Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1971 interview.
Interviewed by Brendan Hennessy
‘Inner space’ is a term coined by J. G. Ballard to describe the territory he has explored in his work -- the world of the mind, and at the same time that of the biological sciences. Ballard's work has appeared in New Worlds, a magazine originally devoted to traditional kinds of SF but later incorporating various kinds of ‘experimental’ writing. Recently he has appeared in a wider range of publications in Britain, mostly of an avant-garde or Underground nature, including Encounter, International Times, Ambit and this magazine.
Apart from numerous short stories, Ballard's most notable work to date has been four novels. The trilogy of catastrophe novels entitled The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World had time as its main theme. In the first he pursued his interest in paleontology, resurrecting the Triassic era, the age of the great reptiles, to study our biological inheritance. The point made is that if the climate of those times returned, we would have the kind of living forms, both in the animal and plant kingdoms, that existed then: evolutionary processes are not necessarily one way. The Drought is concerned with the future. It tells of a world without rain, radio-active waste having stopped the evaporation of the sea. In The Crystal World he describes a situation in which time doesn't exist at all. Fairly conventional in form, these novels have their difficulties where Ballard deliberately blurs the distinction between the protagonist's ‘landscape of the mind’ and his surroundings. The Atrocity Exhibition, his latest work, makes greater demands on the reader and has had baffled and less polite reactions from some critics. Ballard points out that it is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality in modern life, and finds it logical to overlap the two spheres in this work. A doctor undergoing a nervous breakdown goes on an expedition through typical 20th-century landscape. Certain people he meets he uses to re-enact such public events as the assassinations of the Kennedys, the deaths of astronauts, his wife's death in a car crash, and so on. He sets up dramas in order to study these events and try to make sense of them, making unexpected discoveries about such subjects as violence and sexual perversions and their relationships.
Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, his father being a businessman there. He was interned in a Japanese civilian prison camp during the war. After studying medicine at Cambridge, he became a full-time writer in 1957. I talked to him in the study of his home in Shepperton, surrounded by books and magazines, overlooked by two large posters -- Max Ernst's The Robing of the Bride and a Man Ray of a huge, bright red mouth lying across the sky.
HENNESSY: There is a remarkable concentration on the visual in your work, particularly in some of the short stories. In ‘The Terminal Beach’ you describe exactly, geometrically, the camera towers and blockhouses of the island of Eniwetok, a former atomic testing ground. The effect of this landscape on the state of mind of Traven, who is waiting there to die, comes across vividly and surrealistically.
BALLARD: I think SF has quite a kinship with surrealism. The surrealists deal in an external world that has been remade by the mind. They also start from the premise that there's no firm basis of reality anywhere, and I feel this is very close to SF. We're living in a world in which the fictional elements have begun to multiply to an enormous degree, thanks to mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as advertising, and so forth.
HENNESSY: There is frequently an effect of distortion in your descriptions, as if one were looking through a distorting mirror. In ‘The Illuminated Man’, for example, about the Florida forests becoming crystallised, together with people and animals. And in The Drought you describe a poisoned aquarium, with the pearly bodies of the dead fish ‘rotating like the vanes of elaborate mobiles’. There's a kind of macabre humour in such passages.
BALLARD: What happens after a major catastrophe is generally very unexpected, might even be ludicrous. Also, the sort of landscapes I describe are not meant to be real in the strict sense of the term. They are landscapes that involve in some way the inner landscape of the minds of the protagonists. What I try to depict in my novels are changes in the external environment that match exactly changes in the internal environment, so there are certain points where these two come together. You can see this happening in ordinary life, in times of war, for example.
HENNESSY: The theme of ‘The Illuminated Man’ is developed in your novel The Crystal World, isn't it? And your catastrophic novels all explore the nature of time in one way or another.
BALLARD: Yes. In The Drowned World it was the past. I wanted to look at our racial memory, our whole biological inheritance, the fact that we're all several hundred million years old, as old as the biological kingdoms in our spines, in our brains, in our cellular structure; our very identities reflect untold numbers of decisions made to adapt us to changes in our environment, decisions lying behind us in the past like some enormous, largely forgotten journey. I wanted to go back along that road to discover what made us what we are. Water was the central image of the past. In The Drought I was interested in future time, the image being sand. I see the future as being abstract, geometric -- the landscape of the moon seems to me to be a good image of the future landscape for Earth. The crystal is a symbol of a timeless world. In The Crystal World I described a situation in which time doesn't exist at all. The crystallising forest, in which the people become crystallised, describes a state beyond death, a kind of non-living existence.
HENNESSY: Why did you publish the sections of The Atrocity Exhibition separately?
BALLARD: Each section is short, and it is self-contained. It examines the character from a different standpoint. It's the same character seen on a number of different levels -- on one level it is an individual moving through everyday life, on another level the character becomes a fantasy in a Cinemascope epic. Or his own dreams begin to overlap the nightmares of the world at large -- the assassination of a Kennedy, the deaths of astronauts, the suicide of a Marilyn Monroe. Each section explores a different level of experience -- from the domestic, private relationships to the largest, global events.
HENNESSY: It's not always possible to tell, is it, when what we are reading are the actual experiences of the protagonist Traven (or whatever, since his name varies) and when they are his fantasies.
BALLARD: I think it's becoming more and more difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality in modern life. More and more of our lives have been invaded and are now ruled by fictions of one sort and another. By fiction I mean anything invented to serve someone's imaginative end, whether it's an advertising agent's, a novelist's or a prostitute's. It seems to me that the main points of reality are those points at which the various levels of public fantasy -- Vietnam, the Congo, the assassinations of public figures, and so on -- cross the level of our own private fantasies and the third level of our private lives. Where these three levels intersect, you find the only valid points of reality, the new reality which we all inhabit. The Atrocity Exhibition sets out to examine those points, to find a new reality. I see it as a metaphor for life in the 1970s. It says everything about depraved public tastes being created by the overlay of public violence and private fantasy. Just as sex is the key to the Freudian world, so violence is the key to the external world of fantasy that we inhabit. There's this clash between what we all believe to be true, such as that violence is bad in all its forms, and the actual truth, which is that violence may well serve beneficial roles -- much as we might deplore it.
HENNESSY: Could you tell me how you decided on the structure of the book?
BALLARD: One's living in a more and more quantified world. I adopt a narrative technique appropriate to that. I think if you impose the sort of chronological logic you have in the 19th-century novel on the 20th century novel, it's absurd. Like trying to describe modern biochemistry using a 15th-century harpsichord. This is a book of an investigatory character, it's almost a scientific textbook.
HENNESSY: You don't carry the reader along -- he's got to participate in the investigation himself?
BALLARD: Yes, together with the central character and the author: they're doing a kind of jigsaw together -- I hope.
HENNESSY: Was this method suggested by that of any other writer?
BALLARD: People have said it's derived from Burroughs -- well, they've never read any Burroughs. The thing about this narrative technique is that I'm able to move rapidly from public events to the most intimate private events, in the space of a few lines. Not only that, I can annex an enormous amount of material into the narrative, which one wouldn't be able to do in a conventional form.
HENNESSY: Would you like to say anything about what you're doing now?
BALLARD: It's hard to say. I'm writing a novel, conventional in form (after all I've said!) on a highly unconventional subject.
HENNESSY: There are a few ‘experimental’ writers becoming known now in this country, aren't there? Is there any cause for optimism, do you think?
BALLARD: It's encouraging, but I think they're handicapped by the fact that they're trying to write about 1970 with the vocabulary of 1870. But experimental writing in this country has always had a bad name. The main tradition of the fine arts -- painting and sculpture -- is the tradition of the new. In literature, if you say anything new people are thrown into a rictus of hostility and fright, like experimental animals being shown too many confusing signs. Something like 5,000 novels are published every year, and the great majority of them show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style, on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.