JG Ballard -- Man of Irony

A growing readership for the writer whose futuristic fiction is disconcertingly close to home. Text by Charles Shaar Murray.

One of the many side-effects of the success achieved by J.G. Ballard's Empire Of The Sun -- Booker near-miss, the most laudatory reviews of his career, the fastest hardback sales -- has been the elevation of science fiction's most inventive author to the status of a public figure.

Many of his readers must have been surprised to discover that the author of The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World, The Voices Of Time, The Disaster Area and many other triumphs of the radical imagination is no gloom-ridden ascetic but, rather, an urbane and jovial ironist, a man whose speaking voice is as unmistakable as its literary equivalent: quizzical and emphatic, timed and punctuated, almost a drawl. His countenance is bland and egg-like, one eyebrow almost permanently raised.

A widower, he lives in the studiously anonymous semi-detached house in Shepperton where he raised his three children. It is bare of any sign of ostentation or weirdness. Even his silver coconut tree has disappeared.

Ballard published his first short fiction in 1956 and made his debut as a novelist in 1962. His work has at times been so at odds with the science fiction mainstream that it might seem almost a kindness to say that he doesn't really write science fiction. He insists that he does: it is everybody else in the field who doesn't -- not any more, anyway. As space-fantasy and sword-and-sorcery increase their domination of the mainstream, Ballard still hews to his brief, an examination of what lies straight ahead on earth.

"In The Drowned World I projected into the future this image of London with apartment blocks arising out of swamp and water -- it tapped the view from our camp, when we looked out across the flooded paddy fields at the apartment houses of the French concession in Shanghai. My China experience, but in a very disguised form. I have been writing through the screen of an apparent future, but one can see outlines of the past."

Empire Of The Sun (Gollancz, £8.95), a transformation of his adolescent experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, fills a gap in the literature of World War II, describing and illuminating areas which were known only to the inhabitants of a particular time and space. Jim, Ballard's protagonist, is the same age as the author, has the same name, survives the same events. Thematic motifs have haunted his books for more than twenty years: the difference in Empire Of The Sun is that the drained swimming-pools, dead aviators and deserted airfields appear, not as metaphor or phantasm, but as parts of the factual landscape.

"The novel is not autobiographical in the literal sense, but it probably is in the psychological sense. Writing about it after so many years, I did find myself making judgements on events, and of course on myself. I could see some of the sources of my character, and they are by no means attractive ones.

"My childhood self was witness to extraordinary events, but I took them for granted much as a small boy might have done in Elizabethan London. It was a kind of strange, violent, street theatre. What I have done is to go back and put the emotion in."

Ballard is fond of saying that he chose this particular time in his life to write Empire Of The Sun because it took him twenty years to forget the events described and another twenty to recall them.

"I came to England in 1946, when I was sixteen. Life was dark, enclosed, narrowly stratified: for most people, a society based on compromise, on making adjustments to the third best, without even an engine of resentment on the part of the underdogs to energise the thing. I went to school, and that stunned me too.

"I'd left China forever, I was faced with an England I didn't like, so what I did was to invent a future for myself. In the late fifties, one could see the first outlines of change. A Cortina outside the front door, even if it was second-hand, television, the washing machine, rock and roll. That was what I began to write about.

"The novel of the day was dominated by C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell, America held the beacons. That's why I started with SF. It offered the only way out. But I needed change, which came slowly." Ballard steered one of the most risk-laden paths in contemporary letters. His chosen genre cut him off from the literary mainstream, despite the critical acclaim accorded him by contemporaries such as Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis. Also, his approach to SF precluded easy acceptance. He has never bothered with stock devices such as inter-galactic wars, time travel and telepathy. He writes about life in the Western world now, or at most five minutes or five years ahead. His tone is dry and dispassionate: his heroes do not so much triumph over their environments as discover ultimate satisfaction by merging with them. (Young Jim recognises that the only place where he will find any safety is within the camp, and he makes every effort to get interned.) His more experimental, late sixties work was scarcely calculated to win popularity -- for example, The Atrocity Exhibition, which included stories such as "The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Auto Race," "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe" and "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan". Ballard notes with some amusement that a publisher's reader who evaluated Crash! -- a lacerating fantasy of sexual obsession with road accidents -- concluded that "the author of this manuscript is beyond psychiatric help."

The hero of Concrete Island is a business man whose car leaves the road and strands him in a plot of waste-ground where he is invisible to passers-by. He eventually not only accepts his situation but learns to treasure it. A fantasy that breaks none of the laws of the physical universe, it shows the writer pursuing his obsessions across the shadowy border which separates our world from that of the space fantasists. Ballard is no great believer in "reality": the version of the world which is fed in through mass communication is itself, as he sees it, a construct, an enormous novel in which we all reside.