J. G. Ballard, the British science fiction writer and surrealist, is often credited as some kind of modern-day prophet. But what he was really doing was taking contemporary trends and extending them to their logical extremes, argues Mark Blacklock, the literary scholar and editor of a new collection of Ballard's nonfiction writing. Here he selects five of Ballard's best books.
J. G. Ballard was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers. Why do you think that is—and why should we continue to read Ballard’s books in the 21st century?
There are a number of reasons that he is so important. His career had three distinct phases. He started out as a science fiction writer, writing short stories and later novels. Quite quickly he built a significant reputation and people were championing him as one of the most important new voices, like his editor Ted Carnell at New Worlds. His first novel, proper – there was an earlier novel, The Wind From Nowhere, but he wrote it in two weeks and considered it hackwork – The Drowned World won the attention of Kingsley Amis, they became friends, it made a big impact. Then with Mike Moorcock at New Worlds, they completely reformed science fiction.
The ‘new wave’ of science fiction was a mindset rather than an approach. Ballard didn’t like the term ‘experimental,’ even though I do think he was properly experimental in that he was using the methods of scientific experimentation—taking samples and working with them. They did change science fiction forever. Moorcock and Ballard together.
So Ballard was a genre reformist. And then he’s a provocateur. He writes this incredibly provocative series of novels—they’re sometimes called the ‘urban disaster’ novels: Crash, Concrete Island, High Rise – these novels that that proceed from an extreme logic, societies that have gone off kilter in a closed environment. These are deliberately provocative books.
So that’s phase two. And then in phase three, after Empire of the Sun, he’s basically a household name. Empire of the Sun narrowly missed out on the Booker Prize—it was expected to win—and was turned into a film by Steven Spielberg. All of a sudden, people are aware of his incredible life story, this experience of having been interned in Shanghai. Then he’s a talking head, he’s well known, and it’s from that time that the adjectival form takes root, and people are aware of what this writer has contributed to the imaginative landscape.
That’s right. I see books or films or even landscapes being described as ‘Ballardian’ all the time.
Most bookish people will have an idea of what it is to be Ballardian, whether that’s something in a gated community gone wrong, or a drained swimming pool… these stock images that he has. That’s testament to the fact that he is a really, really significant writer. And we are talking about a career that basically ran from the early 1960s right up to 2007, when he published Kingdom Come.
He had a long career with incredibly distinct phases. He changed the genre. He provoked— épater la bourgeoisie!—and then he became a mainstream novelist of repute. I think he’s really important.
Absolutely. I noticed that your list of ‘Ballard’s best books’ doesn’t include some of his best known work. By which I mean Crash, Empire of the Sun, and my personal favourite, The Drowned World. How did you make your selection?
I went for my favourites, basically. The Unlimited Dream Company I came to quite late, but it seems to me somehow exemplary, the purest expression of his surrealism. The Atrocity Exhibition is like the Rosetta Stone for his experimental period. That was the book that turned me from an enthusiast to an obsessive.
Kingdom Come is his final novel, and it seems to divide opinion. His final phase, which is when I first encountered him, were kind of détourned noirs. And Kingdom Come is the ultimate expression of that. He’s really come home—it’s modelled on the Bentall Shopping Centre in Kingston, it’s about the suburbs dreaming of violence and that violence erupting. It’s underpinned by a sly, surrealist wit, but it’s also very observant of contemporary reality.
I chose the short stories because they almost span his entire career—that’s my cheat. You get the same genetic code of his ideas in the early stories, like ‘The Voices of Time,’ which is kind of wonderful. But it lets me get all Vermillion Sands in there, and the later experimental work as well. And finally Extreme Metaphors, a beautifully edited collection of his interviews, in which we get to hear from him himself, get his eloquence and generosity in interview, an insight into how fully realised were his ideas.
I want to talk about the Complete Short Stories first. The British edition comes in twovolumes, the American in one. How should the reader approach it—read from start to finish?
Honestly, I would just drop in wherever you want, because he did emerge almost fully formed as a writer of short stories. ‘The Voices of Time,’ as I say, would be early- 1960s: maybe actually 1960. It has so many of those key ideas: alienated figures trying to work something out—the mysteries of the universe—deep time—receiving signals from space—running around a deserted base going mad… It’s incredible.
Then you come forward into the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you get things like ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,’ where every single word is footnoted. And the very playful, paratextual, formally experimental work that he does in the short story form. Then there are the Vermillion Sands pieces collected together as a sequence of stories set in an imaginary resort—a sort of Mediterranean beach resort of the future. People are just living lives of leisure, they have no work, and are playing around sculpting clouds in the sky and making singing statues… again, exemplary of a certain part of his vision. He said: the future is boring! People will have nothing to do! So they will entertain themselves by doing the weirdest things.
So, yes. You can dip in and dip out. He started off as a short story writer and he is an expert in the form.
That sounds like a real smorgasbord. Shall we move on to The Atrocity Exhibition? This book came out in 1970; and Ballard once described it as “an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early sixties.” Would you tell us more?
Yes. There are a number of different motifs and instants that recur. There’s a character that comes back in different forms—Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot—and Roger Luckhurst, who wrote the first monograph on Ballard, called him ‘the T-cell’; it’s like the character has been transposed from one condensed fiction into another. They are responding to a kind of sensory environment in which different planes of experience are presented on the same level of reality. The experiences of the senses, the experience of the media environment, the experiences of the everyday normal—they are all treated exactly the same. It’s an astonishing achievement.
“Most bookish people will have an idea of what it is to be Ballardian”
He preferred to call them condensed fictions or condensed novels to experimental short stories. They consist of lexia – paragraph-length prose poems using incredibly technical vocabulary literally borrowing from, sampling from, textbooks and found documents. There are free-associated lists of ideas and objects encountered by the characters. There are magnified images of body-parts of billboards. Incidents of violence – predominantly the Kennedy assassination, but also we know he was reading books about the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima – these spectacularised, massive, species-scale violent acts haunt the entire collection. And underpinning it is an extremely abstracted surrealist logic whereby geometry is asked to produce emotional or erotic responses.
Earlier you suggested this was a springboard into the books that followed.
Absolutely. I mean, quite literally. Crash emerges from this period, where he’s putting metaphors on the same plane as empirical events… It’s absolutely a surrealist approach, you know? Putting things on the same canvas that don’t belong together—a melting clock, the face of a goddess, you know? Ballard is doing that with technological elements, and anatomy taken to its most pornographic extreme in Crash.
He plays around with these ideas in pieces like ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’; a short piece titled ‘Crash,’ which is part of The Atrocity Exhibition collection and predates the novel; and ‘The Summer Cannibals’… They were appearing in either New Worlds or Ambit, alongside collages, photographs, found images of crash test dummies and crashed cars. At that same point in time he exhibited crashed cars at the New Arts Lab in Camden. He was proposing a one-act play based on the car crash to the ICA, and Eduardo Paolozzi, his great friend, was going to make crash test dummies for that. This period of intense research into the idea of the car crash as extreme metaphor—as a sort of fertilising image – produces one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature.
And he’s onto something! It’s a weird thing that we quite happily accept: this technology that is advertised as an instrument of desire probably kills more of us on a day-to-day basis than almost anything else. So it makes complete sense to extrapolate from that to make it a tool of characters – cyphers, really – who would use it to explore their drives towards death and eros.
I hadn’t realised he worked in visual art as well. But it strikes me that he is an incredibly visual writer. These striking images: the flooded city, the empty swimming pools, the vines climbing the buildings…
He often said that he would have been a painter if he could be, but he didn’t have the talent. He was a really astute commentator on visual art. And visual art was a profound influence—the Surrealists, first and foremost. He wrote a couple of really, really detailed, almost scholarly, essays on the Surrealists and Salvador Dali, separately. He commissioned remakes of two paintings by Paul Delvaux that had been lost during the war. Some of the best writing in my collection is his writing on visual art.
This is the book that I really needed. There was an earlier collection published in the early 1990s, but it doesn’t cover the whole of his career, and other pieces have emerged since it was published. It wasn’t brilliantly organised. So as a researcher and writer on Ballard—and an enthusiast—I wanted to see more of his brilliant nonfiction writing, and to have it collected in a way that was really well organised.
Some of the best pieces are the pieces that were really hard to find—like catalogue essays about artists, stuff that was spread all over the place. So I’ve gathered those together and paid one of the best indexers in the business to do a really good index. That’s a thing of joy in itself.
A true researcher speaking. Next on our list of the best J. G. Ballard books is The Unlimited Dream Company. This novel was published in 1979. Why have you selected it?
It’s absolutely amazing. It operates purely by dream logic. A guy called Blake has stolen a Cessna and crashed it into the Thames, near Shepperton. When he emerges from the plane, there’s a scene of characters that are like Jungian archetypes: a Jesuit priest, who’s a sort of father figure; a doctor, who is sort of like a mother… Anyway, he moves through Shepperton, which is where Ballard lived, and it’s never clear whether he is dead or alive. There’s a body in the Cessna: is it Blake? We don’t know. There’s no explanation for anything. Images succeed one another, it’s really rich and also erotic in the sense that it’s steeped in it, the way that dreams can be sexual on a weird level that you can’t put your finger on. Sometimes it’s literal: Blake wants to mate with everybody in Shepperton. It’s astonishing.
He sustains it for a whole book. It’s visually stunning. Shepperton is transformed into a jungle. He is transformed into a whale at one point, into birds… It’s metamorphic, fluid, properly surrealist.
It won a couple of big science fiction awards when it first came out. But do you feel it’s unfairly passed over now?
It’s not always mentioned. Empire of the Sun and Crash are the big noises. And High Rise—the ones that have been adapted into films. I think it gets slightly sidelined. But there are people who go for it.
Let’s jump forward in time to Ballard’s final novel, Kingdom Come, which is set in motion by a mass shooting in a shopping mall. Again, this is one of Ballard’s less well known books, but I think you feel it’s one of his strongest novels.
Yes, so, as I say, I really love his late period: Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdom Come, which are all basically the same novel again and again. I mean, the plot is pretty much always Heart of Darkness. This is pretty broad brush. But there’s someone who goes up river, and they lose themselves in that world, become part of the logic of that world. That’s what happens again and again in these last four. They are all centred on the idea of middle-class communities that have become bored with contemporary life and are entertaining themselves by playing around with violence, drugs, sex.
Kingdom Come fertilises that with his observations about British society at that specific point in time. He gets slightly shaken by seeing so many St George’s flags proliferating around Shepperton—that’s probably around 2004, when a big football tournament is happening, but he was reading about Fascism at the time, doing research as he always did. He was interested in how Nazism was also a capitalist movement, and he thought that consumer culture was a slip towards a sort of soft Fascism, because the only moral code is money. So he uses all of those elements.
There’s a substratum of Surrealism. It’s slightly abstracted and has that feeling of a warning. Honestly, I think that Ballard was an analyst of the present. This whole idea of him being a prophet, that he was predicting the future, sort of cheapens his achievements, really. What he was great at doing was observing the circumstances around him and extrapolating from that: you could end up here. That’s exactly what he’s doing in Kingdom Come.
I like that idea: extrapolating from the present. And perhaps that brings us to your final Ballard book recommendation: Extreme Metaphors. This is a collection of interviews with the writer himself, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara. It was published in 2012.
It’s a brilliant, brilliant book. It takes a broad sweep, starting with the first interview—in 1967 with George MacBeth, a poet who did lots of stuff on BBC Radio and was an early enthusiast for Ballard—and going right up to the last—with Jim Naughtie in 2008, the year before he died. So the full sweep of his career.
It also, and the nonfiction does this as well, gives a sense of him as a guy who was very, very generous with his time. He loved to speak to people about ideas, how those ideas informed his work, and was so articulate, so erudite. He combined serious education with the instincts of the autodidact. I mean, he taught himself everything that really mattered. But he also did two years of a medicine degree at Cambridge. That really comes through in the interviews.
He started his career as the assistant editor of Chemistry and Industry, a scientific trade journal, and he said he loved being at the centre of a huge information flow. That’s something he continued throughout his career as a writer—he loved processing information, watching TV—he would have loved the internet, but by then he was tuning out.
Extreme Metaphors is brilliantly edited and gives us a real sense of that erudition, the range of his thinking, and his generosity in sharing those ideas.
Right. He was a unique character with some quite wild ideas and opinions. Would you characterise him as a contrarian?
Definitely not a joiner in-er! He was very mischievous. He turned down a CBE. He joked that he asked if he would be permitted to style himself ‘Commander Ballard’ and because he wasn’t given the nod he declined it. He didn’t want the imprimatur of the establishment. He had very complex personal politics. Broadly liberal on money, an enthusiast of multiculturalism, and despite being privately educated he was completely against private education and wanted the House of Lords disbanded. But he was also an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and the economic liberalisation of the 1980s, which doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.
I think he admired Thatcher as a symbol as much as anything. He compared her to the Belle Dame sans Merci. He liked the idea as an archetype, a particular type of celebrity image. But yes, he was idiosyncratic and no, not a joiner of clubs.
Finally: Ballard’s books have been adapted for the screen a number of times, as you have mentioned. Do you rate any of those film adaptations?
Well, yes. Cronenberg’s Crash is a brilliant piece of art in its own right. That would be the one that Ballard really liked. Then a guy called Jonathan Weiss directed a version of The Atrocity Exhibition; Ballard provided a commentary to the whole thing, which I would read in parallel. The edition of The Atrocity Exhibition to get is the RE/Search Publications special edition, which has his paratextual commentary to the text along the side. He took the same approach to the film with this audio commentary, playing around with the bounds of the text. That’s really interesting, but definitely one for connoisseurs.
I’m not a huge fan of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, I have to say. I think it goes for goofy laughs. And though Ballard is funny, I think his humour is sort of monomaniacal. It’s like: here’s the joke. I dare you to laugh.
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