An Interview with J.G. Ballard
by Jannick Storm
From Speculation no. 21 (February 1969): 4-8. Interview recorded at Shepperton, July 5, 1968.
Jannick Storm: First of all, I should like to know: how did you start writing?
J.G. Ballard: I started writing as a student -- I was studying medicine at Cambridge University. I was very interested in medicine, everything I learned there I put to very good use. All the anatomy and physiology and so on. It seemed an enormous fiction. They have an annual short story competition at the University, and I wrote a story for that and won the competition that year. I suppose that was a green light, so I gave up medicine, and after a few years I had my first story published. I'd tried originally to write stories for English literary magazines like Horizon and that sort of thing. Just general fiction of an experimental character. And then I thought that science fiction, which in those days was all Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke -- this was in the middle fifties -- I thought, those writers were not really making the most of what science fiction could be. I felt that a new kind of science fiction should be written.
Storm: Your kind of science fiction, you say, is different from the old science fiction. In what way?
Ballard: Modern American science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s is a popular literature of technology. It came out of the American mass magazines like Popular Mechanics that were published in the thirties, and all that optimism about science and technology that you found in those days. Anybody who can remember reading magazines in the thirties, or looking at books published in the thirties, will know what I mean ... they are full of marvels, the biggest bridge in the world, the fastest this or the longest that ... full of marvels of science and technology.
The science fiction written in those days came out of all this optimism that science was going to remake the world. Then came Hiroshima and Auschwitz, and the image of science completely changed. People became very suspicious of science, but SF didn't change. You still found this optimistic literature, the Heinlein-Asimov-Clarke type of attitude towards the possibilities of science, which was completely false.
In the 1950s during the testing of the H-bomb you could see that science was getting to be something much closer to magic. Also, science fiction was then identified with the idea of outer space. By and large, that was the image most people had of science fiction. The space ship, the alien planet. And this didn't make any sense to me. It seemed to me that they were ignoring what I felt was the most important area, what I called -- and I used the term for the first time seven years ago -- "inner space," which was the meeting ground between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of reality. Inner space you see in the paintings of the surrealists, Max Ernst, Dali, Tanguy, Chirico.
They're painters of inner space, and I felt that science fiction should explore that area, the area where the mind impinges on the outside world, and not just deal in fantasy. This was the trouble with SF in the early fifties. It was becoming fantasy. It wasn't a serious realistic fiction anymore. So I started writing... I've written three novels and something like seventy short stories over the last ten years -- I think that perhaps in only one story there's a space ship. It's just mentioned in passing. All my fiction is set in the present day or close to the present day.
Storm: Well, this is why your landscapes are not real, I suppose. They are sort of symbolic?
Ballard: Well, they are not real in the sense that I don't write naturalistically about the present day. Though, in the latest group of stories I've started to write, these stories written in paragraph form, which I call "condensed novels," there I'm using the landscape of the present day. The chief characters in these stories are people like Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy and so on. There I'm using present-day landscapes. Obviously if you're going to set most of your fiction several years ahead of the present, you're going to have to use and invented landscape to some extent, because you can't write naturalistically about London or New York twenty years from now. It must be an invented landscape to a certain extent.
Storm: You seem to be quite hostile towards science, like Ray Bradbury, for instance, but not in the same way, I suppose?
Ballard: I'm not hostile to science itself. I think that scientific activity is about the only mature activity there is. What I'm hostile to is the image of science that people have. It becomes a magic wand in people's minds, that will conjure up marvels, a kind of Aladdin's lantern. It oversimplifies things, much too conveniently. Science now, in fact, is the largest producer of fiction. A hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, even, science took its raw material from nature. A scientist worked out the boiling point of a gas or the distance a star is away from the Earth, whereas nowadays, particularly in the social, psychological sciences, the raw material of science is a fiction invented by the scientists. You know, they work out why people chew gum or something of this kind ... so the psychological and social sciences are spewing out an enormous amount of fiction. They're the major producers of fiction. It's not the writers anymore.
Storm: What do you think of the so-called new wave, as it manifests itself in New Worlds, for instance?
Ballard: I am the new wave!! Well, the new wave... I think it's only at the beginning. Having knocked my own head against a brick wall for ten years... you know, it's only now that people begin to accept that I'm not a deliberate fool, which a lot of people thought I was when I first started writing. It's taken so long that I don't expect any miracles to happen overnight, but already you see a group of younger writers coming along. People like Tom Disch, John Sladek, Michael Butterworth, Pam Zoline, the young American painter over here. They're starting to write a different kind of science fiction, but whether they will stay within science fiction long enough to consolidate the so-called new wave or whether -- as I think will happen -- they'll just move out of science fiction altogether and begin writing a speculative fiction that doesn't owe anything to science fiction, I don't know.
Storm: Well, the same applies to you. You don't consider yourself a science fiction writer?
Ballard: I don't consider myself a science fiction writer in the same sense that Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke are science fiction writers. Strictly speaking I regard myself as an SF writer in the way that surrealism is also a scientific art. In a sense Asimov, Heinlein, and the masters of American SF are not really writing of science at all. They're writing about a set of imaginary ideas which are conveniently labeled "science." They're writing about the future, they're writing a kind of fantasy-fiction about the future, closer to the western and the thriller, but it has nothing really to do with science. I studied medicine, chemistry, physiology, physics, and I worked for about five years on a scientific journal.
The idea that a magazine like Astounding, or Analog as it's now called, has anything to do with the sciences is ludicrous. It has nothing to do with science. You have only to pick up a journal like Nature, say, or any scientific journal, and you can see that science belongs in a completely different world. Freud pointed out that you have to distinguish between analytic activity, which by and large is what the sciences are, and synthetic activities, which are what the arts are. The trouble with the Heinlein-Asimov type of science fiction is that it's completely synthetic. Freud also said that synthetic activities are a sign of immaturity, and I think that's where classical SF falls down.
Storm: You've been running some advertisements in New Worlds. What do you think of them, what is the meaning of them?
Ballard: It occurred to me about a year ago that advertising was an unknown continent as far as the writer was concerned, a kind of virgin America of images and ideas, and that the writer ought to move into any area which is lively and full of potential. It occurred to me I had a number of ideas which I could fit into my short stories, my fiction general, but they would be better presented directly. Instead of advertising a product I would advertise an idea. I've done three advertisements now, and I hope to carry on. I'm advertising extremely abstract ideas in these advertisements, and this is a very effective way of putting them over. If these ideas were in the middle of a short story people could ignore them. They could just say, "It's Ballard again, let's get on with the story." But if they're presented in the form of an advertisement, like one in Vogue magazine, or Life magazine, people have to look at them, they have to think about them. I hope I can go on, the only problem being the expense. I hope eventually the magazines will pay me to put advertisements in their pages.
Storm: In Ambit -- where you're prose editor -- you've had a competition of things written under the influence of drugs, but as you admitted yourself in Ambit, the things which came out of it were pretty close to the things that you normally produce in Ambit. Would you comment on this?
Ballard: Literary competitions never produce anything all that outstanding. Newspapers and magazines for years have been running competitions for the best short story and the best travel story and so on, and the stuff that is sent in is never all that original, or all that exciting. I think the entries we received were interesting, but probably not so much for literary reasons as for biographical reasons, the circumstances in which people write stories, write poetry. This was interesting, and I think it was worth doing. Also, there was a lot of talk at the time about psychedelia, a kind of psychedelic revolution, that a whole lot of new arts were going to be produced, based on or inspired by drugs. And it was interesting to see as a result of the competition that in fact drugs didn't have all that big an effect, that they're very much a short cut and a short circuit.
Storm: Well, you're a well-known admirer of William Burroughs. Would you say that his style has influenced yours?
Ballard: No, I wish it had. Burroughs and I are completely different writers. I admire him as a writer who in his way has created the landscape of the twentieth century completely as new. He's produced a kind of apocalyptical landscape, he's close to Hieronymus Bosch and Brueghel. He's not a pastoral writer by any means. He's a writer of the nightmare. I only started reading Burroughs about four years ago, and it may be that he will influence me, I can't say. But certainly he hasn't influenced me now, though some people say he has. They're completely wrong.
Storm: Actually there's been quite a development in your style of writing. You started out with some quite ordinary stories, and now you have got these "condensed novels," as you call them.
Ballard: It has been a process of evolution rather than revolution. I wrote a novel called The Drought, which is my second novel, after The Drowned World. That was a novel about desert areas. I noticed while I was writing it that I was beginning to explore the geometry of a very abstract kind of landscape and very abstract relationships between the characters... I went on from there to write a short story which I called "The Terminal Beach," which is set on Eniwetok, the island in the Pacific where the H-bomb was tested. There again I was starting to look at the characters, and the events of the story, in a very abstract, almost cubist way. I was isolating aspects of character, isolating aspects of the narrative, rather like a scientific investigator taking apart a strange machine to see how it works. My new stories, which I call "condensed novels," stem from "The Terminal Beach." They're developments of that, but I don't think there's been a revolution in what I've done. There's just been a steady change over the years.
Storm: In your new stories you are using actual persons like John F. Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor and so on. Why?
Ballard: I feel that the nineteen sixties represent a marked turning-point. For the first time, with the end of the cold war, I suppose, for the first time the outside world, so-called reality, is now almost completely a fiction. It's a media landscape, if you like. It's almost completely dominated by advertising, TV, mass-merchandising, politics conducted as advertising. People's lives, even their individual private lives, are getting more and more controlled by what I call fiction. By fiction I mean anything invented for imaginative purposes. For example, you don't buy an airline ticket, you don't just buy transportation, let's say, to the south of France or Spain. What you buy is the image of a particular airline, the kind of miniskirts the hostesses are wearing on that airline. In fact, airlines in America are selling themselves on this sort of thing...
Also the sort of homes people buy for themselves, the way they furnish their houses, even the way they talk, the friends they have, everything is becoming fictionalised. Therefore ... given that reality is now a fiction, it's not necessary for the writer to invent the fiction. The writer's relationship with reality is completely the other way around. It's the writer's job to find the reality, to invent the reality, not to invent the fiction. The fiction is already there. The greatest fictional characters of the 20th Century are people like the Kennedys. They're a twentieth-century House of Atreus.
These figures that I use, I don't use them as individual characters. As I said in one of my stories, the body of a screen actress like Elizabeth Taylor, which one sees on thousands of cinema hoardings, thousands of advertisements every day, and on the movie screen itself, her body is a real landscape. It is as much a real landscape of our lives as any system of mountains or lakes or hills or anything else. So therefore I sought to use this material, this is the fictional material of the 1960s.
Storm: In SF Horizons, Brian Aldiss wrote that "Ballard is seldom discussed in fanzines." Time has certainly proved him wrong, and now you are one of the most discussed people in fandom. What do you think of fandom itself?
Ballard: I didn't know that was the case, because I never see any fanzines. I don't have any contact with fans. My one and only contact with fandom was when I'd just started writing, which is twelve years ago, when the World Science Fiction Convention was being held in London, in 1957, and I went along to that as a young new writer hoping to meet people who were interested in the serious aims of science fiction and all its possibilities. In fact there was just a collection of very unintelligent people, who were almost illiterate, who had no interest whatever in the serious and interesting possibilities of science fiction. In fact I was so taken aback by that convention that I more or less stopped writing for a couple of years. Since then I've had absolutely nothing to do with fans, and I think they're a great handicap to science fiction and always have been.