Weird Science

Susan Sontag has called J.G. Ballard “one of the most important, intelligent voices in contemporary fiction.” Others consider him a psychopath. We wonder why he can't be both.

Article by Julian Dibbell.

“Sex times technology equals the future - that's one of the most powerful equations there is going. You can't shut it off, you can't smother it with brackets and parentheses, hide it away in a footnote. It's there.”

Measured, professorial, the voice on the telephone is that of a well-educated Englishman; the voice, let's say, of the guy in that Thomas Dolby song who would pop up every few bars and sputter, “Science!” It goes well with the xeroxed magazine photo I hold in my hand: a twinkle-eyed, wise looking codger, everybody's fantasy grandpa.

“I mean, I think there should be more sex and violence on television. I don't think there's anywhere near enough. I think sex and violence are powerful catalysts for change. They are powerful energizers of the imagination.”

The voice comes through the telephone from a house in Shepperton, a sleepy London suburb known for its proximity to Heathrow International Airport and for its movie studios. Shepperton is less well-known as the home of J.G. Ballard.

Ballard's slow-growing fame got a big boost in 1987 when Steven Spielberg filmed an adaptation of Empire of the Sun, Ballard's 1984 autobiographical novel about his childhood experiences in a Japanese concentration camp outside Shanghai. But before that he was well-known to a small circle of fans and critics for the brilliant science fiction he's been producing since the late ‘50s. Of course, admirers embarrassed to call themselves SF readers have always had the option of considering him an acutely perceptive mapper of the new worlds being built up around us by mass media and technology, or “a profound moralist who has grappled with the ugly devils of our own time” (New York Times) -- or else simply, in Susan Sontag’s words, “one of the most important, intelligent voices in contemporary fiction.”

Non-admirers have always had, and occasionally have chosen, the option of considering him a psychopath.

“If you look at the novels I wrote in the ‘70s,” Ballard says, “they're all about… the effects on human psychology of the changes brought about by science and technology, the modern urban landscape, the freeways and motorways, the peculiar psychology of life in vast high-rise condominiums.”

That's one way of putting it. Here's another: Crash, written in 1973, is about cars and sex and violent death. It follows in textbook detail its characters’ discovery of the erotic potential of high speed collisions. 1975’s High Rise suggests that today's giant high-tech apartment buildings are ripe for a very low-tech social breakdown, complete with floor-to-floor raiding parties, human sacrifice, and hints of cannibalism. The Atrocity Exhibition, which would have been published here in 1970 if publisher Nelson Doubleday hadn't had the whole press run destroyed after taking one look at the thing, tells the fragmented story of one man’s attempts to make sense of the media nightmares of the ‘60s: Kennedy's assassination, Marilyn Monroe's suicide, the constant threat of World War III. The section that most irked Doubleday was the prescient “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”; in the so-calm-it’s-scary, almost clinical tone that marks all of Ballard's fiction, it looks at how a future Reagan presidential candidacy might make use of the ever-popular combination of cars, sex, and violent death. (Relax, Reagan fetishists: Re/Search will reprint The Atrocity Exhibition this spring.)

Unlike his earliest novels, these later works don't fit into the category of science fiction without considerable stretching of the going definitions. Ballard insists, though, that the conventional definitions could use some bending out of shape.

“Science fiction has been hijacked by people who aren't really interested in the subject. Most SF writers are writing fantasy -- all these future-earth sagas and planet eons, these tales of galactic empires, this sort of medieval futurism. It's the world of Robin Hood dressed up in space suits. It has nothing to do with science as we see it emerging around us today, infiltrating our lives, changing the psychology of the world in which we live …

“I can see that by the standards of Isaac Asimov and company, novels like Crash and High Rise and so on are not science fiction, but I like to think that they are… You see, I don't consider what Isaac Asimov writes to be science fiction. I consider that to be, well he's writing a sort of technological folktale… lt's not really about the present world, it's not really inspired by…


Jesus, there he goes again. Would it even bother Ballard if he knew that, as far as I'm concerned, right now he consists of a xeroxed picture from a magazine and a voice left over from a four-year-old pop song?

Maybe, but it certainly wouldn't surprise him. In Empire of the Sun, young Jim, separated from his parents replaces their fading memory with a Life magazine photo of a smiling couple he's pinned to his barracks wall, imagining the couple to be his real parents. It's a nifty metaphor for one of Ballard's major obsessions: “the way modern communications has usurped and hi-jacked everyday reality -- it gets between us and… any kind of original response by imposing its own myths and fictions on us all.”

The way Ballard calls it, the world is now so fictionalized by advertising and television that the writer's traditional role is pointless. Rather than invent fiction, the writer now has to invent reality. Which is why Ballard has always turned his back on the “realism” of mainstream fiction.

“The reality of life in the late 20th century demands analytic tools that can come to grips with it, and I don't think realism can any more. One route is the postmodernist novel, which gets around the problem of being realistic by playing a lot of ironic games with reality -- I'm not interested in that. I follow the more classic, imaginative/surrealist route. You can write in a surrealist mode and achieve a psychological realism, which is what I'm after -- an imaginative realism, not a literal realism.

“Of course, so-called realistic fiction is very easy to take, because it… appears to be continuous with our ordinary lives, whereas imaginative fiction requires an effort on the part of the reader. But I think it's an effort that is repaid, because one gets to the psychological truth behind the world of appearances. The novels of William Burroughs are much closer to the reality of life today than the novels of John Updike, let's say. Though it's fair to say that most readers are more comfortable with John Updike than they are with William Burroughs, I've no doubt in my mind which is reaching the truth more accurately.”

“This is the only alien planet,” says Ballard. He has created the strange world of his books almost entirely from the setting of his own life. Shepperton, for example, has served as a backdrop and even subject for several of his works. (“The wave of the future breaks in the suburbs,” runs another of his pocket theses.) But anyone who cracks Empire of the Sun will recognize an even deeper source of Ballard's recurring images and themes: Shanghai.

“I think the experience that I went through as a boy -- from 1937 when the Japanese invaded China, through Pearl Harbor, and into the postwar period, when all these rival groups, the Americans and the Chiang Kai-Shek crowd on the one side and the Communists on the other, were acting out a kind of preview of Vietnam -- I think those years were for me a kind of preview of the future.

“Shanghai was a media city. There was no TV, but it was in every other sense a complete sort of media construct… It was a city of relentless public relations, advertising hoardings, stunts of every conceivable kind. I describe in the book a scene where my parents took me to the premiere of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the management of the theater had laid on an honor guard of something like 50 or 100 hunchbacks, all dressed up like Charles Laughton… The whole media landscape had gone over the top …

“In many ways Los Angeles reminds me a bit of it, the sort of Third World [feeling], the huge flooding of refugees from the civil war and the famine areas of China into the city and its great slum sections, where people lived in houses built of old tires and tin cans.

“So many of the things I see going on in the world were going on there, and I think it did provide me with a view of reality as basically surrealist. Everything was a kind of recreated version of itself in its own most extreme image. And that's the way the world is going.”

Compared to Shanghai, his return to England after the war was a recipe for normality. He finished prep school, studied medicine at Cambridge (obsessive anatomic detail would become a feature of his writing), did a stint with the RAF (so would airplanes), then married, moved to the suburbs, and settled down to the business of raising a family. By the early ‘60s he was writing full-time, and when his wife died in 1964 he became a full-time parent to his three kids as well. Against this backdrop of what he calls “an integrated, rich family life blazing away 24 hours a day,” the visions he was setting down on paper grew darker all the time. Crash, inspired partly by a plastic surgery textbook on auto-collision wounds, was written when his youngest child was just old enough to cross the street by herself.

The contradiction may be lost on Ballard, though. Considering that the major theme running through his novels is disaster -- ecological, social, or psychological, but always bigtime -- his understanding of them can be pretty cheery: “I don't see these novels as pessimistic, which many people say they are. I see them as stories of psychological fulfillment. In all cases the heroes of these novels find… the truth about themselves. Often paying a very steep price but they get to embrace the catastrophes around them. They rush open-armed towards these disasters, because these disasters are very potent machinery for finding the truth about themselves.”

With this, a touch of passion sneaks into his voice. Muffled in his affectless prose but unmistakeable here, it's the passion of a modern idealist, someone committed to the human imagination and its psycho-technosocial byproducts as the only protection against the dangers of the suburbs, where, he has said, “You're not going to get mugged walking down the street, but somebody might steal your soul.”

“Whatever happens,” swears the hero of Ballard’s 1979 Sheppertoniad, The Unlimited Dream Company, “I will be true to my obsessions.”

“Yes,” says Ballard. “I've always followed that in all my life. I've always tried to do justice to my obsessions, and never hold anything back in anything I've written. I put everything on the page. I don't pretend that I am something that I am not as the author. Because I do have an idealistic belief that human beings are not a gang of raging psychopaths. We're not a sort of huge Manson gang. On the other hand, one mustn't deny the imagination. The alternatives aren't Charles Manson on the one hand and, I don't know, the Puritan fathers on the other. There is a middle way.”