love as something real, as a force that sustained life in a body unable itself to act, and from that point, Caserio argues, one can reconstruct an adult world of action and mediation.9 Well, yes, perhaps a reader will glimpse that early paradise and move forward with renewed energy and faith in life, but the characters' restaging of that early pleasure can be fatal. Colin Greenland, writing on Ballard, notes that “[d]eath … offers fixity, an end to change, whereas living merely erodes identity further. Hence our preoccupation with violence and destruction, our demand for more, faster, deadlier cars” (114). As Caserio suggests in a Ulyssean metaphor (300–01), the reader may be tied to the ship's mast as the sirens sing, but the characters all leap into the sea.

The optimism of Caserio's reading of Ballard and science fiction lies in a faith in human willingness to move repeatedly away from the passive position of childhood pleasure into the symbolic activity of adult life, despite the hollowness attending that displacement of bodily joys. Ballard, on the contrary, seems troubled by the deep persistence of the images of perversity and by the ways the world of technology and consumption appeals to them. James makes television commercials, producing the imagery that defines some of the most common desires and satisfactions, those experienced not through the human creative or productive capacity but in the pseudoactivity of consumption. One of the reasons Vaughan chooses James is that James has professional access to the glamorous world of film stars: Vaughan wants an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor. For Vaughan, as for contemporary culture as a whole, the automobile is inescapably linked to the deaths of stars. He mentions James Dean and Jayne Mansfield but includes in his obsession with famous car deaths the most filmic president the United States had had at the time of the story, John Kennedy, going so far as to drive a Lincoln identical to that in which Kennedy died. Vaughan's desire is to extend this set of crash images to encompass cinema icons not yet fatally injured in cars: Elizabeth Taylor (possibly chosen because of the widely reported story that she held Montgomery Clift's bleeding head after a car accident Clift had while leaving her house) and, an astonishing insight in a book published in 1973, Ronald Reagan, caught in “a complex rear-end collision” (16).

When Vaughan photographs the victim of an accident, he is concerned with discovering not an adult, social being but only the subject created in “the interaction between an anonymous individual and his car” (101). The “reinvigoration” of accident victims comes out of Vaughan's ability to give them new bodies, part flesh and part machine, that resemble those prefigured in the “scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives”—the television news, advertisements, and “road-safety propaganda” seen every day (190, 37, 39). James has the impression that his accident is his first “real experience” in years (39), one that brings into accord the images with which he has been suffused and the body he lives in. The sense of rebirth through the crash is reinforced by the recovery process, in which nurses “seemed to attend only to my most infantile zones,” “guarding my orifices” as the women of his childhood did (33). In this second childhood, he has new orifices in his knees and scalp, through which pus drains. Generally the adult abandons infantile zones of need and pleasure—those of polymorphously perverse sexuality—but in their new configuration, linked to crash wounds, they constitute the reborn sexual bodies of Vaughan's photographed victims. In a sexual encounter with one particularly badly injured woman, Gabrielle, James finds that her body's scars form new sexual organs, more erotic and numerous than the conventional ones. By comparison, the body of his wife, her orifices devoid of any trace of snot, earwax, or feces, is unexciting despite its total availability. If she represents some persistence of a child's pristine body into adulthood—the usual fantasy of couture and eroticism—James rejects that body in favor of the new body of violence and technology. Only when he imagines Catherine's destruction is there affection between them.

After his encounter with Gabrielle, James recounts a fantasy concerning his mother:

I visualized the body of my own mother, at various stages of her life, injured in a succession of accidents, fitted with orifices of ever greater abstraction and ingenuity, so that my incest with her might become more and more cerebral, allowing me at last to come to terms with her embraces and postures.


The insufficiency of childhood that presents an impossible obstacle to the child's desire for the mother is overcome here by the creation of a new body for the mother. The embrace James can at last come to terms with is one remolded by machines. The conditions of the technofantasy bridge the gap between the body and knowledge, reconfiguring them both as a geometry of surfaces. The imagined embrace is more abstract, more cerebral, because it proposes a place where knowing is surface. Here the parent knows and is known, without the impediment of a natural body, a body full of depths unmarked by language, one more-than-you.

Lacan sees human sexuality emerging from the conjunction of two flaws that touch everyone. One is the lack defined within semiotics, the lack in the “Other” by which the speaking subject is constituted as a split subject: “the subject depends on the signifier and … the signifier is first of all in the field of the Other.” It is this split that opens human beings to endless displacements of desire, where no object is ever fully satisfying, no demand adequate to the need. The second flaw lies in the death suffered by all creatures that reproduce sexually, as if the lack of some part in each of them condemned them to mortality: “The real lack is what the living being loses, that part of himself qua living being, in reproducing himself through the way of sex. This lack is real because it relates to something real, namely, that the living being, by being subject to sex, has fallen under the blow of individual death” (Four Fundamental Concepts 205). Ballard seems to be attuned to this conjunction when he sees that desire for automobiles is not completed with the presentation of the car body in advertising, no matter how red the paint and sensuous the line. Satisfaction requires the crash as a permanent background, a death's head more or less present in the ad. In a typical current ad, a car powers through sliding turns above a warning that you, the consumer, not attempt such a maneuver—lest you die. On a visit to the crash test site at the Road Research Laboratory, Vaughan says to James:

“The technology of accident simulation at the R.R.L. is remarkably advanced. Using this set-up they could duplicate the Mansfield and Camus crashes—even Kennedy's—indefinitely.”

“They're trying to reduce the number of accidents here, not increase it.”

“I suppose that's a point of view.”


As Freud notes in Civilization and Its Discontents, many of the ills civilization and technology have managed to cure are themselves the products of preceding advances. Vaughan tends to look not at what the researchers “try” to do but at what they do. What kind of car, after all, asks you to push it through tight, fast turns?

The point is that the crash is always present in the human subject, an effect of the trauma that ruptures the imaginary unity of the infantile world. The consequent emergence of body parts, each with symbolic as well as biological functions (a leg is always more than just a thing to walk with), determines a course of pleasure for the individual subject: loss is attended by promises of recompense. Maturation transforms the body parts increasingly into symbolic elements, both excluding the bodily specificity of the parts and repressing the nonsymbolized body, banishing it to silent functioning and malfunctioning. (How disconcerting that hypertension, the “silent killer,” part of the unsymbolized body, should intrude on the symbolic body as impotence or blindness, or death.) But the symbolized body can never fulfill the promises of recompense, and maturity means recognizing and accepting this failure. The alternative to this recognition is to disavow loss and to seek a repetition of the crash, a return to that traumatic moment of subjection and enjoyment. James watches at one point as Catherine and Vaughan engage in a “sex act” in the backseat of a car he is driving. Romance, the high form of symbolized body parts, does not appear in the action: “I felt that this act was a ritual devoid of ordinary sexuality, a stylized encounter between two bodies which recapitulated their sense of motion and collision.” The ritual in the couple's intercourse has the function of recovering the trauma and the body that went with it. Catherine is described as looking at her breast in Vaughan's hand “as if seeing it for the first time, fascinated by its unique geometry” (161, 160). Their sex acts recapitulate crashes that recapitulate childhood trauma, that give the subject a new and knowable body, one that can be caressed, cut, photographed, and destroyed.

The pleasure James and the others experience should probably not be construed as a door of liberation, as an access to some Eden of original joys. Such is the interpretation Running Wild's narrator makes of the Pangbourne children's deeds. Crash suggests that the catastrophic actions taken by those children might also be read as a reenactment of early pleasures and trauma. In both books, the characters return to the site of the crash because, like Lolita returning to Humbert Humbert's bed every night, they have nowhere else to go. Although the symbolic law has been revealed to be a sham, unable to guarantee the eventual mastery of an unstable world, the subject strives to reinforce the other's desire, to make it real by being the perfect object of desire, the focus of parental surveillance, the victim of trauma. Ballard's characters seem motivated not to find freedom but to repeat situations in which they were fully known, before authority showed itself incapable of effective action. Crash demonstrates less how the perversion originates than the way it has become fully interwoven with the forms of advertising and technology that drive contemporary capitalism. That is, the rational forms of production, marketing, and consumption are dependent on perpetuating a certain perversion.

Only The Atrocity Exhibition provides a more extreme critique of this particular union of capital, love, and technology. The book addresses the general erotic failure of contemporary social relations and, like Crash, sees the world of technology and politics conspiring to produce a solution of sorts. For example, one chapter, “Love and Napalm: Export USA,” imagines a clinic where “disturbed children[,] terminal cancer patients,” middle-income housewives, and others are shown films juxtaposing combat and atrocity footage with shots of various body parts. As a consequence of this treatment, the patients show improved “levels of overall health and sexual activity” (94–95). The infamous chapter “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” depicts Reagan purely as a represented body, fragmented and reassembled in polymorphously sexualized arrangements, producing in viewers a level of sexual arousal otherwise impossible for them to achieve. These techniques reflect the discovery that “sexual intercourse can no longer be regarded as a personal and isolated activity, but is seen to be a vector in a public complex involving automobile styling, politics and mass communications.” That is, the source of sexual desire, which ultimately involves the way everyone interacts socially, is implicated with business, a connection that also suggests why political and military rationales have been unable to explain the “extended duration” of the Vietnam conflict: the conflict and its images helped the American public establish “a positive psychosexual relation with the external world” (94). It is as if the nation had lost the imaginary ballast that allows human beings to live with the instability of the rational, symbolic world, lost the mother's face that, appearing beside the infant's image in the first mirror of childhood, allows the infant to believe in a true, coherent self.10 The car and camera provide the coherent body that the contemporary subject lacks, the image of power and independence human beings aspire to, and advertising, politics, and entertainment insinuate these productions into current habits of language and consumption, shaping individuals' capacities for pleasure. In this way the perverse and the political become intertwined.

The origin of Ballard's vision of the modern world may be deduced from the account of his own childhood in Empire of the Sun. The novel details the emergence of a particularly American world out of the failures of two traditionally dominant forms of social authority, the British form, based on a rigid class structure, and the Japanese, based on a cult of the emperor. Both are profoundly racist. As the boy, Jim (another character named after the author), watches the successive defeats of the two powers, he loses the faith in authority that had anchored his emotional ties to his family and culture and binds himself instead to the imagery of technology and death that he finds in American war machinery and films.

What is most striking about this novel's depiction of a child's experience of war is that Jim grows to love the violence.11 First, when the Japanese come to total dominance, he shows hardly a sign of grief at losing his childhood fantasy of cultural invulnerability and privilege, shared by most of the powerful white elite of prewar Shanghai. And then, at the end of the war, he cannot bring himself to leave the prison camp to return to his battered parents and England. He is in many ways like the Pangbourne Village children: protected, nurtured, observed, and bombarded constantly with images of his culture. Even in church he is shown newsreels of his country at war, noble and brave, if not at that moment victorious. And as the evidence of British inferiority to the Japanese emerges, he aligns himself with the Japanese, looking to them for protection and a model of behavior.

What is different in Jim's experience, however is that from early in his life he also sees a realm of grotesqueness in the streets of Shanghai that is clearly beyond anyone's control. The beggar who sits by the front gate does not flinch when his foot is run over, and Jim sees in stark detail the imprint of Firestone tires on the foot. In the streets Jim sees the wounded, deformed, orphaned, and abused, the crush of Chinese at Japanese checkpoints, the careless cruelty of soldiers. He sees the police: “He was fascinated by the gleaming Sam Brownes of these sweating and overweight men, by their alarming genitalia that they freely exposed whenever they wanted to urinate and by the polished holsters that held all their manliness” (15–17). With his acute vision, he sees an excess in his world that is contained only by the fences, doors, and glass that define the British space. The symbolic world established by British law, that is, is not absolute but limited, like a game. And as in a game, like contract bridge—about which he is writing a book, though he has never played a hand—to succeed is a matter of learning the codes, of submitting not to the apparently transcendent order of the symbolic but to the arbitrariness of power.

Jim responds, then, to the defeat of the British forces and imprisonment of the foreigners by submitting himself to the apparent power. He attempts, without luck, to “surrender” to the Japanese, and when they ignore him he turns himself over to two Americans, Frank and Basie, opportunistic criminals living off (and on) the margins of Shanghai. What Basie teaches Jim, both on the streets and later in the prison camp, is that survival requires absolute submission to the conditions of power. Basie reconnects Jim to what Caserio calls the vital order.

This submission does not necessarily imply conventional desperation, though Jim is not above taking food from someone he sees is about to die. More often it is a matter of abasing himself to someone, of serving. Jim provides the sick Basie with a larger portion of food than usual by helping the servers. Basie says,

“You helped Mrs. Blackburn?”

“I ingratiated myself. I made myself very useful to Mrs. Blackburn.”

“That's it, If you can find a way of helping people, you'll live off the interest.”


Basie reminds Jim “‘to bow to Sergeant Uchida.’ ‘I always bow, Basie,’” Jim replies (119), suggesting not self-degradation but pleasure at having discovered this method of surviving. When Basie deserts Jim in favor of two other, more promising children, Jim watches “without resentment.” “He and Basie had collaborated at the detention center in order to stay alive, but Basie, rightly, had dispensed with Jim as soon as he could leave for the camps” (129). The sense of decent behavior, a morality he would have learned from his parents and his British background, is replaced with a code that is in many ways clearer, one linked to the order of life and death. Jim's understanding of the world here is governed not by the symbolic order, by an authorizing, transcendent law, but by the utterly contingent rule of arbitrary power.

The world into which Jim has moved operates in the realm of detachable parts rather than under the signifier of the phallus. Although the policemen's genitals may be “alarming,” manliness is in the holster. More frequently, it is the aircraft that become identified for Jim with power. His childhood bedroom is hung with models of planes, and he learned from early in his life to recognize passing aircraft. But it is the conjunction of machine and body that affects him most profoundly. He sits in the cockpit of an old, crashed plane, hands on the controls “as if this sympathetic action could summon the spirit of the long-dead aviator.” This plane sets off a series of “confused emotions” in him, testifying to the place the machine has come to serve in his self-image even before the war (25). But with the advent of war, this identification becomes solidified as he observes the training and departure of kamikaze pilots. The ritual ceremony preceding the lethal flight lends meaning and grace to the act, transforming the man into a part of the weapon. Later Jim sees the captured pilots from a downed B-29—one of “[t]he huge, streamlined bombers [that] summed up all the power and grace of America”—and marvels that such a machine could have been “flown by men such as Cohen and Tiptree and Dainty,” subordinating the individual men's authority to the machine's, to the spectacle of technology (236).

Ideas of coherence, integrity, individual worth increasingly come to have little meaning for Jim. All order is determined by the desire of some other who watches, who arbitrarily shuffles parts and persons for a greater pleasure. Jim witnesses an attack by American Mustang fighters, looking down on the passing planes from a tower: “His eyes feasted on every rivet in their fuselages, on the gun ports in their wings, on the huge ventral radiators that Jim was sure had been put there for reasons of style alone.” Style is a matter of parts—complex, graceful, and gratuitous, there to feed the eye—and the pilots are hardly more than additional stylish parts. The danger posed by his position of observation is as inconsequential to him as is the pilots' peril. One Mustang, crashing, “exploded in a curtain of flaming gasoline through which Jim could see the burning figure of the American pilot still strapped to his seat,” the pilot becoming a “fragment of the sun.” Jim momentarily grieves for the pilots but welcomes their deaths and his own: “Despite everything, he knew he was worth nothing” (202, 203, 204). These deaths anticipate the later ones from the explosion at Hiroshima, which he sees from across the sea and reads as “a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world” (286). Fulfillment comes not in the great globe of life but in submitting to the sun of death.

When writing Empire of the Sun, Ballard must have known Nagasi Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (1976), a film in which the characters' perverse relation to the body is connected with the inability of the emperor of fascist Japan to guarantee the phallic order. A woman who has been dropped by her wealthy lover begins an affair with a married man who refuses to join in the mobilization of the army around him. Both devote themselves to sensual exhaustion, completely unable to find symbolic gratification in their relationship. Ultimately, she strangles him in erotic extremity, amputates his penis, and walks happily through the streets for days carrying it. For each, the failure of the phallic function (the wealthy lover's faithlessness, the increasing disintegration of the empire) reduces the body to a collection of parts. The couple's fatal affair develops from their denial of the law of limited pleasure. And as long as manliness is considered detachable (whether as a penis, gun, car, or plane), the phallus does not exist. Oshima claims that the French translation of the title of this film (his favorite of all the translations), L'empire des sens, is a play on the title of Roland Barthes's book L'empire des signes, an exploration of the pleasure of the sign in Japan (Desser 97). Ballard's title Empire of the Sun ties sun, signes and sens together, linking bodies, the bomb, signs, and sense under an empire that consistently evades the order of the state.

The cheerful Americans turn out to be, even more than the Japanese, the servants of death, in the destruction both of bodies and (ironically for citizens of a country devoted to the idea of the individual) of the distinct, autonomous, meaningful self—the symbolic subject. Jim, late in the novel, is momentarily exhilarated by the suggestion that, because he witnessed the explosion of the bomb, he might “appear in Life” (347), thereby coming under the combined gaze of “life” and America. But to be in Life means in some way to join the world of images that he fed on during his time in the prison camps, not to return to life and become part of the symbolic world. Jim sees himself as the object of death, and all his actions lead him to fulfill his obligations to death. His minute observations of his bodily decay—his hollowed eyes, his pus-filled gums—and of the deterioration of others (soldiers and prisoners) resemble Vaughan's catalog of bodies marked by crashes. Jim's life during the war is not a deferral of real life (like the reality principle's wise delay of pleasure) but the denial of such deferral, the negation of negation. For it is only as the object of death that he is fully known, perfected in his evident weakness before the world.

Jim's greatest anxiety at the end of the war is that the fighting has really ended. He is convinced that a magazine advertisement he tore out depicts his parents and that they will not recognize him, and in fact they do not. “Poor fellow, you'll never believe the war is over,” his rescuer says to him (367). And Jim does not quite believe the news, seeing World War III already under way in postwar Shanghai. Like the Pangbourne children, if what I argue about them is correct, he finds leaving the protected compound, the one place where power fully defines the parameters of being, intolerable. Those who destroyed Pangbourne Village did not escape into freedom and health but re-created home under even more austere conditions, much as the children who found Manson built—in the midst of a life apparently unbounded by any restraint—a totalitarian world. It is the youngest who leads, Manson said when asked if he was the leader, suggesting that children know something about love and pleasure and fear that maturity has enabled most adults to forget. When toward the end of Running Wild the children raid a hospital to take back the youngest of the group, it is not unlikely that they come to get their leader, for she is the one who in fact initiated the killings by electrocuting her bathing father.

When Jim departs Shanghai at the end of Empire of the Sun, there is no sense that he is leaving behind the horror of the war. The city has in many ways already anticipated what he can expect to find in the West: images of Western technology are projected everywhere; American cars fill the streets; and American soldiers are literally pissing on this corner of the world. Crash gives some idea of what Jim will become, the maker of television commercials obsessed with the relations among technology and identity and death. Advertising is one development of the claim Don DeLillo makes in The Names that this century is on film (200): what is knowable, despite an amazing acquisition of scientific knowledge, belongs increasingly to the image. And advertising suggests above all that you really live only in the eye of the camera. Much of the pleasure of what film theory refers to as “classic cinema” derives from the impression that with one more cut the image will be complete, without a gap in knowledge. Advertisements rely on the same idea, for the practice of watching film has lent viewers a habit of submission to the imaginary. In consumption, the image will know you: the car, the camera, the technology will take your body and shape it into a form knowable without gaps.

This surrender is the “death drive” in action—not necessarily the action that will make you dead but the move that submits you to death's liquidation of the phallic authority. The common presumptions of transcendence and autonomy belong to the general spiritualization of the body that Western culture accomplished in attempting to deny the utter contingency and helplessness of the individual organism. It has become ever more difficult, however, to maintain this fiction under the conditions of the twentieth century: human paltriness before the feasible means of destruction; the instrumentalization of the body in its cybernetic relation to industrial (and entertainment) technology and in its availability to medical techniques; the dependence on sources of knowledge and pleasure that are increasingly beyond any individual's control. Such conditions imply for Ballard the growing emptiness of the symbolic order and, consequently, the death of its earthly representative, the subject. Whatever may be horrific in this change cannot be found in the cool vision of Ballard's prose. Technology has covered the gap, providing, as The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates, a way of submitting your body to a larger purpose, of deriving pleasure by becoming the object of pleasure. This appeal is, perhaps, the one Baudrillard sees in the hyperreal, in becoming a filmic body, death's beloved. And, so, seamlessly are you edited into your culture's desires.


  1. The patient reported a dream in which “[h]is father was alive once more and was talking to him in his usual way, but … he had really died, only he did not know it” (430).

  2. In his earlier Hello America, an America of the twenty-second century, devastated by ecological failure, is being led to recovery by President Charles Manson, a madman who took his name from the twentieth-century pied piper. Reviewing Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song, Ballard notes the fame Manson achieved, the peculiar way this psychopath “expanded to fill the roles assigned to him” by American culture, and speculates that Lee Harvey Oswald, if alive today, would be a free man and a television celebrity. (This review, “Killing Time Should Be Prime Time TV,” and many other reviews, stories, interviews, and bibliographies are collected in Re/Search: J. G. Ballard.)

  3. Throughout this essay I use the term “perverse” to cover a narrow range of psychoanalytic concepts. Most generally the word represents denial—of ignorance, of genitality, of the limitations to pleasure, of the father, of the law. In Lacan's interpretation, the perverse subject takes pleasure only by being the object of another's pleasure. This inversion underlies my sense of what takes place in Ballard's universe.

  4. The effect of constant observation is to destroy the internal symbolic world that allows most adults to think and act with some sense of individual responsibility. The distress suffered by four women imprisoned in the federal detention center in Lexington, Kentucky, fully panoptic in its structure, is proof of the trauma such a facility can produce. They experienced both psychic and physical damage (Norman and Reuben).

  5. Lacan argues that love has a destructive element to it because it always reaches for something beyond the beloved. The lover says, “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the object petit a—I mutilate you.” The image is of a lover taking the beloved to pieces looking for the object—a breast, an eye, a mouth—that will explain the love. At the same time, the lover feels unworthy of the sought-for love and so says: “I give myself to you, … but this gift of my person—as they say—Oh, mystery! is changed inexplicably into a gift of shit” (Four Fundamental Concepts 268). No part taken by the beloved will survive loving consumption without being transformed in the end.

  6. Baudrillard sees the real in the contemporary world to be “that for which it is possible to provide an equivalent representation,” a claim that is justified by most practices of science, journalism, and law. But as habit naturalizes these practices, “the real becomes not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: the hyperreal.” Television producers' attempts to show real cops on duty seem unable to escape the imagery of the fictions that came first, with the effect, as Baudrillard comments, that an “air of nondeliberate parody clings to everything.” Death loses its seriousness in such a context (145–46).

  7. Such an inversion of what was once considered interior life appears in the work of Dalí, Magritte, and Ernst, artists Ballard admires. In their images, the obsessions that shape desire take the form of mundane objects—a hat, a leg—wrenched from the sensible surroundings. A surrealist painting shows things in “a glossy isolation, as if all the objects in its landscape had been drained of their emotional association, the accretions of sentiment and common usage” (Ballard, Re/Search. 103)

  8. The question of whether this limited willingness to understand is Ballard's or the character's is undecidable. At what level does the unspeakable emerge? My point in discussing a number of Ballard's books is to show the transformations that occur throughout his career as he returns to the trauma of childhood violence. In his novel-autobiography The Kindness of Women (1991), Jamie's story begins with the war and prison camp of Empire of the Sun, but unlike Jim in the earlier book, Jamie feels little ecstatic horror, and he has a companion, a girl who remains a friend into his adulthood. He has, it seems, put an earlier vision behind him, but only by forgoing the understanding of perverse enjoyment that informed his earlier work.

  9. Compare Caserio's sense of the efficacy of perversion with that of Chasseguet-Smirgel: “perversion represents a … reconstitution of chaos, out of which there arises a new kind of reality, that of the anal universe. This will take the place of the psycho-sexual genital dimension, that of the Father” (11). She sees no compulsion in the perverse subject to rejoin the Father's world.

  10. Lacan writes, “The primal repressed is a signifier” (Four Fundamental Concepts 176), a proposition that distinguishes him from those who imagine that what is repressed is reality. Only when one forgets that the first representation of one's love—Mother's face—was a signifier (i.e., not Mother herself) is the fantasy of the mother locked into place.

  11. Caserio and Emerson comment at length on this disturbing aspect of the story.

Works Cited

The Adjuster, Dir. Atom Egoyan. Orion, 1992.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1970. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1990.

———. Crash. 1973, New York: Vintage-Random, 1985.

———. Empire of the Sun. New York: Pocket-Simon, 1985.

———. Hello America. London: Cape, 1981.

———. “Killing Time Should Be Prime Time TV.” Guardian 15 Nov. 1979. Rpt. in Ballard, Re/Search 108–09.

———. The Kindness of Women. New York: Farrar, 1991.

———. Re/Search: J. G. Ballard. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1984.

———. Running Wild. New York: Farrar, 1989.

Barthelme, Donald. The Dead Father, 1975. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Symbolic Exchange and Death.” 1976. Trans. Charles Lewin. Selected Writings, By Baudrillard. Ed. Mark Poster, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Caserio, Robert L. “Mobility and Masochism: Christine Brooke-Rose and J. G. Ballard.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 21 (1988): 292–310.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. Creativity and Perversion. New York: Norton, 1984.

DeLillo, Don, The Names, New York: Vintage-Random, 1982.

Desser, David. Eros plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Emerson, Gloria. “The Children of the Field.” Triquarterly 65 (1986): 226–28.

Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage-Random, 1979.

———. An Introduction. 1976. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage-Random, 1980. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vols. 4 and 5. London: Hogarth, 1953. Vol. 4: 1–338; vol. 5: 339–627. 24 vols.

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British “New Wave” in Science Fiction. London: RKP, 1983.

In the Realm of the Senses. Dir. Nagasi Oshima, Surrogate, 1976.

Kulowski, Jacob. Crash Injuries: The Integrated Medical Aspects of Automobile Injuries and Deaths. Springfield: Thomas, 1960.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans, Alan Sheridan, New York: Norton, 1977.

———. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, 1973. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, New York: Norton, 1978.

Marcus, James. Rev. of Running Wild, by J. G. Ballard. New York Times Book Review 17 Dec. 1989: 19.

Norman, Carlos, and William A. Reuben. “Brainwashing in America? The Women of Lexington Prison.” Nation 27 June 1987: 881+.

Sante, Luc. “Tales from the Dark Side,” New York Times Magazine 9 Sept. 1990: 58+.

Roger Luckhurst (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “Petition, Repetition, and ‘Autobiography’: J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 688–708.

[In the following essay, Luckhurst examines the interrelationship between Ballard's fiction and autobiography, as evident in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. According to Luckhurst, the numerous retellings, inversions, and variations of key events in Ballard's fiction and autobiography further problematize interpretation of Ballard's oeuvre, rather than serving as a mechanism for “decoding” or “decrypting” his work.]

The reception of J. G. Ballard's work has always bewilderingly bifurcated between pronouncements that Ballard is “our best novelist” (Kimberley 52) and dismissal of his clumsy, embarrassing, and possibly insane works. This divergence of evaluation can more than probably be attributed to Ballard's association with science fiction and the need for critics to distance themselves from the stereotypical portrait of the average “fan” as dysfunctional male adolescent. Curiously, however, if “mainstream” criticism associates him with the genre, the institutions of science fiction have always treated Ballard's membership with suspicion. In a strange effect, Ballard is situated within the SF/mainstream binary only as he is projected onto the other side of the bar: when science fiction critics do praise him, it is for transcending the genre (becoming mainstream); mainstream criticism celebrates his transformative reworkings of science fiction tropes as long as they remain within the genre.1 This process effectuates a constant double displacement, and the difficulty of siting Ballard's work, of finding adequate contexts in which to read it, results from this uncertain nonsite between science fiction and the mainstream.

If displacement, for Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, “permits the objectivation, localisation and containment of anxiety” (123), the strategy here is delocalization, decontainment; Ballard is always projected outside whatever frame is being invoked. The difficulty of placing (and thus of reading) Ballard is insistent from his earliest works. The quartet of catastrophe novels, written between 1962 and 1966, operated by “inverting” the logic of the genre; no longer narratives of heroic survival in the midst of global disaster, the protagonists of The Drowned World and The Crystal World “accept” catastrophe and willingly seek ecstatic dissolution in death. Perversity intensifies in Ballard's notorious experimental fictions The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, both of which are dispassionate “scientific” investigations of the highly compacted conjunction of media obscenity, pornography, and the erotic potential of new technologies. The latter, famously, presents the car crash as the apotheosis of orgasm.

One way of dealing with such extremity is simply to refuse it, to render it external to either science fiction or the mainstream. Exclusion resulted, until recently, in a resounding critical silence, but an attendant effect was Ballard's occupation of that strange space of the “cult writer.” The cult can cut a swath through institutional framings of the high/low, serious/popular binaries (onto which the mainstream/SF divide is often mapped [see Luckhurst]) to appeal to an unforeseeably admixed sodality of readers. As Umberto Eco notes, “cult” texts are read transgressively: the “low” can be elevated to the “high” or vice versa. However, cults coagulate around secrets, arcana, are performed through private languages and rituals. The “initiated” depend for their survival on an uncomprehending exteriority, whose disapprobation merely intensifies the lure of the cult. One way of “saving” Ballard becomes only another form of marginality.

This secrecy has nevertheless been breached on two occasions. In a way that apparently ejected him from the double marginalization of “science fiction” or the “cult author,” Ballard was received and understood, with massive critical and commercial success, in his two “autobiographical” novels, Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991). The sudden visibility of Ballard and Ballard's work in 1984 (Booker Prize nominee, Guardian Fiction Prize) is no less astonishing for his equally sudden disappearance and then repeated “discovery” in 1991 (the week of publication saw major interviews on Radio 3 and Radio 4, a documentary on BBC 2, and serialization in the Independent; later Ballard received that most English of accolades, an appearance on Desert Island Discs).

The reason for this sudden “acceptability”—a conjunction of mass audience with critical elevation to “serious” novelist—can be incontrovertibly traced to a perceived generic shift: SF to “autobiography.” More than this, Empire could be rendered generically safe in another sense: it was a Second World War novel. The terms of that acceptance are problematic, however. The logic of the argument proceeds thus: Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women can be detached from the oeuvre in their generic shift; both can be read as new additions to an honorable “confessional” mode, thus escaping the derogatory appellation of “science fiction.” At the same time these texts can then be re-attached to the oeuvre as “straight” texts which finally decode the bizarre and perverse aberrations that had gone before, rendering the fiction autobiographically comprehensible. This reading of the “autobiographies” as petition—a kind of apologia or entreaty—suppresses both the fictionality of the texts, which holds them much closer to the science fiction than is admitted, and the inevitable dependence on the prior work that a structure of detachment/reattachment necessitates. The petition for separability becomes mired in the complex repetitions that fold the texts back into the oeuvre.

The dominant media reception of these works clearly deployed them as autobiographical decoding machines (while I cite from newspaper and journal reviews, these have been crucial sites for the construction of “Ballard” outside science fiction circles). Of Empire it was said that it was “the key to the rest of an extraordinary oeuvre and central to his project” (Webb), “the first stage in a comprehensive decoding” (Murray); of Kindness, that it “provides a framework for comprehending much that is disturbing in his writing” (Blow), that it “loops together all the strands of a story that, in the course of fictionally processing his life, reveals how and where Ballard acquired his distinct gallery of images for his literature” (Kemp). It now became “tempting to see all his earlier fiction as a kind of displacement activity” (Barber).

The logic of this repeated argument is a retrospective rereading of the prior science fiction as encrypted autobiographical performance. Inverting the order of the series, Empire and Kindness become the paradigms that decrypt and displace the science fiction from simple self-identity; a nongeneric “secret” can now be implanted to explain Ballard's perverse attachment to such a juvenile genre. A similar rereading is effected around Kurt Vonnegut's “autobiographical” Slaughterhouse-Five, as Peter Brigg notes (106).

However, this move cannot be limited to an attempt to petition for “seriousness” for writers associated with science fiction; it often informs the theory of autobiography in general, especially as represented in the writing of James Olney, Georges Gusdorf, and other “metaphysicians” of the autobiography. The autobiography is “the symptomatic key to all else that he [sic] did” (Olney 4); the “autobiographical key” (Gusdorf 46) unlocks the work; it is “[the] magnifying lens, focusing and intensifying that same peculiar creative vitality that informs all the volumes of his [sic] collected works” (Olney 3–4).

What is of interest in these theories of autobiography is not the content of their claims—Georges Gusdorf's transcendentalism, evident in his view that autobiography represents the “theodicy of the individual being” (39), is frequently matched by James Olney's religiosity—so much as the fact that such descriptions can only be stated by the formal institution of a framing device. Autobiography can never, in the final instance, be evidentially grounded in the text but must appeal to the edges of the text, the contextual determination which establishes autobiography as autobiography. As Joseph Loesberg says, the “qualities by which we demarcate genres tend in autobiography to involve less the formal shape of a text than extra-textual and even extra-literary concepts of intention, authorial sincerity and truthfulness” (169). Since the fictive has a disconcerting ability to mimic the textual appearance of autobiography, Albert Stone argues that “our expectations depend heavily upon all sorts of obvious clues to authorial intention such as a preface, photographs, even cover blurbs or library classifications” (6). Philippe Lejeune's theorization of the pragmatics of the “autobiographical pact” may try to determine the genre through retrospection, the identity of author, narrator, and central character, but ultimately Lejeune concludes that “[the] fringe of the printed text … controls the entire reading (author's name, title, subtitle, name of the collection, name of the publisher, even including the ambiguous game of prefaces)” (29).

John Sutherland, in discussing how cover apparatuses determine responses to texts, takes as his opening example the hardback edition of Empire of the Sun. It is plain here how the very packaging of the book attempts to detach the work from the science fictional oeuvre. It is not just the cover design, the “orientalized” typography of title and author name in red on a white background (thus echoing the colors of the Japanese “Rising Sun” flag) and the delicate, impressionistic watercolor silhouettes of Japanese soldiers that figure on the lower edge of the front cover—although the point here is that both of these elements distinctly mark the text off from the garish yellow and functional typography that gives generic identity to Gollancz's usual science fiction publications. Rather, Sutherland concentrates on the cover blurb. This is his commentary on its effects:

what will most condition the reader's experience of the novel are three points, all stressed as being important in the jacket material: (1) Empire of the Sun draws on autobiographical experience and therefore carries a more complex ethical cargo than most fiction; (2) it is a “departure” from Ballard's normal (science fiction) work; (3) it is the crowing achievement of his work in fiction—the point to which all his previous novels tend. It seems clear to me that someone entering Empire of the Sun via the jacket apparatus must have a different set from the reader (particularly the reader new to Ballard) with a bald library copy.


Framing devices direct and constitute readings. That both this jacket material and the reviews cited earlier are crucial enframing devices is helpfully theorized by Gerard Genette in the concept of the paratext. For Genette, the paratext is that set of framing apparatuses which includes the framing on and around the text (peritext: titles, prefaces, blurbs) and those at more distance (epitext: reviews, interviews, conversations). Since a text cannot appear in a naked state, unadorned, this edge determines a reading, however “auxiliary” (261) it may appear.

One might expect that this welcome attentiveness to the textual edge would assist in an analysis of the insertion of a generic frame which strategically aims to distance Ballard's “autobiographies” from his science fiction. Genette, however, and in spite of arguing that the paratext is “fundamentally heteronomous” (261), suggests that this frame is “always the bearer of an authorial commentary either more or less legitimated by the author,” that it must always return as the “responsibility of the author” (262). In proposing that the multiple discourses of the paratext are fully traceable to a singular author-ity, Genette's foregrounding of the paratext is yet an apotropaic frame: it is marked only to be immediately effaced. In this, it performs according to Jacques Derrida's analysis of the parergon (the frame of the art-“work”): “the parergon is a form which has as its traditional determination not that it stands out but that it disappears … melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy” (Truth in Painting 61). It is as if the work generates its own frame, completely and exhaustively determines its own contextual enframing. It is significant in this respect that Genette cites Lejeune on autobiography to assert that the responsibility of the paratext always reverts to the author. For Lejeune it has to if the pact is to be at all functional, if the boundary between fictional oeuvre and autobiographical text is to remain in place. This is exactly the same for Gusdorf, Olney, and others, like Barrett Mandel, who asserts that autobiographies “ultimately emanate from the deeper reality of being” (50). Loesberg again: “the problems theorists attribute to writers of autobiography, the problems involved in accurately inscribing consciousness within a text, are actually problems faced by a reader of autobiography unwilling to accept textual indeterminateness as inherent in an autobiographical text” (169).

In Ballard's case, it is evident that the enframing is not purely self-generated. It is the product in part of a mechanism to detach the “autobiographies” in order to give them the textual sanction to operate as decoding machines for the oeuvre. And yet Empire and Kindness slip the fixity of the division that would render transparent the fictional code because they are, of course, autobiographical novels. This is not solely to say that the texts “fictionalize” the life and rewrite significant details (jettisoning the parents), although they do both these things. Autobiographical theory has long abandoned the measure of truth/correspondence claims. Nor is it to simply announce that Lejeune's insistence on the absolute identity of the proper name of the author and that of the central character is wrecked by the persistently undecidable difference between “J. G. Ballard” and the character Jamie/Jim. This is to miss the point. It is, rather, that Ballard's elaborately teasing play between the fictive and autobiographical exposes the operativity of the frame instated to divide science fiction and “mainstream,” popular and serious, high and low. Far from this “wavering between fact and fiction” being “trivializing” [Towers 38], this breaching foregrounds the parergonal effect that is at once so evidently in force and yet so consistently effaced. The way in which Ballard's texts transgress the textual edge that would guarantee the logic of detachment/reattachment directs attention to the “whole problematic of judicial framing and of the jurisdiction of frames” (Derrida, “Living On” 88).2

What is required is a close analysis of how the attempt to distinguish the “autobiographies” from the fictional oeuvre runs into difficulties. Detached from the science fiction, Empire and Kindness must nevertheless obliquely repeat it in order to render it autobiographically readable. The injunction is to read Ballard's oeuvre backwards: the tropicalized London landscapes of The Drowned World find their generation in the Shanghai skyline reflected on the paddy fields beyond the Lunghua camp, the detention center where Ballard, in his boyhood, was interned by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945; the obsession with dreams of flight in much of Ballard's work reverts back to childhood obsession and the “liberation” of Shanghai by the American air force, staged in Empire as an almost theatrical performance just beyond the limits of the camp. Kindness accelerates this process of identification: Ballard's brief career as an air force pilot in Canada in the 1950s ties in to Traven's obsession with nuclear war in Ballard's famous experimental short story “The Terminal Beach”; his endlessly rehearsed anecdote about his one disastrous experience with LSD equates with the bizarre visions of The Crystal World no less than the transmogrification of Shepperton (Ballard's hometown) in The Unlimited Dream Company.

The separation on which this decoding depends is problematic for reasons which center on repetition. No simple “departure” comes with Empire; “The Dead Time,” a story published in the Myths of the Near Future collection, is woven out of the ambivalent space between the official “end” of the war and the beginning of “peace” (or re-beginning of war) in the zone around Shanghai. Given the peritextual blurbs on each of Ballard's books, which always contain reference to his internment in China, this story can already be read as generated out of “autobiographical” elements. Secondly, there is the curious paragraph in The Atrocity Exhibition, the longest of the book, which is a narrative told by the disintegrating central character about his early life in Shanghai. It begins: “Two weeks after the end of World War II my parents and I left Lunghua internment camp and returned to our house in Shanghai” (72). This entry is startling not least because it is closer to the facts than the subsequent “autobiographies” (the parents are there, whereas Empire and Kindness virtually erase them). The same paragraph details an attempt to travel to Japan on the invitation of a Captain Tulloch, and the oblique sense that the Japanese prisoners in the hold of the ship are victims of an impending American atrocity. This scene is repeated in Kindness (60–61), but witnessed from the ship on which Jim leaves for England. Tulloch appears in Empire, but as one of the roving bandits who is shot attempting to raid the Olympic stadium (see chapter 39). A Tulloch is also a river steamer captain in The Drought. There is a sense here of a constant permutation of details, weaving between fiction and supposed autobiography.

This oscillation is further emphasized by the relation of Empire to the first part of Kindness, which returns to the Shanghai childhood. Although there is repetition (the same bizarre anecdote of the English driving out to survey battlefields, where, in Empire, “the rotting coffins projected from the loose earth like a chest of drawers” with “dead soldiers … as if they had fallen asleep together in a deep dream of war” [29, 32] and, in Kindness, “open coffins protruded like drawers in a ransacked wardrobe” with “dead infantrymen … as if asleep in a derelict dormitory” [25]), Kindness is far from a reprise. Of the three opening chapters, the first predates Empire, the second would need to be inserted between parts 1 and 2 of Empire (which jumps to the end of internment rather than detailing any time between arrival and the weeks before release), and the third at points openly rewrites Empire. There is, for example, a casual reference to the bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima: “Some of the prisoners even claimed to have seen the bomb-flash” (42); those prisoners, in Empire, include Jim himself, and this gesture seems to defuse the vital image-chains of apocalyptic light in Empire. Also, the Jim of Kindness only learns from reports of war crimes that “the Japanese had planned to close Lunghua and march us up-country” (55); this statement effectively negates fifty or sixty pages of the forced march in Empire, some of its most powerful sequences, among them the eventual escape from the march by lying amongst the dead, imitating them (272), a scene also in “The Dead Time.”

One should also consider the completely different emphasis of Kindness, the centrality of Jamie's relation to Peggy Gardner in the camp, entirely absent from Empire, and the key event which resonates through Kindness: the casual murder of the Chinese prisoner, tortured and asphyxiated on the derelict station platform (chapter 3). This traumatic scene seems to replace the intensity of the identification with and guilt over the youthful kamikaze pilot in Empire (which itself resonates with the fictive dialogue between Traven and the Japanese figure at the end of “The Terminal Beach”).

These interleavings and rewritings, between fiction and perceived, “autobiography,” between Empire and Kindness themselves, undermine the enframings that would separate putative decoder from code. The border of demarcation necessary to allow this model to operate is repeatedly transgressed. And in a complex effect of invagination, Ballard's work draws these “external,” parergonal questions into the very “inside” of his texts. One cannot comment on the problematic siting of Ballard without noting that the strange spatiality of border effects constitutes an abiding thematic of his work, a peculiar form of metacommentary that is an involution of his disconcerting mobility and displacement cross the key SF/mainstream border. So, for example, Blake, the pilot-messiah of Shepperton in The Unlimited Dream Company, attempts to cross the town boundary, only to find spatial distortions preventing exit: the more he reaches toward the edge, the further it recedes. He is left in a nonsite, an expansive but impossible space between: “the motorway remained as far away as ever. … At the same time, Shepperton receded behind me, and I found myself standing in an immense field” (38). Similar effects operate in “The Enormous Space,” where the narrator impulsively declares his exile to the prison of his suburban home. As food rations diminish, the spaces of the house exponentially expand, and he is reduced to lying in the kitchen to avoid losing himself in the infinite space of the hall. Contained space as infinitely expansive structures both “Report on an Unidentified Space Station” and Concrete Island.

Empire is equally obsessed with the marking of boundaries and the logical inversions and displacements that attend them. Strictly speaking, it is a mistake to view Empire as a novel about World War II; the time of the war takes place in the blank space between parts 1 and 2. Rather it is about the impossibility of determining a clear boundary between beginnings and ends, ends and re-beginnings. Early in the book, his father's joke “You might even start the war” (24) haunts Jim after his torch signals appear to produce the first barrage from the Japanese warships (43). The latter half is full of obsessional conversations attempting to find an end, a closure. As the Japanese guards leave the camp, Jim proclaims “the war has ended!”, to which the weary response comes: “Ended again, Jim? I don't think we can stand it” (231), and a few pages later: “Sure enough, the war's end proved to be short-lived” (234). On the forced march, the ending seems more pressing: “The war must end.” “It will.” “It must end soon.” “It has almost ended. Think about your mother and father, Jim. The war has ended” (edited, 255–56). If this seems definitive, Jim's immediate question opens a further border: “But … when will the next one begin …?” (256). Official endings are meaningless: “The whole of Shanghai and the surrounding countryside was locked into a zone where there was neither war nor peace, a vacuum …” (305). If Jim leaves Shanghai, certain that “the Second World War had ended,” but wondering “had World War III begun?” (332), then it is unsurprising that only the final part of Kindness, after the 1960s, can be entitled “After the War.”

Between these blurred beginnings and endings, Empire moves from one bounded zone to another. “Walls of strangeness separated everything” (50), strange not least because of the inversions that attend these zones. The charmed life of the expatriates continues until 1941 because the International Settlement is a peculiar pocket within the colonial landscape (an invaginated space that echoes the drained lagoon in The Drowned World?). Once overrun, the zone retracts to the “sealed worlds” (86) of the abandoned houses on Amherst Avenue. Jim is constantly on the wrong side of the border: initially misplaced to a Navy hospital (and within that, to a misplaced ward), he misses the roundup of European and American civilians and finds it impossible to surrender (“Jim had pondered deeply on the question of surrender, which took courage and even a certain amount of guile. How did entire armies manage it?” [110]). “Safe” as a prisoner, there is the farcical attempt to find a prison camp that will accept him: the British prisoners constantly refuse him entry, fearing disease. In Lunghua much of the time is spent strengthening the camp defenses in order to keep the Chinese out (the fence, for Jim, is dangerously permeable—he is sent out by Basie to determine the terrain beyond the edge). With peace as the threat of starvation, liberation as death, the dead providing life (Jim's mimicry), perhaps the most persistent inversion is praise for the Japanese over the dour and apathetic English, that “the Japanese, officially his enemies, offered his only protection” (60).

Borders stretch and contract, values are inverted, there are zones within zones (Jim's battle for space with the Vincents over the movable walls of their shared room [172]): this effect can be read as an oblique metathematic of the problematization of that textual edge which would divide fiction and autobiography.

If Empire directs attention to the frame, Kindness introduces difficulties into that which the frame is said to engender: the “autobiography” as decoding machine. It is directed (not least by Ballard's epitextual work) that The Kindness of Women is to be read as a retracing of the writer's life. It is strange, given Ballard's assertion that “Each of my novels [is] reflected in a section of the book” (to Pickering), that no explicit link is ever made to the fiction. These linkages are there, but they are encrypted. Reviewers have insisted on a rigorous division of the “autobiographies” from prior texts; the “bullshit apocalyptics” (Strawson) have been left behind. In terms of image, style, and the pattern of verbal repetitions between the “fiction” and the “autobiographies,” this seems an astonishing claim to make. Although the fiction itself is never mentioned, there is a kind of game of reference spotting of titles and phrases grafted from prior texts. A drunken publishing agent touring Soho for prostitutes has his action described thus: “The atrocity exhibition was more stirring than the atrocity” (146). The next page contains an embedded reference to a “drowned world” (147). Phrasal echoes continually appear: in Spain, “the peculiar geometry of these overlit apartments” where “stylized” sex acts are performed (121) immediately keys into the language of The Atrocity Exhibition, whose thesis on “the death of affect” is repeated here (158). Lykiard's likely view of Armageddon as “merely … the ultimate happening, the audience-storming last act in the theatre of cruelty” (151) echoes Nathan's view that “For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display” (Atrocity Exhibition 12). In the car crash sequences, the obsessional phrase “the just and rake of the steering wheel” is repeated from Crash (182). Relationships are repeated too: Richard Sutherland tussles for Miriam's affections by taking her flying (just as, in an internal repetition, David Hunter later takes Sally up in the air [221]), recalling any number of erotic triangles in the fiction where the narrator competes with a rogue pilot (“Low-Flying Aircraft,” “Myths of the Near Future,” even “The Dead Astronaut”).

The chapter on LSD takes repetitive phrases from The Crystal World (“carapace,” “coronation armour” [161]). In the epitextual interviews on the publication of Kindness, Ballard both asserts that “The LSD experiences are The Crystal World” (to Pickering) and that “I took LSD long after the publication of that book. Crystal was the product of a completely unaided visionary imagination” (to Thomson). The latter has long been Ballard's position in interviews; Kindness demonstrates a process of rejigging elements into “mythology,” and possibly (yet who could determine intention from these flatly contradictory statements in supposedly “extrafictive” utterances?) Ballard's quiet derailment of the attempt to bind text to life.

There is no interdiction on reading these repetitions “backwards”: these repetitions, cited in “autobiography,” decode the prior fictional texts. Equally, however, there is no interdiction on reading them “forwards,” as further fictions produced out of the obsessive elements that are repeatedly combined and recombined in the oeuvre. And yet it is clear that the decrypting reading cannot do without the encrypting reading. The detachment of the “autobiography” cannot be too radical; there must be repetitive elements to reattach, even as that reattachment threatens their separation. This problem is discussed by Ann Jefferson in her article on the disruptive “autobiographies” of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Roland Barthes. Roland Barthes, by Barthes, toys with the role of autobiography as “metatextual commentary” on prior works but then sets about destroying the authority of the meta-: “my texts are disjointed, no one of them caps any other; the latter is just a further text, the last of the series, not the ultimate in meaning: text upon text, which never illuminates anything” (120).

Does Kindness occupy the same deliberately enigmatic space as Barthes's teasing (non)autobiography? Is there no authority to the gestures of decryption offered by the text? I emphasize “decryption” because Kindness repeatedly deploys the image of the crypt. Internment becomes interment; in the constant inversions encountered here, the prison camp becomes a safe and secret crypt from the anarchy on the other side of the fence: “Far from wanting to escape from the camp, I had been trying to burrow ever more deeply into its heart” (41). This image begins a chain of tombs and wombs: a dissected medical school cadaver's womb is revelatory, “displayed like a miniature stage set” (81); Jim's decision to leave Canada, to pursue a different mythology, is dictated by the unborn child in a prostitute's womb, which had “given me my new compass” (99). What follows is a chapter devoted to the inaccessible mysteries of childbirth, Miriam's withdrawal and return, encryption and decryption (111–14). In a “secret logic” (146), Miriam's burial is overcoded with the mourning of Jacqueline Kennedy, the atrocities of the 1960s, and the Chinese dead. The book's final movement contains the unearthing of a World War II fighter pilot in the Cambridge fens and a pacifying reburial—a scene echoed by the rescue of a child entombed in a car as it slips into a river.

This set of images could offer a tempting narrative of Kindness as a coming to terms with the melancholic compulsions that have driven the fiction, the “autobiography” as accepting loss and enacting the work of mourning. Indeed, it could be seen as a working through of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok's theorization of the “cryptophoric subject.” In what Nicholas Rand terms a “general theory of psychic concealment” or a “poetics of hiding” (57), the melancholic erects a crypt in the ego in which the dead are incorporated, kept alive, in secret: “Grief that cannot be expressed builds a secret vault within the subject. In this crypt reposes … the objective counterpart of the loss” (Abraham and Torok, “Introjection” 8). What the crypt seals is an absolutely unutterable secret, and yet the living dead within the crypt may find ways of breaking the seal: “the phantom of the crypt may come to haunt the keeper of the graveyard, making strange and incomprehensible signs” (8); this phantom “works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject's own mental topography” (Abraham, “Notes” 290). That the title of the final section of Kindness, “After the War,” ambivalently references the 1960s, its televisual violence, Miriam's death, as well as the haunting remainders of World War II, might invoke a form of melancholic ventriloquizing whose “secret logic” is pacified in the closing movements of literal decrypting.

It may seem that in invoking this psychoanalytic theorization of the crypt, I am suggesting that Kindness offers a revelation of the “secret,” the encrypted “primal scene” that motors the Ballardian oeuvre. This would be the interpretive dream of ascribing to the text the role of decrypting autobiography. But given the complex, even obsessional, repetitions that mark Ballard's fiction, including the repetitions within the “autobiographies,” his work displays rather a textual anatomy of melancholic compulsion. This is to say nothing of any putative psychopathology of Ballard; what is meant is that while a reading of this thematic of decryption may gesture toward an autobiographical decoding, the patterns of textual repetitions maintain the encryption, spinning out the code rather than working to decipher it.

Both “autobiographies” mythologize, which is to say that they take elements of the same compulsively repetitive landscapes, scenarios, and images and recombine them in fictions which yet teasingly and forever undecidably play within the frame of the “autobiographical.” There is no authenticity here, no revelatory disclosure of (in Gusdorf's insistent phrase) “deeper being.” Indeed, perversely, there is a positive valorization of “inauthenticity” and mediation, such that what is most intensely felt is the most mediated, always already a restaging, a repetition. Throughout both Empire and Kindness is a sense of doubling, of an uncanny restaging that accompanies every significant event. Theatrical and cinematic analogies pervade both texts. The opening page of Empire establishes this immediately:

Jim had begun to dream of wars. At night the same silent films seemed to flicker against the wall of his bedroom in Amherst Avenue, and transformed his sleeping mind into a deserted newsreel theatre. During the winter of 1941 everyone in Shanghai was showing war films. Fragments of his dreams followed Jim around the city …


This passage has a confusing circularity. No priority can be established between the dream of war (as both passive residua and active fantasy projection: later Jim is “dreaming of the war and yet dreamed of by the war” [260]), its filmic representation, and the reality of the streets. To Jim, “the landscape now exposed in many ways resembled a panorama displayed on a cinema screen” (186), and the prisoners were “like a party of film extras under the studio spotlights” (254) (as the British visiting the battlefields are “like a group of investors visiting the stage-set of an uncompleted war film” in Kindness [25]). Shanghai had always dissolved the boundaries of the cinema: the two hundred hunchbacks hired for the opening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame ensured that “the spectacle outside the theatre far exceeded anything shown on its screen” (37). In war this effect is intensified:

He rested in the padlocked entrance to the Nanking Theatre, where Gone with the Wind had been playing for the past year in a pirated Chinese version. The partly dismantled faces of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh rose on their scaffolding above an almost life-size replica of burning Atlanta. Chinese carpenters were cutting down the panels of painted smoke that rose high into the Shanghai sky, barely distinguishable from the fires still lifting above the tenements of the Old City.

Again the interpenetration of the real and representation is profoundly disruptive. It becomes impossible to limit this figure, since it structures both texts.

Kindness ends in a mass of doubling and further multiplication—the filming of Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg. This is vertiginous, because it lends a sense of preprogramming to this figural chain. Everything is doubled and redoubled: filmed in Shepperton, Jim's hometown, the sense of a restaged suburbia, surrounded as it is by the sound stages of the film studios, becomes re-restaged; Jim's neighbors are recruited as the extras they had always been. Discovering a virtual simulacra of his childhood home just outside Shepperton and reflecting that the film team was “working to construct a more convincing reality than the original I had known as a child” (274), Jim responds that this is “uncanny.” But the irruptive doubling that the uncanny tries to name and contain cannot be stopped here: this response is itself being filmed, within the film, by a documentary crew. Later Ballard arrives in a Los Angeles with his own name emblazoned on billboards, television, and cinema marquees (the apotheosis of one central obsession of The Atrocity Exhibition). The text ends with the launch of Thor Heyerdahl's papyrus ship on the Pacific, not a replica ship, but a fiberglass replica of the original replica, which had sunk in the Atlantic. The repetitions multiply in a nauseous Baudrillardian spiral, where the effect is to lose grip of the division of original and copy. In closing Kindness by enfolding a version of Empire within it, Ballard may create a sense of completion, but this is not Gusdorf's understanding of autobiography as a “second reading of experience … truer than the first” (35); closure comes from this textual incorporation of Empire into Kindness and the literalization of this figural chain of always already restaging. And in relation to the oeuvre as a whole, the complex webs of repetition confound assertions of original (autobiography) and copy (fiction) to propose a structure “controlled by no centre, origin or end outside the chain of recurrent elements”; as J. Hillis Miller concludes: “Such a sequence is without a source outside the series” (142).

Entertaining the notion that Empire and Kindness finally unearth the crypt's secret, the primal scenes that have engendered the corpus, is thus severely problematized. Where Abraham and Torok's theory is of use, however, is in their concern with how the crypt makes itself known through the enigmatically illegible, the presence of unreadably cryptic utterances. The methodology they employ is “cryptonymy,” analysis of “words that hide.” The secret can only appear in utterances which decompose and destroy the terrifying possibility of revelation by displacement through chains of allosemic, metonymic, and synonymic diversions. I do not propose to follow the profoundly disintegrative analyses that Abraham and Torok perform—on the dream texts of the Wolf Man, for example—but rather note how the cryptic pervades the surfaces of Ballard's fiction, teasing with the ghostly traces of a potential disclosive deep strata.3

Chapter 3 of Kindness begins:

Everyone was shouting that war had ended. … Vapour trails left by the American reconnaissance planes dissolved over my head, the debris perhaps of gigantic letters spelling out an apocalyptic message.

“What do they say, Jamie?” Peggy called out to me.


It is ambiguous whether Peggy's question relates to the shouting voices or the disintegrating “text” Jamie fails to read in the sky. Debris, the shattered signs of disappearing meaning, constitute a pervasive image-chain in Ballard, his textual landscapes peppered with “gnomic and meaningless graffiti” (Drowned World 40), “cryptic anagrams” (Concrete Island 112), “covered with strange ciphers” (“Terminal Beach” 134), marked by “empty signatures in the sand” (Vermilion Sands 134), and the skies above, as in Kindness, full of “collapsing ciphers,” “calligraphic signals” (Drought 75, 25), and “the symbols of a cryptic alphabet” (“Terminal Beach” 134). Where the cryptic stands for the locus of an unreadability that precisely begins the process of reading for Abraham and Torok, where the cipher is for Karl Jaspers the fragile disclosive pointer to the Transcendent in his existential metaphysics, these signs in Ballard's work cover his landscapes with suggestibility of meaning never achieved. Yasuda, the Japanese figure in “The Terminal Beach,” ultimately suggests that Traven's search on Eniwetok, so overloaded with coded signs, is in fact for “the white leviathan, zero” (153). Cipher, indeed, is returned from its meaning as “a secret or disguised manner of writing” (OED) to its etymological root: zero, naught. And equally the cryptic gestures toward the secret contents of a crypt that remains sealed.

Once again, as in the involution of border effects and parergonality seen operating “inside” Empire, the question of decipherment, of decoding or decryption, is already encountered within the “autobiographies” first in its explicit thematization, and then in the repetition of images which, in precisely concerning unreadability, preempt the “autobiographies” as rendering transparent the cryptic code of the fiction.

Summarily, this problematization of the reading that would divide the signature between fictional and autobiographical pacts could be related to a term that Derrida introduces in his discussion of the artwork of Gerard Titus-Carmel: the cartouche. Titus-Carmel made 127 drawings of a model coffin; in a written statement, an appended cartouche, Titus-Carmel asserts that the drawings follow the model. The model “paradigm” inspires the series but is also outside it. But what, in the series, gives authority to a cartouche that is, after all, externally appended? And what prevents a reversal of this reading, seeing the model as a result of the sketches, or inserted somewhere in the series? The repetitions between Ballard's fiction and “autobiographies” ask the same questions if the latter are presented as decoding the former: such an assertion, it might be said, depends on a cartouche. Derrida's teasing out of the logic of the cartouche looks like this:

If I place the cartouche outside the work, as the metalinguistic or metaoperational truth of the work, its untouchable truth falls to ruins: it becomes external and I can, considering the inside of the work, displace or reverse the order of the series, calmly reinsert the paradigm at any point. …

If, conversely, I make room for the cartouche on the inside, or on the inside edge of a frame, it is no longer any more than a piece of the general performance, it no longer has a value of truth overbearing. … The result is the same, the narrative is reinscribed, along with the paradigm, in the series.

(Truth in Painting 220)

Hence, far from the wished-for moment of decipherment, Empire and Kindness as a kind of cartouche which would decode the series, the “autobiographies” continue the enigmatic crypticness of Ballard's work. We are left with what Derrida elsewhere calls “seriality without paradigm” (“Living On” 130), since the textual edge as guarantor of reading is repeatedly transgressed, forever undermining the authority of any appended cartouche.

In problematizing the petition for “seriousness” through attendance to repetition, I have gained my edge, my angle, from the recognition that this demand for separation derives from the insistence of hierarchical binaries between science fiction/mainstream, high/low, serious/popular. The a-topic mobility of J. G. Ballard's work across these divides does not erase them but exposes their modes of deployment. That has been the impetus behind reading Empire and Kindness as narratives precisely about their own positionality and transgressiveness. Ballard's work is not simply to be adjudicated within institutional (canonical) frameworks; rather, it inscribes the frame within the texts and proceeds to read, to render visible, their effaced mechanisms of judgment. An important “allegory of reading” is thus being offered: not the “impossibility of reading” per se (de Man 77) but the impossibility of reading without attendance to all those paratexts, cartouches, passe-partouts that would determine texts for us, if we do not first read the legends etched into the frame.


  1. For example: “In sf Ballard had a tight framework for his unnerving ideas; out on the lunatic fringe, he can only flail and shout” (Martin Amis, review of Crash, qtd. in Pringle 99).

  2. Derrida's full statement reads: “I am seeking merely to establish the necessity of this whole problematic of judicial framing and the jurisdiction of frames. This problematic, I feel, has not been explored, at least not adequately, by the institution of literary studies in the university. And there are essential reasons for that: this is an institution built on the very system of that framing.”

  3. The secret is so firmly embedded that only the most violent disintegration can recover its contours: this may desecrate the “family crypt,” but as Derrida says, the burial was never legal (see “‘Fors’” xxxiv). Analysis of a patient is obviously of a different order than literary analysis: there are a number of difficulties with this extremely disruptive method when transformed into an approach to literature. Although Esther Rashkin's essay on Henry James is quite brilliant, the violence it inflicts on textual surfaces does need to be addressed. See Rashkin.

Works Cited

Abraham, Nicolas. “Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology.” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Critical Inquiry, 13 (1987): 287–92.

Abraham, Nicolas, and Maria Torok. “Introjection—Incorporation: Mourning or Melancholy.” Trans. Nicholas Rand. Psychoanalysis in France. Ed. Serge Lebovici and Daniel Widlocher. New York: International UP, 1980. 3–16.

———. The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonomy. Trans. Nicholas Rand. Theory and History of Literature 37. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1970. Re/Search ed. San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, 1990.

———. Concrete Island. 1975. London: Panther, 1985.

———. Crash. 1973. London: Panther, 1975.

———. The Crystal World. 1966. London: Triad-Panther, 1978.

———. “The Dead Astronaut.” Low-Flying Aircraft. 1976. London: Triad-Panther, 1978. 108–21.

———. “The Dead Time.” Myths of the Near Future. 1982. London: Panther, 1984. 141–63.

———. The Drought. 1965. London: Triad/Panther, 1978.

———. The Drowned World. 1962. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1965.

———. Empire of the Sun. 1984. London: Panther, 1985.

———. “The Enormous Space.” War Fever. London: Collins, 1990. 117–29.

———. The Kindness of Women. London: HarperCollins, 1991.

———. “Low-Flying Aircraft.” Low-Flying Aircraft. 1976. London: Panther, 1978. 88–107.

———. “Myths of the Near Future.” Myths of the Near Future. 1982. London: Panther, 1984. 7–43.

———. “Report on an Unidentified Space Station.” War Fever. London: Collins, 1990. 96–101.

———. “The Terminal Beach.” The Terminal Beach. London: Gollancz, 1964. 134–55.

———. The Unlimited Dream Company. 1979. London: Panther, 1981.

———. Vermilion Sands. 1971. London: Dent, 1985.

Barber, Lynn. “Alien at Home.” Interview with J. G. Ballard. Independent on Sunday 15 Sept. 1991: 2–4.

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Blow, David. “Bloody Saturday and After.” Interview with J. G. Ballard. Waterstone's New Books Catalogue Winter 1991: 35–37.

Brigg, Peter, J. G. Ballard. Starmont Reader's Guide 26. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1985.

de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. “‘Fors’: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok.” Trans. Barbara Johnson. Abraham and Torok, Wolf Man's Magic Word xi-xlviii.

———. “Living On: Borderlines.” Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. 75–176.

———. The Truth in Painting. 1978. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Eco, Umberto. “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.” Travels in Hyperreality. Trans. William Weaver. London: Picador, 1986. 197–212.

Genette, Gerard. “Introduction to the Paratext.” New Literary History 22 (1992): 261–72.

Gusdorf, Georges. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” 1956. Trans. James Olney. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. 28–48.

Jefferson, Ann. “Autobiography as Intertext: Barthes, Saurrate, Robbe-Grillet.” Intertextuality: Theories and Practices. Ed. Michael Worton and Judith Still. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester UP, 1990. 108–29.

Kemp, Peter. “Atrocity as Art-object.” Rev. of The Kindness of Women. Times Literary Supplement 20 Sept. 1991. 22.

Kimberley, Nick. “The Sage of Shepperton.” Rev. of The Kindness of Women. New Statesman and Society 27 Sept. 1991: 52.

Laplanche, Jean, and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Institute of Psychoanalysis/Karnac Books, 1988.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Trans. Katherine Leary. Theory and History of Literature 52, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Loesberg, Jonathan. “Autobiography as Genre, Act of Consciousness, Text.” Prose Studies 4 (1981): 169–85.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Border Policing: Science Fiction and Postmodernism.” Science-Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991): 358–66.

Mandel, Barrett J. “Full of Life Now.” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. 49–72.

Miller, J. Hillis. Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982.

Murray, Charles. “Psychic Alien Aloft in Suburban Eyrie.” Rev. of The Kindness of Women. Literary Review Sept. 1991: 9–10.

Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.

Pickering, Paul. “Out of the Shelter.” Interview with J. G. Ballard. Sunday Times 22 Sept. 1991, books sec.: 5.

Pringle, David. J. G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: Hall, 1984.

Rand, Nicholas, “Psychoanalysis with Literature: An Abstract of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torck's The Shell and The Kernel.Oxford Literary Review 12.1–2 (1990): 57–62.

Rashkin, Esther. “A Spectacle of Haunting: James' The Jolly Corner.Oxford Literary Review 12.1–2 (1990): 69–100.

Stone, Albert E. “Introduction: American Autobiographies as Individual Stories and Cultural Narratives.” The American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981. 1–10.

Strawson, Galen. “Difficulties with Girls.” Rev. of The Kindness of Women. Independent on Sunday 29 Sept. 1991: 31.

Sutherland, John. “Fiction and the Erotic Cover.” Critical Quarterly 33.2 (1991): 3–18.

Thomson, Ian. “A Futurist with an Urge to Exorcise.” Interview with J. G. Ballard. Independent 21 Sept. 1991.

Towers, Robert. “Believe It or Not.” Rev. of The Kindness of Women. New York Review of Books 24 Oct. 1991: 37–38.

Webb, W. L. “An Educated Eye for Atrocity” [announcement of Ballard as winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize]. Guardian 29 Nov. 1984: 10.

Umberto Rossi (essay date March 1994)

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SOURCE: “Images from the Disaster Area: An Apocalyptic Reading of Urban Landscapes in Ballard's The Drowned World and Hello America,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, March, 1994, pp. 81–97.

[In the following essay, Rossi provides comparative analysis of The Drowned World and Hello America, focusing on Ballard's portrayal of post-apocalyptic London, New York, and Las Vegas as physical and metaphorical “Dead Cities,” and the interplay of historical and trans-historical themes in the texts.]

J. G. Ballard has dealt at least twice with the apocalyptic1 image of the Dead City. This somewhat disturbing landscape is the background of his novels The Drowned World and Hello America. The two mark different points on the axis of time—namely, 1962 and 1979, respectively—cutting a segment on the line of Ballard's evolution as a writer, but also defining a period of literary history during which many significant events took place, both inside and outside SF. Between 1962 and 1979 Ballard wrote important works such as The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and The Crystal World; SF literature “came of age” thanks to P.K. Dick, K.W. Jeter, Thomas Disch, Ursula Le Guin, and Brian Aldiss; and, as for North American literature, the postmodernist wave reached its zenith.

If the task of historians of SF and genre theorists is to trace the evolutionary lines of SF history, such a goal cannot be achieved without the kind of previous identification of landmarks that the critics as “cartographers” carry out. The topography of literature is based on those critics' analyses of individual works considered as landmarks. The comparison or superimposition of texts which may be far off in time, but presumably belong to the same continuous stratum of themes, images, and thought, can be of relevant interest. Such a comparative stratigraphy will be adumbrated in this essay, through the superimposition of The Drowned World and Hello America.2 The aim of the essay is the analysis of urban landscapes in both texts, in the search for the traces of a change in Ballard's attitude towards the image of the Dead City. Such a change suggests deeper mutations in Ballard's vision and use of symbols and time.


The drowned world is the human world, overflowed by water and jungle owing to a sudden and dramatic meteorological change. Ballard hurls us immediately into the asphyxiating atmosphere of the dead city transfigured into jungle:

Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o'clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon.

(§ 1:7)

After more than a hundred pages we discover that the city is London. The reason for this anonymity of the place lies not just in a symbolic value of the city, but in a coherent semiotic structure, a fourfold system of mutilations configuring the image of the city and shaping it throughout the novel.

The first symbolic mutilation is depopulation. London has been bereft of its inhabitants, who escaped as the temperature rose to a tropical level. The city was once the preeminently human space; now it is a watery desert (this is the very title of the Italian edition of the novel, Deserto d'acqua).

The following three symbolic mutilations derive from the first one. The city has been abandoned and forgotten. It is nameless: “had it once been Berlin, Paris or London?, Kerans asked himself” (§ 1:9).

The city has been invaded by equatorial jungle, its buildings shelter iguanas, monkeys, and tropical insects. The waters and this exotic fauna represent the gradual but inescapable surrender of the city to the wilderness, to an un-human or pre-human state: “the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea” (§2:21). The human world, symbolized by the city, is drowned because it surrendered to the organic, living, non-human element, losing the natural vs artificial opposition embodied by those walls (dykes) which were the last defense of European cities. Walls enclosed and defined, creating urban spaces by cutting across the original continuum of prehuman space; when they fell down (or were overwhelmed), the cities underwent the ultimate mutilation: they were dispossessed of time.

The tree-covered buildings emerging from its rim seemed millions of years old, thrown up out of the earth's magma by some vast natural cataclysm, embalmed in the gigantic intervals of time that had elapsed during their subsidence.


The city seems older than it actually is, but this is just a derivative effect of a deeper and intellectually more intriguing change engineered by Ballard. The human, historical time of the city, whose rhythm was stressed by clocks,3 has been definitively lost. Colonel Riggs' stubborn attempts to reactivate all the clocks on churches or buildings in the city must be seen as a sort of symbolic reanimation-therapy for the city itself. Strangman's crew sanctions the timeless status of the city with a christening ritual:

On another occasion he sent two of his men over in a skiff to the lagoon; on one of the largest buildings on the opposite bank they painted in letters thirty feet high: TIME ZONE.


The city is a time zone not just because it is a time-less zone, but also because it is now an area where a new kind of time is in force, biological rather than chronological. When we say new we simply mean a time that is different from the one we are usually accustomed to, because we soon discover that this biological time is much older than humankind:

The further down the Central Nervous System you move, from the hindbrain through the medulla into the spinal cord, you descend back into the neuronic past. For example, the junction between the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae … is the great zone of transit between the gill-breathing fish and the air-breathing amphibians with their respiratory rib-cages, the very junction where we stand now on the shores of this lagoon, between the Paleozoic and the Triassic Eras.


The new time is described by Bodkin, the biologist, who would probably like to be defined as an expert in Neuronics, “the psychology of Total Equivalents.” The fictional science sketched by Bodkin deserves some extra attention. The so-called “Total Equivalents” are “symbolic stations” stored in the spinal cord. Such stations can be reached again by consciousness thanks to climatic change: “as we move back through geophysical time so we re-enter the amniotic corridor and move back through spinal and archaeopsychic time, recollecting in our unconscious minds the landscapes of each epoch” (§3:44). The importance of landscape and symbolic equivalences is clearly underscored in this passage; it could be said that the first application of Bodkin's Psychology of Total Equivalents is The Drowned World itself. Ballard has embedded his aesthetic theory in the speech of the biologist.

These four mutilations (deprivation of humans, name, form, and time), though they almost annihilate the city by submerging it in the warm Triassic lagoons, do not herald the disappearance of humankind as a biological entity. Drowned World is a tell-tale title. Drowned does not only mean flooded, submerged, inundated, deluged but also “dead in water because unable to breathe,”4 like Phlebas the Phoenician in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, expressly quoted by Strangman (§ 10:116); indeed death-by-water is the central metaphor of The Drowned World. Sea-death is the “mildest of all deaths known to man,” as Joyce tells us in the third chapter of Ulysses;5 such a sea-death is a sea-change, a metamorphosis that is caused by submersion in the primitive element, an image originally taken from The Tempest (see Ariel's song in I.ii: “Full fathom five thy father lies …”), and probably deeply rooted in those vegetation rites described by Sir J. G. Frazer in The Golden Bough.

This is the very symbolic course taken by the main character, Kerans: his trajectory culminates (but in reverse) when he dives into the drowned planetarium.6 Here the movement against the stream of biological time (and memory) is fully accomplished. The epiphany of prehuman constellations, symbols of biological time, takes place in the planetarium, transformed by waters and algae into a great cosmic uterus:

Dimly illuminated by the small helmet lamp, the dark vault with its blurred walls cloaked with silt rose up above him like a huge velvet-upholstered womb in a surrealist nightmare. … For some reason the womblike image of the chamber was reinforced rather than diminished by the circular rows of seats, and Kerans heard the thudding in his ears uncertain whether he was listening to the dim subliminal requiem of his dreams.


At this moment Kerans experiences the sea-change at a cosmic level: the light sparkling through the cracks in the dome forms new constellations, the zodiac “that had encompassed Earth during the Triassic period” (§9:109). That sidereal vision should be completely new for Kerans, but it turns out to be familiar. New images change into prehistoric archetypes, pointing to an immemorial past. New/old constellations sanction the retrograde movement of time: “In a vast, convulsive recession of the equinoxes, a billion sidereal days had reborn themselves, re-aligned the nebulae and island universes in their original perspectives” (§9:109).

Recession is a particularly significant word. Kerans and the city underwent a change that is basically a time recession: the climate returns to Triassic conditions, reptiles dominate Earth once again, the characters' consciousness descends the spinal levels toward a pre-human age. The escape of Kerans, heading southward in the reborn primeval jungle, is the synthesis of this backward movement of consciousness:

So he left the lagoon and entered the jungle again, within a few days was completely lost, following the lagoons southward through the increasing rain and heat, attacked by alligators and giant bats, a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.

(§ 15:175)

Here is the epilogue of the metamorphosis: the new man is the last man, both alpha and omega. Once the recession has been accomplished, Kerans, the second Adam, leaves the city. His decision to do so is not at all involuntary; Kerans sabotages Strangman's attempt to drain London. It can be said, however, that it is his last voluntary decision, the last of his acts that can be explained in terms of will. Kerans says goodbye to his role of historical and cultural subject. At the end of The Drowned World the reader can only witness the ultimate divorce between humans and city, between human being as biological entity and civilization.7


There is a hiatus between The Drowned World and Hello America. Since the aim of this essay is to compare these two novels, we can jump from 1962 to 1979, forgetting what Ballard has written in those 17 years, except for the 1976 novella The Ultimate City.

Short stories and novellas have the same function for novelists that chamber music has for symphonic composers; shorter works can be seen (apart from their own spiritual value) as a workshop for images, themes, and scenes that will be developed at greater length in subsequent novels. The Ultimate City, dealing with a deserted metropolis, thus holds much interest as a testing ground for Hello America. Halloway's quest for the spiritual heritage of his father will become Wayne's westward travel; the longing for transcendence through flight animates the dumb, psychically troubled Olds as well as old Dr Fleming (they also share an almost supernatural ability to “revive” dead machines); the sombre, manic character of Stillman is a remarkable sketch of President Manson; Miranda will split in two, giving birth to Dr Anne Summers and Ursula, the militia-girl; the anonymous, deserted metropolis will turn into the desertified New York City and the Las Vegas invaded by jungle; the bicycled rescue party coming from the Garden City foreshadows the European expedition to Las Vegas. At any rate, it must be said that The Ultimate City notwithstanding its date of publication, is closer to The Drowned World than to Hello America.

The referent of the novella is a literary one. Just as T. S. Eliot's Phlebas the Phoenician is an evident model for Kerans, so it is not difficult to read The Ultimate City as an ironic, deranged re-reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The abandoned metropolis is as eerie as Prospero's island; the wise, old Shakespearean magician has been replaced by Buckmaster, the elderly hi-tech wizard/engineer (Olds calls him “warden of this island”: 42); Ariel and Caliban have technologically and psychoanalytically evolved into Olds, described as “an excited faun, an automotive Ariel” (36), and Stillman, who, like Caliban, would like to assault Buckmaster's only daughter, Miranda, a sort of fashion nymph; and the main character, young and bold Halloway, is an ironic Ferdinand of sorts, rejected by Miranda and unable to cope properly with Olds/Ariel and Stillman/Caliban.

The passage from the deluged London to the desert-like New York City has not been completed yet. The frame of reference of The Ultimate City is still to be found in English literary tradition; the transfiguration will be accomplished when literary models will be replaced by movies, cartoons, TV programs, and American history/legend, or what Ballard refers to as “pop Americana.” Such a change of fictional source will be matched by a change in the encompassing horizon of the narrative, as we will see in Hello America, the novel stemming from The Ultimate City.


The gold-paved America glowing in the first pages of Hello America is again a mythical, archetypal locus: “There's gold … gold dust everywhere! Wake up! The streets of America are paved with gold!” (1:7). This is the conquistadores' El Dorado, the Pilgrim Fathers' promised land, the emigrants' land of opportunity, wealth and plenty—it is the great empty space which served as a background for the dreams of generations of Europeans. But we are not in 1492 or 1620 or 1903; the story takes place in 2114.

Here we have another depopulated and climatically mutated land, but the cause of such a dramatic change is no longer natural. The United States were abandoned due to the total, irreparable exhaustion of energy resources at the end of the 20th century (an idea coming directly from The Ultimate City); the increase of temperature and subsequent desertification are the consequence of the damming of the Bering Straits between Siberia and Alaska to warm up the climate of Siberia. Chapter 7, entitled “The Crisis Years,” through its short fictional overview of geopolitics and world economy, clearly states that the reasons for the change are economic, ecological, political—or, in a single word, historical.

This difference between Hello America and The Drowned World is not insignificant. The overt historicity of the causes of the mutation hints at a wider and deeper change of perspective. Hello America is not a journey into the biological memory of humankind, where the reader (like Kerans) follows a trail by archetypal super- or sub-historical symbols. As we read Hello America we trek along a historical horizon, led by what we should call a historical-mythical imagery. The recession is not a retrogressive movement of evolutionary time, but a hallucinatory replica of American history. If The Drowned World celebrates the divorce of humans from their historical civilization, Hello America offers a lucid and ironic anatomy of the American Myth (but we could call it the American Dream), a myth with a historical genesis and a historical unfolding. Every dead city visited by the research team led by Captain Steiner is the embodiment of a chapter of the American legend. At the same time, it is a transmutation of events and stages in US history.

After the landing, the crew of SS Apollo finds out that the streets of New York City are not paved with gold, but covered with a thick layer of sand and rust powder. Like London in The Drowned World, New York has become wilderness, unhuman space. But the transfiguration of the American metropolis is far drearier and more permanent. New York did not marry waters and jungle, symbols of ceaseless fecundity; it turned into desert:

everyone gathered at the rail, looking at the vivid quays in front of them, at the soundless city with its great towers and abandoned streets, a million empty windows lit by the afternoon sun.

Already they could see dunes that filled the floors of these deserted canyons.


Manhattan's great streets and avenues have become canyons; the desert of the Wild West, tamed by American activity and its spirit of enterprise, has taken its revenge.

The reversal is not based on the superimposition of geological moments and landscapes, as in the Triassic London, but on the reversal of stages of American history. This is why the very heart of New York is now a piece of Death Valley:

In the centre of Times Square a giant saguaro cactus raised its thirty-foot arms into the overheated air, an imposing sentinel guarding the entrance to a desert nature reserve. Clumps of sagebrush hung from the rusting neon signs, as if the whole of Manhattan had been transformed into a set for the ultimate western. Prickly pear flourished in the second-floor windows of banks and finance houses, yucca and mesquite shaded the doorways of airline offices and travel agents.


But the ultimate sign of the death of New York is its dried-up river:

They passed the George Washington Bridge, and then paused to look out over the mile-wide channel of the Hudson River.

In front of them was an unbroken expanse of sand strewn with sage-brush, a dusty plantation of cacti and prickly pear. A century earlier the Hudson had dried up, and was now a broad uadi filled with the desert flora that had come in from New Jersey.


The river is the soul of the city, its “strong brown god,” as Eliot says in Dry Salvages; and though it has been forgotten by the “worshippers of the machine,” it animates the biological rhythms of life in the metropolis (cp the first 14 lines of Eliot's poem). But in Ballard's desertified New York, the god has gone away; the bridge, which in Dry Salvages incarnates men's mastery over river/nature,8 bestrides here just a piece of wasteland. And any overt literary reference has disappeared with the watery divinity: this crucial scene of archetypal meaning does not lead—as in The Drowned World—to a quotation of Eliot's poetry, or of any other text of the literary tradition.

Wayne's view from the bridge is the skyline of the dead, mineralized metropolis:

Beyond the Jersey shore Wayne could see the rectangular profiles of isolated buildings, their sunset facades like mesas in Monument Valley. Already they had arrived at an authentic replica of Utah or Arizona.


Four hundred years of conquest have been annihilated: America is no man's land as it never was (at the beginning of Western colonization it belonged to Indians, so it was no man's land only in a relative sense). The only exception to this coherent and deserted landscape, where all semic features of drought are meticulously applied to urban space, is the bay where the Statue of Liberty lies. Like Phlebas the Phoenician, she has drowned:

Wayne peered into the water. … Lying on her back beside the ship, like its drowned bride, was the statue of an immense reclining woman. Almost as long as the Apollo she rested on a bed of concrete blocks, the ruins of an underwater plinth. Her classical features were only a few feet below the surface. Washed by the waves, her grey face reminded Wayne of his dead mother's when he gazed into her open coffin in the asylum mortuary.


Death and transfiguration are hinted at when Wayne, the youngest member of the crew, couples the statue with his dead mother. This superimposition comes directly from the third chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus remembers his mother as if she were drowned (cp Melchiori). As in Ulysses, The Tempest, and Ballard's own The Drowned World, water seems to be the destructive and creative element and the medium of the sea-change. And here it literally holds, or engulfs, one of the most popular and prestigious symbols of America.

The value of the drowned statue will be wholly understood only at the end of the novel. For the time being, we can say that water will not have the same conclusive role it plays in The Drowned World. Wayne's initiation will not take place in the primitive element, but in Manson's simulacra show. The place of such an initiation will be reached only through a physical trip westward, recapitulating American history and American historical mythology, heading for the heart of darkness: Las Vegas.9


New York City has become a periphery of Death Valley; Las Vegas is (like London) now surrounded by a luxuriant and impenetrable subtropical jungle:

as they drove through the late afternoon towards Las Vegas, their senses had been flooded by the endless waves of heat and jungle that had followed them down from the mountains. … An immense Mato Grosso covered the west of the United States, transforming the desert states into a forest world of fast running jungle rivers.


The lot of Las Vegas is patently unlike that of New York. Its streets seem to be bursting with activity.10

A lake of neon signs formed a shimmering corona, miles of striplighting raced along the porticos of the casinos, zipped up the illuminated curtain-walling of the hotels and spilled over into the mushy cascades. … the spectacle of this sometime gambling capital seemed as unreal as an electrographic dream.

(§ 18:121)

The title of the 18th chapter comes from this passage. Most of the chapter deals with the description of the deserted but gleaming gambling capital, haunted by the grotesque electronic ghosts of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Judy Garland (§ 18:124), patrolled by a small army of well-armed Hispanic teenagers. Wayne and the survivors of the team are welcomed by the man who is dreaming the electrographic dream, President Manson. An analysis of the interrelationships between this character and Las Vegas can help us to interpret the urban scenery in the second part of Hello America.

Manson is the maker and eminence of Las Vegas. His control over the city is total: thanks to a system of TV cameras, he can see everything without leaving the Hughes Suite in the Desert Inn Hotel.11 This weird character plays with his deadly radio-controlled attack helicopters, called Love and Hate, patronizes deserted casinos to bet silver dollars at the roulette tables (§21:159), and declares himself to be the only legitimate heir of Howard Hughes, the tycoon who embodies the great tradition of American individualism and spirit of enterprise. The master of Las Vegas is no less proud of his role as President of Hughes Enterprises than he is of his office as US President.

Manson's over plan is the resurrection of the US (§ 19:137, §21:160). He wants to bring the ghostly land depicted in the first part of the novel back to its original splendor. Like Steiner, Orlowsky, and Rizzo, Manson impersonates a hero of American pop mythology, the tycoon immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novels and by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. Indeed, he has acted the part of the tycoon so well that his individuality has dissolved into his new mythical identity.12

With the help of Dr Fleming, Manson has created a colossal projection of the pop mythology he is dreaming of and living for. Every night monumental holographic images are projected in the sky of Las Vegas, symbols emanating directly from the core of the American Dream:13

It was an extraordinary light show. For an hour the whole iconic past of pop Americana moved by in parade, Superman and Donald Duck, Clark Gable and the incredible Hulk, a Coca Cola bottle twenty storeys high, the starship Enterprise like an airborne petroleum refinery, all silver pipes and cylinders, a dollar bill the size of a football field and the colour of the purest Astroturf. Last of all came a succession of Presidents, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy, immense dignified heads filling the night sky.


The holographic show occupies a somewhat central place in the structure of the novel: it is equivalent to Kerans' descent into the submerged planetarium. The view of the procession of simulacra makes Wayne yield to Manson's obsessions. In New York and during the desert trip the boy has been just an onlooker regarding the capitulation of Captain Steiner, Rizzo, and Orlowsky to the American Dream; it is only after arriving in Las Vegas that he accepts (as does Kerans in London) his initiation into the American Myth whose priest is Manson.

Manson, “recognizing in Wayne a younger version of himself” (§ 19:137), appoints the young man to be vice-president and tells him about his projects and fears:

“Bad news about the virus, Wayne, it looks like there may be outbreaks soon in Miami and in Baltimore. Thanks god the west coast has been clear of it so far …”

“The virus, sir?” I asked, “What exactly is this disease?”

I wanted to pin him down, but his eyes drifted away. “A virulent new strain, Wayne. It likes to come out on an east wind. It's been incubating for a hundred years, waiting to take over those dead old cities.”


Too late Wayne finds out that the so-called virus is the European expedition heading for Las Vegas; too late Wayne understands that the virus is just a new embodiment of the Red Menace of McCarthy's propaganda, another product of the old Puritan faith in America's virtue, menaced by an old and corrupt Europe.14

Manson is just a psychopath, escaped from Spandau psychiatric hospital.15 (Ballard hints at this when he quotes John F. Kennedy's famous words, Ich bin ein Berliner—§22:168.) He has given himself the revealing name of Charles “Satan” Manson (his connection with that famous mass-murder is reinforced at §20:147, when Manson's helicopters fly over Bel Air River). When the oxygen mask is no longer enough, Manson gets ready to launch his nuclear missiles, Cruises and Titans reloaded with the plutonium produced by the plant on Lake Mead (§19:135).

Chapter 28, “The War Room,” finally unveils the symbolic, apocalyptical signification of Las Vegas. Manson's city is the ultimate video-game,16 a projection of his obsessions, of his fetishistic adoration of American myths, primarily that of the indominability of US military power.17 TV voyeurism, military fetishism, mass-media imagery, and pure homicidal drive converge upon the core of Manson's world: the somber War Room in Caesar's Palace Casino, the telematic royal palace of this American Nero—a remake of the War Room of the Pentagon and the “ultimate video-game played with real missiles” (§28:206). Another regression takes place, but this is a psychiatric one: Manson reverts to a childish status. Such a scene parallels Kerans' race towards the reborn Sun, but with a rather negative connotation. Manson's mythical identity as last tycoon disappears, giving way to the teenager hooligan:

Looking at him, Wayne felt that after his long journey Manson had at last become young again. He was no longer in Las Vegas, and was going home in Spandau. He was the delinquent adolescent in the occupational therapy class, playing an elaborate video game with his gunships, eager to use up all the free plays in the world before the ICBM signalled the ultimate tilt.


The ultimate video-game is “the ultimate city,” the city in its last historical embodiment. Las Vegas is that ultimate city—informatic, telematic, and mass-mediaized—where the manipulation of signs, images, and languages has replaced any other “material” activity. Such an endless recycling of the images of the collective mass-unconscious is the source of Manson's electrographic dream.18 His manipulation of mass-media simulacra resembles the bored zapping of a child jumping from one TV channel to another, or a new kind of immaterial bricolage. The holographic night parade (§20:145) is a good example of such recycling of simulacra.

Ballard himself uses this method of imagery recycling. The jungle empire of Hughes Enterprises is just scenery stolen from Apocalypse Now's Cambodia and transplanted into the heart of the United States, where the mass-media bricoleur strives to revive “the purest dreams of all” (§26:197), from Disney's creatures to nuclear apocalypse. Simulacra bricolage has replaced Bodkin's archetypal aesthetics of Total Equivalents.

Manson is Las Vegas, Las Vegas is Manson. The final revelation of this apocalyptical transfiguration comes with the declaration of the state of emergency, as a reaction to the imminent arrival of a new European expedition. Manson tries to use both his weapons and the simulacra against his enemies (§26:196), in a frantic replication of the holographic show. Such an action tells us that the state of emergency is a crazed projection of Manson's state of mind, of the besieged paranoia he's been living in for years:

The whole Hughes/Manson operation had moved with one step to the edge of chaos—nervous shooting in the street, dangerous overflights by the gunships, which were now napalming the undefended drive-in theatre while the anti-aircraft guns kept up their intermittent fire at a blue and empty sky. And through all this the neon façades of the casinos glowed like so many hallucinated Niagaras.


The word “projection” is probably too simple for characterizing this scene of the novel. What we have here is a total interpenetration of inside and outside. Las Vegas may be seen as a projection of Manson's obsession, but Manson is possessed by the myth of the gambling capital. Such a reflexive relationship is virtually infinite. If we want to synthesize this character-landscape relation in a formula, we could say that in Ballard's novels landscape turns gradually but inexorably into a character. We have to admit that the time zone in The Drowned World is better characterized than Kerans, who, through his sea-change, becomes the Triassic lagoon. The same may be said for Manson.19

To summarize these considerations, we can say that urban landscape and character both dissolve into mass-media imagery. What has been lost is the line which once divided—and made comprehensible—the inside/outside semantic polarity, a loss that seems to presage the abolition of the distinction between subject and object.20


Manson proposes the last game, whose stakes are the targets of nuclear warhead missiles. Wayne has to play with Manson, and he wins all the games, except the last. The target of the Titan missile will be fixed by Manson:

“Zero pays the house, Wayne”. …

“The house? Which one, Sir? The White House?”

Manson chuckled again at this. “In a way. This house. Wayne. Las Vegas. The house always wins, in the end.”


The gambler cheats to win (Wayne discovers that the wheel was fixed, §29:217), but thereby sentences himself and his electrographic dream to death. His last action is as coherent as it is considerable. On the one hand, it is the ultimate evidence of his mental disease, of his inability to deal with the outside world. On the other hand, it is the peevish gesture of a spoiled child who destroys his carefully built sand castle so that nobody else can play with it.

Las Vegas is the ultimate telematic metropolis and Manson is its emblematic citizen until the end. It is no accident that his army is made up of teenagers.21 The model citizen of Videogame City is the eternal teenager, who can contact the world only through its image, through TV screens and computer networks. In the age of the information industry and data networks, the accomplishment of technical evolution, the process that Heidegger calls imposition [Gestell] of technics—the possibility of a total control, a total representability of the world22—is the playability of the world. The world becomes a game. In this horizon of electronic simulation, any difference between true and false, between real and fictional, between presence and representation, becomes obsolete.

A consequence of this new status of the urban environment is the abolition of time, another theme coming from The Drowned World. Las Vegas (as the drowned London) is a Time Zone, where the linear movement of time is nullified by re-presentation, by the never-ending reappearance of images. Manson, with his obsessive wish to resuscitate the American past (of Hughes Enterprises, Dean Martin shows, the Strategic Air Command), is able to stop time for a while, to freeze it in a game that can be started again and again, in an endless iteration.

The cancellation of time is what Wayne hints at when he finally gives vent to his rage: “Mr Manson, it's all been a fantasy! These dreams were dead a hundred years ago! All we've done here is build the biggest Mickey Mouse watch in the world” (§29:218). The manipulation of time is possible if you have a watch that is just a toy, a Mickey Mouse watch that you can play with. Time stops, is started, stopped again, started again, stopped, restarted, like a tape recorder, a video recorder, or a software program. Only the player decides when the game will be stopped and restarted. Only the player knows when it will end, and the end of the game is what really matters. “As Manson lay back, he seemed completely at peace for the first time, all tension gone from his puffy face …” (§29:216): Manson's satisfaction tells us that his homicidal drive has reached its ultimate goal. The electrographic dream can close with its happy ending—that is to say, with the death of both the dream and the dreamer.


The finale of Hello America will not, however, just involve the somber show of destructive power that Manson has been dreaming of. Ballard does not close his novel with such a pessimistic vision. America cannot be reduced to the “biggest Mickey Mouse watch in the world”; it is not just the manic repetition of its mythology, a gigantic Disneyland or Disneyworld. There is something that has not been explained: the drowned Statue of Liberty in the Hudson. This female figure could be the soul of America, as opposed to Manson's electrographic dream.

To know something more about this soul, we have to concentrate on Manson's opponent, Dr Fleming. That scientist is partially guilty because he helped Manson to rebuild Las Vegas and armed him with the nuclear missiles. But he has been in some way punished for his deeds: he is jailed in the Convention Center. His expiation is accomplished through a sort of symbolic restoration of right and legality.

Fleming has built a series of robots resembling all American Presidents. He assumes through this expiatory work a sort of moral authority, evinced in his being the first to warn Wayne about Manson's real identity:

Stop calling him “Mr Manson.” You might like to know that Manson is not his real name. For reasons of his own Charles adopted Manson when he was released from Spandau. … Spandau was the name of the American mental hospital in Berlin, and the alma master of your forty-fifth President …


The scientist is able to reveal Manson's past and to reconstruct American history. His robot Presidents are a resurrection of American past; but, unlike Manson, Fleming steers his reconstruction activity with a historian's seriousness and precision.23

His role as historian seems to grant Fleming a legal authority. He sends his robots to arrest Manson:

Manson … stared with unfeigned horror at the semi-circle of Presidents shuffling into position around him, a reproving board of elders. There was an aloof Jefferson, a smiling but wan Dwight Eisenhower, a matter-of-fact Truman in a hurry to get everything over, a prim Wilson and even a sweating Nixon embarrassed by their physical resemblance.


These Presidents, led by Washington, shoot Manson. They are not toys, as the psychopath hoped,24 but an execution squad that punishes the last unworthy President. But the city he has built is going to die with him. Like Kerans in The Drowned World, Wayne has to leave the city. Even the possibility of a city seems to disappear, because “The old dreams were dead, Manson and Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe belonged to the past America, to that city of antique gamblers about to be vaporized” (§32:236).

In spite of this, at the end of the novel something appears that could be viewed as an image of a city. The cloud of Fliers swarming toward California is made up of flying machines that have nothing in common with Manson's gunship helicopters and missiles:

Part sunburst and part dragonfly, the slender fuselage and transparent wings of this glass aeroplane were held together by a cat's cradle of steel so fine that only a few points of condensing moisture in the humid air marked out the crystal surfaces of their delicate geometry.


Riding these almost immaterial machines (a product of the soft technology of the Garden City in The Ultimate City), Wayne and his companions can finally accomplish their journey westward. Ballard seems to suggest that a new community could be founded, that Wayne's office could have a meaning:

Yet the dream remained, he would enter the White House one day and sit in that office. … It was the time for new dreams, worthy of a real tomorrow, the dreams of the first of the Presidents of the Sunlight Fliers.


A flying city, a City of the Sun, the New Jerusalem. Utopia—an ideal formerly embodied by the Statue of Liberty—now swarms away from the radioactive ruins of Las Vegas.

The title of the last chapter is “California Time.” This temporal reference seems to say that the computerized simultaneity of the video-game is over. We are out of the Time Zone, and the train of events could start again, maybe opening a new history. But we are not given a simple, consolatory happy ending: when the Fliers gather to shelter themselves behind Devil's Peak, the bomb has not yet exploded; the electrographic dream still exists. What we have is an open novel. The Sunlight Fliers insinuate a possibility of hope, but such hope is as fragile, immaterial, and elusive as dreams.


Hello America gives us two cities (Las Vegas and The Sunlight Fliers), two characters (President Manson and Wayne), and eventually two horizons: American history/myth and super-historical Utopia. Does the destruction of Las Vegas/Manson indicate the ultimate victory of Utopia over History? Is the execution of Manson, the Berliner, a dramatic obliteration of history, and hence a sign of Ballard's repudiation of this historically oriented narrative and a return to the archetypal imagery of his early fiction?25 Some critics could read this transcendence as a radical annihilation of history in a trans-historical dimension.26

I have to say that this interpretation does not sound very satisfactory, because a later work like Empire of the Sun (1984) goes further down in this descent into contemporary history, but belongs nonetheless to the Drowned World-Hello America stratum. Many elements of Empire can be easily catalogued using the ideas that have been analyzed in this essay. The concentration camp is itself a time zone; Shanghai is a Dead City like London, New York, and Las Vegas; the same apocalyptic value can be found in Jimmy's experiences as in Kerans' and Wayne's.

Ballard's movement from a cosmic, super-historical horizon to a fully historical one could be even seen as a sheer surrender to the inevitability of historical consciousness; we could read Hello America as a political or environmentalist apologue. In any event, a complete denial of the super-historical side would be an impoverishment of Ballard's vision; it could make us unable to come to terms with certain subsequent novels of his—The Day of Creation (1987), for example.27

What needs questioning is the idea of transcendence itself, as that category derives from theology, where it does not tend to import the total obliteration of what is transcended (contrary to what some readers of Ballard tend to imply, oversimplifying this complex concept).28 For a really comprehensive reading of Ballard's novels, one should never forget the idea of transcendence as an endless—albeit productive—dialectic. Hence, the tension between the historical horizon (20th-century history, American legend, Ballard's own life story) and the trans-historical one (archetypal symbolism, biological memory, transcendence through technology or inter-psychic space exploration) is absolutely not to be resolved once and for all.29 From the point of view of the critic as “cartographer,” such an endless dialectic is a fundamental feature of Ballard's literary land—a kind of seismic fault in its “geological” strata. It cannot be closed, only described and explored, as I have tried to do in dealing with the continuities and differences between The Drowned World and Hello America.


  1. The term “apocalyptic” has both its common meaning of “catastrophic” and the one defined by N. Frye (141–46). The English translation of the Greek word “apocalypsis” is “Revelation”—at least in regard to the final book of the New Testament. An apocalyptic image, then, is not just a catastrophic one, but also a sign of the truth.

  2. The close reading of a single text is not satisfactory. This may seem obviously true, but there are some implications that should be made explicit. A single text cannot account for itself. What really matters is the textual work, something that can be really understood only if we compare texts—thereby, as it were, superimposing them on one another—looking for differences and coincidences through the superimposition, trying to reconstruct the movement from one text to another. Structures alone cannot tell us everything; they only begin to tell us what literature is. (A deeper theoretical analysis of the problem is to be found in J. Derrida's essay “Force et Signification.”)

  3. This is the meaning of the handless clocks (or clocks with stopped hands) whose description may be found at §4:63–67. It cannot in any case be denied that these and other iconographic elements are a deliberate quotation of the paintings of Salvador Dali and other surrealistic painters (e.g., Max Ernst). The imagery of surrealist painters can be seen as a sort of epiphany of archetypes in this first phase of Ballard's treatment of symbols. In later works, such as The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), surrealist imagery will be a bridge between unconscious symbols and mass-media mythology. Laura Di Michele has carried out a more extended analysis of surrealistic imagery in Ballard's works in her essay.

  4. Such a lexical game would not be possible in Italian. Drown meaning “to submerge” must be translated with verbs such as allagare, inondare, sommergere; if drown means “die in water,” only the verb annegare can be used. These differences in semantic fields should justify the change of the title in the Italian edition. Any literal translation would be poorer than the English original.

  5. For these connections between Joyce's and Eliot's imagery, see Giorgio Melchiori's essay.

  6. There he will suffer the sea-change foreshadowed by Strangman: “I sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician. Though that's really your [i.e. Kerans'] role, isn't it?” (§10:116)

  7. We should not miss a literary undertone that can be found also in this extreme act of self-denial: Kerans last message, “All is well” (§15:175), quotes the fifth movement of T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding: “And all shall be well / And all manner of things shall be well” (lines 42–3).

  8. The reduction of the river to a technical question is the penultimate stage of the evolution of cities in Eliot's poem: “Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges” (Dry Salvages, line 5). After this “technical” phase, as Eliot says, “the brown god is almost forgotten / By the dwellers in the cities” (lines 6–7, emphasis added). This is not the proper place to question Eliot's almost, which could hint at a poetic survival of the symbolic identity of the river.

  9. Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1900), detailing the scandalous adventure of a European who renounces Western Reason to become the god of African natives, has been a privileged source of myth not only for American cinematography (notably in Apocalypse Now) but for Ballard himself. The plots of Ballard's other novels can be seen as pivoted upon a similar act of abdication. The Crystal World (1966) is a fine specimen of this trend.

  10. Such a scene is obviously taken from The Ultimate City: “arc-lights blazed around the square. … The façades of the buildings around the square erupted into a cataract of neon” (64).

  11. Manson's eyes also control the desert: “we have a few robot cameras on the other side of the Rockies, with trip-zooms that focus on everything that moves” (§19:133). Manson's power over the space (over America) seems to coincide with his faculty of seeing.

  12. Obviously this is no “personal” identification. Manson does not become Howard Hughes, but Hughes' mass-media myth, what we could as well call Hughes' simulacrum (see J. Baudrillard).

  13. As for the semiological status of these images, see Baudrillard's notion of “the SF of this era of cybernetics and hyperreality” as being “like a gigantic hologram in three dimensions, where fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past” (310). Though Baudrillard does not deal with Hello America, he nonetheless considers Ballard as the foremost representative of a new SF—whose best specimen is Crash (1973)—that is not tied to the operative (images of unlimited growth based on industrial production) but instead relies on the operational, on total operationality of images, on informatic economics.

  14. Here Ballard keenly exploits the old metaphors of evil as disease, transforming moral purity in health. Manson's obsession with hygiene (he often—Howard Hughes-like—wears an oxygen mask to defend himself from pollution) is connected with his military defense paranoia (being both pure homicidal drive and fear of the outside world).

  15. Another ironic historical reference: Spandau is the place where Rudolf Hess, the last survivor of the Nuremberg Trials, was imprisoned. Also Manson's speech about “Fortress USA” is a remarkable recreation of Hitler's dream of “Festung Europa” (§21:162).

  16. A first hint of the true nature of Hughes Enterprises can be found in the description of the hunting massacre (§20:150): the butchering of wild animals is a sort of three-dimensional video-game, and Manson's frenzy is not so different from that of a teenage video-game addict.

  17. There are traces of Manson's military fetishism throughout the novel, but the passage at §21:162 is particularly interesting. Manson begins to ramble about strategic weapons when Wayne tries to push him to cope with the external world. The demented President tries to protect himself—or rather, his obsessions—with the use of nuclear weapons. The refusal to deal with the outside world is a clear sign of mental illness. Ballard hints at Manson's madness in many passages, using traces that can be interpreted using two different codes, the political and the psychiatric. Wayne's mistakes in deciphering speeches and actions of the President are caused by improper use of the first code; in this phase Wayne accepts his role as Vice-President and Manson's heir. The story comes to an end when Wayne is at last able to understand correctly Manson's deeds as symptoms (§30:222), replacing “political” perceptiveness with medical semiotics; it is then that Wayne realizes that he has been—like Manson—just another “Graduate of Spandau” (§24:179), another psychopath.

  18. It is true that the night landscape of American cities is right now the electrographic dream; Manson can be considered as an antiquarian of mass civilization imagery. American urban landscape and pop imagery are associated by a reeling interaction, and almost merge. This process is very important for a non-SF novel such as Gore Vidal's Duluth (1983); in the SF field, the interconnection (or identification) of landscape and mass-media is the core of William Gibson's novels and short stories.

  19. We have anyway to remember that the alma mater he finally goes back to is not a Triassic lagoon; it is the mental hospital of Spandau, a historical place, haunted by the ghosts of war criminals. The roles acted by Manson are not pre-human: Charles “Satan” Manson, Howard Hughes, and Richard Nixon are historical characters or historical myths.

  20. In these respects Ballard has arguably influenced subsequent SF, and especially cyberpunk. That, however, is a subject for an essay in itself.

  21. Paco is a faithful servant of Manson until the end. Here is his first description of the leader of Manson's army: “He was at least eighteen, but he seemed far younger than Wayne” (§18:128, emphasis added).

  22. See Heidegger's “La questione …” Heidegger recognized the technical possibility of an image of the Earth as marking a turning point in humankind's history, as we can see in this passage from his 1976 interview for Der Spiegel: “Technics tears away and roots out Man from Earth more and more. I don't know if this scares you: in any event I have been terrified when I have seen the photographs sent to Earth from the Moon. We don't need the atom bomb any more: mankind's eradication is already here. We have only purely technical conditions. We live today on what is no more an Earth” (206). “No more an Earth”—that is to say, what is left of Earth in a mass-media age: its image.

  23. Fleming's creatures have a textual purpose inasmuch as they quote speeches of dead Presidents (§22:168); the scientist drills them in order to reproduce those historical speeches exactly (§23:172). If the task of historians is to be faithful to the past, Fleming performs it also with the ironic hints at recent American history in Manson's “trial”: the robot Presidents have been assembled in the Convention Center; “Vice-President” Wayne replaces the dead President as did Truman and Lyndon Johnson; and Manson resembles Nixon (§19:135), with respect to the matter of impeachment.

  24. At first Manson is pleased by the view of the robots: “It's a last salute. I'm touched … really moved” (§30:225).

  25. Flight has a very important role in Ballard's imagery, as we can see in The Unlimited Dream Company (1976), The Ultimate City, and The Empire of the Sun.

  26. Such a death of history may well be the one optimistically heralded not just by postmodernism, but by a certain American tradition. See, for instance, George Slusser's essay “History, Historicity, Story.”

  27. In this novel we meet again one of Ballard's archetypal symbols, the river, with a crudely realistic background of present-day Africa.

  28. Mystical undertones in the works of Ballard have been exhaustively traced by W. Warren Wagar. Wagar, however, seems to dissociate the idea of transcendence from its religious roots—which, in my opinion, slightly diminishes his otherwise compelling analysis. Besides, his optimistic conclusions do not seem to stem logically from his reading of Ballard.

  29. Such a position would probably go beyond Ballard's intentions—or at least beyond those expressed in his ironic “Response …”. In any case, his narrative does not seem to be so “innocent and naive.”

Works Cited

Ballard, James. The Drowned World. 1962; London: Dent, 1983.

———. Hello America. 1981; rpt. London: Granada, 1983.

———. “A Response to the Invitation to Respond.” SFS 18:329, #55 (Nov. 1991).

———. The Ultimate City. Low Flying Aircraft. By Ballard. 1976; rpt. London: Granada, 1978, 7–87

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” SFS 18:309–20, #55 (Nov. 1991).

Derrida, Jacques. “Force et signification.” L'écriture et la différence. By Derrida. Paris, 1967. 9–49.

Di Michele, Laura. “J. G. Ballard: miti di un futuro anteriore.” Pagetti, 225–47.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Complete Poems and Plays. 1909–1950. NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, 1957.

Heidegger, Martin. “La questione della tecnica” [“Die Frage nach der Technik”]. Saggi e discorsi [Vorträge und Aufsätze]. By Heidegger. Milan, 1979. 5–27.

———. “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.” Der Spiegel 23:193–219, May 31, 1976.

Melchiori, Giorgio. “The Waste Land and Ulysses.The Tightrope Walkers: Studies of Mannerism in Modern English Literature. London, 1956. 87–106.

Pagetti, Carlo, ed. Cronache del futuro: Atti del convegno su fantascienza e immaginario scientifico nel romanzo inglese contemporaneo. Bari, 1992.

Slusser, George. “History, Historicity, Story.” SFS 15:187–212, #45 (July 1988).

Wagar, W. Warren. “J. G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia.” SFS 18: 53–70, #53 (March 1991).

Roger Luckhurst (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: “Repetition and Unreadability: J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 292–304.

[In the following essay, Luckhurst analyses Ballard's “signature” style, as exemplified in the stories of Vermilion Sands. According to Luckhurst, Ballard “seduces” the reader with his distinct idiom, his use of incongruous similes, and textual repetitions which, taken together, comprise the indefinable essence of his work.]

I will begin with a narrative of seduction. Martin Amis, in his long career of reviewing Ballard, began by condemning the “vicious nonsense” of Crash and has always sniped at Ballard's sham portentousness. In a television discussion, he dismissed Ballard's claim that science fiction is the literature of the twentieth century by pointing out that SF, for all its self-promotion, has remained “a minority pursuit—like train-spotting” (a very English insult). By the time he reviewed The Day of Creation, however, this dismissal had modulated: “Ballard's novel is occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous. … You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then sit around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.” In the preface to Einstein's Monsters, Amis even had to admit that he had begun to write like Ballard.

This trajectory displays a slow seduction of one writer by another. Amis remains irritated, but there is some haunting remainder that survives ridicule: a remainder that is irritating precisely because it is nameless, inarticulable. Something remains, and that something, that irreducible element, does its work of seduction.

Criticism of Ballard seems driven by this mysterious remainder, is obsessed with trying to uncover its secret lure. In his monograph on Ballard, David Pringle lists a series of objects that he considers “unforgettably ‘Ballardian’”: abandoned airfields, sand dunes, half-submerged buildings, advertising hoardings, drained swimming pools. The list continues on and on, carried away by the pleasure of nominalizing the Ballardian. Pringle then asks, “What do all these heterogeneous properties have in common? They are Ballardian—any reader with more than a passing acquaintance with his work will vouch for that—but what do they mean, and are they interconnected in more than a purely private and autobiographical manner?” (15–16). Harlan Ellison also states: “Ballard … seems to me to write peculiarly Ballardian stories—tales difficult to pin down as to one style or one theme or one approach but all very personally trademarked Ballard” (458). In seeking the essence, tautology covers the confusion: Ballard writes Ballardian texts. Both of these statements hint, in those phrases “purely private and autobiographical” and “very personally trademarked,” at a fear of the reader being forever “outside” the text, never being allowed access to the private iconography that drives them. If this is blocked, the other route is into the texts themselves, grouping them, following the structures of repetition of theme, image, and character. However, a similar difficulty is affected here, for to analyze the style is, in Ellison's words, like looking at “the most exquisite Wyeth landscape” that, “when examined more and more minutely begins to resemble pointillism, and finally nothing but a series of disconnected dots” (459).

In seeking the seductive singularity of Ballard's texts, the two routes offered end at a blank. For Pringle and Ellison, to project meaning “outside” the text into the signing body is to close it off from reading, but to locate meaning in the innermost recess of the text's idiom is to transform it into private language, one that is equally unavailable for reading.

The formulation of this impasse owes much to the work of Derrida on the signature. Derrida discerns two principal modalities. The first is the signature as appended signal of agreement and authentication that leaves the trace of the signatory on the performative staging of the proper name. The second is idiom, understood as that textual trait “coming along to sign all by itself, before even the undersigning of the proper name” (Truth in Painting, 193).

The signature as authenticating mark holds a powerful cultural force, and no less so than in literature. Editorial institutions (both academies and publishing houses) still tend to value the final, authentic, “signed” text. One way of stabilizing texts, eradicating textual anomalies or ambiguities, is by reverting to the authority of the author's signature. This authority, however, rests on a siting of the signature that Derrida rigorously interrogates, for what is the status of the signature as an appendage, where does it take place?

First case: the signature belongs to the inside of that (picture, relievo, discourse and so on) which it is presumed to sign. It is in the text, no longer signs, operates as an effect within the object, has its part to play within that which it claims to appropriate to itself or lead back to its origin. Filiation is lost. The signature deducts itself.

Second case: the signature holds itself, as is generally believed, outside the text. It emancipates as well the product, that can get along without the signature, from the name of the father or the mother which it no longer needs in order to function. The filiation again gives itself up, is still betrayed by what remarks it.

(Glas 4)

If the signature is part of the literary text, inside it, it no longer has authority, the possible resting point for determining meaning. If it lies outside the text, then its authority over the text is not final, since the text can survive, get on very well, without it.

Where does Ballard's signature take place? Consider Colin Greenland's words: “J. G. Ballard is unmistakable. His habit of introducing a story with a tableau, meticulous and stylized, proclaims his hand no less distinctly than a name signed in the bottom right-hand corner of a canvas or flashed in capitals across a screen” (92). If Greenland fortuitously elides distinctive idiomatic trait with appended signature, confusing inside and outside in this description, this is nothing compared to the transgression of textual edges that occurs throughout the oeuvre. While some critics sighed with relief that Ballard's “autobiographies” had finally arrived to offer “a framework for comprehending much that is disturbing in his writing” (Murray 9), others objected to the “trivializing” of Ballard's “wavering between fact and fiction” (Towers 38), confusing authorial Ballard with an indeterminately fictive Jamie. Inside and outside are also radically blurred with the insertion of a “Ballard” in Crash. Although a fairly standard device, this has resulted in a long-running debate, initiated in part by the uncertain place of the signature. Ballard's famous introduction claiming its admonitory status has been consistently cited in exchanges over the morality of the text,1 but this ignores both his subsequent retraction of the introduction and the volatilizing of his own relation to its intention: it is a book written with “terminal irony, where not even the writer knows where he stands.”2

To fix meaning by leading it out of the text into the final, authoritative signature is thus blocked by the strategies of the texts themselves. To reverse the direction, seek that seductive singularity in idiom, is equally fraught with problems. Idiom is defined through a nexus of terms that invokes a contradiction. The idiom must be unique, absolutely singular. But in order to be recognized as such, it must be repeatable. Fredric Jameson evinces this in the dictum that a style is inimitable exactly to the extent that it is imitable. Anyone who reads Ballard over a number of texts comes to recognize patterns of repetitions, but to realize that certain stories obsessively rewrite the same scenario is not to come to any understanding, either in one element of the series or across it. This repetition appears to be merely additive. Repetitions, while being read, are also, in some senses, unreadable in that they give no access to interpretation but merely reinforce the enigma. And curiously, the remarking of obsessional repetition itself becomes obsessive, and the reader becomes snared in the structures of repetition. Obsessive texts uncomfortably interpellate the reader as obsessional, in the grip of a compulsion that is incomprehensible; witness Amis's irritation at being haunted by the inarticulable remainder.

Reading the Ballardian text is thus to be exposed to a gamut of unsettling textual effects. To be unsettled is to be driven to attempts to neutralize disturbance. And yet such effects irrupt precisely at the junctures where neutralization could occur: the signature, the external stamp of authority and terminus for intention, transgresses the textual edge, moves between the inside and the outside; idiom, the textual trait, opens nothing but the condition of its own recognizability: repetition.

In what follows, I want to concentrate on Vermilion Sands as a text that, dazzlingly and maddeningly, intensifies the problematic of the idiomatic trait. For on the macro level this text exponentially increases the repetitions that are a mark of the oeuvre as a whole: the nine stories virtually repeat the same plot, a plot that is itself about repetition compulsion. And on the micro level, Vermilion Sands has perhaps the most extreme concentration of Ballard's distinctive idiomatic tic: his use and abuse of the simile.

In idiom, the trait is there like “a name signed in the bottom right-hand corner of a canvas” (Greenland 92). The signature is within the textual frame, no external hand is required to sign it. In Vermilion Sands “Studio 5, The Stars” details a literature generated purely from computer randomizations of a set of permutations: “Fifty years ago a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either.” The speaker is “one of those people who believed that literature was in essence both unreadable and unwritable” (169). The stories of Vermilion Sands, with their complex repetitions, appear to be almost like permutations of a single master-plot, a potentially open and extendable series. “Studio 5, The Stars” might appear to break the chain, to reinscribe the myths of inspiration and expressivity (Aurora acting out the legend of Melander and Corydon), but smashing the computers to return to expressive writing is itself a repetition of the myth of Melander, the Muse who demands sacrifice to reinvigorate poetry. This is no less programmed than the computers.

Vermilion Sands is a sequence of nine stories linked by setting (an “overlit desert resort as an exotic suburb of my mind” [7]) and a repeated plot structure. Introduced as a retrospective narration of events, the narrator, differently named each time, details an entanglement with a desirable but ultimately murderous femme fatale. Internally, each story is also, very precisely, about repetition compulsion: the narrators or other male characters find themselves, too late, inserted into a sequence of murderous events that has already been enacted and may well be reenacted again. The narrators discover that they are only one male in an extended series, objects apparently of a female compulsion.

The women are standardly enigmatic, beautiful, and quite insane. Their names are chosen for their powerful iconic resonance: Leonora Chanel (invoking Coco Chanel and Leonora Carrington, surrealist painter, chronicler of her own mental breakdown, and Max Ernst's lover), Emerelda Garland (an obvious reference to the fated Judy), Hope Cunard (recalling modernist writer, patron, and rive gauche iconoclast, Nancy Cunard), Raine Channing (perhaps a reference to another surrealist painter, Dorothea Tanning, wife of Tanguy, who committed suicide soon after his death?), Gloria Tremayne (the atmosphere of “Stellavista,” the final story, clearly makes this a reference to Gloria Swanson's role as the egomaniacal Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard). Nearly all are possessed of a charismatic infamy resulting from deaths in the past: Leonora Chanel lives in the wake of the “mysterious” death of her husband, “officially described as suicide” (18); Emerelda Garland is married to Van Stratten, whose mother died “in circumstances of some mystery” (51); Lorraine Drexel had a brief affair with a pop singer “later killed in a car crash” (112); Raine Channing survives after “the death of her confidant and impresario” (132); Howard Talbot hires the house where Gloria Tremayne was alleged to have shot her husband (194).

The stories concern compulsion, but the question is whose compulsions are to be dealt with. In many ways, these narratives are case histories, but ones that have failed to draw the lesson from Freud's conclusion to the incomplete analysis of Dora: “I did not succeed in mastering the transference in good time” (160). In Freud's later “Papers on Technique” repetition, in the sense of acting out, reenaction, is the enemy of the analysis, that process of remembering and working through. “This struggle between the doctor and patient, … between understanding and seeking to act, is played out exclusively in the phenomena of transference” (“Dynamics” 108). Failing to control this transference, the doctor may be inserted “into one of the psychical ‘series' which the patient has already formed” (“Dora” 157). In relating this to the narratives of Vermilion Sands, it is worth recalling Freud's textual figure: “What are transferences? They are the new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are made conscious during the process of the analysis” (“Dynamics” 100).

In this sense, the narrators' psychoanalytic explanations come too late, cannot control the compulsion, as in “The Screen Game” or “Stellavista.” What is peculiar, however, is that while the (male) narration is in effect a remembering to counter (female) repetition, this remembrance is forgotten each time a story closes, and each narrator must begin again, repeat the remembering. Whose compulsion, then, is it? The women repeat trauma, but the narrators are also compulsive.

The narrators' attempts to master female compulsion come clumsily; they court hilarity. Even if their explanations are to be taken seriously, Ballard's later story, “A Host of Furious Fancies,” may serve as a warning. The deliciously named Dr. Charcot steps in to authoritatively “solve” the “Cinderella Complex” of an orphaned heiress by repeating the father's incestuous relationship with her. This jargonistically rationalized account, however, is finally revealed as the fantasy of a decrepit old man utterly controlled by his daughter. The authority of the “explanation” is ruthlessly undercut, enmeshed as it is in the trap of countertransference.

Further, the “explanations” fail to grasp the extent of the repetition. In “Say Goodbye to the Wind,” Samson (an iconic name, suggesting the castrating threat of the feminine?) is enraptured by a somnambulating woman, and discovering her name, he recalls the death of Gavin Kaiser. He becomes unwittingly transferred into repeating Kaiser's role, although he escapes death. Samson proposes that “She had come back to Lagoon West to make a beginning, and instead found that events repeated themselves, trapping her into this grim recapitulation of Kaiser's death” (143). The reason for Kaiser's paroxysm and death remains unclear: “What he saw, God knows, but it killed him” (142). There is in fact nothing to suggest Kaiser is not himself repeating a prior death, much as Samson nearly repeats his: the sequence is open to extension. To be strictly psychoanalytic, this must be the case: trauma must presuppose two events, the first prepubertal, a sexual event lying unrecognized until a second, postpubertal event, however obliquely or associatively, sparks off and reinscribes the first as sexually traumatic. However, Freud warns that “We must not expect to meet with a single traumatic memory and a single pathogenic idea as its nucleus: we must be prepared for successions of partial traumas and concatenations of pathogenic trains of thought” (“Psychotherapy” 373). Since this lies beyond the purview of the text and the purblind narrators, the repetition cannot be limited or mastered.

Thus far I have kept back the science fictional element of these stories. In Darko Suvin's term, each story introduces a novum: Vermilion Sands is populated by plants that sing arias, sonic sculptures, psychotropic houses, photosensitive canvases and bio-fabrics, all of which respond to emotional surrounds. These function as sites on which trauma is written. They become, in effect, externalizations of the psyche that bear the marks of trauma that will be repeated by the next owner. Initially the women seem to have a calming effect. (There is repetition here: as Jane Cyclacides enters the shop full of discordantly screeching plants, they die down: “They must like you” [35]: when Raine enters the clothes shop full of neurotically oversensitive bio-fabrics, they are soothed: “You've calmed everything down. … They must like you” [133].) Denouements, however, tend to revolve around the betrayal of their murderous pasts in the evidences left as writing traces on these objects. This version of trauma as writing means that compulsion can continue in the absence of its actors. In “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” this continues beyond death, with Talbot and his wife repeating the violence between Miles Vanden Starr and Gloria Tremayne. The wife frozen out, Talbot enters into a sole relation, playing Miles to the convulsing, vaginal house. Once the scene of death is recapitulated, however, Talbot stays on. The story (and the text) ends: “I know that I shall have to switch the house on again” (208).

To end on “again” is to disrupt the security of closure; to open with “again” (as do “The Singing Statues” and “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!”) is to undercut by implying prior, inaccessible repetitions.

To say that repetition is a mark of recognition of a signature in the text before the text is undersigned is perhaps not to say anything until what is repeated is considered. However, textual repetition, abstractly and in itself, effectively cuts out the paratextual apparatus, the framing device through which a text is attached to a name, a genre (Genette). Entering the Ballardian oeuvre is like entering a chain whose seriality severs any visibility of beginning or end. This is repetition understood not as secondary, copying a prior original, but as primary and instituting. Each text resonates not in itself but in the overdetermined tangle of lines of repetitive elements. This is a textual event: just as the male narrators of Vermilion Sand cannot control or bring to termination the sequence, quite beside explaining what instituted it, the reader can immediately recognize, by textual elements, a Ballardian fiction but can do little to articulate its power, its core of unreadability.

So far I have analyzed the “empty” form of repetition—repetition itself—in Vermilion Sands. But repetition is also, of course, the condition of recognizability of specific idiomatic traits. The text is repetitive not only at the level of plot and plot-mechanism (compulsion), but it is also the most extreme example of Ballard's overloading of his texts with abstruse figurations. Similes, in particular, pile up on page after page with startling frequency.

I want to keep for the moment with that naive view of figuration—of rhetoric as a whole—as an addition, as the detachable ornament to a delimitable “literal” language. Ballard's “bijou adjectives” (Thomson) have been criticized as “descriptive encrustations” (Strawson) that mar his work. This accords with the still largely pejorative sense of rhetoric: writings that are too “rhetorical” equate with bad writing. “Bijou” is in fact the perfect adjective for Vermilion Sands, because the text is indeed studded with “ornamental” tropes that precisely refer to jewels. Leonora Chanel is persistently described as having “jeweled eyes” (16, 17, 18, 19); Hope Cunard has “opal hair” (100, 103) and “opal hair, like antique silver” (93); in “Venus Smiles,” Carol's eyes flash “like diamonds,” and there is Lorraine Drexel's “diamond heel” (114); Raine Channing has “jeweled hands” (127) and carries “a sonic jewel like a crystal rose” (134); Emerelda already names a jewel and has her army of jeweled insects.

Rhetoric is classically coded as feminine. The allegorical figure of Rhetoric is presented as “a beautiful woman, her garments. … embellished with all the figures, she carries the weapons intended to wound her adversaries”; these figures were also represented as jewels (Barthes 32). This allegory combines both the figural and the suasive elements of rhetoric, what Derrida in Spurs terms “style” and “stylus” (meaning stiletto or dagger). If clusters of figures tend to proliferate around the women of Vermilion Sands in an attempt to catch their truth, the veil of rhetoric is poisonous: “Say Goodbye to the Wind,” in which Raine presents to Samson the bio-fabric suit in which Kaiser died, recalls the myth of Deianira, who gives the coat poisoned by Nessus's blood to Hercules. The “Muses” of Vermilion Sands may give a language that could return the narrators from a literature “both unreadable and unwritable” (169), but that language, as will be seen, is also more than occasionally rendered entirely unreadable.

Rhetoric, of course, has been reestablished in literary studies, not least by Paul de Man. It is no longer naively perceived as an addition to a zero-degree “literal” language: the difficulty of dividing figural and literal levels is exactly the question. Much work can be found on metaphor, but there is little on simile. In studies of Ballard, only Colin Greenland has really attempted to determine how Ballard uses the simile, and his comments are excellent. Greenland discovers a surrealist strategy smuggled into an apparently simple device of explicit analogy: the forcing of a conjunction in a “like” of terms that are entirely unlike. These “pseudo-similes” offer a “comparison which mystifies instead of elucidating”; “there is no discoverable parity between terms,” and Greenland offers a prime example from “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island”: “Laing had not been particularly interested in Melville, this ex-pilot who had turned up here impulsively in his expensive car and was now prowling relentlessly around the solarium as if hunting for a chromium rat” (in Greenland 103). Greenland lets this example speak for itself, but it is possible to analyze its combination of, in effect, two devices. If the first is a simile that fails to elucidate a comparison, the comparing term “chromium rat” can only be read as hypallage—but from where is this epithet transferred? The nearest candidate is the “expensive car,” but this is on the other side of the comparison. Effectively, an initially incomprehensible simile can only have a meaning offered by negating the simile. This is what Greenland means when the device “keeps the relation but blurs the distinction, so that the two halves of the simile, the actual and the virtual, can be swapped over” (103).

Such abuse of tropes and tropes of abuse are consistently encountered in Vermilion Sands. Indeed, finding oneself in the role of the “close reader” can tempt madness, for the closer the text is read the more unreadable it gets, the more bemusing it is that any meaning can “leak” from its dense weave. Take, for example, the description of landscape in the opening pages of “The Screen Game.” The mesas rise “like the painted cones of a volcano jungle” (painted?), the reefs are “like the tortured demons of medieval cathedrals,” and towers of obsidian are “like stone gallows” (47). Following that, “The surrounding peaks and spires shut out the desert plain, and the only sounds were the echoes of the engine growling among the hills and the piercing cry of the sand-rays over the open mouths of the reefs like hieratic birds” (48).

The simile, “like hieratic birds,” refers back to the cry of the sand-rays, but this “piercing cry” is confused with the “open mouths” of the reefs. The analogical axis is confused by the metonymic contiguity of “cry” to “mouths.” And in what sense can birds be “hieratic”? Does this move back over the sentence as a kind of metatextual comment, “hieratic” in the sense of “the cursive form of hieroglyphs,” declaring its “private language”? The passage through the landscape continues, following the road (“Like a petrified snake” [48]) into a “zone of illusion” where “fragments of light haze hung over the dunes like untethered clouds” (48). How could a cloud ever be tethered? A few pages later: “we barely noticed the strange landscape we were crossing, the great gargoyles of red basalt that uncoiled themselves into the air like the spires of demented cathedrals” (52). Gargoyles “uncoil” simply because of the euphony of the words, and “gargoyles like spires” imposes an analogy between the terms where there evidently is none; gargoyles may be a synecdoche for spires, but they cannot be compared. The “strange landscape” is more to do with the strangeness of the tropes used to describe it; de Man is right to suggest that “there seems to be no limit to what tropes can get away with” (62).

These knots in the text can be found throughout Vermilion Sands. Is it simply bad writing? Is “eyes crossed by disappointment” (93) knowing or inept? When it comes to simile, the issue seems prejudged; in recent discussions simile is posited as the “low” equivalent of the heights of metaphor. Culler states, “It is not exactly easy to explain why the idea of a conference on metaphor seems perfectly natural, while the idea of a conference on simile seems distinctly bizarre and unlikely” (188). This bars simile from consideration as a form of metaphor, which is certainly how de Man (whose analysis Culler is partly glossing) sees it in his reading of Proust. Both work by analogy but cannot be simply related: Davidson criticizes the view of metaphor as “elliptical simile.” which argues that any metaphor can be translated back into simile and reveals, through the “like,” the terms of comparison. Metaphor is more complex than the “trivial” analogies of simile.

In what follows—in attempting to say what the Ballardian simile is like—I am aware of Culler's warning: “One can never construct a position outside tropology from which to view it; one's terms are always caught up in the processes they attempt to describe” (209). Flatness is an apt, metaphorical term to describe the prose. The landscapes of Vermilion Sands are horizontal: wide expanses of sand, infinitely receding horizons. Flatness also has a pejorative sense, and this has been a consistent criticism of the prose style (of The Kindness of Women it was said the writing was “slow, stately, curiously flat” [Foster]). Flatness seems to be induced by the rhetorical devices used. There is, in the multiple taxonomies of rhetoric, a distinction sometimes made between figures and tropes. Figures keep the sense of the words, but work effects by distribution, by syntactical devices (anaphora, parallelism, and so on). Tropes alter the meaning of a word or phrase from is “proper” meaning. I want to suggest that simile, as an analogical trope, is used here figurally. In Jakobson's opposition, metaphor is vertical while metonymy is flat, horizontal. When a metaphor is read, the reader has to “make a leap” to discover the basis of comparison; in simile, the terms are laid out, and the reader is lulled by the connecting “like.” The grammatical presence of “like” or “as” distributes the terms on either side of it, visibly, in conventionalized form. So pervasive is the simile in Vermilion Sands that it becomes hypnotic; the reader is flattened by its repetition. Lulled by the distributive function of the “like,” the abuse of its role, the dissimilarity or negation of the analogy, is all the more jolting.

Simile is not the sole device by which the awkwardness of the text is found. It would be necessary to consider the “clumsy” clause constructions, the clashing of different registers, from hard science to soft conventionalized “poeticisms,” and the repetitive vocabulary. But this is to say nothing of another idiomatic chain that, in keeping with the abyssal slides of the text into unreadability, also constantly recurs. If the “signature” and “idiom” are two problematically distinct forms, then Ballard's recourse to the metaphor of the signature effectively elides them: “hieroglyphic shadows, signatures of all the strange ciphers of the desert sea,” “signatures of a separate subject,” “the tomb that enshrined the very signatures of her soul” (96, 100, 196). Figures of writing pervade the text from the inscriptions in the cloud at Coral D to the writing of trauma that operates throughout. Indeed, this is pervasive throughout the oeuvre—one marked by a bizarre semiotics of hieroglyphs and ciphers.

What holds these together are their encryption, their status as hidden languages, closed and unreadable but to the initiated. To discover their insistence in Vermilion Sands is to realize that they refold the text back on itself. Is it possible that so persistent a group of figures, one idiomatic trait, itself concerns the unreadability of idiom, a kind of idiom of idiom? It is not the case that these idiomatic figures of writing are simply metafictional moments of self-reflexivity. Rather, attention to their enfolding of the unreadable into the text operates according to de Man's proposal that “any narrative is primarily the allegory of its own reading” and that “the allegory of reading narrates the impossibility of reading” (76–77).

These strange and unsettling effects concern the signature. To further the analysis, I now turn to the countersignature. Derrida proposes that “the signature becomes effective—performed and performing—not at the moment it apparently takes place, but only later, when ears will have managed to receive the message. In some way the signature will take place on the addressee's side. … it is the ear of the other that signs” (Ear of the Other 50–51). To read is to countersign: the text's affirmation takes place on the other's side. This structure is open to danger: “a countersignature comes both to confirm, repeat and respect the signature of the other, of the “original” work; and to lead it off somewhere, so running the risk of betraying it” (“Strange Institution” 63). I want to suggest that parody is a form of countersignature, one that imitates the “original” signature such that is problematizes the latter's authority.

As Hutcheon suggests, parody of its nature steals—even ridicules—but also, of necessity, monumentalizes its sources by dependence on them. For science fiction, parody, homage, collective conventions (“shared worlds,” plots, conventions) remain vital. With a culture that has parody and self-parody at its heart, Ballard's texts did not survive long before entering this circulation. New Worlds published James Cawthorn's brief “Ballard of a Whaler,” playing on the frequent Moby-Dick references and puncturing the familiar elegiac tone. A later New Worlds collection also contained Disch's mock interview with G. G. Allbard, author of Rash (who talks so obsessively about bodily fluids that the interviewer is incapable of posing any questions). Sladek also wrote “The Sublimation World,” a brief parody of the catastrophe novels that accurately picks up on stylistic tics (“The whole city was a gibbous dune, once a mercury refinery, now frozen into a single gaseous crystalline chrysalid, depended from what had once been a flaming bloodfruit tree, now gone to iron, ironically” [105]).

Most intriguing, however, are the series of stories published by Fantasy and Science Fiction that were eventually collected under the title Aventine. There is no framing reference anywhere to the fact that they are parodies of Vermilion Sands. This is a delicious opportunity: parody is monumentalization, but equally it is a stealing of the signature from the unique signatory. In that latter sense it is a kind of death. The writer of these stories is Lee Killough. (Should that be pronounced “killer” or “kill-off”?) The kindness of women does not extend to her; Ballard, when asked, tersely refused to read them (interview 20).

Killough's borrowings are extensive. “The Siren Garden” shifts from the singing plants of Ballard's “Prima Belladonna” to crystals, which like many objects in Vermilion Sands are sensitive to extremes of emotion. Lorna Dalridian exploits them to ensnare the narrator into a murder of her husband. Lorna's eyes, incidentally, move through the range of silver, violet, and obsidian. The garden is borrowed from another Ballard text, “The Crystal Garden.” “The Tropic of Eden,” with psychotropic houses, synthesizes elements of “The Singing Statues” and “Venus Smiles,” while the series of portrait sittings before psychically reactive materials recalls “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” “A House Divided” uses props from “Stellavista,” as does “Broken Stairways, Walls of Time.” “Menage Outré,” meanwhile, has a narrator who writes computer-generated novels and becomes ensnared with a mysterious female neighbor, just as in “Studio 5, The Stars.” Verbal echoes are constant, as is the (less obsessive) use of simile and the opening paragraphs that structure the narrative as retrospection. The women tend to have suitably mysterious and tragic pasts (one narrator remembers reading of Cybele's husband's “death in a hovercraft accident” [“Broken Stairways” 51]!). A compulsive narrative unleashed by Vermilion Sands cannot be contained between its covers; distorted, perhaps, but with the same compulsion, it arises elsewhere.

That there is no acknowledgment of “borrowing,” no obvious sign of homage (although it may be significant that Cas refuses to sign his sculpture [“Tropic” 152], or that the objectionable Jason Ward loses his sister by going on a book-signing tour, a book that is computer generated and, thus, not, in a loose sense, his [“Menage” 14]) clearly irritates David Pringle. His review of the book with Colin Greenland, however, is written in the form of a parody, a parodying of the parodist, but it is unnervingly more parodic of Ballard than Killough.

In a highly complex move, Pringle and Greenland insert Killough's relation to Ballard into the plot of “Stellavista,” where parody is figured as the occupation of a psychotropic house inscribed with Ballard's personality. Reversing the gender structure, the femme fatale figure is disempowered and resituated into the psychical series of male victims. But the compulsion is intensified here: Killough is destroyed by the power of the Ballardian psychotrope. Murderous revenge: Killough is killed, the parodist evacuated from her upstart occupation of the text: “Find your own suburb.”

It is a strange defense of Vermilion Sands, however, to figure its parody in terms of a compulsion imposed by the personality of Ballard. Why revenge Killough when, in this scenario, she is a victim of a repetition that she cannot control? It is even stranger to perform this as a parody itself, for it becomes difficult to separate what is parodistic attack and what is parodistic defense. Pringle and Greenland's review can only confirm and escalate the complexity of the circulation of a text now detached from Ballard's authenticating signature.

Killough's parody offers a reading of Vermilion Sands; Pringle and Greenland give a reading of that reading. But since they all tend to repeat the text, they perform nothing other than the compulsions set in train by Ballard's stories. Parody as reading is, as repetition, also nonreading: the ensnaring of the reader into the structures of the text that cannot get beyond them, that is doomed to a gestural reenaction of its scenarios.

Vermilion Sands, it seems to me, reveals the way in which Ballard's texts effectuate their seduction. The obsessive text enchains obsessive reading. The texts engineer a reading that is compulsive, that cannot close on the inarticulable remainder, particularly as the signature as authenticating mark is put in play inside the texts, and the idiomatic signature effects, as detailed here, a disappearance of its unique signatory into the networks of parody. You open a Ballard text, knowing once again you will be haunted, knowing that the compulsions it fosters will strike you again, knowing that to read Ballard is to be held by a lure that is generated by an irreducible core of unreadability.


  1. See the responses to Jean Baudrillard's essay “Ballard's Crash” by N. Katherine Hayles (321–23) and Vivian Sobchack (327–29), who both cite Ballard's introduction. Science Fiction Studies 18.3 (1991).

  2. Ballard's retraction reads: “I felt I was not altogether honest in this introduction because I did imply that there was a sort of moral warning which I don't really think is there.” Perhaps because this quote is so difficult to find, it has failed to register in discussions of Crash. My source is a footnote in Jonathan Benison's “Jean Baudrillard and the Current State of SF.” Foundation 32 (1984): 25–42. Ballard's comment on “terminal irony” comes from a letter to Foundation 10 (1975): 51–52.

Works Cited

Amis, Martin. “Author's Note.” Einstein's Monsters. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988.

———. Review of Crash. The Observer. July 1, 1973.

———. Review of The Day of Creation. The Observer. Sept. 13, 1987.

———. “The Next Five Minutes.” Open University Programme with Amis, Ballard, and Angela Carter on Literature and the Atomic Bomb. BBC 2. 1988.

Ballard, J. G. “A Host of Furious Fancies.” Myths of the Near Future. London: Triad/Panther, 1984. 51–65.

———. Interview with David Pringle. J. G. Ballard: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Ed. David Pringle. New York: Hall and Co., 1984.

———. Vermilion Sands. London: Dent/Everyman, 1985.

Barthes, Roland. “The Old Rhetoric: An Aide-Memoire.” The Semiotic Challenge. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988. 11–93.

Cawthorn, James. “Ballard of a Whaler.” New Worlds 50.120 (1966): 157.

Culler, Jonathan. “The Turns of Metaphor.” The Pursuit of Signs. London: Routledge, 1981. 188–209.

Davidson, Donald. “What Metaphors Mean.” Critical Inquiry 5.1 (1978): 29–46.

de Man, Paul, Allegories of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP. 1979.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1985.

———. Glas. Trans, John P. Leavey and Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1984.

———. Spurs. Nietzsche's Styles. Trans. Barbara Harlow. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1979.

———. “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992. 33–75.

———. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Ian McLeod and Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1987.

Disch, Thomas M. “The Eternal Invalid.” New Worlds. Vol. 10. Ed. Hilary Bailey. London: Corgi, 1976. 223–26.

Ellison, Harlan. Dangerous Visions. Combined ed. London: Gollancz, 1987.

Foster, Margaret. Review of The Kindness of Women. Evening Standard, Sept. 19, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Dynamics of Transference,” Standard Edition, vol. 12. Trans. James Strachey: Hogarth Press, 1958.

———. “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (‘Dora’).” Pelican Freud Library, vol. 8. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. 31–164.

———. “The Psychotherapy of Hysteria.” Pelican Freud Library, vol. 3. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974. 337–93.

Genette, Gerard. “Introduction to the Paratext.” New Literary History 22.2 (1992): 261–72.

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition, London: Routledge. 1983.

Greenland. Colin, and David Pringle. Review of Aventine. Foundation 25 (1981): 77–79.

Hutcheon. Linda. A Theory of Parody. London: Methuen, 1985.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

Killough, Lee. “Broken Stairways, Walls of Time.” Fantasy and Science Fiction 56 (Mar. 1979): 8–21.

———. “A House Divided.” Fantasy and Science Fiction 54 (June 1978): 82–99.

———. “Menage Outré.” Fantasy and Science Fiction 60 (Feb. 1981): 5–19.

———. “The Siren Garden.” Fantasy and Science Fiction 46 (Mar. 1974): 62–78.

———. “Tropic of Eden.” Fantasy and Science Fiction 53 (Aug. 1977): 141–56.

Pringle, David. Earth is the Only Alien Planet. San Bernardino: Borgo, 1979.

Sladek, John. “The Sublimation World.” Fantasy and Science Fiction (July 1968): 103–06.

Strawson, Galen. Review of War Fever. Independent on Sunday, Nov. 11, 1990.

Thomson, Ian. Review of The Kindness of Women. The Independent, Sept. 21, 1991.

Towers, Robert. “Believe it or Not: The Kindness of Women.New York Review of Books, Oct. 24, 1991, 37–38.

Andrew Barrow (review date 21 September 1996)

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SOURCE: “Crime or Banishment,” in The Spectator, September 21, 1996, pp. 51–2.

[In the following review, Barrow praises Cocaine Nights as “a wonderfully readable and self-confident book.”]

This is the first book I have read by this prolific and popular author. I am therefore unable to say if this is ‘vintage’ Ballard or a dazzling new departure for him, or indeed just how it fits into the massive and star-spangled Ballard oeuvre. I can only say that it is a wonderfully readable and self-confident book, soothingly written yet brimming over with frightening ideas.

Cocaine Nights is set on the Costa del Sol and to some extent takes the lid off the ‘retirement complexes wedged into that overheated strip of land. A well-known English travel writer arrives in the area to try and help his younger brother, who has mysteriously claimed responsibility for the murder of several people in a housefire, though nobody, not even the police, believe him to be guilty of this horrific crime.

Action is divided between two different resorts. Estrella de Mar, where the murders have taken place, is a suspiciously lively place, full of alert and over-active inhabitants engaged in a tireless sporting and cultural programme, and apparently unconcerned about the criminal activities going on around them: nobody, quite literally, gives a hoot when a rape takes place in a car-park. Further down the same coast is a much sleepier, crime-free housing development called the Residencia Costasol, which the author describes as ‘a world beyond boredom’, ‘a special kind of willed limbo’ and as ‘one huge liver perfused with vodka and tonic’. Yes, but not for long.

To start with, our hero's investigations into the murders get him nowhere. He is told he is asking ‘an awful lot of questions’ and advised to return to London. His car is set on fire and there is an apparent attempt on his life—later described by his attacker as ‘a gesture of affection’. Even his brother in gaol refuses to see him.

The plot thickens, however, and the narrator's increasing complicity in the mystery he is trying to unravel is eerily worked out and eventually, in the book's very last paragraph, reaches an appallingly perverted conclusion which will leave readers gasping.

But this is racing ahead, Cocaine Nights offers all the twists and turns of an old-fashioned whodunit—didn't Agatha Christie set some of her stories in similarly sun-drenched communities?—but can also be described as a psychological thriller or even as a work of weird social history. Some of the writing might have come out of one of Vanity Fair's crime pieces and there are also echoes of John Berendt's true-life murder mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, set in upper-class Savannah, Georgia.

J. G. Ballard writes playfully and flexibly and with an eye for provocative juxtaposition. ‘Crossing frontiers is my profession,’ declares the narrator at the outset, and the book successfully explores the distinction between life and death, guilt and innocence, guest and host, motion and inertia, serve and volley. …

Tennis, in fact, plays a much bigger part in the story than cocaine, and a lot of attention is given to a thudding, clacking, devilishly lethal tennis machine which fires random aces across a net: one ball bounces back with blood on it. One of the book's most interesting characters is a tennis professional and part-time criminal who believes that the somnolent, brain-dead resort down the road can be woken up by the same sort of burglaries and other offensive actions which have lit up Estrella de Mar.

This disturbingly deviant idea, which the narrator and to some extent the reader soon begin to share, is put into action in the second half of the book with the effect that the sleepy Residencia does indeed wake up. Some of its formerly couch-bound residents are soon found crowding round a previously defunct swimming-pool receiving lessons in the ‘jack knife and reverse swallow’. Others ‘rescued from the twilight world of satellite television’ are in the process of building a theatre of their own, where one of the first productions will be Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

On the jacket of this book, the author is described as ‘a bizarre visionary’, ‘master fabulist’ and ‘literary saboteur’. I do not know quite what this last phrase means but he certainly has a lot of fun describing the artistic activities that these culturally-revived ex-pats get up to. The New York Review of Books is studied in cafés and there are endless references to revivals of plays by Joe Orton, Stoppard and, time and time again, Harold Pinter. I wonder what point is being made. I also wonder how Cocaine Nights will go down with the retired bank managers, former ear, nose and throat specialists, ex-army officers and other sun-worshippers now enjoying ‘an enforced leisure’ in places just like those described in the book.

Lance Olsen (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Cocaine Nights, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 266–67.

[In the review below, Olsen offers a positive review of Cocaine Nights.]

Criminality has become a kind of performance art at the end of this millennium, the protagonist of J. G. Ballard's wonderful new novel [Cocaine Nights] notes, the last real impetus for communal action in a bored leisure society.

It's no surprise, then, to find the author of twenty-five books, including such cult classics as The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash (the latter now an unnervingly good film by David Cronenberg), turning to the murder mystery genre for inspiration, and, with typical innovative grace, reconfiguring its key narrative elements: Charles Prentice, a British travel writer who enjoys the in-betweenness of his profession, journeys to a town forty minutes up the coast from Gibraltar on behalf of his carefully self-destructive brother, Frank, who has confessed to five horrific killings he apparently hasn't committed; even the police handling the case aren't quite convinced he's guilty, despite the fact they must arrest and hold him for trial since the scant evidence they possess seems to implicate him.

Charles's quest for the real murderer leads him into the world of safe-zone compounds that stretch along the beaches of the Costa del Sol, fortified antiseptic theme villages and retirement resorts several hundred yards in width and several hundred miles in length, filled with ghostly ad-men and TV execs who have nothing to do with their time except waste it. Behind those walls' pristine radically internalized nowhere space of blue kidney-shaped swimming pools and long siestas exists a cloudless land of unreality, a series of Baudrillardian simulacra of the Good Life, and slack-faced monotony—a microcosm of Europe's future.

And behind that universe with its surveillance cameras and satellite dishes, Charles discovers, Chinese-puzzle-box-like, another more shadowy dimension busy with vandalism, theft, arson, amateur porn films, and a pharmacy of hardcore drugs. In this second-order world, local prostitutes turn out to be the wives of those ad-men and TV execs looking for a little fun, while, just for a lark, residents sit primly in their cars in tidy rows in parking lots late at night and watch the rape of young women in their headlights. Behind what turns out to be a bizarre social experiment stands a charismatic figure who believes such crimes are the only things that keep us interesting, creative, and alive as a culture. The result, as one of the characters comments, “is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho.

Ballard thereby transforms the murder mystery into a philosophical mode of inquiry that explores the conjunction of the imaginative act and the lawless postmodern zone where everything is possible, while suggesting that transgressive behavior might in the end—at least in some cases—actually motivate public good. And he does so with signature panache and intelligence, creating a flawless narrative architecture, the surreal clarity of a town dreamed by Magritte, an unsettling mixture of horror and beauty, and a subtle yet pervasive sense of trespass, his narrative precinct always sheathed beneath a gentle patinated paranoia where final answers lie around the next corner, up the next flight of stairs, and where every one of us is implicated in the spectacular horrorshow called the late twentieth century.

Patrick A. McCarthy (essay date July 1997)

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SOURCE: “Allusions in Ballard's The Drowned World,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, July, 1997, pp. 302–10.

[In the following essay, McCarthy examines Ballard's use of literary allusions in The Drowned World,including references to works by Joseph Conrad, William Golding, Daniel Defoe, John Donne, John Keats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, and others.]

J. G. Ballard's fiction has received substantial critical attention, much of it focusing on the postmodern qualities of such works as The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and Hello America. Indeed, the starting point for much of the criticism is summarized in Jeremy Lewis's observation that “Ballard's fiction stands at the forefront of postmodern aesthetics” (27), which implies a sharp distinction between Ballard's aesthetics and those of his high modernist predecessors. Ballard's professed disdain for “the alienated and introverted fantasies of James Joyce, Eliot and the writers of the so-called Modernist Movement” might also suggest that his work has little in common with modernist fiction (qtd. by Wagar, “Transvaluation” 68).1 Yet the line of demarcation between modernism and postmodernism is not always so easily discernible, as we might infer from Matti Savolainen's postmodern analysis of Ballard's work, which begins by noting a connection between “New Wave” sf and the experimentalism of writers from Joyce to William Burroughs (121). Ballard's reliance on one technique associated with modernism, the use of allusions to suggest parallels between his work and that of earlier writers, is particularly evident in The Drowned World (1962). Although several critics have referred in passing to Ballard's use of allusions in this work and others, no study has yet examined these allusions in detail. The present set of annotations is offered as a starting point for investigations of Ballard's allusive technique during the early stages of his career.


In a 1975 interview (Goddard and Pringle 15–16), Ballard denied that The Drowned World was influenced by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, claiming that he had not read Conrad's African tale before writing his novel and might not have read it even by the time he wrote The Crystal World (1966).2 It is tempting to dismiss Ballard's disclaimer of what seems at first glance to be an important shaping influence on The Drowned World as the author's attempt to claim originality for his own novel and to avoid having it read in terms of another work. Even if we take the statement at face value, however, the resemblances between Conrad's story of atavistic regression in the Congo and Ballard's vision of a world reverting to a prehistoric ecology are so striking as to suggest at least an indirect connection between these narratives.

One possible source for the parallels, other than direct influence, is that both Heart of Darkness and The Drowned World were influenced by the early sf novels of H. G. Wells, including The Time Machine, to which Ballard refers explicitly.3 Describing his belief that we all carry within ourselves unconscious memories of the geological past—memories that are encoded in the spinal column of every human being—Dr Bodkin tells Kerans that each geological epoch lying within the individual unconscious would be “as recognizable to anyone else as they would be to a traveller in a Wellsian time machine” (§3.44). In a later chapter Strangman refers to Kerans' “time machine” (§10.114), but Kerans himself assigns the role of time traveller to Riggs, whose resistance to the natural movement toward the past might more readily be related to the Time Traveller's attempt to triumph over time (§13.158). Although he gives the movement into a “prehistoric” setting a very different human meaning than Conrad does, it is interesting that Ballard's concept of time travel involves a transformation of the Wellsian concept along the same lines that Conrad followed in Heart of Darkness.

Another indirect connection between The Drowned World and Heart of Darkness might be made through William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), in which, as in Heart of Darkness, the movement from the trappings of civilization to the jungle environment releases primitive and destructive impulses. Conversely, in The Drowned World we are meant to embrace the return to nature, as Kerans does, rather than fighting it, as Riggs and (more grotesquely) Strangman do. The parallel with Lord of the Flies becomes apparent in the scene in which Kerans, being hunted by Strangman and his men, is saved by the fortuitous return of Colonel Riggs and his soldiers, much as Ralph, in Lord of the Flies, is saved from certain death by the naval party that comes to rescue the boys. In Golding's novel an officer who unexpectedly appears on the beach misinterprets what the boys have been doing as “fun and games” and asks Ralph, “What have you been doing? Having a war or something?” (§12:185); in Ballard's narrative Sergeant Macready, who knows very well that Strangman meant to murder Kerans, echoes the question in the earlier book when he says, “Looks as if You've been having a bit of a party here” (§12:155).

This brief evocation of Golding is ironic, for like Conrad, Golding regards civilization as basically a positive force that holds our savage impulses in check, whereas Ballard treats civilization, ultimately, as a doomed revolt against nature that we must eventually abandon. The deus ex machina intervention of the naval party in Lord of the Flies brings the narrative to an end, indicating that for all its faults the civilization represented by military authority is the only defense against regression into a savage state, whereas in The Drowned World the reappearance of Colonel Riggs and his men does not resolve the narrative's conflicts but merely relocates them. Far from being associated with the solution, Colonel Riggs embodies the problem.


Many of Ballard's other allusions are also ironic, among them the narrator's casual reference to Kerans' “inverted Crusoeism—the deliberate marooning of himself without the assistance of a gear-laden carrack wrecked on a convenient reef” (§4.48). The citation of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is obvious enough, but once again it should be emphasized that whereas Crusoe, rather like Riggs and Strangman, always tries to control the natural environment, transforming his island into a little commonwealth, Kerans gradually abandons the effort to separate himself from nature. This early passage, which identifies Kerans as an anti-Crusoe, might also prefigure the appearance of Strangman, a parodic version of Crusoe both in his efforts to salvage whatever he can from the wreck of civilization and in his control over a crew of black men.

Crusoe's story is one in which man ultimately triumphs over the chaotic forces represented by the sea. Several other allusions in Ballard's novel refer more directly to the sea that is drowning Kerans' world, plunging him back into an amniotic environment. The most obvious of these allusions is placed in the mouth of Strangman, the scavenger whose looting of cultural artifacts includes not only material possessions but a passage lifted from “Death by Water,” Part 4 of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land:4

“There's nothing much left now—I can tell you. I sometimes feel like Phlebas the Phoenician. Though that's really your role, isn't it?

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.”


Strangman's fairly heavy-handed display of cultural knowledge is probably meant, in part, to characterize him as a poseur, but it might also reflect on Eliot, whose lines are quoted by the most repulsive character in the novel. Strangman's appropriation of a few lines from Eliot's poem, torn from their context, is related to his larger project: the theft of paintings and other cultural artifacts from the cities that he temporarily reclaims from the sea. This project in turn parodies Eliot's own appropriation of fragments of culture as a bulwark against the ruins of twentieth century European civilization—“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (line 430). The lines quoted by Strangman are related to The Drowned World through their association of the sea both with death and with the absorption of the individual back into the elements from which we all spring. In The Drowned World as in The Waste Land, this association might at first seem negative but is ultimately meant to affirm our oneness with nature.

The fact that Eliot was associated with the revival of John Donne's reputation in the 1920s and 1930s may be why Strangman, the Eliot figure, “pick[s] a book off the air-conditioner, a copy of Donne's poems, and extemporise[s] a line: “‘World within world, each man an island unto himself, swimming through seas of archipelagos. …’” (§10.115; Ballard's ellipsis).5 The allusion, of course, is to the well-known passage from Donne's Meditation XVII:

Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In The Drowned World, the bell still tolls for all of us, yet Donne's concept of our oneness with all of humanity has been irretrievably lost as “each man [is] an island unto himself.” Ballard has said that “the relationships between my characters don't interest me very much. … All my fiction is in a sense about isolation and how to cope with isolation” (qtd. by Greenland 99). This emphasis on isolation rather than on human relationships is particularly evident in The Drowned World, where Kerans sees a parallel between the “growing isolation and self-containment … from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune” and “the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis” (§1.14). Soon, as the various forms of human relationships decay beyond repair, the characters retreat further within themselves, and “their only true meeting place [is] in their dreams” (§6.81).

Another reference to the sea occurs when Kerans makes his descent into the sunken planetarium, which in the novel is figured as a giant womb. Recognizing the symbolism and again trotting out his measure of culture, Strangman calls down to Kerans. “How's the grey sweet mother of us all?” The ultimate source of the allusion, as Strangman (and for that matter Ballard) might or might not know, is Algernon Charles Swinburne's description of the sea as “the great sweet mother, / Mother and lover of men” in stanza 33 of “The Triumph of Time”—a title that seems peculiarly, if inadvertently, relevant to the theme of The Drowned World. Ballard's immediate source, however, is not Swinburne's poem but the opening chapter of Joyce's Ulysses, where Buck Mulligan calls attention to “Algy” Swinburne's phrase:

—God, he said quietly. Isn't the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.

I have quoted here from the 1961 Random House edition of Ulysses (5), but the phrase “grey sweet mother” also appears in all other editions Ballard could have seen, from the first edition (Paris, 1922) through the 1960 Bodley Head edition. In each case, however, “grey sweet mother” is not what Joyce wrote but a printer's error that was not corrected until 1984, in Hans Walter Gabler's “Critical and Synoptic Edition” of Ulysses; the correct phrase is “great sweet mother,” just as in “The Triumph of Time.”6 There's no way of telling whether “grey sweet mother” meant something to Ballard that would not have been equally well conveyed by “great sweet mother,” had that been the reading in his copy of Ulysses, but Gabler's subsequent correction of the passage means that readers of The Drowned World who are familiar only with the corrected text of Ulysses are unlikely to recognize the source of Ballard's allusion. In any event, there are at least two points to the allusion: that the sea is a mother to which we all return and that modernist culture is again associated with the likes of Strangman. A third possibility is that it sets up a parallel between Buck Mulligan's role in Ulysses and Strangman's in The Drowned World, both being cultural pretenders who serve as foils to more sympathetically portrayed characters.

Only a few pages after Strangman cites the erroneous Joyce passage, the narrator of The Drowned World refers to perhaps the most famous error (if that is what it is) in an English poem. Describing what Kerans sees as he explores the submerged planetarium, Ballard writes:

The projector had been removed from the dais, but the cracks in the dome sparkled with distant points of light, like the galactic profiles of some distant universe. He gazed up at this unfamiliar zodiac, watching it emerge before his eyes like the first vision of some pelagic Cortez emerging from the oceanic deeps to glimpse the immense Pacifics of the open sky.


The allusion, of course, is to the sestet of Keats's brilliant sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman's Homer,” which compares his experience in reading George Chapman's translations of the Homeric poems to a stunning discovery made by an astronomer or explorer:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

That it was Balboa rather than Cortez who crossed Panama and stared at the Pacific is irrelevant both to Keats's poem and to The Drowned World. More important is the way Ballard's phrase “the immense Pacifics of the open sky” associates two realms of exploration—outer space and the ocean—in a way that builds upon the two similes of Keats's sestet. Ballard also reworks the conceit to fit his novel's parallel between the descent into the underwater world (read: unconscious) and psychological time-travelling into the geological and evolutionary past.7 Brief as it is, the allusion to Keats is a masterful display of Ballard's ability to compress several meanings into a few words.8


The allusion to Keats occurs in chapter 9, “The Pool of Thanatos,” in which Kerans dons a diving suit in order to explore the sunken planetarium. Ballard's association of the sea both with life and with death is particularly evident in this chapter, in which the drowned world of the planetarium is simultaneously defined as a “huge vacant womb” (§9.110) and as the realm of Death, or Thanatos. Indeed, Kerans nearly dies in this chapter, when his air supply is mysteriously cut off, probably by accident, possibly by sabotage from above, but conceivably—as Strangman contends—by Kerans himself, as an expression of his unconscious death-wish. Strangman plays with the situation in a way that evokes at least one familiar allusion: the question whether or not Kerans tried to kill himself, he says, involves “one of the few existential absolutes, far more significant than ‘To be or not to be?’, which merely underlines the uncertainty of the suicide, rather than the eternal ambivalence of his victim” (§9.112). Later, Kerans reflects on the situation:

On the way back to the Ritz he sat silently in the stern of the scow, thinking to himself of the great womb-chamber of the planetarium and the multi-layered overlay of its associations, trying to erase from his mind the terrible ‘either/or’ which Strangman had correctly posed. Had he unconsciously locked the air-pipe, knowing that the tension in the cable would suffocate him, or had it been a complete accident, even, possibly, an attempt by Strangman to injure him?


Strangman's statement and Kerans' reflections include two readily apparent allusions, the first to Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy (Hamlet 3.1.56–90), the second to Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), which explores the choices that we face in approaching life either aesthetically or ethically. As I understand the second passage, Kerans has translated the “either/or” alternatives of which Kierkegaard writes from the realm of conscious choice to that of unconscious impulse, a move consistent with the book's larger movement from culture to nature, external to internal reality, rationality to instinct. It also suggests that Kerans eventually will have to make a fundamental decision about his life, one that he has avoided up to this point. The moment of choice or commitment implied by his echo of Kierkegaard's phrase occurs when Kerans blows up the dam and thwarts efforts to reclaim the city from the waters.

The earlier passage is fairly obvious in its appropriation of Hamlet's question for Strangman's own purposes, but it is also possible that another, less obvious, source underlies the entire passage and provides a context in which to read the references both to Shakespeare and to Kierkegaard. That source, I suggest, is Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, whose first essay, “An Absurd Reasoning,” begins, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (3). Camus explores the nature of the absurd extensively, commenting at several points on Kierkegaard's work, before arriving at the existentialist conclusion that “by the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death—and I refuse suicide” (47). If Ballard is indeed echoing Camus in setting up the fundamental choice between life and death in his novel, then a reading of Kerans as a sort of absurd hero whose prime motivation is his passion for life supplants the alternative reading of the novel as a pessimistic rejection of life. We might, for example, recall that when Ballard was asked to give his novel a happy ending he replied, “no, God, this is a happy story” (qtd. by Wagar, Terminal Visions 84). In that response Ballard almost seems to be echoing Camus' statement, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” that despite the torments visited on his own absurd hero, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 91). This of course is not to conflate the two situations, but in reading The Drowned World it would at least be useful to consider ways in which Kerans, like Sisyphus, might be regarded as “happy” precisely because he understands his condition so completely.


Among other allusions in The Drowned World are two direct references to Adam and Eve (§2.23, 15.175) and one to the medieval legend of the Grail quest (§3.46), each of which has been noted by several critics. If these references suggest the possibility of interpreting Kerans' quest in religious terms, they are also fundamentally ironic, for the novel's informing vision is surely quite different from the Christian quest for salvation.

Likewise, the given name of the novel's only female character, Beatrice Dahl, might well refer ironically to the saintly Beatrice who conducts Dante to heaven in The Divine Comedy. The first description of Ballard's Beatrice, with “her long oiled body gleaming in the shadows like a sleeping python” (§2.25), is probably as different as we can imagine from Dante's ethereal, idealized love. In any case, whereas Dante must be led through paradise by Beatrice, Kerans eventually abandons Beatrice Dahl and all the others in order to find himself lost in the jungle at the end of the novel—“completely lost … a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.” Lost in the jungle, Kerans ends in a situation similar to Dante's at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, where he is lost in a dark wood; but there is nothing dark about Kerans' sun-flooded jungle, and as a “second Adam” he is an image of redeemed man, perhaps even a figure of Christ, rather than a fallen soul like the lost Dante. It is typical of Ballard's reversal of values that his version of “paradise” involves a return to nature rather than a retreat to Beatrice's air-conditioned apartment, and that for Kerans, happiness and fulfillment are found in a search that can lead only to his death.

One final possible source is Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), another sf novel that also reverses traditional religious imagery. In that novel the fact that the Overlords—a superior alien race that takes charge of mankind's destiny—look like the traditional image of the devil is at first taken to mean that they visited earth in the distant past, and their image has remained locked in the human psyche. In the end, however, that theory proves to be untrue, for the Overlords have never before come to earth. Instead, what had been taken as a memory of a past visit was really a sort of future memory of the race that would be associated with the end of humanity in its present form. To be sure, this is not quite what happens in The Drowned World, but Dr Bodkin's explanation of the common human hatred of spiders and snakes as “a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet's dominant life form” (§3.43) may have been influenced by Clarke's explanation of our fear of “devils” as a future memory connected to the end of the human species—an end that Clarke imagines as a metamorphosis into a higher form and that Ballard sees as a return to an earlier stage of evolution.

As Gregory Stephenson remarks in his study of Ballard's fiction, “the narrative of The Drowned World is shaped and enriched by patterns of imagery and allusion; indeed, ultimately the novel is to be understood more through its imagery than through its action” (46). The accuracy of Stephenson's observation may be demonstrated through a close reading of the novel that examines the function of its imagery, some of it drawn from literary and other sources, in relation to the novel's narrative and thematic patterns. My purpose here has not been to offer anything like a coherent, much less a complete or definitive, interpretation of The Drowned World, but to demonstrate some ways in which literary allusions play a significant role in advancing the themes of Ballard's intriguing novel.


  1. Ballard's view of modernism might be juxtaposed against his equally contemptuous dismissal of much postmodern criticism, whose practitioners are “trapped inside [their] dismal jargon” (“A Response” 329). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., in his editorial introduction to the special issue of SFS that includes Ballard's response, characterizes the outburst as “an attempt to protect a border … between the fields of art and the locusts of rationalistic analysis” (307). We may, of course, agree with this description while sympathizing with Ballard's refusal to reduce his work to a theoretical construct.

  2. Even so, Stephenson finds connections between Conrad's novel and Ballard's early stories “The Violent Noon” (1951) and “A Question of Re-entry” (1963) as well as The Crystal World, “a sort of Heart of Darkness in reverse” (14, 19, 57).

  3. For an extended investigation of the relationship between Heart of Darkness and Wells's SF, see my article, “Heart of Darkness and the Early Novels of H. G. Wells: Evolution, Anarchy, Entropy,” Journal of Modern Literature 13:37–60, March 1986.

  4. Since the passages I am citing from Eliot's poetry and from Donne and Keats are widely available, and since in each case my argument would be unaffected by a change from one edition to another, I have not cited the editions I have used.

  5. Ballard might have derived the phrase “world within a world” from Eliot as well, since a similar phrase, “the word within a word, unable to speak a word,” appears both in Eliot's “Gerontion” (line 18) and in his 1926 essay “Lancelot Andrewes” (Selected Prose 185). In the latter, Eliot misquotes Andrewes' description of the infant (speechless) Jesus—the Word—as “the Word without a word.”

  6. Joyce's printer mistakenly converted the description of Mulligan's “grey searching eyes” a few lines later into “great searching eyes.” Joyce tried to correct that passage, but instead of changing “great” to “grey” in “great searching eyes” the printer made the change in “great sweet mother,” making both passages erroneous. See Gabler's textual note on this passage in volume 3, p. 1729, of his edition. For readers of futuristic fiction, of course, the world of the novel is the one imagined by the author, so that Gabler's correction of the passage in our world does not affect The Drowned World (in which the pre-Gabler reading is the only one available) any more than the absence of an early twentieth century invasion from Mars in the “real” world should affect readings of The War of the Worlds.

  7. For a fine reading of these and other elements in the novel—indeed, to my mind the best analysis of the novel yet published—see Rose (127–38).

  8. Among the novel's other allusions are several to artists and artistic schools: Tintoretto, Delvaux, Ernst, Dali; surrealism, cubism. I have not attempted to describe the role of these references, which in any case have received more attention than the book's literary allusions (see, e.g., Stephenson 164–65 on surrealism). I would, however, like to call attention to the Tintoretto-style painting entitled “The Marriage of Ester and King Xerxes,” which depicts the marriage of Esther (sic) and Ahasuerus—who is assumed to be Xerxes—in the Old Testament book of Esther. It is possible that Ballard inserted this painting into his novel because there are two tapestries on basically the same subject in the church at Combray in Proust's Swann's Way (47).

Works Cited

Ballard, J. G. The Drowned World. 1962. Rpt. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987.

———. “A Response to the Invitation to Respond.” SFS #18:329, #55, Nov 1991).

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien. NY 1955.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Editorial Introduction: Postmodernism's SF/SF's Postmodernism.” SFS 18:305–08, #55, Nov 1991.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. NY, 1975.

Goddard, James, and David Pringle. “An Interview with J. G. Ballard.” J. G. Ballard: The First Twenty Years. Ed. Goddard and Pringle. Hayes, Middlesex, 1976. 8–35.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. NY: Capricorn Books, 1959.

Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition. London, 1983.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. NY: Random House, 1961.

———. Ulysses: A Critical and Synoptic Edition. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. NY & London: Garland, 1984.

Lewis, Jeremy. “An Interview with J. G. Ballard.” Mississippi Review 20:27–40, 1991.

Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past, 2 vols., trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff. NY: Random House, 1941. Volume 1.

Rose, Mark. Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction. Cambridge, Mass., 1981.

Savolainen, Matti. “The Wave of Science Fiction as Postmodern Literature: J. G. Ballard as a Test Case.” Criticism in the Twilight Zone: Postmodern Perspectives on Literature and Politics. Ed. Danuta Zadworna-Fjellstad and Lennart Björk. Stockholm, 1990. 121–28.

Stephenson, Gregory. Out of the Night and into the Dream: A Thematic Study of the Fiction of J. G. Ballard. NY, 1991.

Wagar, W. Warren. “J. G. Ballard and the Transvaluation of Utopia.” SFS 18:53–70, #53, March 1991. 53–70.

———. Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Rex Roberts (review date 21 September 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Cocaine Nights, in Insight on the News, September 21, 1998, pp. 36–8.

[In the following review, Roberts makes a positive evaluation of Cocaine Nights.]

British writer J. G. Ballard leads us once more into the dystopian future. Cocaine Nights, recently released in the United States, presents a world of leisure with a distinctly sinister side.

Because so many contemporary novelists are identified with the movies made from their books rather than the books themselves, they benefit or suffer from cinematic interpretations that have little relation to their body of work. Certainly this is the case with British writer J. G. Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun and Crash, dissimilar novels whose differences are exaggerated in their film versions.

Ballard's autobiographical Empire of the Sun, published in 1984, recounts the author's boyhood in Shanghai during the Second World War and his internment in a prison camp in Japan. Steven Spielberg turned the book into an affecting if sentimental movie. Ballard's autoerotic Crash, a psychosexual fable published in 1973, explores the dysfunctional but seductive relationship between people and technology. David Cronenberg directed the sexually explicit but aesthetically insipid film.

Of the two books, Crash is far more typical of Ballard's work than Empire of the Sun. The novel, as well as much of his science fiction, evokes a dystopian world that seems both hyper-real and grotesquely surreal. In this book and others, Ballard's characters live in impersonal and occasionally malevolent high-rises that surround modern cities—those lonely outposts looming above highway interchanges amid airports, commercial strips and industrial lots. These affectless characters struggle—consciously and unconsciously—to regain their identities, to recapture emotions that have been leveled by a ubiquitous barrage of advertising, media and other modes of communication that substitute for human interaction.

Though these scenarios might seem cliched, Ballard has the advantage of style—his fictional worlds are purely literary creations that come alive through language. Ballard is a precise writer who takes inspiration from technical manuals, turning jargon into poetry. He often conflates such terminology with sexual imagery, stripping the words of their eroticism even as he imbues them with a morphologic sensuality.

“The posture of her hands on the steering wheel and accelerator treadle, the unhealthy fingers pointing back towards her breasts, were elements in some stylized masturbatory rite,” Ballard wrote in Crash, describing a car wreck involving a young woman. “Her strong face with its unmatching planes seemed to mimic the deformed panels of the car, almost as if she consciously realized that these twisted instrument binnacles provided a readily accessible anthology of depraved acts, the keys to an alternative sexuality.”

Cocaine Nights, Ballard's new novel, follows in this tradition although, as British critics have pointed out, it's one of the author's most accessible novels—a crime story more plot driven than his earlier work. Travel writer Charles Prentice has been summoned to the Costa del Sol in southern Spain, where his brother, Frank, has been charged with five counts of murder. When he arrives, he learns that Frank, manager of an athletic and social club attached to a resort known as Estrella de Mar, has confessed to firebombing the home of an elderly couple, killing them, their niece and two employees. Charles is convinced of his brother's innocence, so much so that he launches his own investigation into the horrible deaths. And the more he learns about life in this staid retirement community, the more he senses a palpable evil lurking beneath its placid surface, a hidden world of drugs, illicit sex and violence.

One of the charming aspects of Cocaine Nights is Ballard's ability to turn what appears to be a mystery novel into an exploration of human nature. As Charles wades through the murky waters of Estrella de Mar, he not only uncovers a dark conspiracy that implicates the whole community but also receives an education in the nefarious philosophy supporting its lifestyle—a philosophy expressed by the resort club's tennis pro, Bobby Crawford.

Crawford is another of Ballard's obsessed charismatic villains, much like Crash's Robert Vaughan, the hoodlum scientist with a “strange vision of the automobile and its real role in our lives.” Crawford too has a vision, that of a future filled with leisure, a world in which people work only for short periods, the majority of their lives spent in self-indulgence.

“They're refugees from time,” Crawford tells Charles about the residents of Estrella de Mar, these people who are pioneers in the pursuit of pleasure. “Look around you—there are no clocks anywhere and almost no one wears a wristwatch. … It's the fourth world. The one waiting to take over everything.”

Crawford has seen the future and learned to manipulate it, for he understands something else about leisure—that it stifles and smothers life. The professionals and their spouses who retired to the Costa del Sol had become shut-ins, staring unseeingly at muted television sets, bleary from the tranquilizers they swallowed by the bushel. “How do you energize people, give them some sense of community?” asks Irwin Sangar, a dissipated psychiatrist who sees through Crawford's sophistry. “A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator.” Politics and religion no longer will excite people with too much free time and too little energy to use it. “Only one thing is left that can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together.”

That thing is crime, “crime and transgressive behaviour” as Sangar puts it, “by which I mean all activities that aren't necessarily illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses deadened by leisure and inaction.”

The novel, by this point, has jettisoned all pretense of being a whodunit. Ballard is as swept up by his charlatan's cruel altruism as much as the characters in his novel. Suffice to say that the tennis pro and his cronies intend to convert the whole of Costa del Sol—and the rest of the world, if they can—to a life of shared guilt, “transgressive behavior for the public good.” And they are willing to use any means toward that end.

The subversion of Freudian tenets (Ballard studied psychiatry before turning to writing), the glamorization of antisocial behavior, the suggestion of impending apocalypse, all are familiar Ballardian themes. Crawford, again like Vaughan in Crash, has a polymorphous sexuality that finds its full expression in sadomasochistic ritual, another reason that Cocaine Nights will further Ballard's reputation as an author of shock fiction.

But for all the superficial, almost parodic intimations of pornography in his prose, and despite his undisguised admiration for his devilish villains, Ballard seems more moralist than nihilist. His books paint an alarming picture of the present, not to mention the future, suggesting that Western society would do well to reexamine its values and rethink its direction. If longtime followers of his work have noted a shift in his political leanings from liberal prankster to reactionary satirist—perhaps it's because as he and the world grow older, the ironies taste more bitter.

John Gray (essay date 10 May 1999)

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SOURCE: “Modernity and Its Discontents,” in New Statesman, May 10, 1999, pp. 41–2.

[In the following review of Iain Sinclair's Crash: David Cronenberg's Post-Mortem on J. G. Ballard's “Trajectory of Fate,” Gray discusses Ballard's literary significance and the major themes and disturbing cultural observations in his work.]

Derelict airfields, drained swimming pools, encroaching sand dunes, mangled cars, drowned cities—if these images remain in collective memory, as ciphers for what it was like to be alive in the closing decades of the 20th century, it will be the utterly individual vision of JG Ballard that put them there. Ballard's work fits comfortably into no known genre. A more prolific and consistently inspired short story writer than HG Wells, a novelist more unblinking in his insight into solitude and the flimsiness of character than Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene, an “experimental” writer more unsettling and often funnier than William Burroughs, Ballard has taken up the familiar genres of literature and anti-literature as experimental devices in a lifelong effort to communicate a particular view of the world.

It is a view of things that goes flatly against the pieties of the age. It takes a certain nihilism as given. Ballard regards with suspicion all schemes—liberal, environmentalist—that aim to make the world over. Such schemes repose a faith in human society that Ballard plainly lacks. In Ballard's view, societies are composed of fictions, whose lack of substance is brought home in extreme situations. Much of his work concerns solitary, marooned individuals who see society not as a source of support but as an encumbering irrelevance. There is nothing in Ballard of the moralising humanist insistence that every disaster can somehow be transcended. Yet, if Ballard's stories have a message, it is in no way tragic. On the contrary, Ballard should be recognised as one of the most lyrical of 20th-century prose writers.

In Crash, Iain Sinclair has given us the most intelligent guide yet to Ballard's work—and what may be the subtlest meditation on film and fiction since David Thomson's neglected Borgesian masterpiece, Suspects. Yet the juxtaposition of JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair is far from obvious. Their views on the political and cultural scene from which they are equally estranged are quite different, even opposed. Sinclair's writings are a work of salvage and retrieval, a stand taken against the loss of cultural memory. In his psychogeography of contemporary life, the present is only the visible surface of history. Sinclair's London is about as far removed from Ballard's Shanghai as it is possible for two cities to be—a palimpsest of memories, in which the living and the dead, the unremembered and the reforgotten, are jumbled together. All in all, it is a much too cluttered, claustrophobic and Dickensian landscape for Ballard's purposes. Indeed, London appears in Ballard's writings only as the exotic backdrop of his first and perhaps best novel of catastrophe, The Drowned World. It is Shanghai around the time of the second world war, a quintessentially American city without the burden of a history or a future planted incongruously on Chinese soil, that is the recurring presence.

That much of Ballard's work is fuelled by memories of his childhood in Shanghai is obvious. The Hobbesian world of the internment camp, in which he was confined as a boy, recurs in novels as different as The Drought and High-Rise The intolerable sense of loss he appears to have suffered when his wife died suddenly in the early 1960s is a muted theme in some of his short stories that emerges explicitly in his quasi-autobiographical book, The Kindness of Women. Yet it is not Ballard's memories of childhood or bereavement that are the leitmotiv of his writings. It is the struggle with memory itself. All of Ballard's writings are an experiment with time. The obsessively repeated surreal images in which they abound are attempts to do in words what Dali, de Chirico and Delvaux did in many of their paintings—to transform the meaningless and sometimes unbearable dress of ordinary experience into images of beauty and fulfilment.

Nearly all of Ballard's most successful stories concern individuals who seek to escape from the tyranny of passing time. When their search is successful, the personal and cultural past that they carry with them is dissolved in the deep time of archaic, pre-human history and the present. For Ballard, as perhaps for Conrad, personal identity, with all its weight of memory and regret, is among the social fictions that, in extreme situations, are tested and found wanting. In contrast with Conrad, however, the dissolution of personal memory and identity that often occurs in Ballard's stories is experienced not as a disaster but a liberation.

Because it concerns life as it is lived when the fictions that sustain society have broken down, Ballard's work thwarts the nagging demand for a political message. Even so, in comparison with the projections of more politically engaged writers, the picture of society that Ballard's work contains has proved to be clairvoyant. His disparagers are quick to point out that his novels and short stories contain little of plot or character. True, the tired parochial themes of so much postwar English fiction—class, ambition, divorce—appear hardly at all in his writings. That absence, however, makes his work so much of the present. The postwar novel takes its subject matter from institutions and conventions—marriage and career, for example—whose redundancy in the lives that most people find themselves actually living is palpable. It is difficult to read the novels of Angus Wilson or Iris Murdoch, say, without a distracting sense of anachronism. Much of the time one might as well be reading Jane Austen. What is astonishing about Ballard's work, on the other hand, is the exactitude of its prescience. As early as the 1960s, in the beautiful stories collected in Vermilion Sands (1971), he anticipated a society in which entertainment would be the dominant industry, consumption the core of the economy and boredom the principal evil.

What is so striking about Crash is its publication date. In 1973, the eroticisation of technology, the reinvention of war and politics as branches of the media, the emergence of paparazzi as proxies for a public of voyeuristic stalkers, were barely perceptible trends. Ballard was one of the few observers for whom the Kennedy assassination was not a chapter in the dated genre of conspiracy but the start of a new politics in which power would be exercised by the dissemination of images. The hysterical reception of Cronenberg's film—a polished rendition of the death of affect from which the characters of Crash are trying to escape—demonstrated that Ballard's vision has lost none of its capacity to shock. His “trajectory of fate”—the hidden path he sees linking the spectacle of power with television images of fame and death—was still too disturbing to be understood. It is not so much that Ballard foresaw events such as the death of Princess Diana. Worse, his diagnosis implies that they have become inevitable.

What proved unacceptable in Cronenberg's film was not its sexual vignettes, which are oblique and restrained. It was the film's suggestion, which faithfully reflects Ballard's intent in the book, that in societies in which scarcity has been overcome, what is most threatening is the loss of desire. Contemporary economies stand on the insatiability of our wants. Because they are so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of transgressive desires. Ever since Mandeville's Fable of the Bees we have known that the creation of wealth requires the mobilisation of passions that morality represses. Ballard goes one step further and suggests that the health of late 20th-century economies depends on mass psychopathology. It is not entirely fanciful to see in Crash a premonitory glimpse of the world that is being shaped in the Bluewater shopping centre.

Still, to view Ballard as a political moralist would be a complete misreading. He is not a Ralph Nader or Herbert Marcuse, railing against the emptiness of a society based on consumption. Nor is he a Dali of the free-market, “a demented melt-down of Thatcher and Aleister Crowley”, in Sinclair's amusing hyperbole. Ballard's achievement is not to have staked out any kind of political position. Rather it is to have communicated a vision of what individual fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism. Ballard seems never to have harboured illusions about the country to which he came after his adventures in Shanghai. Perhaps he is not surprised that his work is so little understood. But it is a comment on the pettiness of British culture that it does not recognise its most gifted and original living writer.

Martin Amis (review date 20 December 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of High-Rise, in New Statesman, December 20, 1999, p. 126.

[In the following review, Amis offers a generally favorable assessment of High-Rise.]

Towards the end of Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, Ransom, the Oedipal, megalomaniac hero, is about to scale the last heights of the mountain when he is told that the local demon will be awaiting him on the summit. Ransom climbs on alone, and as he reaches the summit unharmed—his great moment of personal and public triumph—he sees a small hooded figure on the crest, facing away from him. He approaches the demon, it turns—and it is his mother. Folding on to the ground, Ransom feels his life begin to drain away, as the demon sings him a tender lullaby which is also his dirge. JG Ballard's High-Rise is a harsh and ingenious reworking of the F6 theme, displaced into the steel-and-concrete landscapes of modern urban life.

The high-rise, with its 1,000 overpriced apartments, swimming-pools and shopping concourses, is what Ballard calls “the vertical city”, and to begin with its residents observe conventional class and territorial demarcations (“upper”, “lower” and “middle” levels), showing resentment, expediency and disdain for their fellow citizens in much the same way as life is run in the outside world. Soon, though, the enclosed nature of the building has encouraged and intensified these aggressions beyond any clear analogy with external society. After various piracies and beatings-up, the class system within the high-rise deteriorates as readily as the building itself, becoming a filthy warren of violent, apathetic or paranoid enclaves. Drunken gangs storm through the blacked-out corridors; women are found raped and murdered in defused elevators; disposal chutes are clogged with excrement, smashed furniture and half-eaten pets. Eventually the high-rise takes on that quality common to all Ballardian loci: it is suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.

Ballard being Ballard, though, High-Rise is no ordinary stroll down atavism lane. The mental journey undertaken by these colonists of the sky is not a return to “nature”; it is a return to the denurtured state of childhood: “For the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference,” enthuses one of the affluent anarchists. Ballard's stranded characters have always been more than half in love with their lethal and unnerving environments, and the delinquents of the high-rise are soon completely defined by their new psychopathological “possibilities”. One of the most ghostly and poignant scenes in the book has a middle-echelon psychiatrist attempting to leave his barricaded slum and return to work at his medical college; he gets as far as the car-park before the shrill clarity of the outdoors sends him running back to the affectless and soupy warmth of the high-rise, satisfied that he will never try to leave it again. In the closing pages, as hauntingly wayward as anything Ballard has written, the retrograde logic of the high-rise is fulfilled, when the passive, derelict women emerge as the final avengers.

I hope no one wastes their time worrying whether High-Rise is prescient, admonitory, sobering and whatnot. For Ballard is neither believable nor unbelievable, just as his characterisation is merely a matter of “roles” and his situations merely a matter of “context”: he is abstract, at once totally humourless and entirely unserious. The point of his visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction. The prose of High-Rise may not have the baleful glare of that of Crash or Vermilion Sands, but the book is an intense and vivid bestiary, which lingers unsettlingly in the mind.


Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 6)


Ballard, J. G. (Short Story Criticism)