Kicky Baby Blog: J.G. Ballard

Originally posted on the Kicky Baby blog, June 1, 2009.

One of our most innovative and creative voices passed away on Sunday April 19th in London. I’ve been reading J.G. Ballard since I was a teenager, and found him compelling and rich–and often strange, not at all a pejorative for me either then or now.

The best obits of Mr. Ballard cover his history well enough, but may leave out a little context.

Many of Ballard’s early short stories were published in science fiction magazines and anthologies, and he followed them in 1961 and 1962 with THE WIND FROM NOWHERE and THE DROWNED WORLD, two notable efforts which hark back to the Wellsian disaster novel, being explored so successfully by John Wyndham at the time. Both were marketed as science fiction. A single-volume edition of both novels was published by Doubleday in the United States in 1965.

It doesn’t seem much of a stretch to point out that a young writer is likely to try to fit in to a market that is already familiar (and perhaps commercial), and a community that is known to be friendly–and so Ballard always moved easily in and out of science fiction, and to my knowledge, much like his contemporary, William Golding, never disowned his roots. Others, however, made serious efforts to distance Ballard from science fiction, even though most of his work was published in the genre.

Other prominent UK authors of that decade–Brian Aldiss, Robert Conquest, and Michael Moorcock among them–cut their teeth on science fiction, and published extensively in the field.

Kingsley Amis–a fellow traveler, sympathetic to sf and knowledgeable about its accomplishments and possibilities– made his big mark with an academic satire, LUCKY JIM, and it seemed there might be success to be found outside of genre.

William Golding stayed within genre, but barely–and produced one of the greatest successes of that period, LORD OF THE FLIES. He later went on to win the Nobel Price for Literature.

Anthony Burgess  unapologetically wrote science fiction, but seemed to hark back to Orwell and Huxley for overt inspiration. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE became a world-wide sensation, perhaps the biggest success for this generation after LORD OF THE FLIES–and  was made into a controversial film by Stanley Kubrick that Kubrick himself eventually pulled from the UK market.

In this milieu, Ballard continued to write stunning novels like THE CRYSTAL WORLD (1966), at once fantastic, rooted in apparent rational realism, yet surreal and dreamlike. In the United States, THE CRYSTAL WORLD’s publisher pulled away from any labels–reflecting a new literary reputation for Ballard.

VERMILION SANDS (1971) expanded this reputation.

He dived head first into the bizarre and avant garde with his 1968 quasi-story-essay, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” followed by CRASH (1971),  and THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (1974).

British visionaries have traditionally expressed a serious distaste for the culture and politics of the United States–witness Olaf Stapledon and John Brunner.

These stories and  novels were of critical interest, and attracted considerable attention and controversy, but were not very commercial. (Though CRASH was decades later filmed by David Cronenberg.) One has to make a living.

Like Anthony Burgess in the Malaysian Trilogy, Brian Aldiss recorded his youth and war experiences in A HAND-REARED BOY and A SOLDIER ERECT (and also placed his marker firmly in the experimental camp with BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD.)

Ballard had one story yet to record perhaps even more surreal than his fiction–and yet indisputably part of history. He followed Burgess’s and Aldiss’s path and launched into a novel about his boyhood in Singapore during World War 2.

In a real sense, EMPIRE OF THE SUN is both autobiographical, intensely wondrous, and horrible at once. A young lad gets tossed between the grinding wheels of a dying culture, a violently suicidal culture, and technology.

The adolescent Jim’s feverish interest in airpower leads to an epiphany under a new kind of sun–a moment perfectly Ballardian.

Here, Ballard’s success was substantial–the trappings and fame of a film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, was great fun for him, and its impact was at once dizzying and sobering–for it was unlikely to be replicated.

Other writers and directors were also intent on exploring their younger days in the war. In the United States, dozens of war novels were published in the fifties and sixties, pushing new boundaries in gritty realism.

Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22 stretched realism until it snapped. Kurt Vonnegut brilliantly mined his own experiences as a prisoner of war in the firebombing of Dresden and assembled the almost unclassifiable and brilliant  SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, my candidate for one of the great American novels.

In EMPIRE OF THE SUN, Ballard did not overtly stretch the bizarre elements, letting them speak for themselves. The effect is at once startling yet more conventional–more like Wyndham and Wells, in a way. And in his later writing, he tended to stay within the continuing Kingsley Amis tradition of drawing from his own life.

I met Ballard at a signing in Seattle in the late eighties and wistfully asked if he was ever going to reach back to his wilder novels. “Oh, no,” he replied. “Those days are done, I’m afraid.”

He seemed a friendly, accessible man.

(Not fitting smoothly into this essay–worthy of its own essay, probably–is the career of Michael Moorcock, who worked brilliantly in many genres, including bitterly harsh and satirical science fiction–THE BLACK CORRIDOR, BEHOLD THE MAN. Later, Moorcock would follow his contemporaries–though he was one of the younger set in the 1950s–and produce fine novels outside of science fiction and fantasy. In the UK, that still seems easier to do than in the United States–where the taint of writing science fiction (and admitting it) is often wisely avoided, if you desire a critically acclaimed career within the genre of mainstream literature.

Vonnegut avoided it, with a wink and a nod–despite his early connections and publications. Michael Crichton eschewed genre completely. Doris Lessing does not–and yet, like Golding, she now has a Nobel Prize–and in that triumph, has been dissed rather harshly by a certain fusty, aging literary critic.

More power to the UK chameleons and butterflies!