Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1983 interview.
Waiting For Silver Coconuts
J.G. Ballard envisages a time when every home in Britain will become a TV studio, resembling not ‘Crossroads’ but ‘Eraserhead’. Charles Shaar Murray talks science fiction’s most brilliant and unorthodox author through his surreal visions of normality.
“Because of the media landscape which we inhabit and the way in which external reality is almost completely a fiction manipulated by someone else ... because we were living inside this enormous novel, one could begin to judge external reality almost as a work of art, a very sinister work of art, a rather sinister novel very like a nightmare. The sort of distinction that Freud made between the latent and manifest content of a dream, one now has to apply to external reality.
“What is going on?”
Beneath the shade of a pair of very fine silver-foil coconut trees, J. G. Ballard sits in his study most days of the week, exploring the last truly alien planet: this one.
External reality in this particular case is a broad comfortable street in Shepperton, not far from the Dream Factory and designed to look like either a set for a suburban sitcom or a deluxe practice track for learner drivers.
It seems highly appropriate to find science fiction's darkest, most authentically disturbing dreams welling up here, where Normality is writ so large as to be utterly surreal.
The dreamer himself is as effectively camouflaged.
It would be tempting to extrapolate Ballard from his books and deduce a gaunt, quiet man resembling a cross between William Burroughs and H. P. Lovecraft as portrayed by Peter Cushing, a man whose eyes are forever fixed on distant beaches where deserted buildings crumble, or else scanning the skies for dead astronauts and satellites chattering obliviously to no one.
A poetic ghoul looking forward to his final peace: to be attained when the world is under 200 feet of water, burnt to a crisp by the sun, battered by massive winds. Probable hobbies: comparing photographs of differently produced fatal injuries, inventing new ways of torturing his characters.
The actual Ballard is, of course, nothing of the sort.
He is a smooth, ellipsoid being, simultaneously rumpled and suave, a porpoise masquerading as an English gentleman. Ballard would not seem remotely out of place deputising for Ian Carmichael in the Paul Masson California Carafe commercial, or delivering lines like, “Of course there's absolutely no possibility of letting him live" over a glass of sherry in a British spy film.
He is charming and voluble; enthusiasm dances perpetually behind his eyes. The ideas with which he works create the enthusiasm that fuels his work. His dooms are always blessings in disguise.
His terrain is space: the space between the ears is the space in which his characters are lost. His landscapes are the landscapes of the world we live in, transformed by our own perceptions and by the illusions fostered upon us by people who are themselves deluded, who no more understand the dreams in which they live than they do the ones in which they trick others into living.
From the humid, hothouse dream of ‘The Drowned World’ to the impossibly violent sexual psychosis of ‘Crash!’, from the bejewelled allegory of ‘The Crystal World’ to the cold, Burroughsian matter-of-factness of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ and through the astonishing short stories that he has written continuously since 1956, Ballard is science fiction's most brilliant and most unorthodox writer.
As ‘Star Wars’ and sword-and-sorcery dominate the bookstalls, Ballard is still asking the $64,000 Question, the Big One ...
“What is going on? What ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ was about was the way that the media landscape has created something very close to a gigantic art gallery with a lot of very lurid paintings on exhibition? - this was in the ‘60s - and the way in which psychopathic strains which are normally either ignored or suppressed were beginning to use the media landscape to express and reveal themselves.
"It's still going on, but one saw it particularly in the ‘70s with the TV coverage of the Vietnam war, and the reduction of all events to pure sensation …”
Ballard's analysis of the external world led him into areas which shocked the delicate sensibilities of the mainstream SF world.
When US writer/editor Harlan Ellison was commissioning his anthology ‘Dangerous Visions’, which was designed to break every SF taboo in the multiverse, Ballard submitted as his entry ‘The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Auto Race’ and his US agent was so appalled that he never even forwarded the story to Ellison in the first place. Ballard blamed Ellison for chickening out, and the resulting misunderstanding remained uncleared for some time.
“I can speak as somebody who has run up against this throughout his whole career: the enormous conservatism of science fiction. I mean, here's a medium which you would think would be devoted to change and experiment. In fact, the majority of its writers, especially American writers, are extremely right-wing. Some are paranoid in their right-wing beliefs. Not just their political views, but their attitudes on race and sex are extremely conservative.
“It's always been a failure of SF that it's never been able to cope with sex. One good thing about the New Wave that sprang up in the early ‘60s - it was primarily a British phenomenon; Ellison and (Samuel R.) Delaney came much later -- was that the British writers wanted to talk about sex in a free and adult way. American science fiction just couldn't cope.
“But if you go back to this idea of the gigantic novel in which we are living, it is not just the psychopathic strains -- or the bizarre and maverick strains -- which are surfacing, but the whole core of what people want to do with their lives. What you see is a whole mass of private mythologies wriggling their way up to the surface and finding expression.
“If one assumes -- as I do -- that in the future every home will become like a TV studio in which one is simultaneously writer, director and star of our own show… what is life? What is our existence except our own show? That home movie that we all live inside… it’s already started to some extent. It won’t be like ‘Crossroads’” -- his smooth features produce a startlingly wolfish smile - “it’ll be more like ‘Eraserhead’.
“It isn’t necessarily a frightening or even a corrupt future which lies ahead, but it may be one that is truer to our own selves, and I think therefore it is to be welcomed. At a time of transformation and change, like the ‘70s - which were a major time of change, much more interesting than people give ‘em credit for being - you get a bridge, a zone of transit between one time and another.
“What about my trees?” he gestures at his towering silver companions. “They represent my Gauguin phase, my South Sea Islands phase. That high Mylar gloss, that techno flash is what I want from the South Sea Islands.
“When I think of the South Sea Islands - which I often do, and I’ve written about them - it’s those World War II runways, completely abandoned, running away into the dunes, where technology meets possibility and vast Pacifics of the imagination lie ahead, pointing towards those Mylar trees in a small suburban sitting room.
“I love those trees! I’m just waiting for the silver coconut to pop out.
“If like me you’re depressed about the future of this country - which I am because of my three kids and the world they’re going to grow up in, particularly when North Sea Oil runs out as it’s started to do, and things really get tough here and the seed corn laid down by Thatcher comes up as armies of warriors with swords, with whatever political conflict lies in store for us - then the only hope of any radical change does lie with the young. There’s no question about that.
“Once you reach 30 - and please don’t take this personally - one does tend to get locked into The Mortgage, to get more conservative and more restricted in your freedom to dream. You end up gathering baggage around you, standing in the airport of life surrounded by all these suitcases, worrying about the excess baggage fees. That’s a fact of life, and it’s a great shame.
“I’ve watched this happen within my own field, within science fiction. Yesterday’s radicals often become today’s conservatives, and don’t want today’s radicals at any price. It’s why something like SF is probably going to be a one-generation phenomenon rather like classic Hollywood was -- in age-group I'm talking about -- say from Isaac Asimov to Michael Moorcock. Moorcock's younger than me, and he's not strictly speaking as an SF writer anymore…”
Ah, but who is these days? Ballard himself certainly isn't.
“I am! Of course I am! I'm practically the only one left!
“‘Star Wars’ isn't science fiction, it's pure space fantasy, which has nothing to do with SF. The great authority which SF had in the 1940s and ‘50s and even before that was that it opened a window onto the immediate future, with a cautionary view. Its claim to being taken seriously was that it was looking at the immediate future.
“If you look at the American magazines like ‘Astounding’, ‘Galaxy’, ‘If’, ‘Fantastic Universe’ and (the British) ‘New Worlds’ of the ’50s and the novels written by their authors, there was an enormous amount of straightforward cautionary fiction looking seriously at a changing world. All those stories about the dangers of nuclear war and overpopulation, the threat posed by computers... that was classic ‘50s SF. Giant advertising corporations and their threat to freedom as in Frederick Pohl, the effects of pollution, what television would do to our lives... science fiction was looking seriously at the near future and holding up warning signs, but now it's abandoned that, and I find it deplorable.
“American SF in particular has veered right away from that into fantasy. It's ignored the immediate future; it's no longer interested in what may happen. In fact, this terrible thing has happened: if you now write fiction that concerns itself with the near future -- or with the future at all -- then it is no longer by definition SF.
“When I started writing SF 25 or 30 years ago, the biggest problem that you faced as an SF writer was writing about the present day. To set a story in the present day immediately created problems of unease with the editors. They would ask, What is this? Are you trying to write mainstream fiction and slip it into the SF format? Listen, Jim, science fiction is about two things: the far future and outer space, and if you don't write about those two things then it's not SF.
“Now the reverse has come. If you want to write about the future, and to write a genuinely cautionary tale about the next ten or 15 years’ trends and what you and I have been talking about -- Thatcherism and the rest of it -- you would find difficulty in being accepted and having that accepted as science fiction. Whereas if you write a complete fantasy, a bit of deeply nostalgic medieval futurism perhaps set in the distant past as ‘Star Wars’ is set, nothing to do with the world we inhabit... that is what commercial SF, sadly, has become.
“It's a damn shame. SF has got to look at the present and the near future again, but that's my bias. I consider that I am a classic mainstream SF writer who is interested in the near future.”
But mainstream SF now is stuck at rocketry and sword-and-sorcery.
“But that's America! That's escapism. That just reflects America's own problems with itself. It can't face anything. It couldn't face Vietnam, it couldn't face Watergate, it cannot face the fact that America is a largely corrupt society. That is why Americans have turned to fantasy.”
In last week's NME, Maxim Jakubowski took an entirely well-justified poke at the ludicrously reactionary selection made by the Book Marketing Council for their ‘Venture Into Science Fiction’ promotion. Ballard is in substantial agreement with Jakubowski's view - ?and with similar opinions voiced by your humble servant - but he is considerably less miffed at being represented by his first novel than many might expect.
“Even though ‘The Drowned World’ was written over 20 years ago, it should be put in its context as the first inner space novel. ‘Inner space’ was the flag which I nailed to my mast, and ‘The Drowned World’ - written in ‘62 or whenever it was -- is literally the first Inner Space novel. Up until that point, catastrophe stories were being done on a very literal level, as adventure stories, but the psychological adventure became the subject matter for me.
“If you look at the Book Marketing Council's list, you'll see that John Wyndham's ‘Day Of The Triffids’ is there. Now it's a fine novel, a classic example of the English kind of Home Counties catastrophe fiction, a very polite society where all kinds of private obsessions are kept firmly buttoned down and people struggle together in the face of an external threat as they did during the Battle of Britain, or as we're led to believe they did during the Battle of Britain.
“My novel turns all that upside down. The hero embraces the catastrophe as a means by which he can express and fulfil his own nature, pursue his own mythology to the end, whatever that may be. He can accept the logic of his own personality and run that logic right down to the end of the road. That's a different approach. That's what ‘The Drowned World’ is about. That's what nearly all my fiction is about.”
This theme is reiterated most frequently in Ballard's first quartet of novels.
‘The Drowned World’ was succeeded by ‘The Wind From Nowhere’, a pallid derivative which Ballard these days disowns so completely that it does not even appear on official lists of his complete works, ‘The Drought’, which was a far more competent performance though hardly less derivative of its great prototype, and the extraordinary visions of ‘The Crystal World’, which restated the crucial motifs in a new and entrancing variation. ‘The Crystal World’ was written entirely under the influence of alcohol, as was most of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ which heralded Ballard's second major phase, that of his preoccupation with cars, dead celebrities and the media landscape.
Following the horrific exorcism of ‘Crash!’ (the most grisly novel about cars and sex ever written) and ‘Concrete Island’ (in which a businessman's car goes off the road at a motorway junction leaving him trapped in a plot of wasteland with no way of contacting the outside world), Ballard moved into his third and current phase, where the earlier themes are re-examined against a background of contemporary mythology.
His fascination with images of desolation goes back to his childhood, which was, to say the least, somewhat unusual.
He was born in Shanghai in 1930, and lived there until he was 15, serving two and a half years internment by the Japanese during the war before finally arriving in his parents' homeland in 1946.
“I would guess that a large part of the furniture of my fiction was provided ready-made from that landscape: all those barren hotels and deserted beaches, empty apartment blocks... the whole reality of a kind of stage set from which the cast has exited, leaving one with very little idea of what the actual play is about. All of that comes straight from the landscape of wartime Shanghai, and remember that the war there started in ‘37 when the Japanese invaded China and ringed the international settlement where I lived. After Pearl Harbour, they took over the city and we were interned.
“Even after the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs, the war still went on for another month for us. The Americans were still miles away…”
How did Ballard, interned in his camp, first hear about those bombs?
“In a very confused way,” he sighs. “Some people there thought that they had seen the Nagasaki flash. We didn't even know that the war had ended until at least a week after it had ended. There was a long interregnum, because the Americans were still across the China Seas, and the Nationalist Chinese forces were still a long way away, and around Shanghai there was an enormous Japanese army, something like two million Japanese soldiers on mainland China by VJ Day, and many of them planned to fight on.
“I think it's got to be accepted that it was only the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki tilted the balance of their minds in favour of surrendering. There were certainly many members of the Japanese High Command who wanted to fight on, who wanted to defend the home islands to the last piece of sukiyaki. It was a very confused period, and I think a large part of my fiction comes out of that.
“Something like ‘The Drowned World’ comes straight out of that landscape: flooded paddy fields with apartment buildings in the distance rising out of them which I used to watch from my camp every day, that sun, that very hot sun… not ‘The Crystal World’, now. That's another kettle of fish.
“‘The Drowned World’ is about time past, biological memory, the sources of the psyche deep in the buried levels of spinal column, whereas ‘The Drought’ is my image of what the future is going to be. I see the future as very lunar,” -- his voice crackles as he masticates the word - “very arid, very... static, sudden tremors and harsh black and white shadows, bursts of sensation like signals reaching a cathode ray tube from a crashing airliner or from a distant galaxy.
“It seems to me that we are recreating around us something of the physiology of a very lunar world, rather cold, affectless -- to use a favourite word of mine - lacking in feeling, but perhaps expressing feeling in a different way, which is what I'm trying to get at in books like ‘Atrocity’ and ‘Crash!’ Certainly the early stuff came out of a Chinese landscape.
“After ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, I embarked on a series of urban disaster novels set in the present: ‘Crash!’, ‘Concrete Island’ and ‘High-Rise’, all of which are concerned with the alien of the urban landscape, which we must embrace.
“In ‘Concrete Island’, the hero -- having spent the whole book trying to escape from the island? -- realises that in fact he has fulfilled himself on the island and should stay there, which is a kind of metaphor for reconciliation, the kind of reconciliation which we all have to make with our own selves and with our own limitations. All my heroes are trying to break through all these layers of enamel which society and social conventions paste over us.”
Like many SF writers, Ballard's interest in the new technology is on a basically theoretical level. No such vulgar thing as an electric typewriter sullies his desk, and he certainly doesn't have a home computer.
“I'm interested in all that stuff,” he muses, “but I like to keep it at a distance. I recognise an element of that conservatism in myself, and I think it's partly an age thing. It takes a while, once you're over the age of 40, to readjust yourself to a radical change.
“Things like electric typewriters with built-in memory which are supposedly there to aid and assist writers merely serve to intimidate and depress. I have enough problems without having to cope with that, and as for word processors... the editing function on those is so laborious.
“And we are living in a culture of surfaces, where style is more important than content. I am a very old-fashioned writer in the sense that my stuff is very carefully architected and I rely on a strong story. Take ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’: there are very strong stories buried in all that non-linear paragraph-by-paragraph stuff.”
J. G. Ballard is an oddity in modern letters: he stands for the essentially subversive power of the imagination. l like a good modern nursery story as much as the next superannuated media child, but when pap dominates to the extent to which it so demonstrably does in most contemporary fields of artistic endeavour, then it becomes necessary to send for a man like Ballard, the Samaritan saboteur of inner space.
“In a radical view of the world, and assuming that the role of the imagination is to reorder reality in a way that makes a little more sense and tells the truth about ourselves and shows us some kind of possibilities of what our lives could be... if that's the job of the writer, and it always has been, then the whole modern school of American fiction has produced nothing that remotely compares with Burroughs. His work seems as fresh and exciting and as absolutely radical a... as it ever was. It takes its place alongside Swift, Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud, Kafka... the radical reshapers of the imagination, of all the possibilities of our lives.
“There seems no point in writing unless you're going to do that.
“I know that's kind of an unpopular viewpoint in these safe, dull, conservative times, but it's one that I've attempted to cling to. We're in an era where the role of the writer -- or the poet, the painter, the musician, the filmmaker -- is to offer reassurance, which is a great shame.”
Ballard certainly doesn't peddle the conventional form of pulp reassurance, which is that everything will come out comfy despite the odd catastrophe here and there, that things will remain fundamentally the same.
His vision is only comforting in the sense that it demonstrates that there is nothing to which we cannot adapt once we realise that there is no distinction between it and us. That's comfort?
It is utterly appropriate to number Ballard among the true contemporary radicals of the imagination, to mention in the same breath as Burroughs or Genet or Carroll or Rimbaud. His best work is simply a new way of looking at the world.
Somehow, I don't think he'd be too surprised if that silver coconut did finally emerge by his typewriter one morning.
THE ESSENTIAL BALLARD
The Drowned World
The Crystal World
Ballard's funniest disaster, with the Last US dictator holed up in Las Vegas with the last bombs. A happy ending, already!
The Venus Hunters
The Disaster Area
The Atrocity Exhibition
Low Flying Aircraft
All available in Granada at £1.95 except The Drowned World, published by Dent at £2.95