Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1971 interview.
Ballard At Home
By Douglas Reed
I've always been fascinated by the moody images that J G Ballard weaves, using the future as a loom, so I went to worship at the shrine, hoping the idol would not be sporting a clay foot. Someone meeting heroes at first hand is rather like the courtier with the glass slipper. Preconceptions hardly ever fit and Ballard was no exception. His house, instead of Kubla Kahn with visionary vistas rolling to the edge of the mind, was a box among boxes in greater London with the careless peeled appearance of a lizard shedding its skin.
Inside was chaos and Ballard, mainly the former. Corners of Ballard's work-room were in a half-way state between nature and civilisation, a sad, dreary little equivalent to some of the grand-scale dying worlds created in Ballard's books. The disarray seemed almost studied, as though Bal?lard did an inventory of his upheaval, carefully maintaining a consistent untidiness. I had the impression I was inside a permanent pop-art exhibition entitled something like, ‘Satirical Comments on Conventional Domesticity’ or, ‘So It's Decaying and Falling Apart? What the Hell?!’
The study-come-lounge-come-disaster-area looked out through faded French doors onto a small garden dotted here and there with Ballard original modernistic lawn sculptures, made from cheap materials. This back yard too was like some derelict bomb site. Ballard himself had a certain petulance and a dismissive arrogance as he talked about fellow authors, England, and the state of the novel today. He explained the run-down state of his house by saying that prop?erty and possessions never really concerned him and that when his wife died he simply let things go, not caring enough to halt the process, and not worried enough by the process to purchase a new house.
Whether Ballard's down-at-the-heel bolt-hole is the affectation of a man trying continuously to incarnate his dream, or whether it's the result of a genuine disregard for surroundings, is conjectural and probably not significant, because when all the impressions have been put down, all the appearances listed, all the usual peripheral details filled in, there is something overriding, and of genuine value, that comes across, and that is Ballard's own unique insight into what can perhaps be termed -- the present as destiny.
The Drowned World, The Crystal World and The Drought are all full-length Ballard novels about situations of disintegration. The protagonist is the earth itself, portrayed as an almost organic entity wreaking terrible vengeance upon a smattering of human survivors, in the last geological minutes before its own death.
‘This doesn't mean I'm a pessimist. All three novels are nominally set in the future, but they're not predictions. They could have been set in the past or the present. The message they contain isn't dependent on the time setting as such. What was valid yesterday is valid today, and will be valid tomorrow. My psychological landscapes are the sort that might be perceived by people during major mental crises? -- not literally of course, but they represent similar disturbed states of mind.'
‘I'm writing a specialised kind of fiction. I happen to make frequent use of the genre of science fiction because that's the road into the mind. It has the right attributes and conventions and it's amenable to the surrealist's imagery and metaphors.’
‘Science fiction is the most important fiction-form of the 20th century, and yet it's classified as a marginal sub-category of literature by the senior statesmen of the critical corps d'elite.’
‘The old-style novel dealt with fixed societies that were filled with opportunities for the observation of nuances and minute differences. Nowadays there isn't such an easy-chair frame of references removing from the author the need to think. The proper vocabulary and conceptual medium of the present is science and technology. That's the nearest thing we've got to the imperishable and unquestioned values of our forefathers. And science fiction makes the best use of this new modern vocabulary and imaginative vehicle.’
Ballard can be marvellously destructive in his dreamscape visions of global attrition. There are certainly no obvious Utopias in his writing. Yet he doesn't see himself as a depressing and morbid prophet.
‘I regard Drowned Spirit [sic] as having a happy ending. The hero follows the logic of his own psyche. The truth he seeks is in travelling south to the sun as the earth is inundated, moving back in time to the womb, dissolving himself.’
‘The cosy paradises of the early SF writers lack conviction for me. Today's Utopias are usually anti-technological. They're expressions of nostalgia for purer, more innocent times. I mean the “back to the land and the simple life” sort of thing. Or the “noble savage, back-to-nature” type of cult.’
‘The general trend nowadays is towards greater introverted-ness. People “drop-out”, disengage from the external world. Look at the Beatles. They started as rock'n'roll extroverts and changed into mystics. Materialism as a way of life is being rejected by a disillusioned generation. The great moral authority that science could, up till the 2nd World War, boast of having, has been drastically reduced.’
Any reader of Ballard's books asking him if he writes under the influence of a scatological euphoria will soon be shown that he's again misjudging the author's intentions. In fact, taking Ballard too literally is the sure way to mislead oneself as to his deeper meanings.
‘I haven't got any sort of “deathwish”. This aspect of my works parallels the self-destructive but curiously consistent logic of people enduring severe mental illness. There is a unique set of laws governing their actions, laws as constant as those controlling sane behaviour but based on different criteria.’
Because Ballard's work has the almost unique distinction of being accepted both as science fiction and as genuine literature (he has received not only praise from fellow SF writers but also accolades from Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene) his new book will receive wide critical attention. And those reviewing it will find not another journey into the unknown but a hard, brutal look at, like, today's scene man.
‘Atrocity Exhibition is set in the present. Its landscape is compounded of an enormous number of fictions, the frag?ments of the dream machine that produces our life-style right now. I mean fictions like TV, radio, politics, the press, and advertising, that are all expressions of people's imagina?tive aims. Life is an enormous novel.’
‘My book deals with the irrational violence of modern society, the side of our culture that could be described as an atrocity exhibition. We're all spectators (often bored ones) at tragedies like Vietnam. Real violence, frequently live, as it occurs, becomes part of a huge entertainments industry. The Romans used to gather round arenas to have orgasms over vaudeville shows of real murder and rape. We laugh dismissively at the fairly common SF plot of a future in which the public enjoys similar amusements, only via their TV sets. Yet what is a lot of today's live and recorded news and documentary material if not a variation on just this theme?’
‘Atrocity Exhibition portrays a doctor who's had a mental break-down. He has been shocked and numbed by events like the deaths of the Kennedy's and Marilyn Monroe. To make sense of the modern world he wants to immerse himself in its most destructive elements. He creates a series of psycho-dramas that produce grim paradoxes. They suggest things like the possibility of Vietnam having some good effects, or of car crashes serving a useful purpose within the societal organism, or of a purgative aspect to the assassination of public figures, just as there used to be in ancient ritual murders, and always has been in the death of charismatic figures like Christ.’
With his latest book it becomes difficult to be sure whether Ballard is developing toward a supreme masterpiece of SF in which he takes that genre into new dimensions of universal relevance, or whether instead he'll now increasingly transfer his attentions to X-rays of the present, recording on paper the disturbances of his mind like a warning seismograph.
‘I'll continue to write what I'd call SF, but other people probably won't agree if it's not actually set in the future. The technology of everyday life, the spin-off of our visual expertise, doesn't enter enough into modern fiction. Novels today are like houses without furniture. Imagine someone from the future trying to recreate the 20th century, with all its its meticulous descriptions of the scenery and props of life. But he wouldn't get far with the 20th century.’
‘The presence of the modern packaged world isn't strong enough in current writing. We need to “tell it as it is”, put in the trappings of the consumer society. The Landseer Stag at Bay approach is over: pop artists deal with the lowly trivia of possessions and equipment that the present generation is lugging along with it on its safari into the future.’
‘I think most novels are based on conventions of what a novel should be. I'm feeling my way toward new fictional usages. There'll probably be a lot of controversy over my next book. It's set in the present again -- I'm half-way through it. I suppose in some ways it may be accused of being an evil book.’
Ballard, whose primary source of income is writing, is also preparing a study of one of his pet loves, surrealism. This is an art form ideally suited to the Ballard dream-scape. He's chosen surrealistic paintings to decorate some of his book jackets. A modest involvement with avant garde activities is a natural extension of this interest in the liberating effects of imaginative experimentation. He has a position as Prose Editor of Ambit, a new wave literary magazine, and another as a Trustee of the Institute for Research in Art & Technology (which encompasses the New Arts Laboratory).
‘I can hardly read most of the fiction being produced in England at the moment. Modern Britain hasn't been adequately written about by the British. I was born and raised in China so I had to acclimatise to this country. It's taken awhile, but I’m beginning to feel more at home here, less of a sense of displacement and less alienation. But I still find the majority of English authors impossible, are hide-bound and uninspiring. Burroughs is an interesting writer, but he's a Paris exile. I like his work. It's writers like Burroughs, Genet and Celine that I find rewarding. They're up on the coal-face of today's fiction, chipping away and finding new seams of expression.’
‘To be fair though I can't say I do a great deal of reading. I draw my main inspiration and imagery from the visual arts. I know more painters and sculptors than I do authors.'
Ballard isn't over-impressed by most of his genre colleague, (though he gives qualified honourable mentions to Moorcock and Aldiss) and he despises the standard subject-matter and set scenes of the USA-type SF industry, the BEM (Bug-eyed Monster) school with its time travel, inter-galactic space-ships space cities, matter transference, humanoids and alternative universes.
Aren't his own imaginings about shattered habitats of the future just another sort of alternative universe?
‘I believe my alternate worlds have integrity. They're mental explorations, evocative journeys in the mind, not the catalogues of implausible gadgetry compiled by so many orthodox science fiction writers. Little of real value or help in under standing the “human condition” comes from most of these works. I hadn't really thought through what the message was in my own books until I'd been asked so many times that I was forced into analysis. Mind you, I'm not entirely convinced it's a good thing to be able to decide on a final meaning for a work. I suppose it illuminates in one respect, but it limits in another, by dismissing all the countless alternative that a really great and enduring book of ideas will drag along behind it like a comet's tail.’
‘I don't mind so much doing this sort of castration job on my past opuses. As far as I'm concerned they're finished and gone. They don't hold much interest for me any more. But I won't make searching textual examinations of work in progress, trying to pin down the hidden message. Someone who's got to know the “ultimate” meaning all the time can be a destructive as a boy with a slingshot knocking birds out of the sky.’
Ballard thinks the old-fashioned SF angles are absurd. He would probably agree with Brian Aldiss that it's ridiculous to write about contacting distant star systems countless light years away when inside our own planet we can't even communicate with a place like Communist China, just a few thousand miles off, or with the 'man-next-door' who's only a television set away. Of course there's no pre-ordained connection between everyone in the world getting on with each other and how much of the universe we should explore, but an arbitrary linking of the two is a manifestation of roman?tic naivety that the soul intuitively comprehends and respects.
A Far Eastern childhood then, which included 2 1/2 years of internment in a civilian prison camp under the Japanese. A spell at King's College, Cambridge, reading medicine. A job as a Covent Garden porter and one as a copywriter. Experience as an RAF pilot. These are the rather unrevealing biographical building blocks of Ballard's life, to which his re?flex, at its highest level, has been literary.
His blurbs say he believes science fiction is the apocalyptic literature of our era, ‘the authentic language of Auschwitz, Eniwetok and Aldermaston’. One thing is sure. If the mighty themes powering civilisation towards an uncertain tomorrow are to be understood, the essential role played by frontiersmen like Ballard must be recognised. On the surface they're normal people, sometimes uninspiring in the flesh. But through the looking-glass they are martyred figures walking beside the inferno, absorbing the impact of new discoveries, the shock of self-revelation.