Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1979 interview.
J.G. Ballard Interviewed by Alan Dorey & Joseph Nicholas
Shepperton, a small town on the southwestern outskirts of London, is encircled by reservoirs, gravel pits, a motorway and Heathrow Airport: all the elements one usually expects to find in a J. G. Ballard novel. But despite their strange, almost threatening aspect, the town itself, with its quiet, tree-lined streets and neat parades of shops, seems the very epitome of complacent commuter suburbia. Ballard's own house in particular is but an unprepossessing semi-detached in a street of unprepossessing semi-detacheds, its garden as slightly overgrown as its neighbours; and has within it a cluttered, homely, lived-in feel, with a large dog rambling unconcernedly from room to room and Ballard himself -- seeming faintly amused at the idea of our interviewing him -- relaxing in an overstuffed swivel armchair, speaking in a commanding (but never domineering) voice about his latest novel, his attitude to SF and the state of the modern SF scene as a whole.
In the UK, 1979 saw a tremendous upsurge of public interest in SF, not least because of the staging of the World Convention here in August -- an event which merited an entire programme to itself in the BBC2 TV series Time Out Of Mind and which Ballard, not himself an attendee of the convention, watched with a great deal of interest. "You had people like John Bush of Gollancz and Hilary Rubinstein talking of it as a respectable function; as the centrepiece of science fiction and not just an excuse for a lot of fans to dress up in space armour and hit each other with wooden swords. That's a change, I think" but he felt, on the other hand, that "all the good words put in by Fred Pohl and Brian Aldiss were undone by all those pictures of half-naked women in fancy-dress costumes" and went on to say that "the dominant image people still have of science fiction is that provided by visual sources. This is the sad thing: it's still Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and so on ... But I can now look back over 25 years and see that the climate has changed. Everyone doesn't automatically think of SF as being nothing but Star Wars; there's a small percentage who have realised that it's capable of producing a genuine speculative fiction about the present day. This is as you'd expect: so many mainstream writers have gone into SF -- Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, William Burroughs, Doris Lessing -- that I think people are gradually beginning to realise that the sort of freedoms available to, let's say, Huxley and Orwell and Wells are available to writers now, and that one doesn't have to write within the narrow format of fifties American SF; that SF isn't just Heinlein and Asimov and Poul Anderson."
He ascribes such new-found "freedoms" to the revolutionary impact of the so-called New Wave. "For about three years I reviewed SF regularly for the New Statesman and it seemed to me that people like Pohl and Silverberg, for example, were benefitting in every conceivable way from the liberating influence of the New Wave. They'd broken out of the commercial formulas that had tended to restrict them in the past, and were able to explore imaginative and literary ideas for their own sake; resonances which, back in the fifties, they would have clamped down on very rapidly because they would not have appealed to the editors of the commercial American SF magazines of the time. And think of a writer like Ian Watson, whom I admire enormously: it would have been very difficult for him to have published his novels anywhere back in the late fifties; I cannot see that they would have been serialised by any of the American magazines, or touched by any of the American publishers of the day. There's been a tremendous change in the climate, and that's all to the good.”
Even so, it's likely that a large number of people read SF without admitting it -- either as some form of "closet" reaction to those who consider it as beneath contempt or because they tacitly acknowledge that the SF they enjoy is not the most intellectually demanding. The operative word here is "enjoyment", which Ballard openly accepts: "A lot of the SF I seem to criticise -- the Heinleln, Asimov, Poul Anderson stuff -- is certainly entertaining, and people certainly get a great deal of pleasure out of it; why not?" but then went on to say that his whole career "has been dedicated to giving the rest of us a chance, to enlarging the rules of the game a little." In this respect his name will probably be forever linked with the magazine New Worlds under its second editor, Michael Moorcock, in that gloriously heady period of the mid to late sixties when it was printing such novels and stories as Disch's Camp Concentration, Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, Ellison's "A Boy And His Dog", Delany's "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" and Ballard's own Atrocity Exhibition pieces. He had of course been established in his own right for several years, publishing work in both New Worlds and its sister magazine Science Fantasy (both then edited by E. J. "Ted" Carnell), but both Mooroock and he "had a great number of ideas in common, and shared a great number of ambitions for the future.... we were totally in agreement about what we felt were the failures of conventional SF at that time, and what was needed to move SF forward into the next stage of its development" and, despite Moorcock's later cham?pioning of him, felt himself to be under no particular pressure to "experiment" (a word he detests): "He picked me simply because I was the nearest writer to hand -- he was familiar with my stuff and could see that, right from the beginning, I'd been trying to write a new kind of SF that broke with the SF of the past. It was a wonderful thing for me because it allowed me to publish all those stories that I would have found difficult to publish anywhere else." To some people, of course, it seemed as though he was abandoning the traditional ideals of science fiction, and their reaction was predictably hostile; but "that's part of the price one pays for change. There may exist the ideal reader who admires everything one's written, but that's most uncommon, actually. I regret that the people who admired my earlier staff didn't respond in the same way The Atrocity Exhibition stories, but on the other hand there appeared a new readership who did like them… I write what I feel I have to write, and it's always struck me as something of a miracle that people like anything I've ever written at all."
About the "SF of the past" referred to earlier he is somewhat scathing. "What the so-?called ‘Old Guard’ -- the more conservative readers, writers and critics of SF -- think of as the ‘immutable laws’ of science fiction are in fact of comparatively recent origin. It was only in the forties and fifties that the two major conventions of SF, outer space and the far future, established themselves as the characteristic hallmarks of the genre, and were eventually consolidated into holy writ, But they're very much an obsession of the commercial American SF magazines of the time. If you look at, say, the SF of H. G. Wells, very little of that is set in the far future or on alien planets - The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War Of The Worlds, large numbers of his short stories: all are set in the present, or the near-present, and on Earth." Citing the work of Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984 as further examples, he continues: "I regard American SF of the forties and fifties as an aberration; as a fossilising of a very long-standing imaginative impulse going back hundreds of years, if not longer; and to break out of that little ghetto and rejoin the mainstream of imaginative scientific fiction was part of my. inspiration and I think of the New Wave as a whole."
Given all this, it seemed valid to ask whether, when he started writing in the late fifties, he saw himself as a science fiction writer, or whether he thought of himself as a writer who wrote for the SF magazines simply because they happened to be there. "I still call myself a science fiction writer although, being realistic, of my total output I imagine that, even by my elastic definition of the term, at least a third of it isn't SF but is fantasy. Is The Unlimited Dream Company SF? I'd say no. I think I could make a claim for something like Crash, or even High-Rise, being SF because their subject-matter and their points of view are inspired by changes in our world brought about by science and technology, and their perspective on these changes -- my approach -- is rather analytical. And I use the scientific vocabulary, on the whole. But I think of my total output as being largely homogeneous, even though some of it is clearly SF and some clearly not, and for that reason I feel that my imagination belongs within what is loosely called "the realm of science fiction" rather than to so-called mainstream fiction. I've always felt that. That's why I began writing within the SF field, and why I've always thought of myself as an SF writer."
Mention of the SF magazines brings one to the realisation of the fact that their heyday is now long past and that, in Britain at least, there are effectively no real markets for the aspiring short story writer -- a lack he considers "tragic. I was talking to Brian Aldiss recently about just this, and I said to him ‘God knows where the young Ballard or the young Aldiss could find somewhere to publish their short stories’ because he and I, I think it's fair to say, learnt our trade writing short stories for the SF magazines, which meant that neither of us had to begin writing novels straight off." Feeling that some current writers are having to write novels the way he and Aldiss wrote short stories, he went on to say that, in his opinion "SF as a whole owes a greater debt to the short story than the novel -- leaving aside obvious masterpieces like 1984 and Brave New World, most of the great SF of the past thirty years has been in the short story form. There's something about the short story's very formal structure that makes it an ideal vehicle for the SF imagination -- more so than the novel, which you could may has no structure and is a completely open entity."
He was, however, uncertain as to whether Britain could actually support a new magazine. "It's partly a marketing thing. To be distributed by Smith's these days, a magazine has to have a guaranteed minimum circulation well above anything New Worlds, Science Fantasy, Galaxy and Astounding had in the fifties. Carnell's New Worlds couldn’t survive now; and anyone who comes into the SF field and decides to start a magazine goes for a sort of Omni visual-oriented sensationalist large-format glossy artwork approach, whereas what sells a good short story magazine is the short stories. The artwork doesn't make a damn bit of difference -- you may pick up a few passing customers that way but on the whole you can't establish a serious and devoted readership unless you publish good and original fiction. But you try telling that to the big magazine companies who think there's a killing to be made out of SF." He does, on the other hand, feel that "the time is now absolutely right for a small-format, digest-sized magazine consisting entirely of straightforward, good, strong short stories with perhaps a serial and one or two book reviews" because "I think the period we're in now is rather similar to that of the late fifties: we've just had a rather entropic decade and an extremely uncertain world lies ahead. The time is right for carefully and closely-written speculative fiction looking hard at the world in which we live -- stories written in a traditional form, avoiding experiment, simply trying to make sense of the world we're moving into."
The surviving SF magazines are of course American, the most successful (in terms of its sales) being the ghetto-minded, past-oriented Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, publishing nakedly commercial action-adventure space fiction, our description of which prompted Ballard to remark that it sounded "like a glorified comicbook"; then, as though relenting, he pointed out that "the real yardstick of its merit will be the number of original and well-written stories that it publishes, and this you can only judge in, say, five or ten years' time. One can say that, in their heyday, magazines like Galaxy, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, Analog and, over here, New Worlds did generate a substantial body of fiction by a school of writers which has passed the test of time, and one can award these half-dozen magazines high marks for doing so. But my guess is that Isaac Asimov's will eventually vanish without trace once it's served its function, which is to extract as many dollar bills from the American public as possible, and probably produce no decent fiction."
Despite the terrifying influence of this terrible magazine, others -- most notably F&SF -- maintain a more open-minded attitude; has Ballard ever thought of writing for them again? "No, I haven't, actually. When I did write for them, they were distributed over here -- even the little newsagent in Shepperton would stock F&SF, perhaps only two or three copies, but it was there -- and this meant that all the people I met, like Michael Moorcock and Charles Platt and all the others involved in New Worlds, or in British SF generally, had read them. And the American writers who came ever here were either writing for them or were familiar with them; they formed part of the climate of ordinary everyday life. But this isn't true any more; no one I know has read any American SF magazines for ten years, and I haven't even seen a copy of most of them for years.... the incentive to write for them just isn't there. Most of the stories I've written in the past five years have been in response to requests from editors like Martin Bax of Ambit and Emma Tennant of Bananas, so that I've never been in a position where I've written a story and then thought ‘Ah -- who shall I send this to?’ But then the role played by the magazines finished at the end of the sixties; the seventies became the decade of the original paperback anthology and they're actually very conservative. Their editors tend to attract and publish only established writers, and have all the time in the world to say ‘Mm, that's a bit of an odd story, we won't use it, let's ask so-and-so for one of his’; whereas the magazine editors were under pressure to fill their pages once every month and so were far more tolerant of the experimental and the unfamiliar." As an example of the conservatism of anthology editors, he quoted a request once made of him by Damon Knight, who “ten years ago, when I was in Rio de Janeiro, invited me to contribute to one of his Orbit anthologies but asked for ‘nothing too original’. I knew what he meant -- he didn't want anything like my Atrocity Exhibition stories, but the fact that he'd mentally lowered the shutters was terrible. What an attitude to take!" Despite which he has contributed a story to an original anthology: "One Afternoon At Utah Beach" in Chris Priest's Anticipations, but that was as a result of an apparently carte-blanch invitation. "It was rather different from sitting down and thinking ‘I will write a story for Orbit 9, but I'd better be careful because Knight doesn't like anything too original’ -- what a climate to work in! That's ridiculous, just death to the imagination."
As he remarked earlier, Ballard has continued to write short stories, and this has in fact been one of the main reasons for the four year gap between his last novel, High-Rise, in 1975, and his new one, The Unlimited Dream Company. "I hadn't written any short stories since something like 1970, largely because there was no way of publishing them, but I started again in 1975 -- a friend of mine, Emma Tennant, started her magazine Bananas, and she was very keen to have a story from me for every issue of it. I wrote something like a dozen stories for Bananas over the next three years, plus one or two for other magazines like Ambit. I think my total output was equivalent to about two volumes of short stories.... then The Unlimited Dream Company took me a couple of years to write. So the seventies as a whole have been a very busy time."
The Unlimited Dream Company is, as earlier intimated, not an SF novel; it in instead a fantasy, although not the sort of avowedly genre work that one normally expects to find sheltering behind the term. "There's a difference between the fantasy produced by SF writers and that produced by those who've never written SF; it's much closer to SF than to fantasy as a whole. You get much less whimsy, much lose sentiment; it's much more rigorous and has much more realistic goals." And, indeed, The Unlimited Dream Company does have a remorseless internal logic that such overtly escapist "classics” as Tolkein's The Lord Of The Rings utterly lack; a logic that all his novels may be said to have in common. Despite which, it is still very different from the immediately preceding three (Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise), although Ballard himself admitted to "no particular inspiration" and continued: "I felt that after all that steel and concrete there was a tremendous pressure of sheer imagination building up. Anyone who has a powerful imagination will tell you that as you walk down the most familiar, the most ordinary street in a quiet suburb like Shepperton -- even a quiet suburb like Shepperton -- that powerful imagination is continually transforming the humdrum into the marvellous. So the idea occurred to me that it would be possible to transform, in a fantastic way, the most infinitely humdrum place in the world -- and Shepperton must fall into that category, at first glance, anyway -- into something rich and strange." Not, however, that the Shepperton of the novel is identical to the Shepperton of the real world, the former having been compounded of various elements taken from such neighbouring towns as Sunbury and Walton-on-Thames and in consequence existing more as an abstract for suburbia everywhere, because "the point of the novel is that everywhere is infinitely exciting, given the transforming power of the imagination.
When I first had the idea of an escaping pilot who crashes his plane, perhaps dies, and by a massive effort of will forces himself to survive in our continuum -- the continuum of time and space that bounds the everyday physical universe -- I didn't think of Shepperton; I thought of picking just any quiet spot near a river. But it suddenly occurred to me that if I wanted a humdrum place, then I was already living in one that I at least knew well." This point should not be underestimated because "I also knew that, without doing so deliberately, I could, despite myself, feed into the novel various unconscious autobiographical elements which would be bound to give it a little more imaginative pressure." This is in fact the main reason for its being narrated in the first person -- a device he has rarely used before (and only in Crash (1973) was there a character actually named after himself). "Although I don't want to make too much of it, I think the book is my autobiography. If for flying you substitute writing fiction, or using the imagination, the book has all the elements of an autobiography. I fell into this place, an it were, and into the predicament of ordinary life, some twenty years ago, and have used my imagination for those twenty years to try to give that ordinary life some sort of meaning. But all this just occurs to me with the benefit of hindsight; it didn't occur to me at the time because there are no correspondences between me and the character -- or just very minor ones that aren't important."
Reinforcing the novel's autobiographical nature is the appearance in it, as minor protagonists, of three children and a woman doctor. When interviewed for J. G. Ballard: the First Twenty Years, the important critical study by David Pringle and James Goddard, Ballard stated: “The protagonists of most of my fiction feel tremendously isolated, and that seems to exclude the possibility of a warm, fruitful relationship with anybody, let alone anyone as potentially close as a woman... I've got three children, with whom I'm extremely close, and yet I've never introduced a child into any of my stories... It's just that children are not relevant to my work."
With respect to The Unlimited Dream Company, however: "Maybe those three children were really standing in for my own children. Maybe the woman doctor is standing in for my late wife -- or, rather, an amalgam of my late wife and one or two other women who have been very close to me over the years" and he then, apropos the above quote, went on to say that "it's not strictly true to say that there have been no children In my fiction; many of the protagonists of my short stories -- particularly the ones I was writing in the late fifties and early sixties, like ‘Chronopolis’ and ‘Billenium’, and also ‘The Ultimate City’…” (included in his most recent collection, Low Flying Aircraft) "have been adolescents, with the fresh eyes and untested ambitions of adolescence.... so children have appeared in my fiction, although I think the particular role they play in The Unlimited Dream Company probably ties in with my own three."
One of the more obvious aspects of The Unlimited Dream Company is its incorporation of various themes and elements from his previous works: the harsh starkness of reality -- concrete motorways, tower blocks, washing machines and TV sets reminiscent of the Crash "trilogy" -- and the exotic images of fantasy - tropical flora and fauna remin?iscent of The Drowned World and The Crystal World (symbols explored in depth by David Pringle in his essay "The Four-Fold Symbolism Of J. G. Ballard", reprinted in the critical study mentioned above). But this was not conscious intent on Ballard's part: "When I sit down to write a piece of fiction I write that piece of fiction as if I'd written nothing before. I try not to repeat myself in an obvious way, nor to assemble set building-blocks in a new configuration. After all, if you're going to transform something like a small suburban town in a dramatically immediate manner then there aren't many ways you can do it -- particularly if, as I had, you have a central character as some sort of pagan god from life is pouring in enormous abundance... exotic flora and fauna are just waiting there." Hindsight suggests, however, that "it does amalgamate certain elements from novels like The Drowned World and The Crystal World, and from my more hard-edged staff like Crash -- but it certainly wasn't calculated."
Critical and public reception of Ballard's work, both here and around the world, has been mixed. Kingsley Amis has referred to him as "one of the brightest stars of post-war fiction" but others (particularly Martin Amis) have expressed opinions ranging from the indifferent to the hostile; and while a novel like Crash, with its frequent use of American automobile terminology ("windshield", "hood", "fender", and so on, all being more a residue of childhood in Shanghai -- "a totally American zone of influence" -- than an overt calculation on his part), might have been expected to enjoy great success in the States, the opposite was in fact the case: the book flopped there but was a hit in France, and he has since acquired something of a cult status there. Curious? Not really: "The influence of the French symbolist poets of the nineteenth century, of twentieth century French literature, and of French painting from the 1870s onwards has always been enormous upon me. I don't know whether French readers hear an echo of Genet and Rambeau [sic] and Pollinaire [sic] in my fiction, but if those echoes are there then I'm glad." Stating that he was "delighted" by the response of his French readers, he went on to say that he thinks "the symbolist method, which I use in my writing, strikes a sympathetic chord south of, as it were, the ‘olive line’, and that in northern Protestant countries like Britain and the USA the symbolist movement, evident in painting, poetry and the novel over the last hundred years, has tended to produce a great deal of unease. And surrealism, the major twentieth expression of symbolism, has only recently come to be regarded as respectable, accepted in the US and Britain as an important movement in the arts only in the last ten years, whereas on the Continent it's been established since the turn of the century." The imaginative approach adopted by the surrealists, he said, makes people in Britain and America feel uneasy because "the dominant form of the novel here is the bourgeois novel, the so-called realistic novel, which offers in its pages all the reassuring conventions and a polite avoidance of certain unmentionable topies in exactly the same way that bourgeois life protects itself from unpleasant truths by a whole series of polite conventions. And as I don't subscribe to any of those bourgeois conventions in my fiction I naturally meet a certain amount of hostility and resistance which I haven't met in France." Nor, it seems, in Japan, which might appear an American-dominated country but is in fact very different, "The paradox of life there in that there's a hundred million people packed onto those tiny islands and yet each of then feels absolutely alone. The Japanese psyche is very isolated, very self-immersed, obsessively committed to the fulfillment its own ‘private mythology’, and quite unlike the northern European or American consciousness." The sense of isolation felt by his fictional protagonists is obviously a reflection of this; and of an imagination, he feels, that is very close to his own -- moulded, as was only to be expected, by his childhood in Shanghai. "Even though I was born and brought up in China, I don't think that the Chinese landscape and character touched me very much. The Japanese and the Americans were the ‘occupying powers’ in all senses of the term; the two imaginations presiding over my life there, and in a way my fiction represents a movement between those two poles."
And what of the future? Does he, for example, have any plans to extend his work into other areas of the arts? "Well, I've always wanted to be a painter. That was my real ambition for many years, although it's waned a bit now because I long ago realised that I just didn't have the talent, the technical facility, to make it a credible one. I sometimes think that my entire output as a writer has been the substitute work of a frustrated painter, and that if I could be given the gift of technical facility I'd stop writing. That probably isn't true, but I do still feel that my imagination would express itself much more directly, more easily, through visual imagery than prose narrative." Would the cinema therefore constitute a viable alternative? "Not really, because on the whole the cinema is a realistic medium. There have been a lot of powerful, imaginative films made, but I don't think that my particular imagination would express itself too easily on film. I can't visualise myself making a film of The Unlimited Dream Company -- it could probably be done, but it would be a damn sight easier to write than to film." Otherwise: "I've nearly finished another novel, which is SF rather than fantasy, and should be published in about a year's time. It's rather in the vein of the novella ‘The Ultimate City’ -- originally I wrote it with a view to it being published as an illustrated novel" (Hello America, in the Pierrot series that Includes Brain Aldiss's Brothers Of The Head and Harry Harrison's Planet Story) "but it seems to have grown in length. I certainly plan to write a novel for that series, though, because I've always been very keen on the idea of illustrated fiction." There are no collections of short stories due in the immediate future; "I think that when I've finished this novel I’ll get back to writing short stories again and think about another collection in a couple of years' time. Other than that I've no real projects; I just live for the moment."