From The Guardian, 11 September 1970:
Twentieth Century Vox
Michael McNay interviews science fiction writer J.G. Ballard
J. G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930; for the last ten years he has lived with his daughters (he is a widower) in a rundown semi in Shepperton, with books and papers scattered around as though he is on the point of moving out. This rootlessness gives his writing an edge, a quality of observation, a feel for environment that is missing from a lot of even the best of contemporary fiction. He himself does not think of it so much as being rootless as being slightly out of step.
"When you think of the writers with roots I suppose you can take the great Russian novelists though I don't know in fact how rooted in their own societies and their own time and their own landscape they really were. I get the impression Dostoievsky was a pretty edgy character. And as for Tolstoy you get the impression that he thought earth was a pretty poor stopping place on the way to Heaven. If you think of the English writers writing now, without being catty or naming names, those who are the most closely wedded to England strike me as those who are the weakest of all."
Ballard has no doubts about the strengths of modern fiction. "I think - and everyone laughs whenever I say it - science fiction is the main literature of the twentieth century. And in fact you would expect this. The twentieth century opened with the Wright brothers lifting a machine into the air, and science has already landed a man on the moon, science has transformed the environment, it has manufactured beer for us, and it'll be making food out of coal next.
"The impact of science has totally transformed everybody's lives. One would expect that the main literature of the twentieth century would be science fiction. And in fact social historians who look back at the twentieth century will say: 'Here, in science fiction, was a unique literature that responded to the continuous changes that took place, the continuous transformation of people's lives by science and technology. Here was the only literature that responded to this fact'."
Ballard's stories are strictly about the times we live in. He never dates a story, rarely projects into the future. Even when he does in a story like "Concentration City," the twentieth century relevance is clear: the city has been built upwards and sideways so far that its inhabitants have no conception of boundaries and think of free space as a contradiction in terms (space costs five dollars a cubic foot).
Lately, Ballard has become dissatisfied with linear narrative, and the book he has recently published ("The Atrocity Exhibition", Jonathan Cape) is written as a series of paragraphs each with a heading, each a cryptic self-contained episode. Three hundred years ago at the time Robinson Crusoe was written, those people would have found Crusoe as exciting as a newsreel, as our newsreel of the surface of the Moon brought back by Apollo astronauts... but now a writer of fiction is in competition with enormous media systems, news cameramen, newspapers, news magazines, advertising... how can you write a book in the face of all this?
"How long has the Vietnam war been going on? As a serious war it's been going on about five or six years; as far as I know not one serious work of fiction has been produced by it, which is very strange. I know it takes a while, but it may be that the Vietnam war will not produce any fiction."
Ballard has concluded that fictional violence seen on the television and cinema screens every night it is [sic] a way more real than real violence: people experience it imaginatively whereas real events are part of the grey media background. Earlier in the year, before the publication of "Atrocity Exhibition," Ballard held an exhibition of crashed cars at the Open Space Theatre [sic]. He has a theory that though people can visualise the magnitude of the disaster when they read of a plane crash, the more actual danger of death or injury in a car crash means very little to them.
"Most people can visualise what happens when a huge steel tube hits the ground half full of aviation fuel and blows up, people are just ripped apart and burnt. They can't do it in the case of a motor car because of the fictional elements provided by mass advertising and television series like 'Hawaii Five O' with big tough Americans driving huge cars screaming round corners: the fictional aspects have completely drowned any reality that's left, so the fiction is the reality now, people's corporate fantasies now for the first time define the external landscape of our lives so we are moving around in other people's fictions most of our time, we're characters in a gigantic novel."
At the private view for his exhibition, Ballard watched visitors come in, react with shock at the sight of cars that had been mangled in accidents, and then become accustomed to it and gradually slip into the mood of frivolity that characterises the private view for most art shows. Ballard believes that people look on life as an atrocity exhibition which they judge on aesthetic grounds. Before he held his exhibition, Ballard had already written a scene into "Atrocity Exhibition" which involved a show of crashed cars. His fictional characters behaved in the same way as the real people later acted.
It follows from this that Ballard thinks that the role of the writer has changed totally. Certainly the sort of book he himself writes has changed. In a way Ballard's rootlessness makes it easier for him; he cannot bear the things that make London, for instance, bearable to most Londoners. "The idea that everything should be changeable and disposable seems to me to be right. Why shouldn't you have completely mobile cities that can be closed down when they're not needed, and changed in shape?
"Certain sorts of urban landscape I think are great. I've never been to Los Angeles but in my mind it's a sort of spiritual home. The Naples of the twentieth century. What I dislike about Central London is it's still very old. It's still a nineteenth and late eighteenth century city. I can't bear for instance North London. The area around Highgate; one look at those grey dark streets and those huge churches built out of grey brick and I run right back to Shepperton, all of which was built in the nineteen thirties, so it's younger in a way than I am, it's contemporaneous with me. For example, the area around London Airport I find fascinating. I love that. It's a strange sort of zone, all those hotels. I like the whole landscape around there."
Ballard does not see himself as the odd man out: it's those of us who were weaned on Pevsner's England or affected by Betjemania. Novels previously - even Jules Verne's - had normally been set in the past: nowadays they are usually contemporary. Ballard believes that the big change that has come over England in the past few years is that people no longer care about the past.
"I mean," he says, "I've got people who don't know who their grandparents were and couldn't care less. Unthinkable in England 30 years ago ... science fiction is the only fiction to celebrate the possibilities of the future rather than the definition of the past, so that one's character is not limited by one's background, by one's parents, by the social circumstances from which one emerged. Science fiction celebrates the possibilities of life."