Obituary: J.G. Ballard

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of extraordinary short stories began appearing in small-circulation science fiction magazines, in Britain and the US. These stories, a strange and compelling blend of surrealism, poetry, scientific nous, and millennial doom were written by the British author J. G. Ballard, who has died aged 78.

A former Royal Air Force pilot, advertising copywriter, and encyclopaedia salesman, Ballard, who died of cancer on Sunday, would go on to be perhaps around the world best known for his 1984 book Empire of The Sun. The fictionalised account of his childhood internment in a second world war Japanese camp in China yielded the 1987 Steven Spielberg film of the same name.

But Ballard’s writing career fell into three broad phases, clearly distinct from each other and revealing the natural growth of his art.

Early short stories like ’The Sound-Sweep’ (1960), ’The Voices of Time’ (1960), ’The Garden of Time’ (1962), ’The Cage of Sand’ (1962) and the stories from the sequence known as Vermilion Sands, were in some ways the highest expression, the ultimate form, of speculative literature, then and now. Inspired more by painters like Ernst, Dali and Delvaux than by other writers, his fiction was atmospheric, visual and endlessly intriguing.

These early short stories are still the least known of Ballard’s output, but they remain amongst the finest short fiction of the late 20th century. In the same period he published three novels, two of which are still recognized as modern classics of the fantastic: The Drowned World (1962) and The Crystal World (1966). Both resonate with surreal imagery, a sense of inescapable entropy and Ballard’s trademark prose. The third novel from this time, The Drought (1964), is perhaps the most fully realized of the three but has never done as well as the others.

Ballard’s personal obscurity was eventually explained and understood. He was a young family man with a full-time job (he was a journalist on trade magazines before going freelance), he wrote in his evenings and weekends and was bringing up three small children. His wife Mary died suddenly in 1964 during a family holiday, and Ballard gave up his job and simply devoted the next few years to the children and his writing. He once said that his work from that period could only be understood from within that context: caring for three energetic children and a demanding golden retriever, all crammed into a small house in west London.

He said, “We had an integrated, rich family life, blazing away 24 hours a day!”

No clue about this domesticity can be found in his material published during the 1960s and 1970s. The mystifying, scientifically plausible images of the elegiac early work were replaced by harsher, more challenging material. Titles like ’The Assassination of J. F. Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ (1966), ’Love and Napalm: Export USA’ (1968) and ’Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968 twelve prescient years before the presidency!), were eventually collected in a book entitled The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Ballard clearly did not believe in taking prisoners.

He emerged from personal obscurity and in a number of interviews revealed himself as a trenchant, original observer. Nothing he said was ever predictable. He once urged everyone to watch a minimum of four hours’ TV a day (“not watching TV is worse than not reading novels”) and pleaded with the US Air Force to station a cruise missile in his back garden. He also disparaged writers of the modern novel: “they have nothing to say of interest whatever, and an hour spent in not reading them is an hour gained forever.”

Novels from this period included three of his most totemic works: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975). Crash was made into a film by David Cronenberg in 1996.

James Ballard was born in November 1930, in Shanghai, and grew up isolated from Chinese culture in a suburb close to the International Settlement. (The improbable address was 31 Amherst Avenue; the house is still there.) His father was a businessman. In 1942, he and his parents were interned by the Japanese in Lunghua Camp until the defeat in 1945, a period of childhood Ballard later described as one of the most enjoyable of his life.

Arriving in England after liberation, he was struck by the dingy, restrictive life of the British in the post-war period. He finished school, went to Cambridge (where he studied medicine for two years), went on to London University to study English, but in 1953 he joined the RAF, because he wanted to fly. It was during a long spell undergoing RAF training in Canada that he discovered science fiction, and started to write.

In 1984, Ballard suddenly tackled the source material head-on and published Empire of the Sun, a more-or-less literal recounting of his experiences.

The book became a worldwide best-seller, bringing long overdue financial stability to Ballard himself, and putting his work before hundreds of thousands of new readers.

Empire of the Sun heralded the long final phase of Ballard’s work, in some ways a retrenching, but now moving towards social satire rather than the disturbing visionary signals of what had gone before.

His last book was an autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), written and published in the final months of his life. By then the cancer that was to kill him had him in its grip, but the book is a remarkably open, buoyant and positive one, full of joy, full of his unique personality.

James Ballard is survived by his three adult children, James, Fay and Beatrice.

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