MAY 6, 2011
Image: Installation Study – War Games by Richard Hamilton (detail)
BRITISH AUTHOR J.G. BALLARD died on April 19, 2009 of an inoperable cancer that had spread from his prostate to his ribs and spine — a diagnosis he details in the final chapter of his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life with the calm, clinical directness characteristic of the author. During the 1960s, Ballard made a name for himself in the science fiction genre with a trilogy of disaster stories — The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), and The Crystal World (1966) — that challenged just about every convention of the genre. Rather than battling doggedly to preserve the remnants of civilization in the face of monumental adversity, his protagonists pursued a psychic accommodation — almost a mystical fusion — with the forces destroying their worlds. Ballard was widely condemned by hard-SF types for this perverse connivance with catastrophe, so at odds with the genre’s standard defense of scientific reason and heroic action. Not surprisingly, his work was at the center of furious debates surrounding the so-called “New Wave” SF movement in both the US and Britain, with his 1970 anti-novel The Atrocity Exhibition marking either a high point of sophisticated experimentation (from the perspective of the pro-New Wave faction) or a nadir of cynical incomprehensibility (in the view of the anti-New Wave crowd).
But Ballard wasn’t finished shocking sensibilities: his mid-career trilogy — Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1973), and High-Rise (1975) — was no less apocalyptic despite its abandonment of overt SF scenarios. Scathing evocations of contemporary culture, the novels exposed the secret pathologies lurking beneath the veneer of advanced urban life: the soaring motorways, the glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the vast apparatus of consumerist mass-media only served to stimulate “the infantile basis of our dreams and longing” (as Ballard put it in the introduction to a French edition of Crash). Modern technology had done little more than “provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means of tapping our own psychopathologies” — as in Crash‘s harrowing depiction of a subterranean cult of car-crash worshippers, or High-Rise‘s corrosive vision of a luxury apartment house descending into tribal warfare. This conviction that technoscientific progress is intimately entwined with psychosexual and moral regression is Ballard’s most quintessential theme, linking his early SF with his most recent fictional work, a quartet of novels — Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) — that explore the deviant pleasures of crime and terrorist violence in a high-tech suburban world. So consistent and recognizable is his vision of the world that the term “Ballardian” has even made it into the Collins English Dictionary as a reference to “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments.”
In Miracles of Life, Ballard credits his doctor, a renowned cancer specialist, with giving him the courage to tackle the writing of his autobiography, support for which we can all be grateful since the book is an eloquent and moving chronicle. Little in it qualifies as new information, however: his novels Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had already laid out the basic narrative of Ballard’s fraught childhood in Shanghai, including his two-year internment by the Japanese during WWII, and his postwar life in Britain as a medical student, RAF trainee pilot, widowed father, and celebrated writer of SF and avant-garde fictions. But those works were artistic inventions that took occasional liberties with the facts in order to produce compelling and carefully crafted stories. Empire of the Sun, for example, is one of the most brilliant treatments of the figure of the war orphan in contemporary literature, and a large measure of its impact stems from Ballard’s decision to edit his parents out of his account of his years of confinement in Lunghua Camp. While Empire was “firmly based on true experiences,” as he testifies, “some of the events described are imaginary” — and part of the pleasure of reading Miracles of Life is ferreting out the various changes Ballard made to his life in his fiction.
Many of the scenes described in Empire of the Sun are included here in their full vividness: the beggars dying on the Shanghai sidewalks while the wealthy Europeans drive past in their gleaming Packards; the youthful Jim bicycling through the war-ravaged streets; the casual brutality of Japanese soldiers beating Chinese peasants; the Lunghua prisoners consuming weevils to keep up their protein intake; American fighter planes swooping over the camp amidst exploding flak from anti-aircraft guns mounted on a pagoda, and so on. Other deeply affecting scenes — such as Jim watching teenage kamikaze pilots preparing for departure, or witnessing from afar the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki — are absent from Miracles, but one understands (and is grateful for) the aesthetic license that led Ballard to include them in the novel. Still, it is amazing how much of that extraordinary work was rooted in real events, as Miracles of Life makes plain; it is evidence of just how formative these early experiences were on the author that almost half this autobiography is devoted to his first fifteen years of life.
Has any other science fiction writer had a more tortuous, action-packed childhood? Most likely not, and as Ballard stresses, his early exposure to radically disruptive events — such as the sudden collapse of colonial power in Asia, with its attendant overturning of national and racial hierarchies that had seemed firmly settled — made him particularly attuned to the waves of change sweeping through the twentieth century that the genre was uniquely suited to confront and express. Yet Ballard’s personal encounter with science fiction was oblique and late in coming. His early aesthetic influences included Modernist literature, film noir, Surrealist art, and psychoanalysis — “foreign” phenomena he avidly devoured in the early 1950s as he sought to “save myself from the suffocations of English life.” Seeming to provide “an escape route, a secret corridor into a more real and more meaningful world,” these materials fired his mind but led only to abortive attempts at creative writing, “‘experimental’ short stories, which usually proved the experiment had failed.”
Things changed for the better when, during a six-month flight training stint in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Ballard discovered American SF magazines like Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Here was a type of fiction that boldly engaged the contemporary world of “television, advertising and the American media landscape” in a style that was “often as elliptical and ambiguous as Kafka.” Soon, under the encouraging hand of John Carnell, editor of New Worlds and Science-Fantasy, Ballard was publishing his own strange and haunting SF stories, “looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.” Tales such as “Manhole 69,” “The Subliminal Man,” and “The Voices of Time” capture brilliantly the technocratic ethos of postwar society, with its bland, hollow jargon and invasive techniques of consciousness manipulation. (These works can be readily sampled in the exhaustive Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard, published in the US in 2009.) Yet oddly, he was for some time unable to break through into the American market, where a “fierce orthodoxy ruled, and any attempt to enlarge the scope of traditional science fiction was regarded as conspiratorial and underhand.”
There is a curious elision here that Ballard never teases out himself: why were the US magazines so welcoming to the “comic infernos” of Frederik Pohl and Robert Sheckley, yet dismissive of his own similarly-themed efforts? Blaming this merely on American narrow-mindedness is hardly an adequate explanation, especially given that US book editors such as Judith Merril and Damon Knight proved quite open to Ballard’s work. This collusion between the rebels of the American and British SF scenes, which eventually led to the transatlantic eruption of the New Wave, is invisible in Ballard’s account. Indeed, despite praising the “huge vitality” of modern SF and defending it as “the true literature of the twentieth century,” Ballard mentions no other SF writers by name: the only genre figures he even acknowledges, Carnell and Michael Moorcock, are both mentioned in their capacity as editors of New Worlds.
Indeed, Old Guard fans who have always argued that Ballard is not really an SF writer at all will find much ammunition in this book, since the author seems to align himself more with visual artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, who drew eclectically on SF imagery, rather than with specifically literary talents in or outside of the genre. But the contempt he expresses for the SF establishment — gutless, incestuous, and “emotionally tied to the status quo” — is nothing beside the scorn he heaps on small-press poets and mainstream novelists, many of whom he claims would not survive without Arts Council funding and most of whom “were still locked into a literary sensibility that would have been out of date in the 1920s.” He admits to being much more comfortable with doctors, scientists, and other professionals — such as his good friend Christopher Evans, who became the Science Editor for New Worlds and the distant model for Vaughn, the “hoodlum scientist” in Crash — and the “invisible literature” that fills their wastebaskets (“handouts, brochures, research papers and annual reports from university labs and psychiatric institutions”) than with other authors and the novels that fill the Booker Prize short-list.
Miracles of Life is a fairly comprehensive account of Ballard’s life up through the writing of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, notorious works of willful excess designed to illustrate Ballard’s conviction that human beings “had far darker imaginations than we liked to believe.” From that point onwards, the book leaps rapidly through the decades, with two brisk chapters devoted to the writing and filming of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun and Ballard’s subsequent return to Shanghai and Lunghua in 1991, where he movingly searched “for my younger self, the boy in the Cathedral School cap and blazer who had played hide-and-seek with [his] friends half a century earlier.” Since the book closes with the acknowledgment of an imminent medical death sentence, it is possible that Ballard simply ran out of time and energy before he could fill in the remaining gaps. More likely, however, his last four decades involved a working out of obsessive patterns formed quite early in life, making it seem redundant to rehearse the inspiration for his many later efforts (which include eight novels published after Empire, none mentioned here). It is also true that Ballard’s adult life, despite some dabblings on the fringes of the Sixties counterculture, was considerably more sedate and sedentary than his feverish, deracinated childhood: he lived out his days in the modest suburban home in Shepperton he bought with his wife Mary in the early 1960s, where he brought up their three children alone following her shocking sudden death from pneumonia in 1964.
Although much of Ballard’s daily life apparently consisted of domestic routines too mundane to chronicle, he never stopped questioning the basis of his own settled existence. The first words of his final novel, Kingdom Come, say it all: “the suburbs dream of violence.” This paradoxical, yet resolutely Freudian, formulation — of a seemingly tame existence seething with unconscious frenzies — is J.G. Ballard in a nutshell: whether the globe succumbs to universal cataclysm (as in his early trilogy) or a handful of characters retreat into the twisted landscapes of their minds (as in his 1970s works), the petty patterns of everyday sociality are obliterated by a transcendent, devoutly wished-for consummation. In Kingdom Come, this humdrum social order is represented by the satellite town of Brooklands, a wasteland of car parks and strip malls subsisting in a haze of torpid comfort, yet primed to succumb to “a malaise even deeper than shopping.” Brooklands is home to the Metro-Centre, a vast enclosed mall (the biggest in Greater London) that is virtually a community unto itself, featuring its own cable channel, three hotels, an artificial beach (complete with wave machine), and a trio of dancing bears, the tutelary deities of this ersatz Eden. Despite the intensely secular milieu, Ballard’s metaphors are consistently mystical, atavistic: consumer goods are portrayed as psychic “totems” evoking “collective rituals” and expressing “tribal values,” dark, orgiastic impulses waiting to explode the surface calm of this “new gulag … where the forced labour was shopping and spending.”
As the story opens, the initial outbreak of this covert urge to violence has already occurred: an apparently random shooting in the mall’s central atrium has claimed three lives, including the father of the novel’s protagonist, Richard Pearson, a London ad executive who travels to Brooklands to get to the bottom of things. As in the previous three novels in this quartet, a shadowy offstage crime opens out into an intricate conspiracy involving central members of a tight-knit community — including here a nervous female doctor, a scheming psychiatrist, and various other sketchy bourgeois types the seasoned reader of Ballard will recognize immediately from previous treatments. Again, as in the other three books, the protagonist mounts a haphazard investigation complicated by his own ambiguous motives: Pearson, after all, is in the business of provoking consumer appetite with subtle psychological appeals, so his expressed qualms about the “eternal retail present” of this kitschy temple of materialist indulgence have to be taken with more than a grain of salt. As he admits, he has long been guilty of the “professional habit of trivializing the whole of life into the clichés of a TV commercial”; there is thus some bad faith in his repeated complaints about this “soft police state,” where eager shoppers seem busy “re-primitivizing themselves” for the exigencies of “a new Dark Age.”
And indeed, despite his outsider posturing, Pearson soon finds himself conscripted as an informal adviser to the Metro-Centre’s media figurehead, David Gould, a failed actor who now hosts chat shows and sporting events on the mall’s cable channel. Entering enthusiastically into this new role, Pearson unwittingly helps to promote psychiatrist Tony Maxsted’s agenda of “willed madness” — a program of cathartic violence that has already expressed itself in incidents of terrorist bombing and the racist targeting of immigrant communities. “Something far worse is waiting to crawl out of its den,” Maxsted rhapsodizes drunkenly; “consumerism will need something close to fascism in order to keep growing.” Pearson’s investigation, compromised by his own divided loyalties, is soon derailed by events, including an attempted assassination of Gould and culminating in a siege pitting the national police against a hard core of consumer fanatics barricaded in the Metro-Centre. As resources dwindle and tensions rise, Ballard evokes the mall’s descent into chaos with his characteristic moody lyricism; wandering desultorily along the artificial beach, slightly delirious from a fever caused by his infected foot, Pearson is another in the author’s long line of anti-Crusoes, who rather than rebuilding the structures of civilized life takes a perverse pleasure in watching their entropic disintegration.
Kingdom Come is filled with echoes of Ballard’s previous fiction, sometimes to the point of self-parody. It is frankly difficult to grasp why the author needed four books to tell this same basic tale of suburban prosperity succumbing to its buried neuroses and longings for redemptive violence: Cocaine Nights did the job quite effectively, and the three sequels have added little to the overall portrait save an increasing ideological agitation. More than once, the story stops in its tracks while Pearson exchanges brittle volleys with intellectual antagonists, especially Maxsted. As M. John Harrison commented, only a shade uncharitably, in his review of the novel for the London Times: “Ballard doesn’t describe things, he has opinions about them.” When we know these opinions so well after so many repetitions over a fifty-year career, we may perhaps be forgiven for feeling at times as if we’ve been buttonholed by a soapbox ranter. “Politics for the age of cable TV. Fleeting impressions, an illusion of meaning floating over a sea of undefined emotions. We’re talking about a virtual politics unconnected to any reality, one which redefines reality as itself. The public willingly colludes in its own deception,” and so on.
Still, for anyone who considers Ballard, as I do, one of the most significant of contemporary novelists, one of the few to have meticulously evolved his own cohesive universe, Kingdom Come contains many bracing pleasures, not least of which is the vision of this aging polemicist tilting vigorously at fresh windmills: mall culture, neofascist politics, the dynamics of artificial communities. The insistent continuities with previous work are not entirely wearying; one that I found genuinely moving involved a connection with the early traumatic events recounted in Miracles of Life. Witnessing appalling atrocities in which human lives were casually sacrificed clearly left the author deeply dubious about the complacent materialism of postwar affluent society: perhaps all the getting and spending was only a hollow façade screening depths of irrational violence. As the Metro-Centre spirals into sweaty, stinking dissolution, one can almost glimpse the lineaments of Lunghua Camp emerging from behind the arrays of consumer durables; this postmodern cornucopia at the end resembles nothing so much as the stacked columns of foreign cars and furniture gathered in a Chinese sports stadium, the meaningless detritus of the total collapse of European power in Asia, through which the adolescent Jim once wandered in a haze of hunger and contempt. All of Ballard’s work may be nothing more than the persistent elaboration of this image of a wrecked culture foundered on the shoals of its own barbarism. It is a compelling vision, for all its occasional lapses into tedium and despair.
Until the end of his life, Ballard insisted that science fiction was the most important form of literature to emerge during the twentieth century. A 2004 compendium entitled J.G. Ballard: Quotes, edited by V. Vale and Mike Ryan, includes such juicy nuggets as the following: SF is “the apocalyptic literature of the twentieth century”; the only “literature that responds to change”; it is “far more expressive of the key imaginative response to the 20th century than the so-called ‘mainstream’ novel.” “No other form of fiction,” the author asserts with his usual audacity, “has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.” On the other hand, the number of SF writers Ballard singled out for praise, as noted above, was always relatively small, consisting primarily of a single author, Ray Bradbury. Golden Age giants like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov he scorned as purveyors of a kind of “fantasy fiction about the future”; legendary Golden Age editor John W. Campbell he called “a baleful influence.” One can understand SF authors and fans bristling when they come across malicious observations such as the following: “People within the Science Fiction world never regarded me as one of them in the first place. They saw me as the enemy. I was the one who wanted to subvert everything they believed…. I’m some sort of virus who got aboard and penetrated the virtue of Science Fiction and began to subvert its DNA.”
Ballard was clearly mocking this view, based as it is on the standard caricature of his work advanced by the anti-New Wave crowd. And his fiction, as a careful reading makes plain, was always engaged with the speculative energies of the genre, its aggressive questioning of the present day in light of futuristic possibilities. I believe that, with the possible exception of Philip K. Dick, postwar SF has produced no finer writer, and certainly none more attuned to the perplexities and pitfalls of the modern technoscientific world. Ever opinionated and voluble, Ballard managed to have the last word. In the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, published a month after his death, a brief tale appeared entitled “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” This gentle apocalyptic fantasy, in which the protagonist awakes in a world mysteriously emptied of all life save for the birds in the London Zoo, is classic Ballard, filled with his trademark lyricism and compelling imagery. Despite being abruptly abandoned and isolated, the character stays upbeat, making “preparations for survival” by stockpiling food and weapons; comfortably ensconced in his suburban home, he amiably feeds the birds and resolutely prepares “to begin his true work.” This haunting little story reminds us that, though he has left us now, the author’s strange, stoic spirit soldiers on in some quiet suburb of the mind that he has made all his own.