J. G. Ballard Ballard, J. G. (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Priest (review date 11 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jenny Diski (review date 9 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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W. Warren Wagar (essay date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nick Kimberley (review date 27 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Montrose (review date 28 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nicholas Ruddick (essay date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dennis A. Foster (essay date May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger Luckhurst (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Umberto Rossi (essay date March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Roger Luckhurst (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrew Barrow (review date 21 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lance Olsen (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick A. McCarthy (essay date July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rex Roberts (review date 21 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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John Gray (essay date 10 May 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Amis (review date 20 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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