The Penthouse Interview / J. G. Ballard

Sci-Fi Seer

From Penthouse Magazine, 1970, Vol. 5 No. 5 (pp. 26-30)

Interviewed by Lynn Barber

Transcribed by Mike Holliday

J.G. Ballard is the leader of a group of English science-fiction writers (Brian Aldiss is another of them) who have transformed the genre from its attachment to death-ray guns and little blue Martians into the most radical form of 20th-century fiction. His first big success, The Drowned World, was followed by The Drought, The Crystal World and The Terminal Beach. He has also made news with a series of shock stories, published in New Worlds and Ambit, on themes of car crashes, film stars and, above all, the assassination of President Kennedy. His Plan For the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy produced a complaint from the American Embassy, and Why l Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan led to the prosecution of a Brighton bookseller.

Experimenting in idea communication, Ballard occasionally takes full page ads in literary magazines -- a typical one shows a woman masturbating with the caption, "Can the angle between two walls have a happy ending? A J.G. Ballard Production." This year he held an exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Laboratory, complete with topless girl to demonstrate their erotic potentialities. In the final week the cars were attacked by vandals, upended, and smeared with paint, an unanticipated event which delighted Ballard. His latest book. The Atrocity Exhibition, with irreverent references to Jacqueline Kennedy, has just been published in this country by Cape, but the American edition was pulped two weeks before its scheduled publication.

A widower, now aged 40, Ballard brings up his three children himself in his chaotic house at Shepperton. Despite the seriousness of his books, he is jovial in person and a brilliant conversationalist. In this exclusive Penthouse interview, he talks to Lynn Barber about the space programme, the outlook for science, car crashes, violence and his vision of a deviant sexual future.

Penthouse: Your books and your pronouncements about science fiction ("the apocalyptic literature of the 20th century" and "Outer space is the symbol of inner space") are miles away from conventional science fiction. Do you consider yourself a sci-fi writer?

Ballard: Not in the tradition of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury or even H. G. Wells. But I believe that science fiction is far more than the kind of popular space fiction that had its heyday between 1930 and 1960 and is now pretty well dead. American magazine sci-fi -- Arthur C. Clarke and Heinlein and so on -- that's finished. Dammit, we're living in the year 1970, the science fiction is out there, one doesn't have to write it any more. One's living science fiction. All our lives are being invaded by science, technology and their applications. So I believe the only important fiction being written now is science fiction. This is the literature of the 20th century. I am convinced that in, say, 50 years' time, literary historians looking back -- if they bother, which they may not -- will say: "You can forget about the social novel, you can forget about everything except sci-fi". Even bad sci-fi is better than the best conventional fiction. A ton of Proust isn't worth an ounce of Ray Bradbury. It's 100 years since Verne wrote his Voyage to the Moon. I think it was published in 1870 or thereabouts and they landed on the moon almost 100 years later to the day, and this is the only literature that matters a damn. Everybody should be forced to read it all the time. It's true.

Penthouse: Did the moon landing mean such a lot to you?

Ballard: Of course it did. It's probably the only important thing that has happened in the 20th century. I had this feeling after they landed on the moon that in a way it gave me the moral right to do anything I wanted, because it didn't matter what I did. I felt we were like a lot of animals in an abandoned zoo, and that the only important thing that was going to happen in our lifetime had happened. But the spinoff from the space programme -- which should have had enormous effects on everybody's lives, from the way we drive our cars to the way we light our cigarettes -- and the effect on people's imaginations, was absolutely nil. In fact when you think of the hundreds of millions of pounds that the Russians and Americans have invested in the space programme, the real effects of the moon landing could only be described as a gigantic flop, the worst first night in history. I noticed this after the first orbital flights a few years ago: within a day people had totally lost interest in them. How many people, if you asked them, could tell you the names of the men who first orbited the moon, the Christmas of -- when was it? -- 1968. How many people could tell you the names of those men who recited the extract from the Book of Genesis? Yet it was a fantastic voyage, a triumph of technology, courage, science, organization, everything.

Penthouse: If you think the moon the only important thing likely to happen in your lifetime you presumably have no great expectations of 2001?

Ballard: We're ahead of the clock, that's the whole point. It's like Buckminster Fuller, you know, saying that World War III is already over and we lost. People aren't interested in the future any more. The greatest casualty of World War II, I think, was that the past ceased to have moral authority for people, the authority of precedent, tradition, one's father, social background, everything. That ended with World War II, and thank God. But what has happened in the 25 years since then is that the future has become a casualty too. One could say that the moon landing was the death knell of the future as a moral authority. No one thinks that the future is going to be a better place -- most people think it's going to be a worse place. The moral authority of science was colossal in the 1930s. I can remember myself that children's encyclopaedias were loaded with scientific marvels -- the greatest bridge in the world, the longest tunnel, the biggest ship, Professor Picard in his stratosphere balloon. But the idea that science was building a bigger and better world ended with Hiroshima and Eniwetok. Now people feel that science may not bring a better world, but a nightmare. Dr Barnard may really be Dr Moreau. Now people are frightened of science and they're frightened of the future. They no longer feel that because something's going to happen tomorrow it's going to be better than today.

So the idea of America is dead, I think, because America was built on the assumption that tomorrow was a better day. The American Dream is the American Nightmare now. I think that's why American sci-fi of the '40s and '50s has come to a full stop. Nobody is writing it any more, no new writers have come into the field, because people don't accept the authority of the future any more. God knows, the present is infinitely more varied and bizarre and fantastic. People have annexed the future into the present, just as they've annexed the past into the present. Now we have the future and the past all rolled into the present -- one day you're wearing Edwardian clothes, the next you're dressed like an 18th-century samurai. One can visualize by, say, the end of the century calendars no longer existing. They won't be necessary, there'll be no dates, there won't be a year 2000, because no one will be interested. And if the proverbial visitor from outer space lands here in the year 2000 (by his calendar, because we won't have them) he might find himself in anything from Elizabethan England to ancient Rome to Nazi Germany to a Barbarella fantasy of the year 1,000,000 A.D.

Penthouse: Now you're making a prediction about the future yourself.

Ballard: Yes, because we're still in the dying twilight of tomorrow, we can still see the idea of the future. But my children, or today's teenagers, they're not interested in the future. All the possibilities of their lives are contained within a different set of perspectives, an inner life. If you look back over the past 10 years you can see a continuous retreat inwards. I coined the expression "inner space" about 10 years ago and usually sci-fi writers' predictions are proven wrong with 100% consistency, but in this one instance I was certainly right: that what you see is the death of outer space, the failure of the moon landing to excite anyone's imagination on a real level, and the discovery of inner space in terms of sex, drugs, meditation, mysticism. Just look at the career of the Beatles and you see this retreat from the exterior by steady stages, through drugs, then meditation, to a more or less complete involvement with their own bodies. Lennon and Yoko seem to be rediscovering the tactile existence, the organic reality of their own embraces, and it's very beautiful I think.

Penthouse: If what you say is true, why is there so much science journalism around? Why so many articles on the future of genetic engineering, or heart transplants, or the population explosion?

Ballard: Most science journalism is really fiction masquerading as fact. Almost anything you care to name nowadays is really fiction, serving someone's imaginative end, whether it's a politician's, or a TV executive's, or a scientist's. So-called hard science is now the new show business. Take someone like Desmond Morris, a so-called scientist who is really one of the leading pop entertainers. He's as much a showbiz performer as John Lennon.

Penthouse: What about Barnard?

Ballard: I think he became show business afterwards. That was where science created its first superstar, the moment Washkansky had his new heart, the first one, that was something unique. I'm sure that most scientific developments in the future are going to be made in the Barnard way. There'll be no more of the absent-minded professor in his laboratory stumbling on penicillin and taking five years to develop it. No, he'll be a pushy, ambitious, publicity-orientated scientist who will launch himself not just into the new discovery, but into show business at the same time.

Penthouse: Do you also dismiss the sort of science journalism that deals with serious extrapolations of the future, the population explosion, pollution, demographic factors?

This is the Herman Kahn school of distant extrapolation, which I find absolutely meaningless. They say something about the present and they say something about the mind of Herman Kahn, but they don't say anything about the world 50 years from now, because one simply can't anticipate. The world rate [sic] changes so fast you don't need to be much of a mathematician to work out that things will be so different even in 10 years' time that one won't be able to say anything about them now. It's like women's fashion -- one can't even guess what it'll be like this time next year.

Penthouse: Most of your novels and stories seem to be set in the future, and give the impression of a future after the holocaust, after some terrible catastrophe has changed the world.

Ballard: Well, the facts of time and space are a tremendous catastrophe, aren't they? Each day millions of cells die in our bodies, others are born. Every time we open a door, every time we look out across a landscape -- I'm deliberately trying to exaggerate this -- millions of minute displacements of time and space are occurring. One's living in a continuous cataclysm anyway -- our whole existence takes place in the eye of a hurricane.

Penthouse: But those changes aren't a sudden worldwide disaster which would change the character of life on this planet.

Well, look at the events of the last 30 years, the slaughter of human life alone, anything from 30 to 50 million people dead in World War II. World War III, still a possibility, would multiply that figure by ten presumably. That's one cataclysm that's already occurred and another that's possible, of the order of anything invented by science fiction.

Penthouse: Are you a pessimist?

Ballard: I don't know. Perhaps I'm just being honest. What I'm trying to do is to look at the present and to get away from the notion of yesterday, today, tomorrow.

Penthouse: Your latest book The Atrocity Exhibition seems to use more personal or auto-biographical material than before.

Ballard: A little more, yes. I mean when I say I want to write fiction for the present, I'm clearly not trying to pretend that I'm not influenced by the past, because we all are to a tremendous degree. Besides, enough time has now elapsed for me to be able to look back. In fact, the setting of The Drowned World, the apartment blocks rising out of the swamp, is like the landscape of immediate postwar China where I was brought up. I was interned during the war in a camp a few miles from Shanghai and I used to look out through the barbed wire across these deserted paddyfields where one saw big abandoned apartment houses of the French Concession surrounded by unbroken areas of water in the sun, especially in the flooding periods. There was a big Japanese airfield adjacent to the camp and it was under attack by the Americans throughout the last year of the war. I'm sure now that was the landscape I used in The Drowned World, though I thought I'd invented it when I was writing the book.

Penthouse: As doctors and hospitals figure prominently in your recent stories, perhaps this is a reflection of your early medical training?

Ballard: Maybe it is. Doing anatomy was an eye-opener: one had built one's whole life on an illusion about the integrity of one's body, this "solid flesh". One mythologizes one's own familiar bits of flesh and tendon. Then to see a cadaver on a dissecting table and begin to dissect it myself and to find at the end of term that there was nothing left except a sort of heap of gristle and a clutch of bones with a label bearing some dead doctor's name - that was a tremendous experience of the lack of integrity of the flesh, and of the integrity of this dead doctor's spirit. Most cadavers, you know, are donated by doctors; and the doctors can visualize what's going to happen to their bodies after death, because they've done dissection themselves.

Penthouse: What happened to your medical training - did you complete it?

Ballard: No I didn't. I guess I learnt enough medicine to cure myself of wanting to be a doctor. That sounds pat but I wanted to be a doctor for neurotic reasons and once I'd got over the neurosis, solved whatever problems I'd had, I found that medicine was a sort of fiction -- all that anatomy and physiology. Gray's Anatomy is the greatest novel of the 20th century. By comparison with our ordinary experience of our bodies, to read Gray's Anatomy is to be presented with what appears to be a fantastic fiction, an epic vastly beyond War and Peace and about as difficult to read. This is serious.

Penthouse: Does early science training help in writing sci-fi, and must a sci-fi writer get the sci part right?

Ballard: No, one's not dealing with facts like the boiling point of lead or the density of neon or the precise formula of DDT. The science one's writing about is the science that comes out of one's TV tube, the mass magazines, the labels on oral contraceptive wallets, whatever. Just as the novelist, when he's writing about other people's emotions, doesn't have to know the blood pressure of the young woman who's getting excited by her lover.

Penthouse: Actually, you tend to put that sort of fact into your stories.

Ballard: Because I'm interested in that sort of thing. What I'm talking about, though, is the kind of scientific information that one is accurate about. It's the technology of everyday life, if you like, and how you use particular kinds of soup mix, what proof a certain brand of whisky is, how much you dilute your car antifreeze.

Penthouse: Rather like Len Deighton?

Ballard: Exactly. I think Deighton is marvellous. His narration is absolutely packed with fact material, and it's the right fact material. His eye is looking at the right things. I think Fleming did the same before he lapsed into fantasy. He knew exactly what make of camera a Japanese secret agent would carry in Europe, and this is important, because when you go on holiday in Venice or somewhere and you see Japanese wandering round they're always carrying a particular brand of camera. People's behaviour all over the world, whatever they're doing, reflects this kind of technology of everyday life. Mass magazines are based on this kind of expertise - from clothes to furnishings to food to sex to holidays. That's why the old-fashioned kind of novel is so boring, because it doesn't relate to all this.

Penthouse: Haven't you said somewhere that the writer is obsolete?

Ballard: Yes, obsolete in the traditional sense of storyteller. I think most of the people who move across the media landscape -- presidents and presidents' widows, great surgeons, film stars, whatever you like to name -- are generating fictions far beyond anything the writer can produce, and they're more interesting and real because they're earned out of actual experience.

Penthouse: You don't think, like McLuhan, the writer's becoming obsolete because people won't read any more?

Ballard: They probably won't read in the future. At the moment they are reading, but they're reading different things. They're reading pornographic magazines, a huge range of magazines and periodicals which offer them an instant replay and comment on their own lives. Not books -- the technology of the book publisher is so out of date, he hardly has a technology. You think of the idea you want to write about, you take perhaps a year before the book is finished, you then send it through your agent to a publisher and a certain amount of wheeling and dealing goes on. Perhaps a year later -- that's two years after you thought of it -- the book is finally published in hard-cover. Two years after that it goes into paperback. So it's four years before a large (so-called large) audience reads the book. Well that's the time it takes for a signal to come from the nearest star! So most of my writing is done for magazines because there the feedback of response from editor and readership is much quicker. Also you appear sandwiched between advertisements for motorcars and brassieres and this context is much more exciting than marbled endpapers.

Penthouse: This interest in advertising, brand names, etc, seems to echo the pop painters.

Ballard: Absolutely. I feel a tremendous rapport with pop artists and in a lot of my fiction I've tried to produce something akin to pop art. For instance, I've just published a piece in New Worlds called Princess Margaret's Facelift, in which I've taken the text of a classic description of a plastic surgery operation, a facelift, and where the original says "the patient", I've inserted "Princess Margaret". So I've done precisely what the pop painters did, using images from everyday life -- Coca-Cola bottles, Marilyn Monroe -- and manipulated them. The great thing about pop painters is their honesty. They've turned their backs on the traditional subject matter of the fine arts -- which had hardly changed since the Renaissance -- and looked at their own environment and decided: yes, the shine on domestic hardware, like the refrigerator or the washing machine, the particular gleam on the mouldings of a cabinet, the moulding of doorhandles, are of importance to people, because these are the visual landscapes of people's lives, and if we're going to be honest we're going to use reality material instead of fiction. I want to do the same.

Penthouse: Have you ever been involved in a car crash -- you seem preoccupied with car crashes recently.

Ballard: No, I've never been in one. Serious car crashes take a very long time to recover from, and if I'd been in one I'd probably have a different view of them. But the car crash is probably the most dramatic, perhaps the only dramatic, event in most people's lives apart from their own death, and in many cases the two will coincide. It's true people are dying in Vietnam and people are being involved in all kinds of other violence, but in America something like 35,000 people die in car crashes every year, and about 7,000 over here, and about 12,000 in Germany. And the totals are rising. It's a tremendous dramatic event, fascinating and even exciting. That's why all safety campaigns which aren't backed up by penal legislation are doomed to failure.

A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status -- all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really, a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing). That's why the death in a crash of a famous person is a unique event --whether it's Jayne Mansfield or James Dean -- it takes place within this most potent of all consumer durables. Aircraft crashes don't carry any of these elements whatever -- they're totally tragic and totally meaningless. We don't have any individual rapport because we're not moving through an elaborately signalled landscape when we go aboard an aircraft: it's only the pilot who's moving through that. It's like people who are good chess players watching top chess players play chess. When one player defeats another, the good chess player understands what has happened, whereas you and I wouldn't have a clue.

Really, it's not the car that's important: it's driving. One spends a substantial part of one's life in the motor car and the experience of driving condenses many of the experiences of being a human being in 1970, the marriage of physical aspects of ourselves with the imaginative and technological aspects of our lives. I think the 20th century reaches just about its highest expression on the highway. Everything is there, the speed and violence of our age, its love of stylization, fashion, the organizational side of things -- what I call the elaborately signalled landscape.

Penthouse: Surely the 20th Century image ought to be something like a computer?

Ballard: I don't see that. Computers may take over that role in 50 years' time, but they certainly don't play it now. Most people have no first-hand contact with computers yet. My bank balance may be added and subtracted by a computer but I'm not aware of it.

Penthouse: How do people respond to your car crash theory? How did they react to your exhibition of crashed cars at the New Arts Lab this spring.

Ballard: People used words like cynical or perverse or sick. There's a whole series of subjects people are not really honest about. Violence is another one. Most people take the view -- I would myself -- that violence is wholly bad whatever form it takes, whether it's the huge violence of Vietnam or the violence of, say, police brutality. But the point is that we're also excited by violence, and if we are attracted to it, it may be for good reasons. If we were honest about the Vietnams of the world, the real appeal of these events, we'd see them in a totally new light and they might never happen again.

Honesty always enriches our lives, just as it has in the area of sex. I think it's good to explore it, to find out why Mondo Cane movies are such tremendous successes, why the news-stands of Japan and America are loaded with sadistic literature. Obviously this serves some sort of role. Conrad said: "Immerse yourself in the most destructive element" -- if you can swim, fine. I just want to know why people need violence and how can one come to terms with this thing? The Vietnam war clearly fulfils certain needs and one must be honest and work out what they are. We've all taken part in this war, given the tremendous TV coverage; we're all combatants.

Penthouse: Surely the point is that we're not being shot, we're just enjoying the show.

Ballard: Absolutely right. The important thing is that it is a show. All of us have made the world in which we live -- we're not forced to watch the newsreels on television, we don't have to look at the pictures in illustrated magazines. This war, if it is a show, is a show at which we are the paying audience, let's remember that. All I'm saying is that one ought to be honest about one's responses. People didn't in fact feel the kind of automatic revulsion to the Biafra war that they were told they should feel. They were stirred, excited, involved. It may be that one needs a certain sort of salt in one's emotional diet.

Penthouse: Perhaps these over-excited responses come from leading sheltered lives?

Ballard: Everybody has a sheltered life. Life in Northern Europe is particularly sheltered. What's the old quotation by Villiers de L'Isle Adam: “As for living, our servants can do that for us.” Living is one of the most boring things one can do. The really exciting things, the most interesting experiences, go on inside one's head, within those areas covered by the intelligence and imagination. It's not particularly interesting to go to the supermarket and buy six TV dinners, or have your car filled up with petrol, or shuffle up an airline escalator queue. It's much more interesting, let's say, to think about those things.

That could apply to sex as well.

Ballard: Right. I believe that organic sex, body against body, skin area against skin area, is becoming no longer possible simply because if anything is to have any meaning for us it must take place in terms of the values and experiences of the media landscape, the violent landscape -- this sort of Dionysiac landscape of the 1970s. That is why I bring in things like the car crash. A whole new kind of psychopathology, the book of a new Krafft-Ebing is being written by such things as car crashes, televised violence, the new awareness of our own bodies transmitted by magazine accounts of popular medicine, by reports of the Barnard heart transplants, and so on.

There's a new textbook of psychopathology being written, and the old perversions are dead. They relate to a bygone age. A fantasy like a man dressing his wife in a gymslip and beating her belongs to the past. What we're getting is a whole new order of sexual fantasies, involving a different order of experiences, like car crashes, like travelling in jet aircraft, the whole overlay of new technologies, architecture, interior design, communications, transport, merchandising. These things are beginning to reach into our lives and change the interior design of our sexual fantasies. We've got to recognize that what one sees through the window of the TV screen is as important as what one sees through a window on the street. But I don't mean exclusively television when I talk about the communications landscape: I mean every facet of one's experience through newspapers, magazines, television. If you take something like travelling by aircraft to Paris, it's a very fictional experience. One's actual physical experience of going from London to Paris by air is completely overlaid by advertising and commercial and fashion concepts.

Penthouse: Who or what controls this sort of experience?

Ballard: Well, it's a democratic world. It's controlled by the people who design the handrails of airport stairways, who design hostesses' dresses -- the smiles the hostesses give you are themselves a kind of fictionalized smile based on an image of the sort of smile they should give us. Nothing is spontaneous, everything is stylized, including human behaviour. And once you move into this area where everything is stylized, including sexuality, you're leaving behind any kind of moral or functional relevance. I mean, this is the thing about the pill -- not that it gives women freedom, because it doesn't -- but it removes the orientation provided by the reproductive impulse so that, let's say, there's no longer any reason why intercourse per vagina should be any more satisfying or any more desirable or any more right, morally or organically, than say intercourse per anus, per navel or armpit or anywhere else you care to dream up. This is serious. In fact, women may not be necessary anyway, just as men may not be necessary to women. With various electronic aids -- closed-circuit TV, videotape feedback and so on -- one can see sexuality extended into a whole series of new perversions, new unions.

When people travel, have more experiences and meet more people, they tend to have more sexual experience -- as they would have more meals. I feel that so-called normal sexuality (if there ever was such a thing), i.e. heterosexual relationships oriented around genital sex of a reproductive character, which sustained people through most of their adult lives in the past, will probably in future be exhausted within a few years. People may well go through a phase of their young lives, say their late teens and early twenties, when their sex lives take place in genital terms and they have children, but that will be the adolescent stage. One's real puberty will be reached when one moves into the area of, let's say, conceptualized sex, when sex is between you and a machine, or between you and an idea.

Penthouse: When sex becomes so totally detached from any genital procedure, it surely ceases to be sex and just means pleasure. In those terms, food is sex.

Ballard: Exactly. The analogy is with food. Apart from economic and minor religious obstacles, there's been unlimited freedom to explore every avenue and byway imaginable, and some of the greatest delicacies world cuisine can offer couldn't be further removed from the basic nutritional requirements of the human body. I'm talking about frogs' legs, bird's nest soup, etc. Eventually, conventional sex is the first of the new perversions. Just as you would think it odd to meet an intelligent adult who ate tapioca three times a day, though nutritionally it's perfectly sound (and it's the staple diet of the Polynesians), so I think in future we'll regard people who only have conventional sex as odd. People will begin to explore all the sidestreets of sexual experience, but they will do it intellectually -- there won't be any kind of compulsion to become, let's say, a high-heel fetishist -- which is a monomaniac impulse. Just as recipes are now given on TV for making a veal escalope, so in 20 years' time TV will offer nightly new sexual experiments and deviations, and we'll put them into practice. Sex won't take place in the bed, necessarily -- it'll take place in the head. And in a sense the head is a much richer place than the bed. Well, it is!

Penthouse: Jim Ballard, thank you.