By Rick Slaughter: For J.G. Ballard science-fiction is the literature of the 20th century. In the dreams, myths and constructed realities that form the basis of Ballard's futures we are given the emotional perspective necessary to contemplate life in the future.
J.G. Ballard is a gentle, courteous man with a soft, southern-English accent, yet he has a vision of startling originality. He is known predominantly as a “science fiction” writer, however that genre term falls sadly short of Ballard's psycho-thrillers. Ballard's exploration of our hidden obsessions with media, technologies and ruined landscapes has gained him a solid international readership, ranging from cult celebrity to mainstream literary star. Perhaps more than any other writer of our time, Ballard draws our attention to the new, often powerfully subversive ways that mainstream cultures can be undermined by the very tools and innovations which sustain them. It is this ambiguity which continually drives the mythologies that emerge in his work.
Ballard gained his reputation by treading new ground. His early novels are located around climactic upheavals, where the world has become parched desert or rampant jungle, even there the dominant landscapes are internal. He is, perhaps, more interested in dreams, myths, psychology, the personal and social constructions of reality, than in technology per se. In his universe, such elements are all inextricably intertwined; fiction and reality are not separate.
Much of Ballard's early work remains highly regarded today. Vermilion Sands (1971) is often placed among the finest imaginative literature of the time. Similarly, in Crash (1973), Ballard took our obsessions with the motor car to an all-too-logical extreme. It is fair to say that the full implications continue to elude us. His later work explores the media landscape, high-rise tower blocks and the like with an almost nightmarish intensity. Ballard's restless vision seems to probe more deeply than many into the overlooked crevices of 20th century life. It is not a comforting picture, but since it explores so strongly the world of dreams, feelings and intuitions, we can immediately identify with it.
The publication of Empire of the Sun (1984) brought Ballard fame and was a revelation to his existing readers. For in the war-torn city of Shanghai, a certain vision of the world was forcefully impressed upon the consciousness of the young Ballard. The creative turmoil which resulted has come close to being a cultural force in its own right. The images of ruined airfields and empty swimming pools have contributed toward the iconography of an age. They almost certainly echo our secret fears about the risks involved in the over-extension of humankind upon the earth. A second semi-autobiographical novel, The Kindness of Women (1991), followed the child from war to a kind of unsettled peace and, finally, to late middle age. What makes these books important is that, in their own way, they are chronicles of our time, not merely autobiography. Ballard's success is founded upon the fact that he speaks not just for himself but for some wider audience bonded by the collective unconscious.
I spoke with Ballard in the comfortable lounge of a hotel in Manchester. He was certainly at ease in a role he knew well. Despite the self-revelation inherent in his work, he is a private man, not often seen in public. Yet his cordiality and unhurried manner, his direct gaze and ready conversation made for an easy rapport.
Rick Slaughter: You have been quoted as saying that science fiction is “the literature of the 20th century.” I wonder if you wouldn't mind explaining for the thousandth time, why it is that you said that and whether you still believe it?
J.G. Ballard: Yes, I do believe it. When I say that, I don't mean that Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov are greater writers than James Joyce and Franz Kafka. What I mean is that future social historians looking back, say, from the middle of the next century, may well regard the totality of 20th-century science fiction in all its forms - not only literary, but the iconography of film and television and comic book sci-fi and the secondary iconography of sci-fi imagery in advertising, not to mention its spin-off in record-sleeve design, fashion, architecture and the like - as being far more expressive of the key imaginative response to the 20th century than the so-called “mainstream” novel.
The novel is still largely a 19th-century form which has completely excluded, I think it's fair to say, any consideration of the impact of science and technology on human beings from the main body of its work. One can see a writer like Kafka as having much in common with science fiction, being a cousin of the George Orwell who wrote 1984 and the Huxley who wrote Brave New World. You could say that Kafka was the writer of the technology of bureaucratic totalitarianism, and indeed there are one or two others one could cite. I think Jorge Luis Borges has many affinities with science fiction. But, by and large, most so-called mainstream 20th-century novelists are still working with a 19th-century form that's concerned not with dynamic societies but with static societies where social nuance is all important.
Now I think that future social historians may well regard science fiction, for all its naivety and for all its clear limitations, as having a unique vitality. Vitality marks science fiction, even though it's a popular form. It does have enormous energy and its images have had an immense… I don't mean exactly reproductive power, but they've had an immense fertility. The images of science fiction have been immensely fertile. If you go into a garage to get a new battery for your car, the advertising display urging you to buy a particular battery may well feature an image taken straight from a science-fiction comic.
[RS] Such as Sorayama's humanoid robots, which are often seen in advertisements and on the covers of hardware catalogues?
[JGB] Yes, I mean science fiction has proliferated through the popular imagination of the 20th century. I think there are two movements which have really dominated the imagination of the 20th century. One is science fiction. The other is Surrealism. Curiously, both have been produced by a fairly small number of practitioners. Very few in the case of Surrealism, but not many more in the case of science fiction. I think that what critics find rather off-putting about science fiction is a certain sort of briskness in its effects and a lack of sophistication. But it won't be considered a handicap in the future, any more than we would consider, let's say, the crudities of Pre-Raphaelite painters to necessarily be a handicap. By which I mean Italian primitives, not to mention the Pre-Raphaelites themselves who had a certain crudity about them.
[RS] The collection of your work which stands out most of all is Vermilion Sands. Do you think of that with any particular affection or interest, or is it just one book among many?
[JGB] I can't say I remember it that well. I mean, I actually wrote the Vermilion Sands stories across quite a wide time-span. I think the last was written in the late ‘70s. They were written across a 20-year span so I do feel a certain affection for them, particularly as the landscape I describe, the desert resort, is a landscape that I've never known at first-hand. I've known the sort of background landscapes of many of my books - like The Drowned World - at first-hand in China during the annual monsoon floods. I've known the sort of urban nightmare landscapes of my novels in the ’70s, like Crash and High Rise but, I've never known - I've never lived - in a desert resort like Palm Springs.
[RS] So it was very much a creature of your imagination?
[JGB] Yes - pure imagination, a sort of little dream of paradise.
[RS] There's a particular story in that collection which I find very strong called “A Thousand Dreams of Stella Vista.” It's the one about the neurotic house which has had a murder committed in it.
[JGB] That's right.
[RS] I wonder if you can remember the gestation of that particular story - is that possible?
[JGB] No, it's too far back.
[RS] The reason I ask you is that it is one of those wonderful gems of sci-fi which actually give us a sense of the human feel of a technology long before it actually arrives. In the ‘90s, we are just beginning to consider nanotechnology. But back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, you wrote a story that reflected this aspect of a possible future with enormous human resonance.
[JGB] Well, I think that's what sci-fi does so well, doesn't it? It doesn't just depict the future in the way a futurist might, or indeed, anybody with a sharply focused lens. What sci-fi does is to put the emotion in so that we can get an idea of what it may feel like to live in some future context.
[RS] So am I right in thinking that that was primarily an exercise in imagination to you, rather than futures' research?
[JGB] Oh yes, I mean most of the Vermilion Sands stories are about futuristic works of art, if I remember. I mean, they're not futuristic in the sense that I am predicting that cloud sculpting will happen one day, or that machines that write verse will be invented, or that clothing will be psycho-sensitive. I can't remember - I mean these were just playful extrapolations from the present on my part. In fact, I think some of my technology is now quaintly out of date. For example, my verse-composing machines actually had valves in them as opposed to transistors, so they have a kind of Jules Verne charm already, but that's something that can't be helped.
[RS] A bit like The Thunderbirds, with reel-to-reel tape recorders.
[JGB] Except that, you see, Vermilion Sands wasn't, strictly speaking, set in the future. It was set in the here and now, but a rather more leisurely here and now.
[RS] In the introduction to the 1973 French edition of Crash, you talk about the world as fiction, as a huge novel. Then you talk about Crash as being an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation “a pandemic cataclysm” - and you talk about the role of the book as cautionary, as a warning. Looking back over nearly 20 years, how do you feel about that book now - do you feel that it was a warning? How do you see it on looking back?
[JGB] Well, I still endorse everything the book stood for. When I wrote that, I saw it as a warning - I mean that in the most generalized kind of way. It's not a specific warning, not putting a sign up on the road saying dangerous bends ahead. Yet in the sense that it seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to me now, there are certain processes in train which I describe as “a sinister marriage between sex and technology.” These processes will lead to a new kind of value system which may be the very reverse of that which we put our trust in now. I mean, one can already see strains of that new value system in the kind of excitement we feel in staged exhibitions of violence - like most motor racing, and spectacle movies of the Die Hard type.
[RS] Like the staged spectacle of a monster truck crushing several cars?
[JGB] Yes, that kind of thing - the Mad Max movies and other films which celebrate violence as consumer spectator sport. Clearly, there is a kind of culture of violence in which the normal yardsticks, not just moral yard-sticks but those of ordinary personal safety - the kind of yardsticks we employ crossing the road - are suspended. I mean, thrills and spills are the name of the game. So I don't know - Crash is cautionary in a general sense. It takes to a logical conclusion a set of scenarios which seem to me to be inscribed in the present.
[RS] So are you still concerned about what you have called “the death of affect” in this present century?
[JGB] Yes, everything I described in The Atrocity Exhibition under that heading does seem to be confirmed. I don't see any other interpretation. The death of affect is inseparable from the sort of media landscape we inhabit and the way in which our lives are completely dominated and structured by communication systems. They are just so dominant. So much of the input into the central nervous system now is profound-ly distant from any kind of first-hand experience. It's filtered through not just the mass media of various kinds but through all the selection and fictionalizing processes of major TV companies, film organizations, advertising and the like. I don't mean that human beings aren't capable of responding on a sort of human and emotional level - they are - there is no question about that. But they are not given that much opportunity, certainly as groups, except when there is some sort of disaster.
Take Lockerbie - when a plane fell out of the sky, people rallied around to rescue everyone. Likewise, you get these big media events like the Band Aid/Geldof Famine Relief Project of some years ago which raised huge sums of money from a public only too willing to give. The trouble is that the tap is turned on and off by the mass media, manipulated by the mass media. You get a kind of moral tourism. “Today we will all go to Bangladesh and feel concerned for the poor who are starving to death there and perhaps we will give.” I mean, the whole thing is odd. I'm all for giving money to the poor of Bangladesh, but when that becomes a media stunt! It tends to diminish all those human impulses that it's playing upon.
[RS] Given your views on the media landscape, how did you feel about being involved in the making of Shanghai Jim, the television documentary about your life and work which screened in Britain.
[JGB] Well, that was a fairly modest insertion into the media landscape. I could have gone back to Shanghai for the first time with Steven Spiel-berg when he filmed scenes from Empire of the Sun there but I deci-ded not to because I didn't want a Hollywood film company to get between me and the first-hand experience of my return to Shanghai. But a small crew from a highbrow BBC programme never got anywhere near interposing itself between me and a first-hand experience. I just left them behind and went off on my own when I wanted to.
[RS] Moving on then, to the semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun - I imagine you must have heard many times that it was a revelation to your readers who saw, perhaps for the first time, the ima-ginative sources of much of your work, your iconography, the ruined buildings, the empty swimming pools. With The Kindness of Women, there's a lot more of your life and your creative development opening up to people.
My question is that, since both are substantially autobiographical, does it concern you at all that some of the sources of your creative imagination are in danger of becoming too public, possibly overexposed?
[JGB] I don't think it matters at this stage of the game. I mean, I'm 60 years old, so the bulk of my work lies behind me on any reckoning. I have to have some kind of closing of accounts in my life as a writer, and it would have been dangerous, I think as you implied, to savor it in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women 20 years ago. But at my present age, I don't think it makes any difference. In fact, it might be a liberating move. It might free me from the past. I've settled my accounts with my past in those two books and I can now move on to something completely new which maybe takes its sources from some other experience in my life. It would be a big mistake to think that my entire world as a writer springs from my childhood experiences in China. That's a mistake. It's very easy to scan something like Empire of the Sun and say “Ah, a drained swimming pool, so that explains all the drained swimming pools in Ballard's fiction”; “Ah, an abandoned hotel” …. One can generalize from that to all the abandoned hotels as if Shanghai was a kind of gene which programmed the entire later growth of my imagination. That's not true.
[RS] Too deterministic?
[JGB] Absolutely. I mean, one goes on re-making one's self and absorbing new experiences throughout one's life. One's youth, the experience of marriage and having children, watching their birth and being intimately involved with women as an adult, with a wife and mother. None of these experiences were prefigured in my Shanghai childhood and yet they've been enormously important to me and shaped my response to the world.
[RS] In that context, can I ask you about the title The Kindness of Women - why did you choose that particular title?
[JGB] Well, I hadn't got one by the time I'd finished the book, and reading the book, I was struck by the role that women played in it. I hadn't realized as I was writing it - how many women characters there were and how important they were to the narrative. There are far more women than there are male characters, particularly as David Hunter is really another side of me - and I was conscious of that - my dark side. Even the character of the TV psychologist represents part of me in a small way. But the women are all very strong characters who dominate the narrative.
I realized the importance that women have played in my life and in particular the very happy relations I've enjoyed with women. I've depended on them, I've trusted them, and by and large I've never been disappointed by them. They've provided a civilizing and notionally strengthening role in my life. I've had very long relationships with women. I mean, with my wife and later women and with my daughters. So I think anyone reading the book would agree that the word “kindness” pretty well sums up the chief quality of the women I've known in my life.
[RS] So it's a key theme …
[JGB] Absolutely yes.
[RS] Have there been any hints of new directions for Jim Ballard's writing since then?
[JGB] I wish I could say there have, but there haven't - yet. Time… I've been writing now for 35 years, as a published writer. I've only written 11 novels in that time, so I haven't written continuously by any means. I've generally had a fallow period after finishing writing a novel when I think about where I'm going next.
[RS] Perhaps I could turn now to the future, looking ahead toward the 21st century. In 1974, also in the introduction to Crash, you said that the future is “ceasing to exist,” it is “devoured by the all voracious present.” Now I see that as a poetic or imaginative truth rather than a literal one. But is there still any meaning in that sort of statement for you - do you still see the future as being absorbed in the present?
[JGB] I think that's even more true now than it was when I said it. I think the past was the first casualty in World War 2. People simply became uninterested in the past. Now they are only interested in the past in a sort of theme-park-like way. They ransack the past for the latest design statement. There's no sense of a continuity to which one owes a certain sort of obligation or duty or feels one's self shaped by; one just sort of picks and chooses what elements of the past one wants to exploit for one's purposes.
The second casualty possibly - I don't know if you can date it - is the death of the future. It might be connected with the Kennedy assassination. It's quite possible that Kennedy was in some way an avatar of the notion of radical change, of a new world recovering from the threat of thermonuclear war in the ‘50s. Had he lived and served two full terms, he might have energized this planet. I don't mean that I approve of Kennedy. I'm talking about a media construct by and large, but he might have - the media construct which we call J.F. Kennedy might well have - energized the planet and thrown it into a forward motion, as he did, to his credit, with the space race. I mean, he single-handedly launched the space race, he said, “Let's get a man on the moon by the end of the ‘60s.” In a way, NASA and its incredible achievement in landing on the moon is a rather touchingly old fashioned example. It's a sort of nostalgic throwback to the great pioneers of scientific exploration. Whether the death of Kennedy was also the death-knell of the future, I don't know, but it's a point that could be argued. However, by the ‘70s nobody was interested in the future.
I'm old enough to remember the 1930s and ‘40s when people were intensely interested in the future; when popular magazines and newspapers were saturated with news of the fastest train in the world, the longest bridge, the fastest plane, land-sea records, deep-sea penetration dives - people were fascinated by the future. Schools of architecture and design like Art Deco and the Modernist movement were engines running forward into the future. There was immense optimism and immense confidence in the ability of science to deliver the future and a better world with it. Now, that ended by the ‘70s. Nobody was interested in the future and, to this day, nobody cares tuppence half-penny about some new scientific development. I mean, people have no sense of what the world three years from now will be like, whereas people in the ‘30s and ‘40s had a sense that the future had been marked out clearly. One knew that - I mean one would see actual diagrams in newspapers stating that 10 years from now such and such will come in to existence and then we can expect television in all our homes and then video telephones and so on. Now all that's over. Nobody is interested in the future at all. I think the future has been annexed into the present. Occasionally a futuristic image is trotted out, ransacked like an image of the past and absorbed into the ongoing continuum that represents present-day life.
[RS] Perhaps it requires a different leap of imagination out of this pre-sent to consider the new range of alternatives that lie ahead.
[JGB] Well, I agree with a new leap of imagination. One thing that we can be certain of is that there will be a future, at least in the chronological calendar sense. The year 2000 will come and the year 2500 will come, but I have a feeling that some time over the next 10 or 20 years, there is going to be a major break of human continuity.
One of the reasons we've turned our backs against the future at present is that we unconsciously sense that the logics that will dictate our lives in the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years will be completely unlike those which rule our lives today and have ruled our lives in the past. We may move into a very indeterminate, a seemingly dangerous and chaotic era where all the old certainties and the social cement that held society together will have gone.
So the future could be as discontinuous as a night in Las Vegas or an evening spent hunting TV channels in New York. People may well perceive unconsciously that the future is going to be a very dangerous place. I think that there will be sudden quantum leaps in social values that would seem totally disconcerting to us if they happened now but which probably our descendants in the next generation or two will take completely in their stride - just as we take completely in our stride sudden quantum jumps in social values that would have appalled or shocked our grandparents.
The whole series of radical changes in social organization and moral values that are going to take place in the next 20 or 30 years are already in train.
[RS] Would you include the Human Genome Project there?
[JGB] Yes, but think also of the wiring diagram of the brain. The last secrets of human consciousness may emerge from that kind of work. There's no reason why not - after all, the brain is a mass of circuitry - there's no mystery about the units that make up the brain - it's a mass of neural networks. There's absolutely no reason why the operation of this complex system of neural networks couldn't be understood in its entirety.
Now, I think this will lead to manipulation of the brain in any way - so that everything from transcendental experiences to the creation of sort of ad hoc religions will be possible. You will be able to run up a brand new religion for yourself and be completely convinced by it at the press of a switch. At the same time, I think, as you say, the manipulation of molecular biology will uncover all that needs to be known about the genetic structures in the chromosome, allowing us to manipulate the human organism in any way we wish.
Beyond that, you've got absolutely startling developments that I'm sure will come in the next 20 to 30 years in the consumer-electronics field with the development of virtual-reality systems. If they come on stream (as they seem likely to) we are on the threshold of devising systems in which the computer-simulated reality will contain more units of information than is currently provided by the optical systems of the brain.
In fact, I was reading a book on virtual reality a few days ago in which an American engineer - he's not been challenged on this - has stated that reality equals perhaps seventy-four million receptor units of some kind that are used in computer simulation. But once you reach this number and exceed it - computer simulations are operating with far less than this threshold number - the reality generated by virtual-reality systems will be more convincing than that which we find around us in our ordinary lives.
Now once these systems come on stream, one of the logics of human consciousness will fulfill itself, in that mankind will be able to substitute for that illusion of reality which the central nervous system has inherited from its past a new reality which the imaginative sectors of the central nervous system have created instead.
So that, in a sense, the central nervous system will have outrun itself; it will have excelled itself and exceeded its own limits and achieved a kind of evolutionary take-off. It will no longer be bounded by that notion of reality which millions of years of evolution have endowed it with. It will be able t21c_1992o take wing and fly. I can see the human race retreating entirely with some form of virtual reality. One sees a dry run in the addiction to television; our addiction to the image. If anything, this is the century of the image, whatever its source, and we're infatuated - we're image-makers as much as we are great engineers. Electronic images are the air we breathe, and virtual reality merely represents the end-point of a logic laid down when the first electric current was put through a light filament.
[RS] So the 21st century looks exceptionally challenging?
[JGB] Yes, I think so. I won't be here to describe it unfortunately, and it may even be beyond description, but I would have thought we were looking at very ambiguous and uncertain times. People will lead very dislocated and exhilarating lives of a kind that we find very, very difficult to visualize now - just as our grandparents found it impossible to visualize a world in which you could simply go to a nearby airport and find yourself lying on a beach on the other side of the world in a matter of hours. I mean, it was simply inconceivable to my own parents when, for them, it took four weeks in a P&O boat to get from England to China.
[RS] On the other hand, some speculative writers have, in a sense, already visited such futures. People like Fred Pohl, with his story “Day Million,” have considered futures where everything is fluid and even identities can be exchanged or stored.
[JGB] That may come even further beyond. I mean, the wildest predictions of science fiction may well come true, but I'm not really thinking in science-fictional terms because the virtual reality systems for example that laboratories are working on all over the world at present, particularly in Japan and the United States, are not science fiction. They are extrapolations of present computer technology. They are no more science fiction than television.
[RS] So would you say that imagination had a greater role than cold logic in looking ahead?
[JGB] Well, the imagination can certainly make the quantum leaps that are going to be necessary to ride the rollercoaster of the future. It's very hard to read the future on the macro level. It's like trying to predict the exact throw of the dice a thousand throws ahead. It can't be done.
[RS] But it's still worth looking at?
[JGB] Yes, I think so, in part because it says a great deal about our present. All these developments are inscribed in the world we live in now. They are not necessarily up and running at present. But it's very easy to forget how the world has changed over the last 30 years. I mean, even on the domestic level, our homes are just loaded with consumer electronics which have changed our lives to a considerable degree - TV sets, CD players, video cameras, microwave ovens, freezers and all the other gadgets which have changed our lives and, indeed, our sense of ourselves. If anything, these changes are accelerating.
[RS] Then imagining possible futures remains a continual challenge?