“I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows…”
Michael Moorcock announced, and then the BBC followed up, the news that J G Ballard died this morning. It wasn’t unexpected: Ballard had stated a while ago that he had advanced prostate cancer, and his recent book Miracles of Life was organised around that fact. But it’s still a shock.
My instant reaction is that it’s very difficult now to understand just how subversive his first works were in the late 50s, how much they went against the grain of what sf had done up till then. Instead of stories of humanity triumphing by Campbell/Heinlein smarts, here were tales of entropy, defeat, drained swimming-pools, abandoned nuclear test sites, and above all, no sense in the orthodox sf way of causality, of why this has happened. It’s from the stories that you get that unmistakable Ballard landscape – depopulated, bare, filled with now-useless works of technology and culture. Novels like The Drowned World and The Crystal World pushed the argument further, and also made clear his stunning ability as a visual writer. Then there came the engagement with Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds and works like Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition that were even more radical in form and content. The semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is often understood as the hinge work in his career, unpacking his landscape and sense of dislocation in terms of what happened to him while interned in Shanghai during World War II. Other books followed Empire – the semi-sequel The Kindness of Women, the strange police procedural Running Wild, consumerist satires like Millennium People and – a personal favorite – The Day of Creation. If I had to pick one emblematic Ballard book, though, it’d be the Arkham House retrospective Memories of the Space Age, which collected stories about space travel (or its failure) from across his career. I make the choice partly because it includes a number of favorites such as the title story, “The Cage of Sand” and “The Man Who Walked on the Moon”. Partly, its cover (Max Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain”) makes clear Ballard’s deep debt to the Surrealists. Partly, so many of the motifs he returned to again and again are there: the abandoned Cape Canaveral, the imagined America it’s a symbol of, the rusting rockets, the mysterious aeroplanes – all beautifully illustrated by J K Potter. It looks like there are some reasonably-priced copies out there, but failing that I’d recommend almost any Ballard short fiction collection as a good place to start. There’s probably a lot to be said about his career – I’m not sure if he was the first author to cross over from sf into “mainstream” respectability, but he was certainly one of the most important – and also adaptations of his work, which brought out surprising things in directors as different as Spielberg and Cronenberg. But I’ll finish instead with two links: to the hugely detailed Ballardian
3 thoughts on ““I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows…””
I suppose I was never a stone Ballardian, but I spent a few months a couple of decades ago catching up on the seminal short stories — essentially, the early collections THE VOICES OF TIME, BILLENNIUM, and VERMILION SANDS. I found that work remarkable, hypnotic, thoroughly individual. Ballard was obviously one of the greats, and a writer more than most who inhabited his own imaginative space.
(I might note that when I finally saw Chris Marker’s famous film LA JETEE a few months ago it reminded me intensely of Ballard.)
The news of his death is no surprise, of course, but it is a great loss.
For those of us of a certain generation, Ballard came along just in time to keep SF interesting. As a teenager, I hadn’t at all given up on SF, but had reached that point when you begin branching out, and in my case I’d discovered The Evergreen Review, with writers like Beckett, Ionesco, Burroughs, Genet, and eventually even Alfred Jarry. It was exciting stuff, but nothing in my SF reading seemed to be at all in dialogue with it, or even from the same literary world.
Whatever might have been going on over at New Worlds was invisible to me, but there were these interesting Ballard stories that began to appear in Amazing and Fantastic, thanks to the still underrated editor Cele Goldsmith, and eventually in other magazines as well. Mostly, though, Ballard came to my attention as an author of Berkley paperbacks; between 1962 and 1967, I think they published something like four of his novels and five story collections. Even those early disaster novels seemed more bleakly existential than the usual run of cosy catastrophes, but it was probably with “The Terminal Beach” that I realized fully that here was a writer who might be equally at home in The Evergreen Review as in SF magazines, and it wasn’t surprising at all when the publisher of that magazine, Grove Press, should eventually become one of his American publishers (once he got transgressive enough to scare other publishers off and thus attract their attention).
He wasn’t the only one doing these interesting things, of course, but I suspect that the Berkley series had given him enough of an American following that we were willing to follow him down whatever strange paths he wanted to stake out.
Ballard was a subversive writer in the best sense of that term. The dystopian worlds he created served not just as cautionary tales but as warped reflections of current reality. His tales were arresting, hypnotic, and plausible in the way that a dream feels plausible while it is happening. We’re talking Graham Greene meets Franz Kafka here – a grounding in the everyday combined with a quiet contemplation of the darkly fantastic. Ballard’s work was idiosyncratic as hell. The best fantasists, magical realists, or whatever label you care to use are often engaged in the act of visualizing and reframing their own traumas. That’s certainly true of Ballard, and probably what lends his visions their lingering force. He is already missed.