J. G. Ballard 1930-
(Born James Graham Ballard) English short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. For further information on Ballard's short fiction, see SSC, Volume 1.
Ballard is respected for his innovative and imaginative science fiction stories. Influenced by surrealist art, he has produced fiction distinguished for its haunting, dreamlike juxtaposition of disturbing symbols, leaving interpretation to the reader. His writing is characterized by a repetitive, obsessive, verbal style, in which narrative line is frequently subordinate to atmosphere and imagery. Ballard's emphasis on inner space as the most relevant frontier to be explored in contemporary science fiction has influenced other authors and helped to revolutionize and deepen a form once marked by a proclivity for outer space, aliens, and interplanetary warfare. The inner space he chronicles lies between the external world of reality and the internal world of the psyche. Ballard's characters interact with an Earth made irrational and bizarre by environmental degradation, media intrusion, and perversity, and they typically appear in the midst of a spiritual quest and strive for an individually defined transcendence.
Ballard was born on November 15, 1930 in Shanghai, China. His father was an executive with a British textile manufacturer, and Ballard experienced a privileged early childhood. 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 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 won the school's annual competition for the best short story, with “The Violent Noon,” which was published in the Varsity. He 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. His first science fiction was published in the British periodical New Worlds in 1956, beginning Ballard's long association with the avant garde magazine, and its editors, E. W. John Carnell and later Michael Moorcock, who gave Ballard the freedom to experiment with both style and theme. Ballard left the Royal Air Force in 1957 and spent the next six years working on the staff of a science journal. 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. It was in the 1960s, due to his association with New Worlds and to the distinctive psychological emphasis of his work, that Ballard began to be recognized as one of the leaders of the British New Wave in science fiction. His work was awarded both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the James Tait Black Prize in 1984.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Ballard explores in his work the interior landscape of isolated humans in a postmodern world transformed by science and technology. He is recognized for his surrealistic science fiction, including detailed descriptions of geographical catastrophes and apocalyptic landscapes as well as his depictions of the transforming effects of science and technology upon human beings. His primary emphasis has been on inner space and the psychological processes of his characters. His distinctive science fiction has not only won him a loyal following but has influenced and helped shape the development of the genre. The Disaster Area (1967) contains Ballard's well-known story, “The Subliminal Man,” in which alienated citizens of a futuristic metropolis, psychologically enslaved to a system of subliminal advertising, may escape only through catatonia and regression. The title story from the collection The Overloaded Man (1967) illustrates the moral dangers of solipsism in its narrative about a bourgeois intellectual who destroys the earth by fantasizing the landscape outside his window into meaningless cubist designs. In The Voices of Time and Other Stories (1962), Ballard establishes his major, recurring theme of entropy. His theory, derived from the second law of thermodynamics, implies the temporal nature of the universe in its assertion that all matter must eventually degrade from order and energy to a state of chaos and inertia. In the title story of The Terminal Beach and Other Stories (1964), an obsessed ex-bomber pilot wanders an abandoned nuclear testing site in search of a “zone of non-time” where he may speak with the dead of past and future wars and where ontological beliefs are negated by the ultimate reality of the bomb. The Impossible Man and Other Stories (1966), contains “The Drowned Giant,” in which a giant's body is inexplicably washed ashore near a city. The story recalls both Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis in its epigrammatic narrative, which describes the citizenry's initial fear, gradual acceptance, and ultimate denial of the fact of the giant's existence once it has been removed. In The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Ballard describes society's modern immunity to sensational subject matter as “the death of affect,” and in such stories as “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” Ballard examines America's perverse attraction toward and hatred for public and political figures. 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 (1973). Following its appearance in England, The Atrocity Exhibition attracted controversy due to its presumed pornographic treatment of public figures and immoral subject matter. Despite the support of several prominent critics, the work did not appear in the United States for nearly two years, and The Atrocity Exhibition is noted as one of Ballard's most disputatious works to date. Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories (1976), contains Ballard's acclaimed novella, The Ultimate City, which features a protagonist who rejects the inefficiency of his simple agrarian society and leads his community in restoring technology to a late-twentieth century ghost town. As the city's population grows, however, so do such accompanying problems as pollution, crime, and violence. War Fever (1990), Ballard's most recent volume of new stories, is stylistically diverse. Much of Ballard's short fiction examines the landscapes of technology and the communications industry—illuminating the many paradoxes and underlying debasements of modern life.
Critical reaction to Ballard's works has been mixed, ranging from laudatory statements that label him a master of his craft and the finest science fiction writer the postwar has produced, to disapprobation and outright hostility. However, when examined retrospectively his work has gained admiration for its philosophical and intellectual rigor, imaginative language, and singular vision. Despite the disparate critical opinion, Ballard's impact on the genre of science fiction cannot be denied. He is considered a profound influence on such cyberpunk authors as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Moreover, he has been called one of the most demiurgic science fiction writers in modern times. Ballard's fiction has been compared to the work of French novelists Alain Robbe-Grille and Claude Simon and some commentators have urged a wider audience for Ballard's science fiction short stories. 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 critics 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 scholars 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 numinous pursuance. 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.