Interview from the Independent, 21 September 1991, in connection with the publication of "The Kindness of Women"
A futurist with an urge to exorcise
Ian Thompson on the autobiography of Shepperton's greatest living surrealist, J G Ballard
James Graham Ballard, the visionary Science Fiction stylist, has lived for the past 30 years in the tranquil riverside town of Shepperton. It was destroyed by intergalactic bogeymen in War of the Worlds, but that was nearly a century ago. Today Shepperton is the paradigm of suburbia, a patch of Thames Valley close to the M3, "People tend to get lost in a sort of time-slip when they come to visit", Ballard said. "It's the everywhere of nowhere". Many will marvel that a novelist of technological dereliction should have battled among the dishwashers and barbecue sets of quiet domesticity. But, as Martin Amis once wrote: "Ballard has always been a vivid exponent of Flaubert's law: orderly and regular in his life, savage and original in his art".
The imaginary landscapes of Ballard's early books are among the most haunting in English literature; of a fierce and wayward beauty, they bristle with allusions to other surrealists -- Max Ernst, di Chirico, Tanguy; their disquieting perspectives, the hallucinatory clarity of the images were the product of an enchanted and very mysterious imagination. By the mid-sixties, Ballard had become a master of phantasmagoria, a Rimbaud of the machine age. in The Drowned World (1962), for instance he famously turned London into a seething jungle swamp. In The Crystal World, published four years later, the entire planet was petrified into a forest.
Such books went far beyond the stockades of conventional science fiction; they were anxiety fantasies, stories of huge psychic transformation where disaster was used as an analogue for a state of mind. At the end of The Drowned World, the protagonist finds himself heading south against the sun, onwards through the proliferating vegetation into still greater heat; it was a form of emotional suttee, a strange safari across the diameter of his own skull -- what Ballard calls a "neuronic Odyssey". If this was SF, it had nothing to do with interstellar travel or the gothic humanoids of sword and sorcery sagas. The Day of Creation, Ballard's novel about a deranged hydrologist who attempts to bring water to a parched hinterland of Africa, was also resolutely earth-bound.
"My two bete noires", says Ballard, "have always been outer space and the far future. The only truly alien planet is Earth, and the greatest developments of the immediate future will take place here, not on the Moon or Mars. The danger for those who write predictively is that their predictions will simply soar beyond any visible horizon. The moral imperative facing any writer interested in science or technology should be an imaginative response to the world five minutes away from us, not some invented planet with alien life forms".
This, briefly, was the credo of the New Wave in British SF which flourished in the 1960s with Michael Moorcock's influential magazine New Worlds. Ballard was at the vanguard of this movement. "I suppose", he continues, "it began with Gulliver's Travels and progressed through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein up to George Orwell, William Golding, even Kipling and E M Forster! Of course there was always H G Wells, whose habit -- almost a laboratory technique -- of taking inspiration directly from scientific data has been of considerable influence on me".
In The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), still regarded by many as Ballard's masterpiece, Shepperton becomes a sort of thermal greenhouse, tamarinds sprouting from the roofs of television rental offices. "The idea is blindingly original", Anthony Burgess wrote, "and yet as basic as a dream of the whole human race".
Over three decades, Ballard has attracted praise from Kingsley Amis (an old acquaintance), William Boyd, Graham Greene, Robert Nye and George MacBeth. For many readers, however, Ballard only appeared in the bookshops with Empire of the Sun. A bestseller, this was rooted in the author's own experience of Shanghai during the war. The book was considered a radical departure from Ballard's science fiction, but this is not entirely so; Empire was also a psychological drama of extremity and isolation, of survival by adaptation rather than resistance. The extraordinary episode in which Jim (the fictional young Ballard) is dazzled by the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki seen four hundred miles across the China Sea, echoed earlier stories by Ballard about the nuclear Armageddon. The book was less a departure than a continuation.
The Kindness of Women, also a semi-autobiograpical work of fiction, is the sequel to Empire. Narrated this time in the first person, it tells how Ballard has coped with the legacy of Shanghai and his life as a writer. It's a poignant, vivid novel; the writing throughout is rich with symbolism and psychological insight, free of those bijou adjectives -- "cerise", "vermilion" -- that occasionally marred the prose in the past.
The surrealist landscape of Shanghai, as it appears in The Kindness of Women -- drowned canals, abandoned hotels, crashed aeroplanes and disused football stadiums -- presents a familiar world of loss and surrender. These images function as the lexicon of Ballard's science fiction."Everything was possible in Shanghai", he tells me. "Reality was turned into a huge non-stop circus. There were dozens of casinos and radio stations, unlimited advertising and publicity stunts, bizarre parades..." We read how Jim is thrilled by the spectacle of American dare-devil drivers, crashing their automobiles through barricades covered with flaming gasoline.
This youthful obsession with cars (Packards, Studebakers) seems to prefigure the subject of Ballard's most discomfiting novel, Crash. Published in 1973, this was a chilling investigation into the marriage between man and technology as mediated through the apparent sexuality of the road accident. Ballard perceived a perverse eroticism in head-on collisions, the kinaesthetics of the highway. A reader from a respectable publishing house returned the manuscript to her employers with the note: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. DO NOT PUBLISH".
Ballard recalls this incident with evident glee. "For me, it meant total artistic success", he cranes forwards on the edge of his chair, quite restive. "I hesitate to make the classic defence for Crash, that it stood logic on its head in the manner of A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. Nevertheless, it would have been far too easy for me to side with the angels and deplore violence out of hand. Instead, I wanted to write a novel in which there was nowhere for the reader to hide..."
Ballard is a moralist, genuinely troubled by the shape of things to come. Yet I wondered whether he relished his reputation as literary saboteur. "Well of course I do!", he gives a disarming smile. "No country is more secure in its little prejudices than Britain. Regular administrations of the cattle-prod are just what the doctor orders!"
There's a new tenderness, a quickening warmth in The Kindness of Women. The book contains some arresting descriptions of the emotional and erotic consolation provided by women. "If there is a greater warmth", says Ballard, "It's a warmth that always there. It's just that much of my science fiction was never particularly concerned with human relationships; in those days I was trying to investigate the now logic of our lives, as created by the technological landscape."
Ballard's experiments with science fiction began in 1957, when the initial Earth Satellite was lobbed into orbit. "For some reason", he says, "the entire space programme has totally failed to touch the human imagination. Almost no-one, myself included, can name the half dozen men who walked on the Moon. Why? I think it's because people perceive that the technology of outer space is basically 19th century, where ballistics are brute-forced into the atmosphere like contraptions out of Jules Verne. In the 1930s, on the other hand, there was huge excitement at the prospect of scientific progress. Today there's virtually no spin-off in popular culture from the capsules that orbit our planet".
Ballard becomes quite voluble now, twisting in his chair. "The technologies that really rule our lives are the invisible ones that crackle across the communications landscape -- data-processing links, VDUs, computerised check-out tills, the overlit realm of advertising which I wrote about in Crash. All of this is charged with far more significance than the Russian and American space programmes ..."
It would be unwise to make too many presumptions about the link between an author and his character, but how closely does The Kindness of Women follow his own experience? I ask about the episode in Kindness where he experiments with lysergic acid, the house in Shepperton suffused with chemical light.
Ballard answers: "I'm afraid I did take LSD (when it was legal) and I must say it was a very risky expedition across my head, probably one of the most foolish things I've ever done. The climb to 100,000 feet was most exhilarating, but coming down was deeply disturbing".
What about The Crystal World? All those jewelled forests and men... "No, no! I took LSD long after publication of that book. Crystal was the product of a completely unaided visionary imagination. I agree, it does read rather like a mescalin fantasy, which is possibly why the book sells so well in the United States". Ballard adds: "While I've always taken my cue from Conrad -- immerse yourself in the most destructive element -- there have been absolutely no drugs since. I'm nervous of even aspirin. Scotch and soda is a different matter ..."
Ballard has always maintained that we live inside an enormous novel, an infantile world ruled by the overloaded circuitry of soft-drink commercials, ephemeral fade of fashion, television programmes. Marshal MacLuhan and other gurus of the counter-culture (William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo) have said the same, that life is a high-speed information mosaic, a massive theme park.
Has The Kindness of Women, with its notable emotional softening, finally exorcised those lifelong obsessions? Submerged forests? Fantasies of desiccated urban technologies? "It's probably exorcised my whole life!", Ballard interposes with a gleeful cackle. "I hope this book will kick-start me into the 1990s with some completely new venture. You never know, I may even start writing light comedy in the manner of Noel Coward". I hope not; James Graham Ballard is a magician of the contemporary scene -- and almost certainly the only surrealist in Shepperton.