From: "The Miami Herald", 15 May 1988
Ballard: Science Fiction 'Tries To Make Sense Of Change'
By William Robertson
British novelist J.G. Ballard, author of the popular and critically acclaimed Empire of the Sun, stopped in Miami recently during a promotional tour for his new book, The Day of Creation. The following conversation is an edited transcript of a longer tape-recorded interview.
Q. What do you think you have accomplished in your new book that you haven't done before?
A. I've always had two important strains in my writing. One was the purely imaginative sort of romantic strain in my earlier novels. The other strain has always been an interest in the mass media, particularly the TV landscape and how this is affecting people's values. Those strains have tended to be separate in my novels up until now, and I think in this book for the first time I've brought them together. It's a romantic tale, a parable about this man who creates a river and then becomes obsessed by it, and at the same time there's the other strain, which is the way in which the mass media, in the person of this TV documentary-maker, seizes on this event and begins to affect it.
So it's a sort of double parable in a way. It's about not just the man's creation of the river, which fulfills all his own dreams and unconscious yearnings, but it's about the way in which those dreams and yearnings are reflected and distorted by the mass media that is recording it live as it happens. For us, brought up in the TV age, the word "live TV" has a special sort of authority, doesn't it? In The Day of Creation, the creative act is being recorded as it occurs by this filmmaker, who in a
way is subverting it. He's sentimentalizing it. He's presenting it in terms of a set of TV cliches.
Q. Do you think the pervasiveness of television hurts reading, hurts the print medium?
A. I think it does. The fact is, and I think it's true of this country too, the reading of books has declined, particularly among the young. My childhood just edged into the TV era, but I spent my teens reading and most of the boys and girls of my age also did that. We read voraciously. Now my children didn't do that because they had too many other things to do. They were going to pop concerts; they were going out with their friends; they were buying clothes, listening to records. They didn't read and that's a great shame.
Q. Are they readers now?
A. Yes, they are now. They are all approaching 30. They in fact started reading in their mid-20s. They went to college and got university degrees, all three of them. One of my children, a very bright lass, if I may say, took a degree in English literature. My impression is that she only read the books in the syllabus (laughs). There were only 12 of them. You can get a degree in English literature at an English university having read about 12 novels. The thing about starting to read the classics of Western literature when you're in your mid-20s rather than your mid-teens is that you don't have that first great flush of excitement at being introduced to a richer imaginative world than the home you've been brought up in. Even if you don't understand it -- and I certainly didn't at the time -- if you start reading Dostoevsky at the age of 16, or Hemingway or Faulkner or James Joyce, or whoever, you read in a sort of insurrectionist mode, if you know what I mean. Your own imagination is flowering at a time when you are, in a sense, challenging the world of your parents and the adult order. If you start reading at 25, you've probably already joined the adult world. You don't read in that insurrectionist spirit anymore. Now, of course, the kids get that rebellious thing from pop music, from fashion, but that's not really enduring.
Q. You don't consider yourself a science fiction writer. Can you explain?
A. A lot of my early stuff, written 25 years ago, was science fiction. I was very proud to be a science fiction writer then. I think it's possible that science fiction is the true literature of the 20th Century. It's the only fiction that tries to make sense of change; it's the only fiction that tries to make sense of science and technology. At the same time, to some extent science fiction was hijacked 10 or 15 years ago by the writers and publishers who saw it just as an escapist medium. And that's a shame in a way. When I started writing SF in the late '50s, I wanted to write a science fiction about inner space, psychological space. I wasn't interested in alien planets and the far future. I was interested in this planet. I felt that this was the most alien planet that we had. But since the end of the '60s I haven't written much science fiction. The novels I wrote in the '70s were kind of urban disaster novels, like Crash. My novels of recent years, like Empire of the Sun and this one, aren't science fiction; they're imaginative fiction.
Q. How do you feel being so closely identified with a single book, Empire of the Sun?
A. Well, I've got mixed feelings. Obviously, I'm delighted to have reached a larger audience. At the same time I'm sorry that audience wasn't around when my earlier stuff was coming out. On the whole, of course, it has given my career as a writer a huge shot in the arm. To have the book filmed by Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest film director we have - that, of course, was an immense boost. I hope people who read Empire of the Sun or saw the movie will read my old novels and have a try at my new one.
Q. What did you think of the movie?
A. I thought it remarkably faithful to the spirit of the novel. I think it's Spielberg's most adult film to date, and I think, in many ways, his best film to date. I'm sorry it didn't do all that well over here. It's doing tremendously well in Europe and Britain. It was for a time the No. 1 box office film. Why that's the case I don't know. It may be that in Europe that is first-hand experience, of war and occupations, which the Americans, thank God, have never known.
Q. Did you have anything to do with the script?
A. No, I didn't. They didn't offer it to me, and I wouldn't have wanted to do it, to be honest. The moment I knew Steven Spielberg was going to direct it, I thought this is something for the best professionals in the field, and I'm not a professional screenwriter.
William Robertson is The Herald's book editor.