"What our children have to fear is not the cars on the highways of tomorrow but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths." -- J. G. Ballard
James Graham Ballard (15 November 1930 — 19 April 2009) was an English novelist, short story writer, and prominent member of the New Wave movement in science fiction. His best-known books are Crash (1973), adapted into a film by David Cronenberg, and the semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun (1984), made into a film by Steven Spielberg, based on Ballard's boyhood in the International Settlement and internment by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.
The literary distinctiveness of his work has given rise to the adjective "Ballardian", defined by the Collins English Dictionary as "resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments."
Ballard was diagnosed with prostate cancer in June 2006, from which he died in London in April 2009.
In 2008, The Times included Ballard on its list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
"A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction.""Any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.""Electronic aids, particularly domestic computers, will help the inner migration, the opting out of reality. Reality is no longer going to be the stuff out there, but the stuff inside your head. It's going to be commercial and nasty at the same time.""Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.""Given that external reality is a fiction, the writer's role is almost superfluous. He does not need to invent the fiction because it is already there.""I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that's my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again... the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.""In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!""Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.""The American Dream has run out of gas. The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It's over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now: the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Vietnam."
Ballard's father was a chemist at a Manchester-based textile firm, the Calico Printers Association, and became chairman and managing director of its subsidiary in Shanghai, the China Printing and Finishing Company. Ballard was born and raised in the Shanghai International Settlement, an area under foreign control where people "lived an American style of life". He was sent to the Cathedral School in Shanghai. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Ballard's family were forced to temporarily evacuate their suburban home and rent a house in downtown Shanghai to avoid the shells fired by Chinese and Japanese forces.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese occupied the International Settlement. In early 1943 they began interning Allied civilians, and Ballard was sent to the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center with his parents and younger sister. He spent over two years, the remainder of World War II, in the internment camp. His family lived in a small area in G block, a two-story residence for 40 families. He attended school in the camp, the teachers being camp inmates from a number of professions. These experiences formed the basis of Empire of the Sun, although Ballard exercised considerable artistic licence in writing the book, notably removing his parents from the bulk of the story.
It is often supposed that Ballard's exposure to the atrocities of war at an impressionable age explains the apocalyptic and violent nature of much of his fiction. Martin Amis wrote that Empire of the Sun "gives shape to what shaped him." However, Ballard's own account of the experience was more nuanced: "I don't think you can go through the experience of war without one's perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience." But also: "I have...I won't say happy...not unpleasant memories of the camp. [...] I remember a lot of the casual brutality and beatings-up that went on...but at the same we children were playing a hundred and one games all the time!"
England and Canada
In 1946, after the end of the war, his mother returned to England with Ballard and his sister on the SS Arrawa. They lived in the outskirts of Plymouth, and he attended The Leys School in Cambridge. After a couple of years his mother and sister returned to China, rejoining Ballard's father, leaving Ballard to live with his grandparents when not boarding at school. In 1949 he went on to study medicine at King's College, Cambridge, with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist.
At university, Ballard was writing avant-garde fiction heavily influenced by psychoanalysis and surrealist painters. At this time, he wanted to become a writer as well as pursue a medical career. In May 1951, when Ballard was in his second year at King's, his short story "The Violent Noon", a Hemingwayesque pastiche written to please the contest's jury, won a crime story competition and was published in the student newspaper Varsity.
Encouraged by the publication of his story and realising that clinical medicine would not leave him time to write, Ballard abandoned his medical studies, and in 1952 he enrolled at Queen Mary, University of London to read English Literature. However, he was asked to leave at the end of the year. Ballard then worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency and as an encyclopaedia salesman. He kept writing short fiction but found it impossible to get published.
In 1953 Ballard joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to the RCAF flight-training base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. There he discovered science fiction in American magazines. While in the RAF, he also wrote his first science fiction story, "Passport to Eternity", as a pastiche and summary of the American science fiction he had read.
Ballard left the RAF in 1954 after two years and returned to England. In 1955 he married Helen Mary Matthews and settled in Chiswick. Their first child, of three, was born in 1956, and his first published science fiction story, "Prima Belladonna", was printed in the December issue of New Worlds that year. The editor of New Worlds, Edward J. Carnell, would remain an important supporter of Ballard's writing and would publish nearly all of his early stories.
From 1957, Ballard worked as assistant editor on the scientific journal Chemistry and Industry. His interest in art led to his involvement in the emerging Pop Art movement, and in the late fifties he exhibited a number of collages that represented his ideas for a new kind of novel. Ballard's avant-garde inclinations did not sit comfortably in the science fiction mainstream of that time, which held attitudes he considered philistine. Briefly attending the 1957 Science Fiction Convention in London, Ballard left disillusioned and demoralised and did not write another story for a year. By the late 1960s, however, he had become an editor of the avant-garde Ambit magazine, which was more in keeping with his aesthetic ideals.
Full-time writing career
In 1960 Ballard moved with his family to the middle-class London suburb of Shepperton in Surrey. Finding that commuting to work did not leave him time to write, Ballard decided he had to make a break and become a full-time writer. He wrote his first novel, The Wind from Nowhere, over a two-week holiday simply to gain a foothold as a professional writer, not intending it as a "serious novel"; in books published later, it is omitted from the list of his works. When it was successfully published in January 1962, he quit his job at Chemistry and Industry, and from then on supported himself and his family as a writer.
Later that year his second novel, The Drowned World, was published, establishing Ballard as a notable figure in the fledgling New Wave movement. Collections of his stories started getting published, and he began a period of great literary productivity, while pushing to expand the scope of acceptable material for science fiction with such stories as "The Terminal Beach".
In 1964 Ballard's wife Mary died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him to raise their three children — James, Fay and Bea Ballard — by himself. Ballard never remarried; however, a few years later his friend and fellow author Michael Moorcock introduced him to Claire Walsh, who became his partner for the rest of his life (in fact he died at her London residence), and is often referred to in his writings as "Claire Churchill". After the profound shock of his wife's death, Ballard began in 1965 to write the stories that became The Atrocity Exhibition, while continuing to produce stories within the science fiction genre.
The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) proved controversial — it was the subject of an obscenity trial, and in the United States, publisher Doubleday destroyed almost the entire print run before it was distributed — but it gained Ballard recognition as a literary writer. It remains one of his seminal works, and was filmed in 2001. Along with the book, he also produced a 75-hour installation for the ICA called The Assassination Weapon, the title of one of the book's chapters, featuring a film about a deranged H-bomber pilot projected simultaneously on three screens to the sound of cars crashing.
Another chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition is titled "Crash!", and in 1970 Ballard organised an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory, simply called "Crashed Cars". The crashed vehicles were displayed without commentary, inspiring vitriolic responses and vandalism. In both the story and the art exhibition, Ballard explored the sexual potential of car crashes, a preoccupation which culminated in the novel Crash in 1973.
The main character of Crash is called James Ballard and lives in Shepperton (though other biographical details do not match the writer), and curiosity about the relationship between the character and his author gained fuel when Ballard suffered a serious automobile accident shortly after completing the novel. Regardless of real-life basis, Crash, like The Atrocity Exhibition, was also controversial upon publication. In 1996, the film adaptation by David Cronenberg was met by a tabloid uproar in the UK, with the Daily Mail campaigning actively for it to be banned.
Although Ballard published several novels and short-story collections throughout the seventies and eighties, his breakthrough into the mainstream came only with Empire of the Sun in 1984, based on his years in Shanghai and the Lunghua internment camp. It became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. It made Ballard known to a wider audience, although the books that followed failed to achieve the same degree of success. Empire of the Sun was filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987, starring a young Christian Bale as Jim (Ballard). Ballard himself appears briefly in the film, and he has described the experience of seeing his childhood memories reenacted and reinterpreted as bizarre.
Ballard continued to write until the end of his life, and also contributed occasional journalism and criticism to the British press. Of his later novels, Super-Cannes (2000) was particularly well received, winning the regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Ballard was offered a CBE in 2003, but refused, calling it "a Ruritanian charade that helps to prop up our top-heavy monarchy". In June 2006, he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, which metastasised to his spine and ribs. The last of his books published in his lifetime was the autobiography Miracles of Life, written after his diagnosis. His final published short story, "The Dying Fall", appeared in issue 106 of Interzone, a British sci-fi magazine. It was reproduced in The Guardian on 25 April 2009.
In October 2008, before his death, Ballard's literary agent Margaret Hanbury brought an outline for a book by Ballard with the working title Conversations with My Physician: The Meaning, if Any, of Life to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The physician in question is oncologist Professor Jonathan Waxman of Imperial College, London, who was treating Ballard for prostate cancer. While it was to be in part a book about cancer, and Ballard's struggle with it, it reportedly was to move on to broader themes. In April 2009 The Guardian reported that HarperCollins announced that Ballard's "Conversations With My Physician" could not be finished and plans to publish it were abandoned.
With the exception of his autobiographical novels, Ballard most commonly wrote in the post-apocalyptic dystopia genre. His most celebrated novel in this regard is Crash, in which cars symbolise the mechanisation of the world and man's capacity to destroy himself with the technology he creates; the characters (the protagonist, called Ballard, included) become increasingly obsessed with the violent psychosexuality of car crashes in general, and celebrity car crashes in particular. Ballard's disturbing novel was turned into a controversial...and likewise disturbing...cerebral film by David Cronenberg.
Particularly revered among Ballard's admirers is his short story collection Vermilion Sands, set in an eponymous desert resort town inhabited by forgotten starlets, insane heirs, very eccentric artists, and the merchants and bizarre servants who provide for them. Each story features peculiarly exotic technology such as poetry-composing computers, orchids with operatic voices and egos to match, phototropic self-painting canvasses, etc. In keeping with Ballard's central themes, most notably technologically mediated masochism, these tawdry and weird technologies service the dark and hidden desires and schemes of the human castaways who occupy Vermilion Sands, typically with psychologically grotesque and physically fatal results. In his introduction to Vermilion Sands, Ballard cites this as his favorite collection.
In a similar vein, his collection Memories of the Space Age explores many varieties of individual and collective psychological fallout from...and initial deep archetypal motivations for...the American space exploration boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
In addition to his novels, Ballard made extensive use of the short story form. Many of his earliest published works in the 1950s and 1960s were short stories.
On 13 December 1965, BBC Two screened an adaptation of the short story "Thirteen to Centaurus" directed by Peter Potter. The one-hour drama formed part of the first season of Out of the Unknown and starred Donald Houston as Dr Francis and James Hunter as Abel Granger. In 2003, Ballard's short story "The Enormous Space" (first published in the Science fiction magazine Interzone in 1989, subsequently printed in the collection of Ballard's short stories War Fever) was adapted into an hour-long television film for the BBC entitled Home by Richard Curson Smith, who also directed it. The plot follows a middle class man who chooses to abandon the outside world and restrict himself to his house, becoming a hermit.
Ballard is cited as an important forebear of the cyberpunk movement by Bruce Sterling in his introduction to the seminal Mirrorshades anthology. Ballard's parody of American politics, the pamphlet "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan", which was subsequently included as a chapter in his experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition, was photocopied and distributed by pranksters at the 1980 Republican National Convention. In the early 1970s, Bill Butler, a bookseller in Brighton, was prosecuted under UK obscenity laws for selling the pamphlet.
According to literary theorist Brian McHale, The Atrocity Exhibition is a "postmodernist text based on science fiction topoi"
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard hailed Crash as the first great novel of the universe of simulation.
Lee Killough directly cites Ballard's seminal Vermilion Sands short stories as the inspiration for her collection Aventine, also a backwater resort for celebrities and eccentrics where bizarre or frivolous novelty technology facilitates the expression of dark intents and drives. Terry Dowling's milieu of Twilight Beach is also influenced by the stories of Vermilion Sands and other Ballard works.
Ballard also had an interest in the relationship between various media. In the early 1970s, he was one of the trustees of the Institute for Research in Art and Technology.
In popular music
Ballard has had a notable influence on popular music, where his work has been used as a basis for lyrical imagery, particularly amongst British post-punk groups. Examples include albums such as Metamatic by John Foxx, various songs by Joy Division (most famously "The Atrocity Exhibition" from Closer), the song "Down in the Park" by Gary Numan and "Warm Leatherette" by The Normal. Songwriters Trevor Horn and Bruce Woolley credit Ballard's story, "The Sound-Sweep", with inspiring The Buggles' hit, "Video Killed the Radio Star", and Buggles' second album included a song entitled "Vermillion Sands." The 1978 post-punk band Comsat Angels took their name from one of Ballard's short stories. The band Manic Street Preachers include a sample from an interview with Ballard in their song Mausoleum.