Walking On The Thames

Once the doyen of British SF, J G Ballard joined the mainstream with “Empire of The Sun”. He talks with Stan Nicholls about the follow-up, “The Kindness of Women”, and the future of the human race.

Since writing the ground-breaking novels, “Crash”, “The Atrocity Exhibition” and “High Rise” in the seventies, JG Ballard has been acknowledged as one of the most influential voices in contemporary SF. He introduced many of the themes that would, a decade later, be adopted by the new generation of cyberpunk writers: rampant consumerism; media domination and the rise of the conglomerate. But then, in the mid-eighties, Ballard broke with SF to write a largely autobiographical novel, “Empire Of The Sun”.

Based on his own childhood experiences as an inmate of a Japanese prison-of-war camp, Empire was a huge hit. Spielberg of all people made a fairly successful -- artistically and commercially -- movie out of it, and Ballard found himself nominated for the Booker Prize. An interesting turn of events for a writer, who alongside much of the SF community, had often experienced trouble getting his books reviewed in the “literary” press.
At the time of Empire's publication, Ballard mentioned the possibility of a sequel, and that book has now become one of the most eagerly awaited publishing events of the year. “The Kindness Of Women” follows Empire's narrator, Jim, as he leaves Shanghai for England. The first three chapters are actually set in Shanghai, and constitute a kind of prologue. “It roughly follows the path of my own life,” Ballard explains. “But I put in the prologue solely for the benefit of people who had not read ‘Empire Of The Sun’, because the events there were so important, and cast such a giant shadow over my life, that readers who hadn't read it would have been baffled otherwise.”
How did he come by the title, I asked? “When I read the manuscript after I finished the book I still hadn't found a title,” he answers. “Then my eye caught this phrase ‘the kindness of women’.
“I hadn't realised as I was writing the book what an important role the women characters played in it. In fact they outnumber the male characters by about three to one. The book is -- well, many things -- but certainly it's a record of the narrator's relationships with a number of women over many years. It was almost the subject of the novel, without my realising it. So ‘The Kindness Of Women’ seemed very appropriate.”
Despite corresponding in many ways with the events of his own life, Ballard denies that Kindness is an autobiography. “Had I been born in Goldaming, gone to King's College, Cambridge, worked on the TLS, then moved to the BBC and written a novel about it, no-one would call it autobiographical. Because my childhood in particular, but even my later life, has been so unusual, the moment I write about Shanghai, car crashes or the death of a wife [Ballard's wife dies tragically on a family holiday in France (sic)] people assume it's straight autobiography. Well it isn't actually. It's a novel.
“The background material and many of the events described are based on my own life. But all the foreground material and the characters are complete fiction. It is true that I, for example, took LSD in 1967, but the account I give doesn't exactly follow what happened to me then. To take that chapter in particular, there was no psychologist called Richard Sullivan who monitored my taking the LSD; I took it by myself. I didn't, in the middle of the trip, go down to the river and try to walk on the Thames. So my description is a fictional one.
“Even the narrator to some extent is fictitious. He's sort of an alternate me. It's very hard to separate the strands of fiction from reality in novels like ‘The Kindness Of Women’ or ‘Empire Of The Sun’; they are interwoven so closely you can't really disentangle them. There's no separation between the narrator and myself as far as that's concerned.”
Yet the circumstances of Ballard's youth -- an “English” child who never actually saw the mother country until his early teens -- seem to contradict that identification. There is in fact a sense of separation apparent in the sequel, allowing the narrator to take the standpoint of a detached observer. “I feel, both in my book and in my life, that this country seems rather foreign in many ways, even though I've lived here for 45 years. I felt I was a kind of planetary visitor who fell to earth on this particularly strange island, and have always felt that strangeness. I think that's why I was originally drawn to science fiction.”
But was the SF label ever appropriate to his brand of fiction? “I think it was in the early days, yes. I mean, what is a novel like ‘The Drowned World’? It's science fiction. I don't object to the science fiction label at all. Although I think it's wrongly applied, as it often is, to my '70s novels like ‘Crash’ and ‘High Rise’. They're not science fiction in any way.”
So, now that Ballard has turned away from SF, does he still regard it as the literature of the 20th century? “Yes I do. By which I don't mean that it's necessarily generated the greatest works in fiction. It probably hasn't. But it certainly generated at least two masterpieces of 20th century literature -- Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four -- and possibly a number of others.
“The totality of science fiction this century may well be seen in the future as the most important literary response to the 20th century, and to the huge role that science has played in our lives. It may be that future social and literary historians will see SF as the authentic imaginative response to what the 20th century was about.
“But perhaps the elements of popular fantasy inspired by science have been thoroughly absorbed into mass culture, and we don't really any longer need SF because any mainstream writer worth his salt trying to write about the contemporary world will, willy-nilly, include elements of science fiction in a way their predecessors of 40 years ago would not have done. I think science fiction has probably come to an end effectively. So much of it is now inspired by other science fiction, which is a sure sign of decline.”
He came to science fiction as a reader comparatively late in life. “I didn't really begin reading it until I was 23 or 24, when I was in Canada. I was in a remote RCAF station in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where there was absolutely nothing to read except science fiction magazines. That was the golden age, of course, and I was immensely impressed by the serious and sociologically-oriented SF I found.
“I began to write my own science fiction almost immediately after this baptism, and to be quite truthful I probably stopped reading SF within a matter of a very few years, Once I started writing my own I had such a clear idea of what I disliked about contemporary SF that I didn't really need to read much more.”
If he were to start writing now, rather than 35 years ago, he says he probably wouldn't write a science fiction at all. "I wouldn't need to, because the elements of science are all around us, and they've been annexed by mainstream fiction to such a large extent.
“We're living very much in the kind of world SF writers envisaged 30 or 40 years ago. Information networks have enveloped the planet. The power of advertising and image manipulation, the transformation of the real into the fictional and the fictional into the real, is taking place. An image on a billboard is the real landscape and the field behind it doesn't register on the mind at all.
“There's almost no need now for a separate genre. I think this may be why science fiction is entering a period of prolonged obsolescence. It will survive as an entertainment fiction, and in cinema, advertising iconography, television comic books and so on. It will continue generating visions of a future that will never come. It's bricked itself into its own little universe where it can go on surviving.”
But the fact is that fewer and fewer people seem to need to read fiction anyway. “Yes, because their lives are already enormously stocked with fiction of every kind. To some extent the entire landscape of our lives these days is a fiction, so the outlook for the novel is pretty doubtful, I think. Particularly if computer generated virtual reality systems come on stream. I assume they will produce very high definition virtual reality systems without the need to wear cumbersome headsets and gloves. Virtual reality poses extraordinary dilemmas for the human race. Does it wish to enter into this completely synthetic realm which may become real life?”
Does he assume this would be a bad development? “No, I don't assume that. I assume the primary application of virtual reality systems will be in the entertainment industry. That seems the obvious generator of the necessary revenue to build these things in the first place. But I can see the extension of them to a huge range of virtual reality experiences. The simulation of unaided flight, for example; one will be able to soar like Superman over the rooftops of London. This is going to have profound effects on the sense of our own physical identity and of the limits and scope of our bodies and minds. If by entering a virtual reality world we can become gods in all senses, we may begin to think like gods.”
This technology has the potential to completely transform our way of life. “We may have a genuinely anarchic culture, where people define and inhabit private worlds that owe nothing to each other, and have only the slightest contact with each other. The rest of humanity may seem like an alien species. Or the race may actually put itself to sleep in a curious way and choose to live a vast planetary dream. It's very hard to visualise, but I can't see any way of stopping it. Not that I particularly want to.
“I take for granted that everything is going to be known about the human brain and about genetics sometime in the next century. A radically new phase of human existence is going to begin which will make living in the 20th century seem like so many amoeba floating around in a pond.”