Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1988 interview.
A Conversation With J. G. Ballard
The visionary author of Empire of the Sun talks about science fiction, technology, war, and the human capacity for violence.
By JAMES VERNIERE
In the already hermetic world of science fiction, J.G. Ballard has been a cult figure for more than twenty-five years. This is not surprising to anyone who's read Ballard's visionary work. Like a psychic explorer, Ballard has charted the terra incognita of the collective unconscious. And in keep-ing with the nature of the "modern experience," most of his fiction is a kind of blueprint for psychosis. In post-apocalyptic novels like The Drowned World (1962), The Wind From Nowhere and The Drought, and in collections of short stories like The Terminal Beach (1971) [sic] and Vermillion Sands (1973), Ballard engineers dead worlds, transforming them into something rich and strange: mental landscapes that mirror the pathology of the humans that inhabit them.
Allusive, obsessive, fetishistic, and often full of pseudo-scientific imagery, Ballard's fiction reveals a world where sex, the family, even the evolutionary process, have fallen prey to entropy. Like Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, Ballard sees the twentieth century as a horrible, post-nuclear mutation -- the monstrous offspring of that "rough beast" that slouched -- not to Bethlehem -- but to Hiroshima to be born. And despite the inherent (and often petulant) strangeness of J.G. Ballard's fiction, the worlds he creates are hauntingly familiar.
In Crash (1973) -- a singularly perverse piece of fiction -- Ballard transforms the most common form of death in the twentieth century -- death by automobile -- into a demented and lyrical love-song on the theme of Eros and Technology. In "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" (one of Ballard's most anthologized stories) and in the eerily prophetic 1967 story, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," the writer gives us a modern-day death cult that sacrifices celebrities, actors, and political figures to its dark gods. Ironically, Ballard's fiction might best be described by invoking the author's words on the subject of surrealist painting: "It's a newsreel of the unconscious."
But a funny thing happened in 1984: J.G. Ballard became a mainstream author -- and an international celebrity. Ballard's novel, Empire of the Sun, in many ways his most conventional work, became an international bestseller and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in England, and later an award-winning motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg. An autobiographical re-working of Ballard's boyhood experiences, the novel tells the story of an eleven-year-old who's incarcerated by the Japanese in a prison camp in Shanghai, China. These real life experiences are so harrowing, they suggest the origins of some of Ballard's more bizarre themes -- of alienation, disaster, technology out of control. Translated into eighteen languages, it's Ballard's most accessible book and the only one to make it to The New York Times bestseller list, heady stuff indeed for a fifty-seven-year-old cult figure.
Born in 1930 in Shanghai, China, and educated at Cam-bridge (where he studied medicine with the intention of becoming a psychiatrist), Ballard has been an advertising copywriter, an encyclopedia salesman, a porter, an editor of a scientific journal, and a pilot in the RAF. But after publishing his first short story in 1956 ("Passport to Eternity," published in New Worlds magazine), he devoted himself entirely to writing, a craft he continues to practice at his home in Shepperton, Middlesex, a community on the banks of the Thames.
Yes, J.G. Ballard is an acquired taste, but once acquired he’s addictive. Empire of the Sun introduced him to a new gen-eration of readers, and his latest novel, Day of Creation (Farrar, Straus) may place him even more firmly in the mainstream.
J.G. Ballard in the mainstream? What a totally perverse, but irresistible, notion.
VERNIERE: When did you first conceive of Empire of the Sun as a novel?
BALLARD: In the back of my mind, I'd always had the intention to write a novel based on my experiences in China during the Second World War. Many people have asked why I waited so long. Instead of being one of my last books, why wasn’t it one of my first books? I don't know. It's a difficult thing to explain. Part of the reason is that it took a very long time to forget all those wartime experiences and then a very long time to remember them. Anybody who’s read Empire of the Sun and some of my previous fiction can see that there are elements of my China background in many of my novels. Some people have even said that Empire of the Sun is the key that explains all of my earlier books.
I don’t know about that. But the times seemed to be right, and it wasn’t until 1980 that my three children grew up and left home. I don't know whether this explanation is fanciful, but I think that all parents are protective towards their children, and in a way I felt vicariously protective toward my younger self. I wasn’t ready to expose my adolescent self to all of the hazards of the Second World War again until my own children were safely out of the way.
VERNIERE: Empire of the Sun is also your most accessible piece of writing. Was it a conscious attempt on your part to write a mainstream book?
BALLARD: No, I didn't give any thought to that. It was simply the subject matter: The book was semi-autobiographical and the subject matter wasn't invented by me. It was presented to me by my experiences of the war. So that dictated a realistic narrative, whereas the rest of my short stories and novels belong in the category of imaginative fiction.
VERNIERE: Have you come to understand how your experiences in the camp may have influenced your vision as an adult writer?
BALLARD: That's a tremendous [he means in the sense of "weighty"] question. Writing the book in a sense forced me to take a sort of critical inventory of my whole life and character. Of course, I asked myself the question you've asked many, many times as I was writing because the book cast its shadow over all my previous novels. I've always been tremendously inspired by the Surrealist painters, for example, and to some extent the reason is that my adolescent mind saw the events of Shanghai -- not just during the war but before it -- as part of some huge, surrealist canvas with the normal logic of everyday life suspended: Anything went. There was a tremendous energy and excitement there. It was a place full of paradoxes. In the last line of the book, I refer to Shanghai as "the terrible city." It was terrible in the sense that it was a very cruel and brutal place. And it gave a particular kind of spin to my imagination. That spin is still turning.
VERNIERE: When were you first contacted by Spielberg?
BALLARD: Robert Shapiro -- an independent producer closely associated with Warner Brothers -- read the book before it was published in the States, and he took out an option. Quite simultaneously, Kathleen Kennedy -- Spielberg's partner and co-producer -- read the book in London, and showed it to Spielberg, who -- I gather -- was strongly interested in it. The upshot was that Shapiro and Spielberg came together, and Spielberg directed the film for Warner Brothers.
VERNIERE: Was there any point at which you were planning or hoping to write the screenplay? [Ballard wrote the script for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth in 1970.]
BALLARD: No, there wasn’t. I wasn't asked, and I didn’t want to do it. Robert Shapiro had already commissioned playwright Tom Stoppard to write the script. I have a great respect for the medium, and it seems to me that in the case of Empire of the Sun I was dealing with top-flight professionals. Obviously, the film is Steven Spielberg's film, and I'm quite happy about that. I didn’t see any sign whatever that they wanted to take shortcuts or sentimentalize the book. Later, when I met Spielberg himself, within ten seconds I felt certain I was in the best possible hands. In fact, if there was anybody who wanted to cheapen the book or popularize it, it was me [laughing]. If I had been given the chance to make the book myself, I'm sure I would have sensationalized it.
VERNIERE: But Spielberg admits that he very rarely reads fiction. And one wonders what his reaction to -- say -- Crash would be?
BALLARD: The point about Crash and some other novels of mine is that they exist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Empire of the Sun. It might be that Spielberg would not be in the least interested in something like Crash. But Empire obviously touched his imagination.
VERNIERE: How would you describe your new novel, Day of Creation? Is it science fiction? Is it mainstream fiction?
BALLARD: Well, it's not science fiction; it's an imaginative novel. But it could be read as a realistic novel. It's set in present-day Africa. It's about a British doctor who's working for the World Health Organization at a Central African republic being overrun by the Sahara. Drilling for water, he accidentally starts a mysterious river flowing. This becomes a mighty Amazon, which he feels he has created, and it transforms the desert. He then decides to sail up the river to its source.
VERNIERE: Do you feel that people who’ve read Empire of the Sun will also find this new novel accessible?
BALLARD: I think so. That's been the reaction here. Of all my novels, it's probably the closest to Empire of the Sun, since on one level anyway it's a realistic story set in the present day.
VERNIERE: In the early '70s, you were referred to as one of the British "New Wave" of sf. But you've always straddled the fence between science fiction and avant-garde fiction. Do you have problems with such labels?
BALLARD: There is a problem of course. Those labels are so sticky, and it's almost impossible to get them off. I've spent years trying to peel away the Superglue.
VERNIERE: Perhaps Empire of the Sun was the solvent you were looking for.
BALLARD: Maybe, maybe. It is unfortunate, of course, but science fiction has become indelibly identified with interplanetary travel, time machines, Star Trek and Star Wars, that sort of Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon school. One has to keep reminding people that there's more to science fiction than Star Trek and Star Wars. A large number of the most serious writers of this century have written what is without any doubt science fiction. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, these are science fiction novels. Many serious writers of the present day have also written out-and-out science fiction novels: Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, and many writers in the States.
VERNIERE: And many of the critics who’ve supported the work of those writers tap dance around the term "science fiction” when reviewing the books you've mentioned.
BALLARD: That's true -- because they're primarily thought of as mainstream writers, even though in a strict definition of the term somebody like Doris Lessing has written more science fiction novels than I have. Crash is not really science fiction. In fact, I think it's true to say -- not that anyone is particularly interested -- that I haven’t written much science fiction since something like 1966, twenty years ago.
But even though I'm probably more identified with a book like Crash than with The Drowned World, people still think of me as a sf writer. The reason is, of course, that I take a hard, cruel look at the everyday reality around me in Western Europe and the United States, and I see science and technology playing an enormous part in creating the landscape of our lives and imaginations. In many respects, we're living inside a science fiction novel, and it's not the sf of Star Trek. But, of course, most mainstream writers are working with a set of conventions that haven’t really changed since the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, and as a result are rather out of touch with reality.
I have my lonely struggle trying to get a broader definition of science fiction: a definition that incorporates Gulliver's Travels, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, on through H.G. Wells, on to that great genius, William Burroughs, who uses huge elements of science fiction in his novels because it's part of the air that we breathe. What I'm striving for is a more elastic definition of science fiction, and I go on beating the drum -- but I don't want to bore you to death.
VERNIERE: I recently re-read Leslie Fiedler's introduction to the science fiction collection, In Dreams Awake, and he tackles some of these same issues. In it, he calls science fiction a religious literature. Do you know what he means?
BALLARD: I think that's very true. I haven’t read this particular book.
VERNIERE: Well, you're in it, or I should say, "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" is in it.
BALLARD: Well, anyway I agree. The imagination that expresses itself through science fiction does try to place some sort of philosophical frame around man's place in the universe, if I may quote myself. It's a fiction of paradox. It's thought of as escapist entertainment, but in fact in its naive way it's concerned in all its different varieties with a meta-physical understanding of the nature of human existence, especially at a time of change. Science fiction is the literature that responds to change. It's a dynamic form of fiction, whereas most mainstream fiction (which is very retrospective) is rather static. It visualizes a static world, as if society were a large, still photograph in which everybody is set in position and the writer's job is to determine where the moral perspectives lie that link all these figures in the landscape. Science fiction assumes a sort of dynamic flux. Nothing is certain, nothing is sure, everything is relative. I know these sound like grandiose claims.
VERNIERE: They don't. Fiedler also uses the expression "the eroticized technology of men" in his introduction. Taken to an extreme that "eroticized technology" might refer to Crash and what you've done in some of your other fiction.
BALLARD: I think that's true. Exactly. We're surrounded in our lives by the products of a very high-developed technology, whether it's our motorcars, our hospitals, our homes, jets, the elaborately signalled landscape of the modern highway. You name it. Our individual imaginations tend to overlay all these technological artifacts and systems because that's the nature of imagination. We constantly try to re-make the world, and this involves casting the webs of our imaginations over all these artifacts that make up twentieth-century life.
VERNIERE: The tone of your writing is often obsessive and even fetishistic.
BALLARD: I accept that. As a writer I've always had complete faith in my own obsessions. It seems to me that the obsessional approach to life is very much the way in which the twentieth century conducts its business. It tends to stick onto certain subjects, whether it's World War, television, the consumer-goods society, great political movements, in an obsessional way.
VERNIERE: But one might argue that your obsessional tone and your philosophical investigation of the nature of existence are also indicative of religious writing, the writings of certain Christian saints, for example.
BALLARD: I thought you were going to say, "of Adolf Hitler" [laughs]. Well, I take that as a great compliment. I think the modern imagination does take the whole universe as its subject. It's concerned with metaphysical questions about the nature of consciousness, of experience, of perception. It takes a very large field of enterprise as its arena. As far as the religious-fetishistic thing goes, I accept that because all that this modern imagination has going for it is its powerful creativity. And these things -- like crashing cars -- do lend themselves to "fetishization;" if there is such a word.
VERNIERE: If we could take a bit of a turn here, could you talk about how the popular arts -- movies in particular -- influence your work? You have often referred to movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and to political figures like Madame Chiang-Kai-shek in your fiction…
BALLARD: And don't forget my one claim to prescience, which I hesitate to make: Ronald Reagan [laughs].
VERNIERE: That story was on my list of questions.
BALLARD: That was written in 1967 when I think Reagan was Governor of California, and I predicted his Presidency. The title, I hasten to add, was meant ironically. I may want to visit the States one day and I don't want to be arrested at Kennedy Airport on a charge of perversion relating to the body of the President. Actually, that story was distributed by a group of my readers in San Francisco at the Republican Convention in 1980. They apparently copied the story, deleted the title, and put the Republican seal on it. They then distributed this to the delegates, most of whom didn't blink an eyelid. They thought this was some sort of position paper from some think tank, analyzing the unconscious appeal of their candidate. So that's my one little claim to having accurately glanced into the crystal ball. I think the media landscape of the present day is made up of a kind of high-speed mosaic that flashes by made up of images of public figures charged by our fantasies. It's the texture of ordinary life.
VERNIERE: Which might ex-plain the "televisionary" aspect of some of your fiction.
BALLARD: Right. I think we’re living in a landscape of enormous fictions, of which television is a major supplier. The danger with TV is that it pre-digests and pre-empts any kind of original response by the viewer. It just feeds the viewer a kind of reality. (It has become in fact the new reality, just like processed food has become the staple diet of many people in the West.) This force feeding makes us rather like a lot of bullocks in a pen. Reality now is a kind of huge advertising campaign, selling television’s image of what life is about. The real aim of TV is fulfilling its own needs. Television is no longer an innovative medium here, and I imagine it's probably true in the States as well. It seems to me that film is still very much an innovative medium.
VERNIERE: Not in the U.S. Like American TV, the American film industry has become a kind of perpetual motion machine, spewing out "products" to satisfy a need it has created.
BALLARD: It's funny, but I'm probably the last person in his fifties in this country who’s still going to the movies. Nobody here over the age of forty goes to the movies. For a man of fifty-six to be going to the movies is practically a social crime. It's unseemly behavior in the elderly. When the lights come on at the end of the evening, I always feel vaguely guilty looking around, like some middle-aged man hanging around the school playground. But I've recently seen a re-markable new kind of film: films like Blue Velvet, Raising Arizona, and Blood Simple.
VERNIERE: Your fiction often mimics the computer print-outs, charts, graphs, and fact-sheets of scientific writing. You've even been heralded as the father of the "cyberpunk" movement. How much did your background as a medical student who hoped to become a psychiatrist influence your style?
BALLARD: First, it is true that I've tried to reproduce something of the texture of scientific language. I don't mean to say that my fiction is a mass computer print-out of facts. It isn't. But I've drawn heavily in certain books of mine, like The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, on the scientific journal or report that covers similar areas and is, in itself, almost a kind of fiction. I mean some of the scientific research that is done in specialized laboratories on topics like the psychology of air-crash victims is -- first -- horrific beyond parody. But it's almost a kind of nightmare fiction in its own right. It's a kind of pornography of science, issuing from these specialized laboratories which I've parodied in some of my stories.
VERNIERE: You've also shown a fascination for violent death; the assassination of John Kennedy is an obvious example. In Crash, there is a character who yearns to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. Have you ever come to terms with where that fascination comes from?
BALLARD: To be quite honest, I myself have no desire to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor [laughs]. I once nearly bumped into her in a revolving door in a London hotel and that was close enough. [Laughs.] To be serious, these obsessions with violent death, particularly of well-known figures (Presidents, film stars and the like), I take from the world around me. It seems self-evident that people are immensely fascinated by the lives and deaths of public figures and have been since the nineteenth century. I remember reading American magazines as a boy in Shanghai that were full of gory photographs of gangsters and politicians who were gunned down and minor film stars who died in terrible road accidents or shootings in Hollywood. I see Kennedy's death as a kind of catalyst of the media planet that exists now. There was something about the way in which this young President (who was himself a media construction) was dismantled by the same media landscape that created him, that generated a kind of supernova that's still collapsing.
VERNIERE: Are there any contemporary trends that you find interesting or especially disturbing?
BALLARD: In England today, people will not face up to the powerful appeal that violence exerts on the imaginations of almost everyone, whereas in private they do. People love the thrills and spills of grand prix motor races…
VERNIERE: And the explosion of the Challenger Shuttle…
BALLARD: Yes, people stay glued to their TVs, or if there's a car crash in the street, they go out, not to gloat, but they're drawn to violence. We're having a big debate right now over this terrible Hungerford Massacre. About three weeks ago a young man in a small English town started walking around shooting people. He killed about fourteen people. It's extraordinary to me to see a complete drawing down of the mental shutters over this. People who ought to know better are absolutely refusing to acknowledge the immense hold that violence exerts over people. It seems to me that it's unhealthy. One should face up to the realities of human nature. That way one can do something about improving it, steering it into safer channels.
VERNIERE: I don't mean to tie this up too neatly, but it seems that what you're saying might be applied to your experiences as a boy. You were exposed to violence in its most extreme form at an impressionable age. Did that experience make you particularly sensi-tive to its seductive power?
BALLARD: Ahh, possibly. But I'm not personally drawn to violence. Quite the opposite. It's true that I witnessed first-hand what most people in Western Europe and the United States only witnessed second hand, if at all. Tens of millions of years of evolution trained humans to react to violence with their nerve endings. But that training is now largely gone to waste. We see violence now purely through film, television, and the news media. We experience it almost as part of the entertainment landscape of our lives. But we’ve got this huge inherited apparatus for coping with violence -- flight or fight, whatever -- yet it's being officially denied now that it exists. Violence is being treated here in the same way that sex was treated in the pre-Kinsey era.
VERNIERE: Are you saying that the repression of our natural response to violence might have effects similar to those that resulted from sexual repression?
BALLARD: I think that's the danger. The refusal to acknowledge human nature is a mistake because it will find some other, possibly more lethal, way out. Just as repressive attitudes toward sex generated ignorance and superstition, so the repression of violence will generate an equally unfortunate set of fantasies and delusions. Not only do some of our politicians want to ban violence entirely on TV. (Sometimes I think these people have an extra channel inside their heads that I don't get to watch.) They even want to ban images of violence from the news. They say the news should not be too explicit. You know, reports of an air disaster or car crashes or film from a war zone like Beirut, anything like that. Well, this is a very dangerous kind of censorship.
VERNIERE: There is a line from E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice that says, "England has always been disinclined to accept human nature."
BALLARD: I think that's very true. Profoundly true.