Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1988 interview.
J.G. Ballard: Literary Terrorist
J.G. Ballard's literary career had a common enough start: as a boy, he was inspired by his love of comic books. From there, however, he went on to write a uniquely personal form of science fiction, producing some of the major works of Britain's New Wave of the 1960s. Now Ballard has achieved worldwide recognition for literary novels which no longer belong strictly to the field of science fiction. Has he turned completely away from his genre beginnings?
"I've always thought of myself as a science fiction writer, and I've admired a great number of sf writers over the years. I've always believed that science fiction was immensely important, more the true literature of the 20th century. I never played much of a part in the sf world -- not over here anyway, for sf [in the U.S.] has gone in a different direction. There are two wings to sf, the hardcore of Heinlein, Asimov, & Co., and the imaginative wing of Bradbury, Sturgeon and others, to which obviously I am much more drawn.
"Science fiction is part of a larger stream. The way the imaginative writer sees the world is the way the sf writer sees the world. So a book like The Day of Creation, which isn't science fiction, or even Empire of the Sun, which clearly isn't, nevertheless does have the same kind of un-conscious mechanism at work, generating novels, as in earlier books of mine like The Drowned World and The Crystal World.
"As an imaginative writer one has a common pool of ideas that have touched the human imagination since the year dot. The magic of forests, the strangeness of deserts, the power of mighty rivers -- these are archetypal things that are part of the human imagination. The idea itself [in The Day of Creation] didn't require a blinding feat of originality. What is original is that the river should have been actually created by one man, who becomes totally obsessed with it and decides to sail the river to its source. I found it a very rich source of emotions and ideas as I was writing."
Ballard's attempts to move beyond straightforward genre writing seem to have been more successful than many literary authors' dabblings with science fiction. "When mainstream writers have moved into the sf field, feeling the urge to tap something of sf’s enthusiasm and talent, many tended to be rather ponderous. These Johnny-come-latelys have shown the weakness of the mainstream imagination trying to cope with a radically different order. Their basic formulas are wrong, they're still thinking like mainstream writers of the 19th or early 20th century. They haven't got what every sf writer learns when he is weaned, the necessity to embrace a kind of surrealist view of reality.
"Surrealism has always been a very big influence on me. Actually, 'influence' is the wrong word -- it has corroborated or confirmed my own beliefs about the nature of the imagination in the 20th century, that one needed a more radical approach. You could no longer accept reality at face value, as the 19th-century novelists did. You needed to challenge the established order much more. You do this in the way -- by an analogy -- of a political activist who wants to change an established order. There comes a time when some sort of radical action is needed. I won't go as far as throwing a bomb into a crowded theater, but… I can see that some of my novels, like High-Rise and Crash, are terrorist novels in that they're designed to deliberately provoke. That's true of a lot of my fiction.
"Sf writers tend to work in a cautionary mode, to put up street signs saying, 'Danger, trends ahead.' That's an important social and imaginative function, undervalued by mainstream critics, who are full of praise for great masters like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, and with justice, but they've tended to underestimate the function of modern science fiction in providing a continuous running commentary on what is going on. Over the last 40-50 years, even if the average reader is unable to name a single sf writer, most people have absorbed the overall warnings, the overall picture of the future that sf writers have been conveying. [Though their works have appeared in] small-circulation publications, nonetheless the power of their imagination, the power of their warnings and their vision of what the world is going to be the day after tomorrow, is sufficiently accurate, by and large, to seep into more popular cultures. This isn't a matter of predicting when the next advance on the vacuum tube or the atom bomb is going to come along, but of conveying a kind of texture, a shape to which our lives are conforming now and are likely to in the near future. I think it's to science fiction's great credit that it's done this.
"But I've wished science fiction could enlarge its scope, its pool of ideas and vocabulary and ambitions. What I regret is the way that in recent years -- maybe I'm showing my age here -- the science fiction of the '50s (much of which would have difficulty getting published these days), that sort of realistic concern for what is going on, is rather out of tune with all the sword and sorcery and futuresque sagas masquerading as science fiction."
Not only the realism of the '50s, but also the special enthusiasm of British sf in the '60s, seems to have departed from the field today. Is it likely to return? "Whether Britain can once again generate the kind of excitement there was in the '60s, I don't know. It will be for another generation to do that. It was a very exciting time. Lots of things came together then. Once enough post-war prosperity came, the pressures to throw off the yoke of the class system were so strong that the system fell apart. People threw off the shackles of this very repressive 19th-century society and adapted a more open, energetic way of life that wasn't obsessed with social convention. Whether that can happen again, I don't know."
On his publicity tour for The Day of Creation, Ballard has travelled America from coast to coast. "I've hardly had time to stop working in the PR field and start being a writer again. Now don't get me wrong: I love this trip. It's been a treat meeting everybody. I did enjoy seeing wonderful places like Miami Beach, where I was struck by the charm of all those beautifully painted Deco hotels in their ice cream colors. Beautiful white sand and a stunning Caribbean sky. The atmosphere is so leisurely and laid back, time stands still there. Coming from a northerly country, in Britain we're suckers for the sun. Shine a light on anything, I love it.
"This trip is only 12 days, whereas the activity surrounding the Spielberg movie went on for month after month after month. It's been worth doing, but being fundamentally rather shy, I can't wait to get back to total anonymity."