This interview is from the London listings magazine "City Limits", taken from the issue dated 10-17 September 1987, so it's around the time of the publication of "The Day of Creation".
The River from Nowhere
For a quarter of a century, JG Ballard has been writing novels to support his contention that "the only alien planet is Earth". On the publication of his latest book, Nick Kimberley hacks his way through the suburban jungle to interview him.
As the train from Waterloo approached Shepperton, the suburban landscape seemed on the verge of a miraculous transformation. In the bright heat, the trackside flora took on an almost tropical iridescence. The sun glinted on broken bottles, which momentarily became precious stones. A bird hovered in an updraft of hot air, while the leonine roar in the distance was surely something more than the sound of planes taking off from Heathrow.
On the way to interview J G Ballard, I was immersed in his new novel, "The Day of Creation". My attention was trapped between the novel's landscape, and the one passing by the train window. Suburban London, enjoying one of this summer's few hot days, had been transported to somewhere south of the Sahara. It was almost a relief to arrive in Shepperton and find that the houses still had names like "Brambles" and "Orchard View". This is where Ballard lives; where for 25 years he has conjured up some of the most unsettling fictional landscapes to be found in modern fiction. In one of his wittiest novels, "The Unlimited Dream Company", he transformed the Shepperton scenery itself into something utterly strange, of a piece with his drowned or crystalline worlds, as close and as distant as Shanghai and the Sahara.
My first question is "Why Shepperton?" "I'm very drawn to the place, partly because it's absolutely nowhere - l feel I could walk away from this house at five minutes' notice and never look back! But it's a much more interesting zone than it might appear. It's really not a suburb of London, but of London Airport, and the Silicon Valleys alongside the M3 and M4. It's in this landscape of reservoirs, dual carriageways, small department stores which look like control towers. The edge of the consumer society wave breaks in places like Shepperton - they're relatively prosperous. I like to think of it as the Malibu of the Thames!"
Placing Shepperton "absolutely nowhere" makes an explicit link with "The Day of Creation", which is set in an imaginary part of Africa which hovers between Chad and the Sudan - "a land as close to nowhere as the planet could provide", as the narrator, Doctor Mallory, says. Sent to Africa on a medical mission, Mallory soon finds himself involved in plans to irrigate the Sahara. Out of the obsessive search for water comes a different new obsession as his mind summons forth a new river which grows from a dribble to a torrent like "a third Nile". Naming it the Mallory, the Doctor sets off in search of its source, torn between the urge to destroy the river and immerse himself in it. The novel is the account of his trip up this river (real? imaginary? - perhaps both), of his attempts to avoid it by destroying him [sic], and of the people he comes up against on his way.
It's a rich novel full of disturbing humour and eerie scenery. As Ballard says, "the river transforms the landscape into a sort of Garden of Eden; it promotes all sorts of confused responses in Mallory. But this is not a heart of darkness, it's a heart of lightness - about burgeoning flora and fauna, an immense river like green chrome bringing this desert to life, touching all sorts of possibilities in the imagination of the characters involved. It's not a Conradian journey into death and despair - quite the opposite."
One of Ballard's strengths is his ability to conjure up landscapes which have the extra-terrestrial quality of science fiction, while remaining recognisably Earthly. His earliest novels were published as science fiction, although he's never stuck to generic rules. When he started writing in the mid'50s, sf offered possibilities not available elsewhere, as he remembers: "At that time, the English novel was dominated by fiction which I disliked intensely, and which had nothing to do with the world I was living in. The '50s was when the blueprint for the world we're living in now was being laid down: international jet travel, computers, the consumer goods society, the possibilities of nuclear war - all those scientific developments that had a lot of question marks over them. New cities, new urban landscapes, the motorway society -these didn't figure at all in novels being written by leading writers. It seemed to me that only in sf - which actually I wasn't very interested in! - could you find the landscapes of the present day. In 1956, when I published my first short story, sf was coming to the end of its postwar boom. In '57 came the launch of Sputnik 1, the dawn of the so-called Space Age. This appeared to be the fulfilment of the age-old dreams of sf writers, but in fact, science fiction went into an immediate decline, as if the fulfilment of the dream rendered it no longer necessary to the imagination. I felt that it was time for sf to come home - that outer space and the far future had been exhausted, that the present day was the real subject, this planet, the psychological space enclosing it - inner space rather than outer space."
Since the publication of "The Drowned World" in 1962, Ballard has continued to dismantle the stale realisms of British fiction, but his work has long escaped the sf ghetto. With the publication in 1984 of "Empire of the Sun", he at last reached the large audience that had ignored him for so long. "That sold something like 110,000 in hardback, 400,000 in paperback - more than all my previous books together! I hope "Empire of the Sun" will be the locomotive that pulls the rest of my work out of the tunnel."
The main reason for the novel's success (and its sale to Hollywood where Steven Spielberg has just finished filming it) was the subject matter: the British have an insatiable desire for war novels, even one as idiosyncratic as this. "A lot of people probably read it as a piece of non-fiction; I had letters wanting to know what happened to Jim when he came to England. But I couldn't write a novel about England in the late-'40s - I wonder if it even existed! It simply wasn't my sort of landscape. When I came here in 1946, England was like Spandau, a huge rambling old prison full of mad people serving life sentences. They've closed that prison now!"
Now, in "The Day of Creation", Ballard returns to the present - or is it the future? Through its narrator Mallory - by no means a flawless hero - the novel encounters a strange, ambiguous world, one which Ballard is determined not to make safe. Another character, Sanger, is a maker of TV documentaries, whose efforts to sterilise Mallory's vision receive Ballard's sharpest scorn. "I'm saying that, thanks to the media landscape, dominated by TV, a homogenised, sentimentalised view of nature is imposed on reality. Nothing remains in a pristine state. This is the problem facing all the ecological movements - in a sense, people don't want raw, uncontaminated nature. They want the convenience fictions of the media. They may not want the Amazon paved in concrete, but they want it paved in the sentimentalising fictions that someone like David Attenborough purveys - that nature is inexplicable, cosy, full of bushy-tailed animals. Individual responses are pre-empted by this media landscape - the danger of that is that the 15 minutes of fame we're all going to be granted in the future will take place on the Noel Edmunds Show!"
Ballard's fictions have never been "sentimentalizing", but have always found ways to confront the uncomfortable. "Empire of the Sun" may have brought him the mass audience he deserves; "The Day of Creation" shows that readers new and old still don't know what to expect from this "disreputable" (his own words) maverick of British fiction.