Photo: Craig McDean

Empire Of The Senses

Science fiction visionary JG Ballard publishes his sequel to Empire Of The Sun this month. Here he talks about his obsessions with virtual reality, assassination, hallucinatory states of mind and Miami Vice.

Interviewer: Steve Beard.


A Terminal Posture “The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the rem-nants of Vaughan's semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the leg stances of a million passengers.” JG Ballard, Crash

Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown The subject has sealed himself inside a London suburb for the past 30 years and has shown few real signs of any willingness to leave. Throughout this period of self-incarceration he has been engaged by an obsessive compulsion to transcribe his multiple fixations and considers himself a successful author with 14 novels and innumerable short stories to his credit (you should see some of the crazy stuff he's written, Travis, it's really sick; how can he imagine some publisher touching anything with a title like Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan is beyond me, but then you know schizophrenics). He is now 61. Although he talks increasingly of departing -- for Miami, Los Angeles or some other exotic city half-remembered from the TV screen -- it seems unlikely he will ever be able to gather the required imaginative momentum. Perhaps he has been exhausted by the strain of constantly writing. Or perhaps he is waiting for some post-apocalyptic event, a transformation of the surrounding landscape of semi-detached houses and manicured lawns into a contaminated ruin (that or a rerun of Miami Vice; I tell you, he used to watch that goddamn show every week -- with the sound down, if you can believe it).

Answers To A Questionnaire 1 “It's such a great loss. I miss it. We're so frightened of violence here. We've got this terribly censored and tightly controlled Eastern European-style television. It's so silly.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 2 “I'd be quite happy to live in LA. Of all the American cities I've visited it's certainly the most intriguing. It's a remarkable place. Everyone visiting it for the first time already knows it so well. Because you've seen fragments of it in literally thousands of TV episodes and movies, you have the curious sense that you're in a TV episode yourself when you're driving round the place. You constantly see buildings, hotels, road junctions and store fronts that you instantly recognise.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 3 “The boundaries of the Third World shift. Los Angeles is really the capital of the Third World. The Mexican/US border should be redrawn to run along Wilshire Boulevard, because north of it is Hollywood, Westwood, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, where the professional classes live, and then south of it is 90 per cent of Greater LA, which is multi-ethnic -- driving around there you feel you're in Mexico.”

The Shabby Voyeur Ballard gazes beyond the open French windows at the scruffy luxuriance of long grass and flat light visible from his sitting room. Does he take a secret pleasure in offending the well-tended sensibilities of his bourgeois neighbours? Or is his resistance to the orderly status hierarchies of Shepperton an unconscious expression of helplessness, a revenge against his bachelor existence? Or maybe he's just a slob. He sips a whisky and soda and contemplates the huge surrealist canvas which takes up half the length of the room.

Answers To A Questionnaire 4 “Dali, Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst.”

A Sophisticated Entertainment They make the pilgrimage to see him every year. Serious young men in wire-framed spectacles eager to discuss the aura of the nuclear sublime, the unconscious sexual charisma of high technology, car crashes, the secret meaning of the Kennedy assassination. All the obsessions which inform his novels, all the neural fringes which have sparked a hidden trail of excitement across the campuses and suburbs of the developed world. Sometimes they ask him incomprehensible questions (“Marcuse said that the consumer society is marked by the ‘repressive desublimation’ of the libido. Do you agree?”), sometimes not (“Is life a nightmare?”). They always claim that Crash and Atrocity Exhibition are his most interesting texts; they always insist that he is not a science fiction writer but a visionary. He is always unfailingly polite.

Answers To A Questionnaire 5 “The decadence of the 1990s, instead of being an over-the-top relaxation of everything, a libertinism which suggests that anything goes, might be the opposite. You might get an over-the-top Puritanism. Look at what's springing up in America at the moment. Everything is forbidden, everything is proscribed -- from the glass of wine at lunch to behaviour that fails to be ‘politically correct’. It's most peculiar.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 6 “Not the whole of the Green movement, but the wilder edge of it. People who devote their entire lives to one tiny corner of the Green movement rapidly become single issue fanatics. All they want to do is save the asparagus or something, and they're prepared to kill human beings to bring that about. We'll soon have people wanting to save the smallpox virus.”

Stochastic Analysis His novels of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s represent one of the few serious attempts to grapple with the engineered psychopathology of the post-war consumer boom. Even as it was being constructed, the landscape of motorways, concrete high-rises, mass media, nuclear airbases, resort centres and suburban developments was imagined by Ballard as something already ruined, entropic, deranged. By fast-forwarding anticipated cultural decay beyond the point of catastrophe, he hoped to map the secret faultlines of his immediate environment, to gauge how far the technological progress of the ‘60s was really an erosion of the collective unconscious. In that sense, he was the very opposite of a futurist.

Answers To A Questionnaire 7 “I can't wait. It's all that's left, isn't it? When they develop, as I'm sure they will, a really user-friendly virtual reality system where you don't have to dress up like a deep sea diver, it will transform, or rather replace, reality. After all, what we see around us now is a virtual reality system; the external reality each of us sees is a construct created by the central nervous system. All we're doing is getting an electronic aid to take over the heavy lifting. It’s an extraordinary business. The consequences could be incalculable over a hundred year span. The external world could conceivably cease to exist in any real sense. It's so tantalising. You'll have a two-tier planet, with those who run everything living inside a world of fantasy, of huge self-compensating and self-deluding internalised dreams, while those who have nothing but their central nervous systems to hang on to will be way down below trudging the pavements.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 8 “Research in the neuro-sciences is proceeding at a really remarkable pace. I take for granted that the ultimate wiring diagram of the brain will eventually be unravelled in the way that the structure of DNA was unravelled, and the neural circuitry which generates transcendental experiences of all kinds -- whether religious or imaginative -- will be understood. One will be able to programme -- and do it oneself -- a religious or transcendental vision in the same way that neurologists can now stimulate pleasure centres in the brain. There's no logical reason why the mysteries of the human mind shouldn't be accessible.”

Kodachrome JG Ballard's new novel, The Kindness Of Women, is published in hardback on September 26 by Harper Collins. A sequel to his earlier semi-autobiographical novel, Empire Of The Sun (which was filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987), it refracts the major events in his life -- childhood in Shanghai, where he was interned during the Japanese occupation, his study of anatomy in Cambridge, a stint as an airforce pilot in Canada, retreat to Shepperton, the death of his wife, his experimentation with the alternative lifestyles of the ‘60s -- through the lens of his previous fictions in a style which recalls the methods of time-lapse photography.

Answers To A Questionnaire 9 “I've tried to link together obsessions of mine -- car crashes, time, hallucinatory states of mind which have always drawn me to the surrealists -- and find their sources in my own past in Shanghai. And also what I consider the important events of the post-war world, like the Kennedy assassination, which acted as a tremendous catalyst for me. It really represented the firing gun for the start of the '60s.”

The Image Maze “The Warren Commission. The rake-off on the book of the race. In their report, prompted by widespread complaints of foul play and other irregularities, the syndicate lay full blame on the starter, Oswald.” JG Ballard, The Assassination Of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race

Answers To A Questionnaire 10 “Through the broken prism of the Kennedy assassination one saw the space race. Pop, drugs, the whole psychedelia thing, the Vietnam war and major developments in the sciences and the consumer society -- everything from the prolif-eration of data processing and computer systems to advances in transplant surgery and molecular biology. All this generated the tremendously hot mix which was the ‘60s.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 11 “Bush doesn't have the same mythic dimension as Reagan. To assassinate him would be nothing -- because he is nothing. Whereas to shoot an anonymous person having his lunch at McDonalds is a genuinely provocative act. In a curious way, you're making a point.”

The See-Through Brain JG Ballard is fascinated by disaster, catastrophe, spectacular scenes of violent death, war, assassination, and extreme states of mind. The first time I met him I expected to be greeted by some twitchy suburban crank -- or, at the very least, an austere patrician aesthete -- but the man is chatty, gregarious and pleasantly ironic. With his easy manner, his fruity vowels and his sheet of grey hair flopping indifferently over the collar of his open-neck shirt, he comes across as a mildly eccentric bourgeois bohemian, everyone's ideal image of themselves as a hip old geezer. He is a case study in how the return of the repressed, when treated with amused curiosity, can be good for you.

Answers To A Questionnaire 12
“Norman Schwartzkopf was the Cecil B DeMille, the PT Barnum of Desert Storm, orchestrating events in the form of a bloody opera. But the mass media coverage of the Gulf War and the war itself were out of synch in many ways. The whole thing ended inconclusively without a proper climax. The siege of Baghdad should have been the climax, with Saddam bombed into oblivion in his bunker by a hand-picked team of Delta Force commandos.”

Answers To A Questionnaire 13 “It was totally different from Vietnam, much more sinis-ter in a way. Those nose-cone cameras relaying pictures of missiles actually going through doorways and vehicles on your TV screen, unconsciously inciting the viewer to become a cruise missile. It was bizarre.”

No U-Turn David Cronenberg is contracted to begin filming Crash after he has wrapped The Naked Lunch.

Internal Émigré Over 50 years after he left the mythical city of his childhood, Ballard has returned to contemplate its extraordinary metamorphosis. Street vendors hawk pirate videos of Die Hard and Top Gun in Hong Kong/Chinese language versions while above them tower the glittering corporate temples of international finance. There are satellite dishes everywhere. Observing the ministrations of the BBC camera crew assigned to record his reactions for posterity, he is suddenly conscious of the factor of media multiplication involved in his perception of the city. He feels no nostalgia. Gazing down the Bund he anticipates his image spread out across the night of Shepperton on a thousand softly illuminated TV screens.

"i-D Magazine" #97, October 1991, pp. 74-75